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Determining Appropriate Type of Apology

Posted by Thinker on September 23, 2007 at 01:11:48

In Reply to: Re: What is an Apology? posted by Thinker on September 23, 2007 at 00:52:15:

In the midst of growing public demands for apologies in response to a variety of contemporary and historical injustices, insufficient attention has been given to the implications of the type of apology demanded and / or offered. Any assessment of the usefulness and the meaningfulness of an apology process must confront the question of whether the type of apology under consideration can bear the weight of the tasks expected of it. Tavuchis (1991) provides a useful typology which categorizes apologies as coming from one to one, from one to many, from many to one and from many to many. Each of these categories of apologies raises its own unique issues and concerns. The different implications of these types of apology can best be understood in terms of the implications of movements along three continua Ėprivate vs. public, personal vs. institutional, and specific vs. general

Most of the paper to this point assumes a social interaction whereby an individual apologizer communicates directly to an individual listener in some direct written or oral face-to-face form. According to Tavuchis (1991:70), notes that the greatest difference between this form and other types of apology is the movement of this encounter from a partially private to a completely public sphere of discourse. Issues of vulnerability and liability loom much larger in the public sphere than in the one-to-one apology. The apologizer stands vulnerable and defenseless before a multitude of listeners instead of just one. The audience responds in judgment, evaluating the degree of perceived sincerity of the apology and the degree of extended punishment or reparation to be attached to it.

An institutional apology is one directed by some institution toward an individual or limited group of individuals or a larger societal grouping perceived to have been harmed by the institution. The apology process may occur within the private or public realm, depending on the extent to which a public apology is volunteered or demanded within the specific circumstances. An appropriate institutional apology can provide a public and visible acknowledgement of wrongdoing which simply can not be matched by any individual apology (Govier and Verwoerd 2002:74). Also, an institutional apology also has significant implications regarding the acknowledgement of institutional responsibility for what happened and the responsibility to ensure that the regrettable situation is not repeated Ė an aspect particularly significant if the apologizer is a State institution (Cunningham 1999, Gibney and Roxstrom 2001).

On a more basic level, can an institution apologize? Couper (1998:126), a former police officer turned parish priest, indicates that the pursuit of an institutional apology is one way to reinforce the principles the organization needs to uphold the cultivation of trust, respect and dignity among those who operate within it and through it. Any large institution can and will make mistakes, thereby necessitating some means of officially acknowledging the mistake and rebuilding public trust.

However, Couper (1998:127-128) also distinguishes between institutional apologies and personal apologies for an action committed on behalf of the institution, citing the case of a police officer reprimanded for publicly making racist remarks. In this case, the institution required the officer to offer a public apology and used the apology as part of the officerís disciplinary procedure. The apology served as both a voluntary acknowledgement for the institution in its effort to regain its social standing and as a coercive disciplinary measure for the specific individual who was expected to go through the steps of the apology as part of her discipline procedures in order to avert calls for her resignation. Couperís case for the validity of an institutional apology is thereby undermined in this particular example by the significance of the potentially coerced individual apology which was central to the institutional response.

So, how should we distinguish between the institutional commitment to an apology process and the potential lack of commitment on the part of individuals represented by or mandated to act on behalf of the institution? Govier and Verwoerd (2002:75-6) emphasize the importance of an appropriate mandate for the spokesperson offering the apology and extensive internal institutional preparation for the event, so that the spokesperson is clearly perceived as speaking on behalf of most of the individuals represented by the institution.

The distance between individuals or groups directly implicated in a specific harmful act and the persons or groups responsible for offering an apology is even more significant if the recipients of the apology are members of a distinct social grouping rather than the specific individuals who suffered the harm being addressed. This type of apology is usually presented as a response to some historical injustice several generations after the injustice occurred. The UCC apology discussed above and other similar processes tend to fit this pattern.

How significant is the apology if the specific wrongdoers are not directly involved in the process? Can a person or an institution sincerely apologize on behalf of geographically or temporally individuals? One response to this question places this issue in the context of societal forgiveness (Schriver 1998, 2001). Schriver notes that healing for the victims is only possible through a process of remembering the past, telling the truth about it in a way that brings both sides together.

Thus an apology process has the potential of creating a space for the remembrance of that which others tried so hard to forget and a space to re-assert a moral claim about the wrongdoing as a basis for the restoration of a healthier relationship between those who represent the victims and those who represent the perpetrators. Given the enormity (in most if not all such cases) of the event to be overcome, forgiveness and restoration takes much time (Schriver 1998:134), possibly decades or even a century or more. Thus an apology provided by future generations may be able begin a process of reconciliation which would have been impossible to consider much earlier.

