Apologies: Central to a City's Ethical Environment
As canaries were to mines, apologies are to a municipality's ethical environment. If you don't see a good number of sincere apologies, then ethics and accountability are probably dead in your town. In addition, insincere apologies are a sure sign that the town's political leaders are manipulative and trying to get something for nothing.
According to Aaron Lazare, in his excellent On Apology (Oxford University Press, 2004), an apology is "an encounter between two parties in which one party, the offender, acknowledges responsibility for an offense or grievance and expresses regret or remorse to a second party, the aggrieved." An apology can also include an explanation for the offense, an expression of shame or guilt, an expression of intention not to commit the offense again, and reparations.
One reason apology is such a good sign of an ethical environment is that it requires just what good ethics requires: honesty, generosity, humility, courage, sacrifice, and commitment to preserving trust in government.
Municipal officials should take a look at Apology. They will see, for example, that the reasons for apologizing are far better than the reasons for not apologizing. We tend to apologize because we feel empathy, guilt, and shame. In fact, what we call character or integrity has a lot to do with the capacity to have these feelings, and it is these feelings that give us a sense of dignity, pride, and self-esteem. We can, of course, have too much pride to apologize, but that's a negative sort of pride. The better sort of pride is in the ability to apologize, to admit that you can be wrong and do your best to make amends.
Apologizing is not only virtuous. It can also be useful. It can elevate our stature in others' eyes, make them see us as generous and courageous. It can lessen the chances of retaliation and the escalation of battles in which nobody wins. It can reconcile damaged relationships, leading to more compromises with opponents and more elections from the public. And for those who feel shame and guilt, and who want to be able to look their friends and families in the eye, it can alleviate some pretty serious emotional burdens.
But sometimes an apology can be used to get out of taking responsibility, especially when the apology is for something one's subordinates did. In such a case, apologizing is often insincere, even if it is phrased sincerely and successfully calms things down. What it also often does is prevent open discussion about the problem, as in the common phrase, "Let's put it behind us." Forgiving does not mean forgetting; we still need to learn from mistakes, so they don't keep happening. On the other hand, many decisions are group decisions, and sometimes it is not clear who is responsible for apologizing. This is one of the more complex aspects of public apologies.
Apologies after public pressure is brought to bear do little more than save face. To be truly effective, to seem truly sincere, they need to occur immediately. And yet "better late than never" does sometimes apply in public apologies where groups have been harmed in the past and need to hear it said publicly that the harm was wrong. Some people question whether current leaders should be responsible for apologizing for past leaders' failures. The argument in response to this is: we take pride in past leaders' successes, why shouldn't we be ashamed of past leaders' failures?
But often, there is no public pressure to apologize, because either no one knows that, for example, a lie was told, or those who do know are not in a position to point it out, either because they are political allies of the offending official, their business or profession is dependent on the offending official's colleagues and supporters, or they work for the official.
The alternatives to apologizing are many, and all of them are harmful to the democratic process. When a grievance is made, not responding at all is disrespectful, and it is especially serious if the accuser is a citizen or a subordinate rather than another politician. When a politician makes a grievance, usually in the form of an accusation, the norm is to respond with another accusation, escalating the political tension (driving people away from getting involved) and making it difficult for town residents to know what actually happened. Making excuses or making a pseudo-apology aggravates the original damage, literally adding insult to injury and undermining public trust. Pseudo-apologies are often worse than the original offense. Paul Slansky and Arleen Sorkin have collected some of the worst public apologies of the last twenty-five years in My Bad (Bloomsbury, 2006). Flipping through this entertaining yet upsetting book shows how many appalling ways public figures can fail to sincerely apologize. Municipal figures come out looking relatively good in this book, which also includes many sincere apologies.
And then there is the ever popular cover-up. It usually begins by ignoring a grievance, and then moves on to denying what happened and trying to demonize the grievant. Of course, cover-ups are always worse than the offenses, and if they come out, they become a big scandal, undermining public trust more than any other approach. Cover-ups are a bet that the offenders won't get caught. And most cover-ups stay under cover, but they use up a great deal of resources for a horrible cause.
