(This post is a follow up to this one, which you can read for a little context.)
It seems like it has been a week filled with mea culpas from different individuals or organizations. Reading these apologies, I was struck by the subtle but measurable differences between them and what they actually try to communicate. So here’s a list of the different kinds of apologies that we give, and a completely arbitrary measure of how repentant that type of apology truly is:
1: “I’ve got something to tell you…”
This is the situation where a person, being prompted internally rather than externally, feels the need to ask for forgiveness. No one tells them to say sorry, they weren’t caught…they just feel they have to. To me, this type of apology carries with it the deepest sense of repentance and highest level of conscience…and of course, is the rarest to hear.
But where it can backfire is when the person you apologize to didn’t even know what you had done. Then the recipient of the apology may very well get mad at you for what you just apologized for. “What?… You did that to me? I HATE YOU NOW!” And that very well be one of the reasons this kind of apology is very rare.
Regardless, this, to me, is the best kind of apology, the hardest to give, but the easiest to accept. On my arbitrary sincere apology scale, this is a 10.
2: “You caught me! NOW I’m sorry.”
This one is for Lisa Chan.
Sometimes we don’t say sorry because our conscience goads us into such action, but more because we couldn’t get away with it and were put on the spot. The reason I mention Lisa Chan is because she was the Asian actress who thought it was good idea to reinforce racial stereotypes on behalf of a Michigan U.S. Senate candidate. She was anonymous for a while until people with equal amounts of rage and time on their hands discovered who she was. And it was at THAT point that she issued a mea culpa for her lack of judgment.
For some of us, this might not seem like much of an apology at all because the person in question didn’t have the internal fortitude to expose their wrongdoing of their own accord. But let’s be honest – most of us don’t that kind of fortitude. Everyone likes to get away with things if they can. And if we wait only for perfect apologies from people, we would almost never get them. And just because someone doesn’t apologize until they are caught doesn’t mean that they don’t feel bad – there is a chance that they did feel guilty for what they had done, but simply couldn’t summon up the courage to admit what they had done. I’d like to think that Lisa is very sorry and ashamed for what she did, hopefully. And I can accept an apology like this.
So in my book, this ranks as a 7 on the sincere apology scale.
3: “I’m sorry! Don’t tell mom.”
My younger daughter said this today. I was half asleep at 6:30am, when I heard Katie cry out, “I’m sorry! I’m sorry!…Don’t tell.” Next thing, my bedroom door opens up and Sophia comes in and says, “Katie hit me.” And then Katie rushes in crying, “But I said I was sorry!!”
So there are those times when we apologize because we fear the consequences if we don’t, and our apology is supposed to somehow attenuate those consequences, if not eliminate them altogether. But this is scarcely limited to very young children. This week, ESPN used the word “chink” several times in reference to Jeremy Lin, both on their website as well as in live commentary. For a few days, they were pretty silent on the issue, only saying that they were aware and were conducting a full investigation. But then I sent an email to them, saying that I would forever boycott ESPN and its advertisers if they didn’t offer a full apology and hold someone personally responsible. And lo and behold, the next day I found out that they had fired the person responsible for the headline on the website, and suspended the anchor who had used that word live. All because of me!
Now, I do want to say that the editor did say that it was totally inadvertent, and I suppose it’s possible. But I still think he should have been fired, not because he’s a racist (he’s probably not), but because any competent editor should know that using the word “chink” in reference to an Asian is stupid.
To me, this is not a great kind of apology because there is very little remorse behind it. Rather, the emotional driving force behind it is fear of retribution or consequence. But in this day and age, I think this is still one of the best apologies you are likely to get anymore. And in some sense, even though the sentiment behind it may not be ideal, this kind of apology does provide some sense of accountability, which is important in its own way. And so I can accept an apology like this.
On my apology scale, this is a 5.
4: “I’m sorry you’re so sensitive.”
Oh yeah, you know this one. Where someone apologizes for something, but adds a little stinger at the end of it to make sure you know that their apology is not really for what they have done, but for how you (incorrectly) interpret what they have done. “I’m sorry that you feel that way.” “I’m sorry that you misinterpreted me.” “I’m sorry that you’re so overly-sensitive.”
