We Apologize

The sorry state of remorse: It's all about me. Maybe it should be about an authentic understanding of sin, repentance, and forgiveness.

Who is sorry now? Just about everyone, it seems.

Illustration by Philippe Lechien/ Morgan Gaynin Inc.


Pete Rose is sorry he bet on baseball, and contrition seems a fine criterion for joining that little club called the Baseball Hall of Fame. Bill Janklow, at the time a Congressman from South Dakota, is sorry for speeding, running a stop sign, and running down a motorcyclist. Boston's Cardinal Bernard Law is sorry for not acting more decisively on allegations of child abuse by Roman Catholic priests. California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger is sorry--"deeply sorry"--for his behavior toward women in his past life as a movie star. Connecticut Governor John Rowland is sorry for inconveniently lying about accepting gifts from state contractors.

Remember that Super Bowl "wardrobe malfunction"? Entertainer Janet Jackson told a press conference, "If I offended anybody, that was truly not my intention." So much for the exemplary bare-basics apology. As cultural commentator Frank Rich noted in The New York Times, Jackson refused to appear on the Grammys broadcast rather than "accede to CBS's demand that she perform a disingenuous, misty-eyed ritual 'apology' to the nation for her crime of a week earlier." By contrast, Justin Timberlake, her pop-star partner in that crime, apologized ritually if not convincingly, "looking like a schoolboy reporting to the principal's office," in Rich's words.

Corporations, too, are in an apologetic mood. Putnam Investments is sorry for "the unfortunate actions of a few individuals" whose trading practices threatened to undermine investor trust. Some countries are even sorrier. Late last year, President Svetozar Marovic of Serbia and Montenegro apologized to Bosnia for a war in which some 200,000 people died. That gesture came eight years after the signing of the Dayton peace agreement.

And in February, Abdul Qadeer Khan, the founder of Pakistan's nuclear-weapons program, made an explosive admission in a televised address. Acknowledging that he had shared Pakistani nuclear technology with other countries (presumably Iran, Libya, and North Korea), he talked about his "deep sense of regret" and his desire to atone for the "anguish" suffered by his countrymen. What about the anguish of those who might find themselves on the wrong end of that technology? Oops. Sorry about that.

The public apology, like comedic irony, seems inescapable in modern culture. What it signals, though, isn't so much sincerity and repentance as shallowness and self-serving manipulation.

Pete Rose

Photo:© Neal Preston /Corbis


In classical rhetoric, the apology was a defense of one's actions. That form of apology is given eloquent expression in Plato's Apology, with Socrates on trial by Athenian leaders, some of whom were trying to divert attention from their own conspiratorial tendencies. Socrates shows some disingenuous qualities as an apologist (or self-defender), says Michael Gillespie, a Duke political-science professor who specializes in political philosophy. Socrates laments his poor skills in rhetoric, for example, but delivers a perfectly patterned rhetorical speech. He asserts that he's not an atheist, but he doesn't show support for the gods of the city. He probably could have escaped a drastic penalty had he agreed to philosophize in private rather than in the very public agora. But he never apologizes--in the classical or the modern sense of the word--in his defense, and he even taunts his accusers by declaring that they should support him at public expense.

According to Duke religion professor Elizabeth Clark, in early Christianity, an "apology" was a speech for the defense of Christianity against pagan persecutors, or later, against pagan intellectuals who denigrated the faith. By that older definition, she says, the apology of Emperor Theodosius was a model. In 390, the citizens of Thessalonica (now a part of Greece) rioted against the garrison of the legion stationed there and murdered its commander. Theodosius sent an invitation for the Thessalonicans to gather for a public spectacle. By his order, his army then proceeded to massacre 7,000 of them. The bishop of Milan demanded that the emperor make a religious confession of guilt and do penance; the alternative was excommunication. Theodosius acceded.

