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What is an Apology?

Posted by Thinker on September 23, 2007 at 00:52:15

Basic Definition 0f Apology

What exactly is an apology? In its simplest and most basic form an apology is a speech act, a form of oral communication from one party to another designed to carry out several specific simultaneous communicative and moral functions (Tavuchis 1991, Govier 1998, Govier and Verwoerd 2002). The power of this particular speech act lies in the extent to which it fulfills its intended role.

First, the apology names a specific situation as a violation of the listener. A particular event is reframed and given meaning. This naming creates a space for further healing and reconciliation by allowing the victimizer to express respect for the victim’s memories of pain and hurt. The recognition and acknowledgement of the painful event according to the terms perceived by the victim can transform the trauma of victimization into a process of mourning which includes both apologizer and listener, thereby beginning the rebuilding of relationships (Barkan 2000:323). According to Govier and Verwoerd (2002:69-71), this aspect of acknowledgement is the most crucial aspect of the process, providing a basis for moving through the rest of the process and toward potential future reconciliation.

Second, the event is named in terms which clearly specify that the apologizer takes responsibility for the damage done to the listener. For the speaker, the naming of this responsibility can occur within the context of “confession” as described by Schmidt (2002). Schmidt notes that an acknowledgement of wrongdoing has a positive impact on both speaker and listener; it not only provides the support and affirmation needed for the healing of the listener but also allows the speaker to address the guilt and social marginalization that may have been felt as a consequence of the original event. In what is otherwise a similar list of apology elements, Alter (1999) adds two significant aspects of this acceptance of responsibility – the expression of profound remorse and the assurance or promise that the wrong will not recur.

Third, in addition to naming some form of wrongdoing and taking responsibility for it, an apology also implicitly acknowledges and reinforces the impossibility of undoing the harm that has been done (Minow 1998:33). The moral asymmetry between the speaker and listener created by the acknowledgement of the speaker’s responsibility for the wrongdoing is further heightened by the recognition that no future action can remove this asymmetry. Herein lies the ambiguity and the power of the apology process. In Tavuchis’ words, “We are faced, then, with an apparently enigmatic situation in which the offender asks forgiveness as the necessary and symbolic corrective for a harmful action on the flimsiest of grounds: a speech act that is predicated on the impossibility of restitution” (1991:34).

The ambiguity of the apology adds an element of tension to the speech encounter. The speech act demands a response but the parameters of the response are deliberately vague. By offering the apology without justification or defense, the speaker deliberately takes on the vulnerability of moving the speech encounter toward an unknown endpoint (Schneider 2000:267). Yet this aspect of the apology can also be a very powerful one because the creation of this ambiguity can provide the space for the birth of new understandings and creative new responses to the event.

Fourth, through these aspects the apology process institutionalizes a symbolic exchange whereby the speaker provides a social legitimation of the pain of the listener and the social and moral norms held by the listener in the hope that the listener will respond in some reciprocal fashion. Some analysts define apology as “the exchange of shame and power” (Schneider 2000:267, Lazare 1995). Roles are reversed as the apologizer deliberately places her/himself at the mercy of the listener who may or may not accept the apology.

However, in hearing the apology, the listener is also placed in an ambiguous position. By the speaker’s act of unilaterally placing her/himself in a position of vulnerability, the listener is empowered to respond in any way desired but also simultaneously left with a deep moral obligation to respond positively. Again, in the words of Tavuchis (1991:35), “Once the symbolic overture has been made, the victimalone holds the keys of redemption and reconciliation. But this power also entails a profound moral obligation since the helpless offender, in consideration for nothing more than a speech, asks for nothing less than the conversion of righteous indignation and betrayal into unconditional forgiveness and reunion”.

Fifth, the entire speech act and the response of the listener become a necessary ritual of ‘letting go” and “making things right” even as both parties agree that no action can ever make everything right again. Through the communication occurring between the parties on verbal and on symbolic and ritual levels, the apology establishes the foundation for moving toward forgiveness and reconciliation. Mayer (2000:104) refers to “emotional resolution” as an important component of conflict resolution. This emotional resolution may only be possible if the work of an apology has been effectively done.

Herein lies the significance of the speech act as a potentially powerful symbol. The danger, however, lies in any attempt to remove the ritual from the context and to use it as a formula for resolving a dispute. Every parent is tempted to demand of his/her child, “Apologize to . . . .!” as a quick way of moving through and beyond a painful situation. Such a quick and easy apology can never do the work required to make the apology meaningful. The apology is extremely important as a symbol of the desire to reconcile but the symbol loses all value if it is forced or easily expressed.

Alter (1999) also identifies reparation as a specific task or element of the apology process. Govier and Verwoerd (2002:72-3) reframe this aspect in their discussion of moral and practical amends – a concept which links reparation to other ways of making amends, such as the assurances and expressions noted above. Since this link between the apology and the reparation or practical amends stemming from the apology can be a problematic one, this aspect is included as one of the complicating issues discussed later in the paper.

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