This is one that angers me the most because it subverts the whole purpose of an apology to begin with. An apology is supposed to be a moment to admit wrongdoing. But when someone apologizes in this manner, what they are doing is placing the wrongdoing upon the other party, that they have misinterpreted or are being too sensitive. This, my friends, is NOT an apology. When you look at it in this light, this is the exact opposite of an apology – it’s a veiled insult!
BUT. This still not the worst kind of apology there is. For instance, although we are loathe to admit it, that person actually may be right, and we’re being way too sensitive. Just because we demand an apology does not mean we necessarily deserve it. And some people proffer this kind of apology as a way to say that they feel bad that you feel bad, and they genuinely mean it. In other words, they don’t feel they have done something wrong, but they understand that you are hurt by what they have done. And so they sincerely apologize on those grounds, that they have offended you. In this situation, the apology is not based on an admission of wrongdoing, but a recognition of how the other person feels. That may not be the ideal form of apology that we look for, but it’s not the worst. It’s hard, but I can accept an apology like this.
So two rankings for this apology: 2, or 4.
So as you can see, there are many different kinds of apologies, with different kinds of motivations, that all rank differently in terms of real repentance and sincerity. But in some way, just getting an apology, even qualified, is better than nothing. And that brings me to the last and worst example of an apology, the type that I simply cannot accept:
And then there’s this kind of apology…the non-existent one. Where someone knows they have done wrong, or else, they know that they have deeply offended or hurt someone else with their words or actions, and they say nothing. Their pride refuses to allow them to offer a mea culpa either because they don’t feel like they have done anything wrong, or else, they just don’t feel like admitting wrongdoing to any degree. Try as you might, you can accept this kind of apology because it’s not there. This obviously ranks as a 0 on the apology scale.
And that is Pete Hoekstra.
People told this Michigan candidate for U.S. Senate in no uncertain terms that it was offensive for him to make a commercial that played on Asian stereotypes, whether he realized it or not. Even leaders of the black community called him out on it. He has been given a lot of time to take responsibility for that offense, and say that he was sorry in any of the ways mentioned above. And he did quietly take down the ad and the related website…but then went on to say that that was a pre-determined decision, and that there were other ads that their campaign had wanted to put into rotation!
Are you kidding me? And this guy wants to be a U.S. Senator?
Sure, we all know people like this guy. Sure, we are all like this guy at some point in time. But we are not trying to represent nearly 10 million citizens of a nation. In that situation, a person cannot afford to be personally and pridefully entrenched, refusing to admit wrongdoing or compromise in any way because he just don’t feel like it. If you are looking to be a Senator, then there should be a strong track record that you put the concerns of others before you own personal ones, particularly the concerns of the nation as a whole. I am loathe to imagine what our country would look like if our leaders crossed their arms like surly toddlers and pouted, “NO. I WON’T APOLOGIZE. NO.” Even after everyone and their mother had told them that what they did was not right.
(Actually, I guess that explains why our country looks the way it does right now.)
People have informed me that I was pretty light on Wannabe Senator Hoekstra earlier. And it was true. I wanted to give him the benefit of the doubt that he simply was not aware that his advertisement was so deeply offensive to the 17 million Asian-Americans who have been mocked for their speech, dress, appearance, even to this day. I truly thought that was the case, and try not to take offense when none is intended. As a Christ-follower, I try to be prepared to forgive. And I’ve been waiting…and nothing. He could have very easily just apologized for offending people and moved on, and I would have been content with that. But wannabe Senator Hoekstra sees nothing wrong, either in what he did, or how it made people feel.
And so, I feel nothing wrong in doing what I am doing, which is saying that Pete Hoekstra strikes me as an incredibly stiff-necked and insensitive person, who has little regard for anyone whose opinion and context differs from his own…and a ridiculous choice for a Senator. The people of Michigan should be very careful electing such a person as their representative, because that would mean that his actions and mentality reflect THEIR actions and mentality. That is the power of representative government, that not only do our leaders represent our interests, but we are represented by them as well, for better or for worse.
If ESPN, Lisa Chan, and my daughter can make apologies for any number of imperfect reasons, so could Pete Hoekstra. It’s hard, but not impossible. But since he hasn’t, I can only surmise that Lisa Chan is a better candidate for U.S. Senate than Pete Hoekstra. Or my daughter.
Actually, Katie would make a great Senator someday.