The Corruption of Apology

True apologies are precious. They’re a secular process of remediation, drawing on moral intuitions shared by many religious traditions. They encourage membership in one’s moral community because they are fundamentally relational: They heal the bond between wrongdoer and wronged. By temporarily humbling the perpetrator and vindicating the victim, they pave the way for both sides to make up. 

Apologies presuppose that there is some sort of moral community that shares a sense of right and wrong to which both the wronged and the wrongdoer belong. By apologizing, the wrongdoer embraces the norm that he violated. By doing that personally, ideally face to face, he works to heal his wounded relationships. And so he invites his victims to forgive, release their resentment, and move on. 

We all depend on apologies and forgiveness to go on living with one another. Husbands and wives admit their faults and patch up their differences. Kids on playgrounds say they’re sorry and then get back to recess. Coworkers talk through misunderstandings. As Hannah Arendt argued in The Human Condition, we wrong one another every day, and we learn to forgive constantly so that we can start afresh. The alternative is trapping ourselves in endless cycles of vengeance. 

Stephanos Bibas, “The Corruption of Apology.” July 27, 2022

What I found interesting about this commentary was how it explicitly lays out what is necessary for an apology to have meaning, i.e.:

  1. A shared norm that was violated.
  2. A person who violated the norm and a person effected by the violation.
  3. Discussion and acknowledgment to observe the norm in the future.

A shared norm implies membership in a community, or at least a relationship between two people. Of course, some norms are universal, or nearly so. Murder, stealing, lying and so forth are generally disapproved of. However, the norms may be different between members of a community and The Other, or outsiders. However, a morality that has double-standards, one for the in-group and one for the out-group, is a dubious morality. Yet, they exist and are common.

The enumeration is interesting. It really cuts to the heart of a common class of problems in our modern world. The article focuses on the fact that norms are in dispute in different communities, but I think there are more interesting aspects of this problem.

Some people are toxic. They have no regard for norms. They will not acknowledge that they have harmed anyone. They will not discuss it beyond making excuses, like those you see in A Narcissist’s Prayer. You will never get a real apology from such a person.

The other side of it, that the article does discuss, is that our online environments pretend to community, but they aren’t actual communities. We have “friends” that aren’t really our friends. There are people trying to enforce norms without community and often on behalf of others. It turns it more into blood sport, where we are allies promoting the agenda of different teams.

For example, I believe in equal rights for women. I would like to see structures of institutional racism broken down. I think we should broaden our acceptance of the various sexualities between consenting adults. I think there are serious problems of class than need to be addressed, and we need greater opportunities for success for people living in poverty. But, as a white, male, heteronormative person that is not living in poverty, what are my responsibilities to forward those various agendas?

Is a country a community? A state? A city? Or even a neighborhood? And when I think about the communities and norms I subscribe to, does believing in a norm make a community? It can. You can forge a community based on a shared norm or values. But, you need both. If you want to promote values – or norms, it needs to be done in the context of a community. You cannot impose them from outside. And, even a community is not enough, you need to promote them in relationship with other people that you know. Values that abstract out real people, with real flaws, aren’t much of a value, just as getting people to apologize, not to some person, but to the world, isn’t a real apology.

The Road Map Back From Authoritarianism

“Experts in authoritarianism advise keeping a list of things changing, subtly, around you, so you’ll remember. Days after the 2016 presidential election, I started a list. Each week, I chronicle the ways Donald Trump has changed our country. This selection, adapted from more than 34,000 entries — or about 1 percent of the total — focuses on the norms he and his administration have broken. The List offers us a road map back to normalcy and democracy.”

-Amy Siskind, “This is not normal:
A guide to what the next president will have to unwind.
The Washington Post. October 16, 2020.

Doom scrolling, at its very best.

Marginalization and Being Weird

“One thing I think this illustrates is how non-transferable experiences of marginalisation are. bell hooks obviously has more experience of marginalisation than I do – she is a black woman in the US, while I am in most regards a fairly privileged white man. But I am also a queer neurodivergent person, and the experience of small towns for people like me is literally the worst.

If you’re sufficiently “weird” and live or go to school in a small town, chances are pretty good you know almost nobody like you, and it’s awful. In a large city you may still struggle to find people like you, but those people are at least there and once you’ve found a few you will find more through them. It is possible to build a community of people like you, and to build a love ethic within that community, in a way that I don’t think people like me are ever going to really find in a small town.”

-David R. MacIver, “The conditional love of a small town.” DRMacIver’s Notebook. April 27, 2020.

Recommend David’s blog in general. Personally, I find I agree with much of what he says. I’ve been “weird” to other people my whole life, but I’ve never identified as being “neurodivergent”, a term I’ve only come to know in the last few years. However, it is a useful way to understand being out of step with the world and helps bring a sense of normality to being different.

Tragedy of the Commons After 50 Years & A New Model of the Rational Actor

“[Elinor Ostrom] then developed a ‘second-generation model of rationality’ in which humans are ‘complex, fallible learners who seek to do as well as they can given the constraints that they face and who are able to learn heuristics, norms, rules, and how to craft rules to improve achieved outcomes’ (E. Ostrom 1998, p. 9). The second-generation model of rationality predicts that reciprocity, reputation, and trust as ‘core relationships’ can lead to increased net benefits (13). This theoretical model identifies “individual attributes” that are particularly important in explaining behavior in social dilemmas. These attributes include ‘[1] the expectations individuals have about others’ behavior (trust), [2] the norms individuals learn from socialization and life’s experiences
(reciprocity), and [3] the identities individuals create that project their intentions and norms (reputation)’ (14).”

-Alain Marciano, “Tragedy of the Commons after 50 Years.” SSRN. September 11, 2019.