"We might guess," Clark says, that "ordinary folks were awed to see their emperor doing public penance, meaning he couldn't take the Eucharist and perhaps performed other symbolic deeds indicating his repentance. We know nothing certain about what personal feelings, religious or otherwise, Theodosius might have had. He was known as devout, but with a hot temper that could lead him to rash acts."

When it comes to modern public apologies, Duke Divinity School Dean L. Gregory Jones M.Div. '85, Ph.D. '88 is skeptical about the extent of true penitence. He calls Pete Rose's acknowledgment of his betting habits just another example of "spinning sorrow." Rose only confessed when it became clearly in his self-interest to do so; his election to the National Baseball Hall of Fame hangs in the balance. As Jones puts it in an essay in The Christian Century, "the true test of a person's capacity to attend the truth" involves facing the consequences, regardless of the cost to oneself. Rose, though, hasn't acknowledged that he has any problem to deal with, much less that he has committed to steps that would point to repentance. In the Rose-colored view of the world, coming clean should be enough. That's an embrace of "cheap forgiveness," according to Jones. And something so cheap is not meaningful.

Jones is particularly troubled by a telling quote in Rose's book: "I'm sure that I'm supposed to act all sorry or sad or guilty now that I've accepted that I've done something wrong. But you see, I'm just not built that way." The issue isn't simply that Rose has shown no remorse, Jones says. Rather, it is that the onetime baseball great apparently lacks the capacity to do so.

The Rose episode signals a cultural fascination with the self, Jones says, that obscures the meaning of concepts like sin and repentance--concepts that, properly speaking, should demand reaching deeply into the heart and soul, Jones says. "Too often, these public issues of forgiveness are about how other people have treated me. It's amazing to watch Pete Rose actually trying to spin this into his being a victim: He's been deprived of the Hall of Fame all these years, and, goodness gracious, aren't we supposed to feel sorry for him?"

Jones finds in Bill Clinton a political parallel with Rose's reluctant apology. Just after Clinton offered his apology for his relationship with intern Monica Lewinsky, Jones wrote about the "shallow ring to the president's plea." Clinton's apology fell "far short of a true confession," he added, and so it didn't merit forgiveness. "Authentic forgiveness requires confession to be linked to truthfulness, contrition, and repentance. The president's apology fails on all three counts." Instead, Clinton tried to shift the blame to a zealous investigator. He didn't acknowledge having betrayed many people with his sexual misconduct and his subsequent deception--his wife and daughter, those aides and friends who put their own credibility on the line to defend him, and the public. And he didn't outline any concrete steps toward changing his life pattern of apparent sexual recklessness.

The once-rambunctious Arnold Schwarzenegger

 The once-rambunctious Arnold Schwarzenegger. Photo:© Ken James / Corbis


To Jefferson Powell, a Duke professor of both divinity and law, the prevalence of the public apology signals a "general leeching out of American life of real substance." It also points to a harsh moralizing tone, a reflexive and malicious sanctioning, that has infected public life. "We have a culture that has a kind of intense moralism about it. But it's a moralism that is divorced from a strong connection to any religious tradition. It looks rather bizarre when we tolerate behavior of all sorts that, according to my religious tradition, is intolerable on the part of public officials--for example, bitter and uncharitable attacks on opponents."

The public display becomes "an end in itself, which is often accompanied by anger. That's what you have to expect from this brittle, superficial moralism. It serves as a tool of anger rather than a means of reconciliation and forgiveness."

As both Jones and Powell see it, repentance that doesn't express itself in action is not true repentance. But there's an obligation on the other side: Healthy communities must provide a means of reconciliation. "That's in large measure what my religious tradition is about," Powell says, "finding ways to repair the damage that we all create in our lives and our communities." The dynamic of repentance and forgiveness, for many religious traditions, is part and parcel of moral teaching.

