- ‘Mea Culpa’ is formal admission of personal fault or error. It’s medicine that often many public figures and their organisations find hard to swallow.
The chorus of Elton John/Bernie Taupin 1976 song Sorry Seems to be the Hardest Word expresses a minority sentiment about personal apology. ‘It’s sad, so sad/It’s a sad, sad situation/And it’s getting more and more absurd/It’s sad, so sad/Why can’t we talk it over/Oh it seems to me/That sorry seems to be the hardest word’. Fair enough, individually; but corporately?
Biblically, ‘sins of the father afflict unto several generations’. Some references to generational sin/punishment appear contradictory, though. In Leviticus 26:39: ‘because of their fathers’ sins they will waste away’; yet in 2 Chronicles 25:4: ‘fathers shall not be put to death for their children, nor children put to death for their fathers; each is to die for his own sins.”’
Sincerity and Insincerity
The maxim: ‘the secret of success is sincerity. If you can fake that, you’ve got it made’, though credited to many comedians, may belong to Jean Giraudoux, French writer (1882-1944). PR experts advise serious preparation for public apologies, because people, the media and victims immediately smell fakery.
Lisa Belkin of The New York Times, reported by Business Outlook gave a handful of 2010‘s public apologies. ‘General Stanley McChrystal, for criticising President Obama; British Petroleum Chief Executive, Tony Hayward, apologised for destruction caused by his company’s oil well; US Representative Joe Barton apologised to Hayward and then apologised for that apology. The Pope said sorry for pain caused to Irish parishioners by paedophile priests; UK Prime Minister David Cameron for the murder by British soldiers of Irish protesters on Bloody Sunday 38 years ago’. That’s without politicians, sportsmen/women and celebrities (Ashley Cole, UK footballer; Tiger Woods, US golfer) falling short of marriage vows, and Toyota ‘for not acting quickly enough to repair faulty systems’.
She quoted Dr Lazare’s book (Univ of Massachusetts) On Apology: ‘Apologies are the most profound of human interactions. When used well, words can heal humiliation by lifting anger and guilt, allowing splintered bonds to mend’. However, in practice, they can stoke the fires of anger.
Chief Executive Hayward said BP were sorry, but ‘it’s a complex accident, caused by an unprecedented combination of failures’. Belkin called this the ‘it isn’t our fault apology’, most favoured by officials. For years, British railway companies blamed poor/late services on things beyond their control, like exceptional frozen points; leaves, snow or animals on the line’. Not their fault, then.
When call centres keep people queueing because of ‘exceptionally heavy call volumes at this time’, people know they’re being fobbed off. Belkin referenced Jennifer Robbennolt, professor of law and psychology at University of Illinois, who called failed apology statements ‘nonapology apologies’, in which victims are neither asked for forgiveness nor given any chance to grant it.
Professor Robbennolt thought successful apology should express full regret and assume responsibility. Governments and businesses can offer legislation/plans to prevent future mishaps, disasters and injustices, but that may be cold comfort to bereaved, crippled, financially-hit victims.
Belkin reported Veteran’s Affairs Medical Center in Lexington, Kentucky, who apologised after a post-mortem showed a patient died from hospital error. Without the hospital contacting the family and admitting the mistake, they wouldn’t have known. Such action has ramifications in an age of litigation and a culture of lawsuit compensation, where everything must be somebody’s fault.
Blood from a Stone: Official Regrets
Sometimes only outcries of rage from voters, patients, parents or taxpayers force contrition. In September 2010, a debacle in the UK’s tax system was uncovered. Nearly 1.5 million people were under-taxed £2bn (an average of nearly £1500 apiece), while millions were owed refunds. The UK’s PAYE (Pay As You Earn) and powers Her Majesty’s Revenue & Customs have to deduct from earnings, seize papers, enter homes that critics often liken to Big Brother, failed. HMRC is the same executive branch who lost 25 million personal files in November 2007, with little more than cursory regrets.
Dave Hartnett, HMRC boss, at first denied his department was at fault, saying he ‘wasn’t sure there was a need to apologise’. But after howls of pain and MPs accusing him of being arrogantly out of touch, he was forced into what The Sun lambasted as ‘humiliating climbdown’. He said: ‘I apologise if my remarks came across as insensitive’.
The reluctant apology was for upsetting taxpayers, not for incompetence or arrogance. The responsible Minister, Treasury Chief Secretary, Danny Alexander, added his ‘sorry”, but sacked none; nobody resigned.
Matthew Moore, in the UK’s Daily Telegraph, January 2009, said that data from 30 million files was lost in just two years by government departments, through lax data-handling rules. These included loss/abuse of memory sticks; disks lost in transit; faulty DNA records; no mandatory encryption and laptops left in public places. Apologies from responsible officials? None, to speak of.
Apologising for the Past
Should people born after the event, apologise for the past? In July 2008, US House of Representatives recognized in an apology: ‘fundamental injustice, cruelty, brutality and inhumanity’ of slavery and segregationist Jim Crow laws. German leaders and governments over the years have apologised for aspects of both world wars and the Holocaust. Such occasions have initiated reparation; or merely opened old wounds.
At the end of war in the Far East, it’s believed Japanese Emperor Hirohito told US General MacArthur: “I come before you to offer myself to the judgment of the powers you represent, to bear sole responsibility for every political and military decision made and action taken by my people in the conduct of the war’. There are those who feel that was insufficient in word and deed (compensation).
Nowadays, the Japanese have ritualised apologising with appropriate submission, proportionate to guilt. It goes from a shallow bow for casual, everyday apology, to doge-umari, the ultimate/last straw grovel, making self as small/abject as possible in front of the offended party.
The New York Times in February 2010 reported how former UK Premier Tony Blair used appearances at Iraq war enquiries as ‘an apology for war left unspoken’. Subsequent publication of his memoirs, A Journey, reassured nobody wanting contrition. He believed he was right.
Public apologies raise questions: What’s the motive? Are people accountable for their predecessors? Is anything changed? Is heart-felt apology atonement enough?
First published on Suite 101, 15 September 2010.
Photo: Gen. MacArthur Heard Japanese War Apology – US Navy