No ladies, this post is not about that!
It’s about apologies. Specifically, what is the societal purpose of the apology?
And it comes in light of a story Maggie shared on her blog a couple of weeks ago. Long post short, her youngest daughter was shoved around and choked to the point of physical harm by two young boys in a McDonald’s playland. After climbing into the structure to help her daughter down out of the tubes, the boys’ parents “called their boys down, [and] forced them to make apologies while the other parents in the room stared hard at their own lunches.” All these days later and I can’t get the scene out of my head. And it got me thinking: What purpose did making the boys apologize serve? Since the boys were quite young – Maggie figures they were only four or five years old – odds are good they had no regrets. Sure their play time got cut short, which definitely sucks when you’re that young, but at the end of the day they probably didn’t remember the little girl they scared to screams.
I was a wiggle-butt as a youngster. Couldn’t sit still. One Sunday we were visiting a church and I just wouldn’t stop moving around in the pew. Apparently I disrupted the Spirit because after the service my dad made me apologize to the preacher. To this day I remember the blood rushing to my pudgy cheeks as I said I was sorry to the ground at the pastor’s feet and then sulked away, completely defeated. Was I truly sorry? I don’t know. But I do remember being embarrassed and humiliated.
In his essay titled “On Letting It Slide,” Jacksonville University philosophy professor Scott Kimbrough points out that, “[w]e teach our children to apologize by forcing them to say things they don’t really mean. A true description of my son’s state of mind after hitting his sister would go something like this: “I hurt her because I wanted to.” In place of this accurate account, we teach him to say that he’s sorry. Perhaps someday he’ll mean it. In the meantime, he at least learns that hitting will not be tolerated. Plus his sister gets to see him humbled for his wrongdoing.” Kimbrough echoes the thoughts of William Ian Miller who, in his 2003 book Faking It, claims that “[a]pology is a ritual, pure and simple, of humiliation.”
And according to both philosophers, this isn’t a bad thing.
Kimbrough explains that “[i]n characterizing apology as a humiliation ritual, Miller by no means rejects or discourages it. Quite the contrary, he sees that injurers must pay for their wrongs or they will never learn to stop committing them. Like many other cases of moral instruction, the teaching of the art of apology sacrifices truth for more immediately worthy goals, including peace and character building.” In Dr. Kimbrough’s house, not only is the apology required, but so is the forgiveness; when his son hits his daughter and subsequently mumbles an apology, his daughter is required to accept the apology. “She doesn’t mean it, either. But the message of the exchange is clear: hostilities are at an end, and further escalations will not be tolerated. Hopefully someday they will learn to settle their differences civilly, even sincerely. As Miller notes, however, it’s foolish to hold out for sincerity in the short term.”
Aside of the humiliation factor and the hard lessons we are taught through embarrassment, are most apologies just bullshit? Moral philosopher Harry Frankfurt, in his remarkable little book On Bullshit, defines bullshit partly as a lack of concern for the truth; the bullshitter doesn’t care whether what he’s saying is true or false, just that the listener is somehow affected by what he says. Consider this in light of your relationship: How many times have you said you were sorry, even if you didn’t really mean it, just to bridge a gap and get on with the business of being a couple? Conversely, how many times have you accepted an apology even if you suspected the one apologizing was being accommodating? Bullshitting? Yes, even we adults lack sincerity. And yet we often let it slide and neglect to call it for the sake of harmony.
But what about kids? Are we teaching them to bullshit? And is this the right thing to do? Those little boys that pushed Maggie’s kid around apologized, and then hopped in the minivan and rode home. Perhaps mom and dad had a chat with them as they drove. Explained how what they did not very nice. But did they learn anything? Is knowing they might figure it out someday comforting? Or will they grow up thinking that an apology is nothing but appeasing . . . well, you get the point.
And, more importantly, are you ok with that?