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Posts Tagged ‘saying sorry’

I had a discussion this week about public confession, prompted by the Lance Armstrong/Oprah interview. It wasn’t so much about the cyclist or his past exploits, but the more general question of whether this kind of public ‘confession’ is good for the individual and good for society; and whether there is always a natural and swift movement from repentance to rehabilitation to reconciliation to redemption if we finally take the step of admitting we were wrong. So I don’t want to judge an individual here (I try not to write about people’s misdeeds or misfortune), but to think about the general question.

oprah by story acccents

Is public confession necessary? In Catholic sacramental terms, of course, you never make a public confession – it’s between you and the priest and God, and it’s protected by the seal of the confessional, which is inviolable and absolute. But is it sometimes necessary, or at least important, to admit your wrongdoing in public and to say sorry in public? Yes, I think so. If, for example, you have persistently lied in public, then simply in terms of justice you are (all things being equal) duty bound to correct the untruth, and in terms of the reconciliation you seek with those you may have misled and hurt by your lies, you owe them an apology.

There may be situations where this isn’t prudent, or where the public retraction and apology may do more harm than good, to individuals or to the common good; but in ordinary circumstances, we need to apologise for and try to put right the things that we have done wrong; and if that has involved some great public harm, then the correction and the apology should normally be public.

Does that mean we can always say, categorically, that a public confession or apology is a good thing? Well, to borrow the language of sacramental theology, you need more than just the ‘confession’ (saying to another what you have done wrong) to make a good confession: you also need genuine sorrow in your heart (‘contrition’), and a sincere and practical intention to put things right and avoid wrongdoing in the future (a ‘purpose of amendment’); and – as a supplementary – to take on a penance, as a part of the wider ‘putting right’ and as a help to your ongoing conversion.

And this is also where the tools of moral philosophy are very helpful. At an objective level, if someone has lied in public, then it is good to correct the lie and apologise. The objective moral ‘act’ is, in this case, good: it’s good to tell the truth, it’s good to put things right, it’s good to say sorry. But as well as the objective act, you need to factor in the subjective motivation (the reason why someone has chosen to do this), and the circumstances surrounding the act.

What are the deepest reasons why someone is choosing to do this thing at this time? Are they morally good reasons? And what are the circumstances that colour the whole decision and the act itself? Maybe we can’t know for the moment in a given case; sometimes we are not even aware of our own real motivations. But these are, in one traditional way of understanding moral actions, the three elements that we need to consider when we think about our own moral choices: the objective good or harm that is done (whatever our motivations); our personal motivations themselves; and the circumstances. If we choose to do what is good, for good reasons, in appropriate circumstances, then we have – usually – made a good choice.

I say ‘usually’, because another factor (now it’s getting extra complicated: he said there were three elements, now there are four…) is whether there is also a better or greater good that we could have chosen instead. The Ignatian motto, remember, is to do all things not just for the glory of God, but for the greater glory of God.

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My last post was about people doing what they are not meant to do: defying the social conventions that almost define them, the unwritten rules of behaviour that we take for granted without ever reflecting on. The best thing I’ve read about this is undoubtedly Kate Fox’s Watching the English.

It’s hysterical, and full of profound insights into the strange reality of being English, or British (she can’t quite decide). If you can’t afford psychoanalysis, read this book, and it will bring to light all sorts of habits and behaviours in your own life that you’ve never really thought about. I kept thinking, ‘How does this woman know me so well?’ If you have any drop of Englishness in you at all, you will learn things about yourself that you never knew before.

Why do we English people talk about the weather so much? Why do we say sorry (and actually feel sorry) when we have no reason to be sorry? Why do we queue so often? Why do we get so angry when other people jump our queue? Why are we so unable to express our anger? Why are we afraid of complaining about bad service? Why are we so awkward in social situations? Why do we consistently fumble for the right word or the appropriate gesture when we meet someone, or leave someone, or thank someone, or correct someone, or offer them our sympathy in the face of difficulty, disease or death? Why is this social ‘dis-ease’ almost a part of our genetic make-up?

