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Friday, September 25, 2009

The Sin of the No Apology Apology

We've all seen it before, the star athlete who does something stupid and then gives a faux apology because his team or his league required it. You all know the words, "if I offended someone, I apologize." Or, "I never intended to offend anyone," when your average third-grader knows by rote that the precise conduct in question is offensive out of the gate. It's almost as if when sports agents go to school they take a course of a "Mad Lib" nature where they get forms to fill in to cover the (sometimes prodigious) rear ends of their clients.

What I didn't figure is that this type of apology would happen in my community. I'm not going to go into the details, but as I blogged before in recent months there was a huge donneybrook in my community about the governance and leadership of an extracurricular organization. One of the leaders of one of the sides got particularly nasty during the dispute and wrote some pretty incendiary stuff in a series of emails (among his other transgressions). Reasonable minds can always differ, but localities should transcend the commonplace vindictiveness of many on both sides in the national political arena by mandating that such disputes are civil and orderly. Unfortunately, what transpired in this organization was (un)civil war -- a war of intrigue and words that resulted in an assault on decency, dignity and the truth. This particular guy was one of the aggressors -- emboldened by email.

All this happened in the May-early July time frame, and he decides that now -- after his side has prevailed (albeit at great cost, as the membership of this organization has shrunk to the point where it's in danger of operating at a deficit). Many of those who were displaced have moved on; the time for healing is at best in the danger zone. So anyway, this guy sends an email that he believes makes a strong case for burying the hatchet and moving on. He also believes it's his apology. It's reasonably written, but there's one word at issue, because in the text, after he wrote that the big blowup occurred, he offered "we all acted poorly." We. Not "I", but we. He wrote this to the people who were on the other end of his aggression, took a stance that differed from his, and said "we all acted poorly."

I ask you, is that any way to offer a sincere form of apology? Wouldn't he have done a better job had he written that he acted poorly, regretted it, and asked for forgiveness? Even if, perhaps, it's too late to repair the rift and restore the organization to what it was like before the dust up. What's the "we" all about? So none of this would have happened if it weren't also for the recipients' conduct? Is that it? Cannot this man, who seemingly wants to apologize, fully own up to the fact that he erred, that he transgressed, and that he is sincerely offering an apology. And can an apology be sincere if the offeror writes that while he's making his apology, hey, you and I were both equally wrong? Does that work?

Heck no. You can cloak your apology in all the words and eloquence you want, but you're not truly in the clear unless you say, "hey, this was a really bad situation, I'm not happy with the way I acted, I didn't treat you properly, I failed in upholding my standards, and I'm sorry." Isn't the clear path to growth and betterment when you can look people in the eye and say, "hey, that behavior was my fault?" What comes of "we all acted badly; I apologize?"

Not much good. Suppose Mike is acting goofy, Joe says that he thinks the American League is better than the National League, Mike roots for the Red Sox, and then Mike throws a baseball and hits Joe in the hand with it, breaking a finger. Mike owes Joe an apology, right? Isn't the best way to say, "Hey, Joe, I lost my cool, I'm sorry, I did a really dumb thing. I apologize, can you forgive me?" Or would you advise Mike to say, "Joe, we both acted badly, because you know I'm a big American League fan, but I think I need to apologize to you because I know I shouldn't have thrown that ball?" What would you say is the right way to respond?

Apologies must be from the heart, they must be sincere, they must be complete, and they shouldn't blame or implicate the recipient. In this particular situation, this incomplete and flawed apology might only service to stir up the embers of what had been only several months ago a spectacular combustion. The "victors", as it were, will argue that the recipients are being sore losers and not graceful in refusing the apology. The vanquished will counter that a clear reading of the apology reveals its shortcomings and the flaws of the group that won the contest through uncivil means. And then the whole dialogue can begin again.

And, meanwhile, the organization over which they fought will continue to see interest in it and its membership dwindle.

Because no one wants to join an organization that is an extracurricular version of a slaughterhouse, particular with a group of people who had a taste of participating in a rout that was an unfair fight and might have enjoyed it.

Apologies must be full and complete.

No ands, ifs or buts.


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