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The Devalued Apology – An Historic Review

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“With apologies…” the 2015 New Year rolls in with the first big one of the year already in demand. The Boston Patriots owner is demanding an apology from the NFL over the “Deflategate” debacle…which would be a fine display of contrition deserving of forgiveness — maybe. Hot on its heels is a hasty apology by Google to the homosexual community for GoogleTranslate® conversion of the word “gay” into homophobic slurs when translating from English to French, Portuguese, Russian and Spanish.

2015 is off to a great start with apologies…a Sorry State indeed, pun intended.

An excellent article by my good friend, Hamlin Grange, makes a great case for the role of forgiveness in culture. Yet, there is the small matter of contrition and apology as precursors to forgiveness. As an apologist for the honorable institution of apology, I submit a brief non-exhaustive retrospective on some memorable apologies (and failures to apologize) in recent history in the areas of business, politics, sports, religion, culture and more.

In 2002, Billy Graham apologized for anti-Semitic remarks made with President Richard Nixon in a 1972 conversation, the year of the Watergate break in. He was later followed by tearful televangelist Jimmy Swaggart. The Vatican issued an apology in 1998 for the Catholic Church’s silence during the Holocaust. In 1988, Congress approved an apology to Japanese Americans who were driven from their homes in World War II. Even Alabama’s racist former Governor George Wallace in 1979 contritely lamented, “I think I can understand something of the pain black people have come to endure. I know I contributed to that pain, and I can only ask your forgiveness.”

Janet Jackson quickly apologized for her overexposure at the 2004 Super Bowl halftime show, the “wardrobe malfunction” I missed while making a sandwich to consume during the second half. Also in 2004, CBS apologized to Native Americans angered over OutKast’s Grammy Awards performance. In 1999, Disney apologized to employee Judy Goodwin (and paid her $2 Million) for its spoof radio campaign promoting a gardening utensil called the “Black Hoe.”

Such individual apologies are often hollow victories for the offended parties. Apologies for stepping on toes are of diminished value when there are 100 million others waiting in the wings to step on those same toes. For example, October 4, 1976 Secretary of Agriculture Earl Butz apologetically resigned after his crude remark which included a racial epithet. Fast forward to January 2004, Washington’s 81-year-old Republican Senator Alex Deccio apologized for his reference to a “[Epithet]” in the woodpile,” a phrase that harks back to Underground Railroad days. So common is it’s use today, the year 2014 began with the NFL considering a yardage penalty for players using a racial epithet on the field, with some even debating whether a white player would incur a greater yardage penalty than a black player for using the term.

In 1997, President Clinton, while apologizing for the notorious 1932 Tuskeegee syphilis study, shared an important qualifier on the value of an apology. “An apology is the first step,” he said, “and we take it with a commitment to rebuild that broken trust. We can begin by making sure there is never again another episode like this one.”

Ironically, Clinton pinpointed the dilemma of “broken trust,” only later to demonstrate how an apology may represent nothing more than mere political rhetoric akin to the vows at a shotgun wedding.

Of course, the United States House of Representatives issued an apology for slavery back in 2008, though there were no reparations offered in evidence of contrition, which still holds the U.S. record in the “Don’t Hold Your Breath” category.

2014 ended with an apology of sorts from Daniel Pantaleo, a New York City law enforcement officer involved in the questionable killing of Eric Gardner. The family of Eric Gardner was less than impressed; but the weighty legal implications of an outright apology weren’t lost on Panaleo’s defense team.

Easy as they are to come by, we should never count our apologies before they’re hatched.

Some near the turn of this century clamored for contrition from the Black-owned maker of “Pimp Juice,” a non-carbonated tropical berry flavored energy drink. It is still being sold today, unapologetically by the case, with a bevy of complementary products. Many still await penitence from David Chang, the Asian creator of the board game “Ghettopoly” in which “buying stolen properties, pimpin’ hoes, building crack houses and projects, paying protection fees and getting car jacked are some of the elements of the game.” Until the company was shut down by legal costs, Chang was collecting $29.95 apiece for the board game, remorse not included. Today, you might nab a handful available on Amazon priced in the mercenary three-figure range.

Has the public apology lost its power? Are we seeing the social economics at work by which the apology has become commoditized and thus devalued? The value of an apology is proportionate to the level of trust that a violation will not be repeated. Troubled times that these are, the universality of broken trust is an immense “chicken come home to roost” in the form of deep and abiding societal cynicism. Undermined throughout the last century, the once credible quality of contrition may have suffered irreparable damage as the requisite and counterbalancing ability to trust has been brought near to its death bed at many levels.

The qualities of contrition and trust can be restored only with broad acceptance that the most sincere apology is a poor substitute for just a little conscious thoughtful consideration in the first place.

True, neither contrition nor apology need be a precursor at all to the quality and/or act of forgiveness. In fact, many would point out that forgiveness can be granted in earnest even as the wrong is still being committed. The “All Is Forgiven” mindset is a powerful cultural value to which we all can aspire.

But in the meantime, society still appears to operate on the principle that it is easier to seek forgiveness than to ask permission. The result is that we dwell in a Sorry State, and a river of apologies runs through it. As the apologies and the tears rollso do our eyes. The cynic in each of us shrugs and sighs, resigned to the misanthropic countdown to the next apology.

And yes, for my blatant cynicism, I apologize.

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Copyright © 2014 Robert D. Jones – All Rights Reserved

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