Pakistan's explosive Khan

 Controlling political damage: from top, Pakistan's explosive Khan, former birthday-party guest Trent Lott, a not-quite-contrite Bill Clinton . © Mian Khursheed / Reuters / Corbis

Trent Lott

 © Steve Liss / Corbis

Bill Clinton

 Photo:© Wally Mcnamee / Corbis


The memorable media coverage of televangelist Jimmy Swaggart's tearful confession, Powell says, points to the culture's problem with understanding authentic religious expression. In 1988, Swaggart admitted in a Sunday-morning sermon that he had engaged in improprieties with a prostitute. "It was very obvious from the tone of the reporting that part of the story was about making fun of these people for being so naÔve and foolish as to think that Swaggart was doing anything other than trying to save his own neck. But Christianity doesn't give you any options other than to forgive; that's what Christianity says you must do. That doesn't mean you're being naÔve. And then if the apology was insincere, the reconciliation of the person with God and the community won't go through. It won't go through because the person hasn't genuinely repented, not because people are unaccepting of the apology and unwilling to forgive."

Other cultures have recent and powerful experiences with forgiveness. "One of the most interesting laboratories in recent years for all of these dynamics has been South Africa and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission there," says Greg Jones. When he was in South Africa several years ago, he interviewed a number of members of the commission. "One of the things over and over again that they said was, 'Find somebody who is candid, forthright, and truthful.' There's a remarkable willingness on the part of victims' families to be forgiving, to say, 'What we really wanted most was the truth.' And so it opens up a new horizon for a new future."

Some of what was confessed was "chilling and horrifying," Jones says. Still, the overwhelming sentiment was, "What we really want is the lying to stop, the uncertainty of what happened to my loved one to be finally answered," he says. There are hugely complicated issues, including questions of reparations. But the first step was the sense of responsibility and truthfulness linked to a genuine contrition. There are some white South Africans whose contrition has become manifest by doing work in economic empowerment of black Africans. If it was an issue of murder, you obviously can't make things right by bringing back the murder victim. But you might be able to help others. You can live in a different way."

Nations, too, can live in a different way. That's been true for Germany since the end of World War II. Among Germans who lived through the Nazi era, there's a denial of individual responsibility, and so of the need for individual apology, says Duke history professor Claudia Koonz, author of the new book The Nazi Conscience. But they have a much different sense of collective responsibility. Germans were caught up at the time in a movement she calls "ethnic revivalism, or ethnic fundamentalism," a celebration of national virtues and national destiny at the expense, it turned out, of a marginalized population.

Paradoxically, Koonz says, "the active pursuit of major perpetrators of war crimes made those who didn't get accused feel that they had nothing to apologize for." Even Nazi loyalists saw their affiliation as "patriotic" rather than "partisan." Almost none of those put on trial at Nuremberg apologized for their actions.

"The whole process, from the beginning of prejudice to persecution to deportation to extermination, was gradual," Koonz says. "It looked legal--measures came down one at a time--and individuals incrementally found themselves collaborating, in small ways. That's why the culture of collective apology is so important in Germany: It's because people individually didn't feel responsible, but they feel horrified at belonging to a country that was responsible."

The German writer Martin Walser has repeatedly urged Germans to adopt a less guilt-ridden sense of national identity. At a ceremony in 1998 where he was awarded the German book trade's prestigious Peace Prize, he declared that he was tired of the "endless parading of shame" and warned against what he called "the instrumentalization of Auschwitz." Still, Koonz says that no country has done more than Germany to apologize for its past and pursue a path of redemption. As one sign of that, she says, Germans remain "intensely interested in the public culture of commemoration." It's a country engaged in "monument mania," as she describes it. "Every town has to have a monument to the Jews who are no longer there. The extent to which every single aspect of every monument is debated in public is really incredible."

Apologies, redemption, and forgiveness have a resonance in the marketplace. Consumers are ready to forgive companies, but only if they think that an apology is sincere and is accompanied by corrective action. That's the assessment of Gavan Fitzsimons, associate professor of marketing at Duke's Fuqua School of Business. "The work I do shows that, basically, at the moment that the recipients of a message pick up on the fact that you're attempting to persuade them through that message--whether it be an advertisement, a public-service announcement, or an apology--its effectiveness diminishes dramatically. And in many cases, you actually get a backlash, a negative effect." In other words, a business apology might be public-relations spin, but its sponsor certainly doesn't want it to be perceived as such.

