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Australian philosopher, literary critic, legal scholar, and professional writer. Based in Newcastle, NSW. Author of FREEDOM OF RELIGION AND THE SECULAR STATE (2012), HUMANITY ENHANCED (2014), and THE MYSTERY OF MORAL AUTHORITY (2016).

Sunday, April 28, 2019

"Apologies: Your Best Guide on the Internet" (An oldie but a goodie)

This piece was originally published over on The Conversation. Check out the whole thing if you haven't read it before.

Near the end, I write as follows, in a way that goes against much conventional wisdom:

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[I]t’s coherent to apologise even when you are guilty of nothing more than ordinary human fallibility - or sometimes even when your conduct was justifiable. An example of the latter is when you have inconvenienced somebody in order to deal with a crisis.

In other cases, you - or I - might be guilty of something more than ever-present human fallibility. Even then, we might have shown no more than a low degree of negligence that is easily excused. In these cases, we might feel concern if we’ve caused anyone serious harm. Usually, however, feelings of deep guilt or shame will not be fitting. (Very often, in fact, it’s debatable whether we really were careless or merely unlucky: the line can be very blurred, and reasonable people can reach different conclusions.)

In all, the practice of apologising is subtle and complex, and we should enjoy a considerable range of discretion in when and how far we engage in it.

When others demand that we apologise against our own initial judgement, it can be a form of abuse or a political weapon. At the level of personal relationships, demands for apologies can be abusive: a method of punishment and control. At the level of political, social, and cultural debate, the purpose is to humiliate and discredit somebody who is viewed as an opponent or a wrongdoer.

If we force a public apology from someone we cast as a villain, we gain a victory over them and we warn others not to behave similarly. This might have some social value if restricted to people who’ve engaged in genuinely outrageous conduct. However, through public shaming and threats to careers, humiliating apologies can be forced from people who have done little - or arguably nothing - wrong.

As we’ve seen, elaborate self-criticism and self-abasement might be appropriate sometimes. They might be called for when apologising in private to a loved one who has been betrayed in some way. But when somebody is forced through this process in public - perhaps because of her honestly stated opinion on a matter of legitimate controversy, or perhaps for the phrasing of an unrehearsed remark - it is a cruel, unnecessary, indecent spectacle.

To be clear, somebody who is pressured to apologise might, indeed, feel concern at having offended others. She might willingly offer some clarification and some mild words of apology. The latter might, for example, be along the lines of, “I’m sorry if anyone was offended.” In the circumstances, this response provides clarification of intent, reassurance, and an expression of goodwill. Once a shaming campaign begins, however, it won’t get anyone off the public relations hook.

Whatever mob is pressuring and shaming her will inevitably condemn her (quite reasonable) response as a mere “notpology” and apply further pressure. In this parlance, appropriately limited and contingent apologies are referred to as “notpologies” by zealots who hope to humiliate and discredit their real or imagined enemies.

When demands and complaints are made in this weaponised manner, we have a powerful reason to resist them. Each time someone gives in to a mob of zealots, and offers public self-criticism and a humiliating public apology, it encourages the mob to find new victims. Don’t give such mobs positive feedback.

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