The value of an apology

By Patrick Hunter Wednesday May 21 2014 in Opinion
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It’s no joke. We do apologize a lot in this country. Whether it’s a simple accident, such as an unintended brush against someone in a crowded subway, or something else that may be a bit more serious, most of us will quickly offer an apology. And, that is good. In most cases, these kinds of apologies are automatic, reflexive. They are not made with a great deal of depth. And we accept them without discussion because there is no serious harm done. But, we value the acknowledgement of transgression.


But, over the past few years, I have noticed an interesting trend. People – especially those in high places, or positions of influence – have been saying some nasty things and they expect to get away with it with an apology to those who felt offended. In some cases, they have suffered the consequences of their outburst or ill-advised statements with the loss of contracts, positions or other sanctions.


But we have also seen that many of those sanctions lasted for a short time and “rehabilitation” or the re-acquiring of equal or similar status is achieved. Apology accepted and the matter is forgotten. Now, on to other matters.


In the one of the latest issues, we have a city councillor, Doug Ford – making disparaging comments about a home for disabled youth in his ward. He has not yet apologized. In fact, so far he has only reasserted his opinion.


We have heard other atrocious comments made by his brother, the mayor of our city.


In another apology issued this past week, the premier of British Columbia, on behalf of the Legislature and people of the province, issued an apology to Chinese Canadians for the racist laws and policies previous governments enacted against them. The head tax, at first $50, then raised to $500, was imposed to discouraged Chinese immigrants. No compensation was offered in the BC apology.


A few years ago, the Conservative Government of Prime Minister Stephen Harper, offered a similar apology which was accompanied by some compensation.


State apologies have also been made for similar racist transgressions against Japanese Canadians, residential schools and other atrocities against First Nations. There have been other apologies as well along the same historical lines.


The Donald Sterling controversy continues. The owner of the basketball team was recorded making nasty comments about African-Americans and, I am guessing, was advised by his public relations advisors to make an apology. It was a not a very good one. Supposedly, he has lost control of his team, and may be forced to sell it. But, his earnings from the ownership of the team is, so far, unaffected.


The rise of reportage on racist, sexist and homophobic incidents has exploded considerably over the past few years. They may have a correlation with the election of Barack Obama as president of the United States. But it seems like people have given themselves the license to feel free to make these statements knowing that the consequences may be short-lived.


A couple of weeks ago, on the CBC Radio program, Sunday Edition, Michael Enright, the host, had a discussion about free speech with Andrew Coyne, the National Post columnist. Coyne’s position was that people have a choice in taking offence at some of these ghastly statements made by individuals. That, to my mind, is ridiculous, and said so in a letter to the program. People will be offended. It is how they react to the offensive statements or actions where they have a choice.


Apologies by themselves are acceptable under many circumstances. And, it is better to have an apology than not. But the problem comes about in the evaluation, if you will, of an apology. “I apologize to those who may have been offended” just does not cut it. If you make a stupid statement that is offensive, assume that it is offensive to everyone.


A half-hearted apology is no apology at all. If you are going to apologize only to “those who may have been offended”, it suggests to me that you firmly believe what you said or did and that you would likely do it again. We have a perfect example of that scenario with Mayor Ford. He has apologized for some of the things he has done and said, but, as we have witnessed, he has said and done the same things after that apology.


Under some circumstances, we have to accept apologies. These kinds of acceptances are, at times, for peacemaking purposes and reflect the same weight in which they were given. The brush on the subway, for example, would perhaps elicit a “that’s okay” or words to that effect – if any at all. That response at a higher level is acceptable to a point, but there has to be a substantial sanction imposed as well.


The problem is, how do we get offenders to realize that an apology does not provide a license to repeat the offence with impunity, or that the offence has been pardoned. The bad taste lingers.

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