Fitzsimons says that a model corporate apology came in the early Eighties after a presumed psychopath poisoned Extra-Strength Tylenol capsules. Johnson & Johnson, the manufacturer, ordered a massive recall involving more than 31 million bottles at a cost of more than $100 million, temporarily ceased all production of capsules, and replaced them with tamper-resistant caplets. The company's CEO maintained a high profile throughout the episode. The Washington Post observed at the time that "what Johnson & Johnson executives have done is communicate the message that the company is candid, contrite, and compassionate, committed to solving the murders and protecting the public." With a massive marketing campaign, and a repackaging program, Tylenol staged an impressive comeback.

A contrary example appeared in the late Eighties. Audi, the luxury carmaker, was confronting reports of sudden-acceleration problems when the transmission was shifted out of "Park." CBS' 60 Minutes featured the story of a mother who had run over her six-year-old son; she insisted that she had had her foot on the brake the whole time. When her claim came to court, the jury found no defect in the car. But that jury finding was almost irrelevant to Audi's standing, Fizsimons says. "Audi's response was, 'It's not our fault, it's basically the dumb American driver who's ramming his foot on the gas and running it into his garage.' They didn't say, 'We apologize for the trouble. We're not sure what's at the root of the problem but we're going to do everything in our power to solve it.' Audi basically disappeared from the U.S. marketplace for about ten years."

Seeking spiritual solace: Jimmy Swaggart faces up to his indiscretions

Seeking spiritual solace: Jimmy Swaggart faces up to his indiscretions. © Bettmann / Corbis


Political leaders may suddenly accelerate into the apology mode when their political fortunes are at stake. But that is not their instinct, says Michael Munger, chair of the political-science department at Duke. "People who have that sort of sensibility in terms of fairness are not likely to become politicians. Such people are turned off by the process itself--it's ugly. And even if you wanted to apologize, your advisers would tell you not to. If you put yourself out to be president, and if you are to have any kind of serious chance, you have to be an essentially different kind of person. That involves personal qualities that we wouldn't necessarily think are admirable in other contexts--a kind of resilience, and also an ability to shut out other people's feelings. And for an apology to be real, what you're trying to do is reach out to others and say, 'I care about your feelings.' "

Reportedly, Vermont Governor Howard Dean, in his run for the Democratic nomination, sought advice from Gary Hart, whose own presidential ambitions were derailed by what was widely perceived as reckless personal behavior. Hart's basic message was: Wimps don't become president. Dean took Hart's message a little too much to heart and later was compelled to apologize after remarking that Democrats should reach out to the population of truck-driving Southerners who display Confederate flags. He had touched on a hypersensitive theme, Munger says, though he certainly was correct in recognizing the need to broaden the Democratic appeal.

Seeking spiritual solace: Cardinal Law acknowledges his oversights

Seeking spiritual solace: Cardinal Law acknowledges his oversights. © Reuters / Corbis


Wimps seemingly won't become governor of California either. So Arnold Schwarzenegger succeeded with a rather strained apology to California voters: "Yes, it is true that I was on rowdy movie sets, and I have done things that were not right.... Those people that I have offended, I want to say to them, I am deeply sorry about that." In Munger's view, anyone who was already opposed to the movie actor wasn't won over. Those who supported him but were wavering could take solace in his stated contrition. But it was less an apology than a "framing of the issue," or an explanation that hinged on perceptions of Hollywood behavior.

That kind of pseudo-apology also seems to shift the blame to overly sensitive victims--those who were somehow "offended." There are two ways to understand such a statement, Munger says. "One is that it's a strategic ploy to try to diminish blame. The other is that it's an honest psychological reaction on the part of someone who is just not capable of thinking of himself as doing wrong. I wonder if some capacity for self-delusion is a requirement for being a politician."

