Friday, March 29, 2013

Apologies and explanations

I should preface this by saying I'm not a particularly good person. I try and I fail. Sometimes, I don't try. And, often when I fail I do not apologize in the way that I should. And, that is another failing, another failing for which I should beg forgiveness.

Begging forgiveness is something that we have been losing as a society. Whether we are talking about politicians and pundits—that class that has so many opinions that each of them is nigh to worthless—apologizing for leading the United States into the Iraq war; or Bill Clinton apologizing for signing DADT and DOMA; students apologizing for cheating on tests or papers; government officials apologizing for not providing the public with services or for cheating on their spouses or stealing funds; servers and store managers apologizing for overcharging customers; or just your run-of-the-mill apology after a less-than-ideal human interaction, we have lost the very kernel of what it means to apologize.

Our mea culpas aren't mea culpas anymore. This is just because they don't stop with—or often even involve—a claim of fault. They are explanations: with the information we had, the Iraq war looked necessary; given the position of the country at the time, DADT and DOMA were the best options, anyway look at how bad Jesse Helms was; I am under a lot of pressure this semester and I don't really understand what plagiarism means; we have to prioritize governments services and that concern of yours for the better part of a decade matters a lot to me, but I'd have to convince others and they aren't convinced; I cheated because I was under so much stress loving America; ....

The method is to explain the circumstances so that the aggrieved will see that, were she in the same situation, she would have done the same thing. Rather than apologizing, we explain. We want the injured to understand and we seem to believe the old saw that to understand all is to forgive all.

We also in this way ignored the injured. I suppose the dead in Iraq don't matter; those whose lives were destroyed by DADT aren't really important; etc., because can't you see how my hands were tied?

But to explain is not to ask forgiveness; it is really the opposite. It is to say that really I didn't do anything wrong. Maybe it is the latent Catholicism in me, but I was taught long ago that when you ask someone—God or man—to forgive you, you don't explain, at least not in the first instance. There is something deeply suspect in trying to do that. You say that you are sorry. You are sorry because you did something wrong. And, you will strive not to do it again. And, you will make up the injury as much as possible. The confessional isn't the place for rationalization.

At that point—but only when asked for or when forgiveness has really been offered—does it make sense to explain. Of course I should try to see how, as an aggrieved person, I might well have done the same thing. But, when the person who has injured me demands that I do, they aren't asking for forgiveness. Instead, they are trumpeting their own moral rectitude, harmed only by circumstances. And, they are demanding that I understand and, so, forgive.

In a real request for forgiveness, there is the risk that one won't be forgiven. But all genuinely worthy activities include risk.

In the guise of self-knowledge—we say that people have engaged in a lot of soul searching—people hide their own mistakes behind exculpatory explanations. And, then we call them brave for realizing and admitting their mistakes.

Asking for forgiveness takes courage. Explanations that are really excuses take none.

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