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.