People who do not apologize, who make pseudo-apologies, or who cover up their offenses are above criticism and therefore cannot be held accountable for their actions without going to court or, if they're elected officials, running a negative campaign against them, which is ugly and difficult. They tend to believe it is more important to protect their reputation, as well as the reputation of those around them, by denying and by putting organizational loyalty above all other values. If their town has an ethics program, it will usually be highly politicized, contrary to organizational values and, therefore, ineffective.
People who make pseudo-apologies also tend to see individuals and the public as instruments to be played with. And the basis for ethics is respecting individuals, treating them not as instruments or means, but as ends. A person who cannot respect individuals or the public enough to make a sincere apology when it is appropriate, are not going to be able to act ethically any time it might not clearly be in their personal or partisan interest. This is the sort of conflict of interest that cannot be dealt with in codes of ethics, but is central to ethical behavior.
Lazare sets out many ways an apology can fail and be, instead, a pseudo-apology. The acknowledgment of the harm done can be vague or incomplete. The passive voice ("Mistakes were made") or conditional tense ("If I offended anyone...") can undermine responsibility; the latter can, in fact, do more harm by implying that the problem was the victim's oversensitivity. Being empathic ("I'm sorry you were upset") is nice, but not a replacement for a sincere apology, which acknowledges the right to be upset. One can also apologize to the wrong party, especially in public apologies, for example, to a group rather than an individual, or vice versa. And one can apologize for the wrong offense, always, of course, a lesser offense.
Many people believe that when you apologize, you make yourself vulnerable to a lawsuit. You are not only doing something ethical, you are confessing that you have committed an offense. Aaron Lazare shows in his book that in practice this is not true. For example, doctors who apologize to patients are far less likely to be sued for malpractice than doctors who fail to apologize. People tend to be forgiving to those who quickly take responsibility for their actions, especially when they offer reasonable reparations where they are appropriate. In fact, in many states, if someone asked to retract a false statement refuses to do so (and retraction is a part of an apology for a false attack), then intentional malice is presumed in a case brought for libel. What might have been a mistake becomes intentional, a much more serious offense than an error or slip of the tongue.
Apologizing is a better solution, in many instances, to going to court, because even a successful lawsuit only coerces the offender into making reparations, so that the offended party, especially when it is the public, is not satisfied that the offender has embraced its values, feels true remorse, and won't do it again. Paying a fine or doing time is not a true substitute for a sincere apology, especially one that includes reparations and sincere promises of good behavior in the future.
There are true risks to apologizing, which is why it requires moral courage. It can make you look more like the instigator, even if you were only reacting or were part of a group. It can make you look weak and hold you up to public ridicule. It can even turn people against you, especially if your opponents twist it to their purposes. But the faster you apologize and the more authoritatively you take responsibility, the lower the risks and the greater the likelihood that your action will become contagious, that others will feel that the right thing to do is to apologize. Or maybe even not do it in the first place.
What about the victim? Once a sincere apology has been made, the victim of a public offense should take charge of the situation, be forgiving, compassionate, and good-humored, so that both parties win. This too will ensure that apology will appear the right thing to do for everyone. This is another reason that pseudo-apologies are harmful: they put the victim in a bad situation: to accept an inadequate apology and or to reject it and look unforgiving. How many people can get away with a complex explanation of why a particular apology falls short? That's what op-ed pieces are for, but how many people read and understand them?
The failure to apologize has serious consequences. It makes people feel powerless and cynical, and it makes people believe that their values are different from those in government, that government cannot be trusted to hold up its side of the social contract, that in government there are no consequences for doing wrong. All of these feelings make people less likely to get involved in government matters. The failure to apologize fuels people's anger, making compromise more difficult.
Apology is not an easy process, but it is an extremely valuable process, and rarely happens, at least without enormous public outcry, in a municipality that has a poor ethical environment. Fortunately, apology is contagious, so that civic leaders can, if they want, make it the norm in their town by publicly apologizing for even minor offenses, before there is a public outcry, and then expecting the same behavior from their colleagues and subordinates.