Fox is one of these social anthropologists who takes part in her own experiments. So she set about systematically upsetting the social cart and seeing how people reacted. A whole morning aggressively bumping into people to see if they did indeed say sorry for her own rudeness. An afternoon pushing into carefully formed queues to see how many people would dare to challenge her, and how they would deal with this unwelcome need to enter into confrontation (loud coughs, long stares, the odd ‘Excuse me?!’).

Here is the Blackwell’s blurb:

In WATCHING THE ENGLISH anthropologist Kate Fox takes a revealing look at the quirks, habits and foibles of the English people. She puts the English national character under her anthropological microscope, and finds a strange and fascinating culture, governed by complex sets of unspoken rules and byzantine codes of behaviour. Her minute observation of the way we talk, dress, eat, drink, work, play, shop, drive, flirt, fight, queue – and moan about it all – exposes the hidden rules that we all unconsciously obey. The rules of weather-speak. The Importance of Not Being Earnest rule. The ironic-gnome rule. The reflex apology rule. The paranoid-pantomime rule. Class indicators and class anxiety tests. The money-talk taboo. Humour rules. Pub etiquette. Table manners. The rules of bogside reading. The dangers of excessive moderation. The eccentric-sheep rule. The English ‘social dis-ease’. Through a mixture of anthropological analysis and her own unorthodox experiments (using herself as a reluctant guinea-pig), Kate Fox discovers what these unwritten behaviour codes tell us about Englishness.
It’s a very funny and very revealing book.

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Sorry button by ntr23.

Saying sorry has become a political act. In this confessional age, the carefully timed apology, with just the right amount of emotion, can do wonders for a politician’s fortune. But there are deeper and more noble reasons too for a public act of apology on behalf of oneself or of others. James Crabtree documents this cultural development in his article “The Hardest Word“.

Contrition is a counter-intuitive approach to political renewal. Most politicians would more instinctively follow John Wayne’s dictum in She Wore a Yellow Ribbon: “Never apologise, and never explain. It’s a sign of weakness.” Apologies are unmanly acts that cede ground to opponents: rule with conviction instead. Given Britain’s adversarial politics, it’s no coincidence that apologies haven’t been offered for many of our biggest mistakes—from appeasement, Suez, and the poll tax to the high-rise towers of the 1960s.

But such a brazen approach now looks old fashioned, not least judged by this year’s bumper crop of apologies. Already both party leaders have said sorry for expenses, while in early December David Cameron also apologised for inaccurately accusing the government of giving school funding to radical Islamists. Gordon Brown notably didn’t apologise to the Chilcott inquiry, but did to 130,000 British orphans deported to Australia between the 1920s and the 1960s. Elsewhere, bankers apologised for their bonuses, Jonathan Ross for lewd phone calls, and comedian Jimmy Carr for joking that the Afghan war would bequeath Britain a world-beating 2012 paralympic team.

Such things might seem commonplace, but they are part of a more profound shift towards a confessional politics. Where once apologies were largely about individual conduct, now they more often involve institutions, even nations. And while the act of apologising in politics has been on the rise throughout the 20th century, it was during the 1990s that the age of the political apology really took off. It was an era that actually began two decades earlier, on 7th December 1970, when West German leader Willy Brandt visited a monument commemorating the 1943 Warsaw ghetto uprising. Having laid a wreath, he paused, and suddenly knelt on the monument steps. “Under the weight of recent history, I did what people do when words fail them,” he said later. This Warschauer kniefall, an apology without words, flashed round the world’s front pages. The gesture did more to encapsulate Germany’s remorse for Nazism than any official act before or since.

Following Brandt’s lead, both formal state apologies and publicly captured contrition by their leaders became increasingly common. In recent years, Canada and Australia apologised to their aboriginal populations, while the US, Finland, and Japan expressed regrets for the treatment of their indigenous peoples. Tony Blair apologised for the Irish potato famine and the slave trade, Jacques Chirac for the Dreyfus affair, and both Britain and Canada said sorry for shooting deserters. Truth commissions became fashionable. Pope John Paul II apologised for persecuting Galileo and for the crusades. In 2007 a Danish minister even seemed to mock the new practice when he apologised to the people of Ireland for the Vikings.

I’m sure the Vikings, in their turn, are also due an apology from someone.

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