Apologies should not come with excuses
By: By William Loewen
| Posted: Wednesday, Jan 30, 2013 06:00 am
You’ve probably heard the quote before, “Love means never having to say you’re sorry.” If that’s the case, I know very little about love.
If all we know about love comes from Hollywood romances, we will expect the guy to say the right thing at the right time, but my life almost never looks like that. In fact, I so often say the wrong thing at the wrong time, that frequently the only right thing I can say is “I’m sorry.” Personally, I’m much more comfortable with John Lennon’s version of the old quote; “Love means having to say you’re sorry every five minutes.”
Apologizing seems to be pretty popular these days. For something that’s so hard to do, it’s sure in the headlines a lot these days. In a world of media spin, corporate branding efforts and professional image consultants, an admission of weakness like a public apology is so confusing there is a long list of inevitable questions every time we hear “I’m sorry” from any kind of celebrity.
Recently, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman offered an apology to hockey fans for the 113-day lockout. After months of press conferences, negotiating sessions and stalling tactics, both the players and the owners had eaten up any good will they had earned over the years. While he suggested efforts would be made to restore trust in the league, his carefully worded apology was followed by an explanation that in his job he needs to make difficult decisions. Essentially he said, “I’m sorry, but if I had to do it all over again, I would.”
Adding qualifiers and explanations to an apology rarely makes it easier to take. It probably doesn’t help that I’ve never perceived Mr. Bettman to be a particularly sincere or compassionate individual either. So, in my estimation, his apology fell on deaf ears.
We just read last week in the Western Wheel about the apology made by famed cyclist Lance Armstrong. Not only did he win cycling races, but he raised money for cancer research and, more importantly, gave hope to cancer patients all over the world. Now we find out he cheated, and he had been cheating for a long time. Sitting with Oprah Winfrey, Lance apologized for cheating and he apologized for attacking the people who had been truthfully reporting his drug use in the press. The good Mr. Armstrong has achieved over his career may still outweigh the bad, but many questions still remain. Is it a good enough excuse that everyone else was doing it? Is it a good enough excuse he was driven by his desire to win?
There are very rarely any excuses good enough to escape the punishment we deserve. A full and contrite apology is not improved by adding statements of self-defense.
Not long ago, our Prime Minister Stephen Harper issued an apology to survivors of the abuse that took place at residential schools. He called it a dark part of Canadian history. Not many people would say he was popular in First Nations communities before that apology, and many would say that is still the case. That apology in 2008, however, will not soon be forgotten. The words he used, his gestures, his body language and the tone of his voice made it clear this was a sincere apology from a sincere man. There were profoundly emotional responses from people all across the country, whether First Nations or not. There were skeptics on both sides of the spectrum. Some said the apology was unnecessary because there was already an official government apology made years before. Some said his apology was empty without promises to compensate for the harm inflicted. The argument is ongoing, but a person or group should never apologize in pursuit of personal gain.
All of us will form opinions about these and other public apologies, but we too need to model sincerity and humility when it is our turn to apologize. In that moment, when we face the victims of our aggression, thoughtlessness, whatever it is, we make ourselves weak and vulnerable in the face of our victims. It is not important they understand the context or motivation of our actions, it is most important they know and believe we recognize the harm that was done and our commitment to repair the damage and mend our relationship with them.