In electing our politicians, we favor "an absence of self-doubt," Munger says. The greatest characteristic of Ulysses S. Grant, as a Union general, was that "he never second-guessed himself," says Munger. After he took over, "finally, the Union started to win the Civil War. And if he lost troops, well, that's the price we pay. There were at times unbelievable numbers of casualties, and he was quite cavalier about it. But it probably could not have been otherwise." People either give up their positions of public leadership or they become so thick-skinned as to be incapable of apologizing, he says.

Self-doubt wasn't evident in mid-March, when Senator John Kerry, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, found himself entangled with an unexpectedly "live" microphone. Kerry was overheard calling his opposition "the most crooked, you know, lying group I've ever seen." He later told a news conference that "I have no intention whatsoever of apologizing for my remarks." Conservative columnist William Safire speculated that Kerry had bought into the view that "apologies are for wimps.... John Edwards just proved that nice guys get great press clips but don't win elections."

And nice guys can't recast their place in history. The current documentary The Fog of War centers on the endlessly enigmatic Robert McNamara, former secretary of defense and an architect of the Vietnam War. Filmmaker Errol Morris ponders the consequences of McNamara's finally explaining--or apologizing for--his longtime silence about his doubts on the war. "Damned if you do, damned if you don't," Morris muses. McNamara responds firmly that he'd prefer to remain in "the damned if you don't" camp.

Not only is it out of character for a politician to apologize, it's also rare, Munger says, for a political apology to reverse political fortunes. Trent Lott profusely and repeatedly apologized for his comment that the nation would have been better off had Strom Thurmond won the presidential race in 1948. Lott's remarks were seemingly off-the-cuff and clearly meant to hearten the aging senator, and onetime ardent segregationist, as he marked his milestone 100th birthday. Still, his detractors observed that Lott had a track record--supporting discrimination at Bob Jones University, speaking up for the segregationist Council of Conservative Citizens, standing against the Voting Rights Act, rejecting several minority judicial candidates. It was that personal history, says Munger, that made the apologies ring hollow and led to his giving up a Senate leadership role.

"If Bill Clinton had been caught telling a racist joke, he would have been forgiven. That's because people had a lot of experience with him that made them think he's not really a racist. For Trent Lott, it seemed with this episode that he was acting in character. And that is much harder to apologize for."

It's hard, then, to see a scenario for an apology developing in the White House--though the rationale may be there. In late January, David Kay, chief U.S. weapons inspector in Iraq, reported that no weapons of mass destruction (WMD) had been found or were likely ever to be found. Kay said that he had "innumerable analysts come to me in apology" as they realized that "the world they anticipated" didn't match the facts on the ground. The New York Times' Paul Krugman titled a column on Kay's findings "Where's the Apology?" But Munger's speculation about the ultimate presidential position is that President Bush "will never apologize, because, if he does, he owes an apology to Saddam Hussein, the U.N., and the French.... I would guess that the Bush line is going to be that Saddam would have developed WMD. It was just a matter of time."

After all, says Munger, an American business icon, Henry Ford, is said to have lived by the doctrine "Never apologize, never explain." It was an American literary icon, Ralph Waldo Emerson, who said, "No sensible person ever made an apology."

But a public apology can resound in big ways, even in small places. Last November, villagers of the tiny Fiji Islands settlement of Nubutautau wept as they apologized to descendants of a British missionary killed and eaten by their ancestors 136 years ago. The villagers and relatives of the missionary were taking part in a ritual intended to lift a curse that, the locals believe, had caused an extended run of bad luck. According to The New York Times, a cow was slaughtered and a hundred sperm-whale teeth were given to eleven of the relatives who made the trip. A fourth-generation descendant of the missionary got a kiss from the village chief, himself a descendant of the chief who cooked the missionary. It seemed that the circle of misdeeds, repentance, and forgiveness was complete.

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