Such a public apology can represent one important step toward reconciliation, but it is still only one step. According to Schriver (2001:7), the integrity of the apology is validated by gestures of reparation. However, Schriver distinguishes between imposed demands for reparation versus voluntary offers of reparation, noting the difference between the demands imposed on Germany in 1918 and the reparations offered by Germany to the victims of Nazism after 1949. According to the same logic, a public demand for an apology may paradoxically negate the value of public apology once it is
given. The interaction of the apology, whether demanded or volunteered, with the demand for or offering of monetary reparations further complicates the situation Ė a factor to be discussed further as an aspect of the legal liability dilemma.

Some of the issues noted above are further heightened by any attempt to define the wrongdoing in precise and specific terms. As noted in an unpublished linguistic analysis of several Church statements, many of the later apologies respond to specific cases of physical and sexual abuse for which the institution could be sued rather than the general spiritual and cultural colonization addressed by the UCC statement. Hence, the later statements try to minimize legal liability by exhibiting more cautious and evasive language and are thereby more easily labeled as non-apologies. These statements highlight the tension between response to general concerns and a response to specific situations for which the apologizer could be held to be legally liable.

The offering of a meaningful institutional public apology should not preclude the possibility of offering other types of apology for the same situation, such as specific private individual apologies in response to specific individuals who have suffered more directly than others. For Alter (1999), a significant factor here is allowing the potential recipient to choose the type of apology desired (or several types if desired) with the understanding that each type of apology can carry out its own distinct communicative tasks.

In summary, any further assessment of the range of public apologies considered here must take into account these factors related to the type of apology being offered, including the implications of public discourse, of institutional preparation for and commitment to follow up the apology, as well as related aspects of the context of the apology event.

Apology Sincerity and Meaningfulness

Whether made privately or publicly, in general or specific terms, the reception of an apology statement is largely dependent on the perceived sincerity of the speaker Ė something which can be quite subjective and difficult to measure. Since an apology can too easily become a familiar and comfortable ritual, devoid of meaning, it is not surprising that the listenerís first reaction may be one of disbelief and cynicism. How do we know that the apology is really sincere? Is the apologizer signaling the willingness to take responsibility for the action and make reparation or are there other motives for this plea for forgiveness? For the listener as well as for any third-party facilitator, it is crucial to determine how much meaning to attach to the words they have heard. As indicated in recent interactional justice studies (eg. Scarlicki, 2004), an apologetic statement perceived as insincere or manipulative will stimulate a more negative response than the absence of any apology at all.

Contemporary conflict resolution scholars have emphasized the significance of relationship dynamics in conflict transformation and from this perspective the apology can be viewed as a statement signaling a desired change in relationship. Through his analysis of genuine and false requests for forgiveness, Augsburger (1996) hints at a potentially useful guideline for ascertaining the sincerity of an apology by placing an authentic apology on a relationship continuum between the desire to unite (cohesion) and the desire to separate (dispersion).

From this perspective, a sincere apology can be distinguished from an appeasement on one hand and a justification on the other. If the apology is overwhelmed by the apologizerís strong need for deeper attachment to the listener, it may be offered as an appeasement, as something designed to merely to placate the victim and ingratiate the apologizer back into the victimís good graces. Gaining the listenerís acceptance has become more important than directly responding to the listenerís pain and suffering. On the other side of the continuum, the apologizer may be motivated primarily by the desire to leave the listener and the whole situation behind. Instead of an apology, the listener may hear an account designed to justify the apologizerís action. The apologizerís goal now is to exonerate her or himself, to provide a defense. At both ends of the continuum, the apologizerís relationship goals take precedence over any attempt to deal honestly with the consequences of the harmful situation.

Unfortunately the threat of potential legal lability (as will be discussed below) frequently results in statements couched in terms better described as justificatory rather than apologetic. One famous example is the expression of regret made by former United States President Richard Nixon in his resignation speech in 1974. ďI regret deeply any injuries that may have been done in the course of events that have led to this decision. I would say only that if some of my judgments were wrong, and some were wrong, they were made in what I believed at the time to be in the best interests of the nation.Ē

From this perspective, a sincere apology is one which does not attempt to minimize the wrongdoing through some gesture of appeasement or somehow justify it as less than horrendously wrong under the circumstances. More work needs to be done to develop criteria for distinguishing sincere from insincere apologies and to apply these criteria to public apologies such as those considered here.