The Greek root of the word “apology” refers to a speech in defense of oneself, a self-justification. Though the meaning of the word has changed, this bit of etymology does highlight the two main functions of apology: to make restitution to those you have hurt, and to protect oneself from retribution. Each theme has endless variations, and some of them give me hives. I have an allergy to three types of apology:
(1) The apology that paves the way to do it again: “I didn’t mean to hurt you, please give me another chance—yeah, I know you gave me another chance last week and the week before, but this time I really mean it.”
(2) The apology that returns to that Greek root—more justification than repentance: “I know I shouldn’t have done it but something sort of snapped and I couldn’t resist. Anyway, you know I have an issue about that, in fact, it isn’t even fair to hold me responsible, it’s really my parents’ fault.”
(3) The preemptive apology that anticipates objections, hoping to avoid (1) and (2) by providing justification before the act in question, as in this week’s news: “It’s not an easy decision, and especially because I support a robust system of public financing of elections. But the public financing of presidential elections as it exists today is broken, and we face opponents who’ve become masters at gaming this broken system. And we’ve already seen that he’s not going to stop the smears and attacks from his allies running so-called 527 groups, who will spend millions and millions of dollars in unlimited donations.”
Barack Obama decided not to take public campaign funds because he believes the Republicans will pull out all stops in trying to discredit him, making the Swift Boat smears of the Kerry campaign look like compliments—and he’s almost certain to be right, judging from the scurrilous stuff that is already making the rounds. He is betting that he can raise more money without federally imposed regulations and he’s probably right about that too.
The obvious accusation has already come from the right, that Obama claims to be a reformer, yet eschews the (however imperfect) public financing system instituted in the name of campaign reform. The image of John McCain denouncing Obama as an old-style politician is going to play as absurdist humor to most sentient beings, so I suppose Obama’s choice here will be vindicated too.
But let’s not pretend: this is a strategic decision, plain and simple, not an ethical or moral one. And in the video announcement of this decision, when Obama exhorted supporters to “declare your independence from this broken system and let’s build the first general election campaign that’s truly funded by the American people,” his eyes said he knew it. After all, what could be more truly funded by the American people than an optional check-off on our tax returns? I wish he had skipped the lofty claims and stuck to the facts: his well-funded opponents will do anything to defeat him, and he wants superior firepower. That I could understand.
I support Obama a hundred percent, yet I know that daily booster-shots from spin doctors can skew even the most honorable person’s inner compass. May this be the last such apologia we hear from him.
Obama’s action was spin, not sin. But when it comes to major misdeeds, I appreciate a real and substantive apology. The New York Times reported earlier this month that the Canadian government had “formally apologized…to Native Canadians for forcing about 150,000 native children into government-financed residential schools where many suffered physical and sexual abuse.”
Harry S. LaForme, a Mississauga Indian and a justice of the Ontario Court of Appeal who will oversee the truth and reconciliation commission that will be established to document this terrible history, said that “The policy of the Canadian residential schools wasn’t to educate Indian children. It was to kill the Indian in the child, it was to erase the culture of Indian people from the fabric of Canada.” Almost $2 billion will be paid to survivors.
Being human, we err. From time immemorial, the really important question has been what to do next. In the Jewish tradition, Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz tells us in The Thirteen-Petalled Rose, the question even precedes time:
Certain sages include repentance among the entities created before the world itself. The implication of this remarkable statement is that repentance is a universal primordial phenomenon; in such context it has two meanings. One is that it is embedded in the structure of the world; the other, that before we were created, we were given the possibility of changing the course of our lives. In this latter sense repentance is the highest manifestation of our capacity to choose freely—it is a manifestation of the divine in human. By repenting, we can extricate ourselves from the binding web of our lives, from the chain of causality that otherwise compels us to follow a path of no return.
In this tradition, the four stages of t’shuvah—translated as repentance or reorientation—are seen as: (1) “Azivat HaChet,” leaving the transgression, ceasing to do it. (Notice how action comes first, rather than waiting for feelings to drive it.) (2) “Charata,” regret and remorse for the transgression. (3)“Vidduy,” confessing one’s transgression. (4) “Kabbalah L’habah,” committing not to repeat the transgression.
In part, the Canadian apology was inspired by Australia’s apology back in February to the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders—those they call the “Stolen Generations.”
Since the 18th century, the word apology has taken on its contemporary meaning, a sincere expression of regret for doing wrong. These recent actions of the Australian and Canadian governments have the earmarks of true apology, true t’shuvah: no self-justification, open acknowledgment of the harm done, meaningful restitution and true willingness to bear responsibility.
Lately, we have an epidemic of the wrong kind of apology, TV personalities caught on camera spewing their prejudices, then dutifully reciting scripts of repentance that fool no one. Such behavior debases public discourse for all of us. But even when done in the true spirit of t’shuvah, apology can’t erase history. What it can do is initialize a process of healing by giving sufferers a new narrative to succeed the pain and shame of being violated and unacknowledged. When apology is the start of a new story, I honor it absolutely. When it’s not, it’s an itch that seems immune to scratching.