All Apologies

Considering recent discussions about apologies, I think it is fair to ask what apologies are all about.  The word itself comes from the Greek apologia, which means a justification, defense, or argument. Obviously, the term has transformed a fair bit, and an apology is now defined as “An acknowledgment expressing regret or asking pardon for a fault or offense.”

If you look at some ways to say “I’m sorry” in various languages it is clear that the concept of an apology is more basic than a mere regret or asking for pardon.  For example, the Spanish ‘lo siento,’ while translated as “I’m sorry,” means something more like ‘I feel it.’  Thus, I would argue that the basic idea of an apology is sympathy, and can specifically lead to an attempt at atonement due to that sympathy.

Ok, so is it possible to have sympathy for some offense given, especially if it was not intended, and not feel culpability? In other words, can we sympathize with some offense without having the responsibility to make amends, atone, etc?

Alex does not seem to think so:

Glickman also suggests that if we hurt someone, regardless of our intent, we should be willing to “apologize and make amends,” and I think this is good advice as well.

OK, so we should be willing to do so, perhaps, but I don’t think we have any moral or ethical responsibility to do so, necessarily.  Not all offenses require amends.  Sometimes offense is purely the responsibility of the offended.  To explain why I think so, let’s get back to Alex’s post, especially to something else that Alex quoted of Charlie Glickman:

  • Some event happens, whether by a person’s actions or chance.
  • We filter it through our experience and decide what we think it means.
  • We have an emotional response based on our interpretation of that meaning.
  • Our feelings shape how we respond to the event.

When I read this, my pet-peeve alert went off and I had to control my urge to throw my phone (on which I was reading the post) across the room.  Let’s track what’s wrong with this series above with my response to reading it as an example.

  1. I read Alex’s post, getting as far as this feeling like he was making some fair points.  Then I read the above sequence.  That’s the event.
  2. My ability to perceive and understand the information contained within said event led to parts of my mind, of which I am mostly unaware, to create an emotional response which flavored and colored any cognitive ideas and decisions I was capable of subsequently considering.
  3. I considered the rational and logical implications of the ideas, flavored unconsciously by my background emotions for which I have no conscious control but which I am responsible for reacting to.
  4. I decided I disagreed with Glickman’s sequence, making sure that my emotional considerations were not over-riding my rational capabilities (knowing that I may still be wrong).
  5. I felt frustration, disagreement, and began to compose rational reasons why I disagreed, fueled by the emotional frustration and disagreement.
  6. Here I am

The point of this is to illuminate that where the offense occurs here is at the pre-concious emotional level.  I am responsible for how I react to this, not the source of the offense.  Alex or Glickman should no more apologize for making me feel frustrated than should the phone on which I read the post.  The result is that I’m not mad at Alex (or Glickman), my phone was not thrown, and I made the rational decision to respond to the post with a rational critique rather than dell in the frustration..

We are responsible for how we respond to our emotions, including offense.  We are not consciously responsible for our emotions, since they pre-exist our conscious awareness, and offense is simply an emotion.  If we are offended, we need to consider why we are offended and what we should do about it.  Blaming the source, rather than take responsibility for our mind, is not always the best option.

There are many things to consider when it comes to offense.

Is the act or idea which we found offensive true or does it reveal a truth? Then why be offended by the truth?

Was it an act that harms me directly, physically? Was it done intentionally? Was it done via negligence?

There are many other questions which I will not try and enumerate here.

In the case of an unintentional harm, I wold hope that the person who acted and caused the offense should at least sympathize (I should not expect it, but I should hope for it), but I don’t think they have any responsibility for atonement or to make amends.  So for them to say they are sorry, we have to wonder what they mean.  If they simply mean that they sympathize with the offense (like the Spanish ‘lo siento’), then I’ll agree that it is a sign of a sensitive and caring person, but what of atonement?  Sympathy can help solidify social bonds, but this is not the same as an attempt to make amends.

Should the offender try and make amends? Sure, if they want to, but in many cases this would be silly.  If I were to make a statement such as “faith is irrational and harmful” (which I am wont to do) and another takes offense at this, I certainly sympathize with their feeling but I don’t think I owe any amends for this.  I have done nothing wrong in stating an opinion, one which I hold for what I see as good reasons.  Hell, even if I’m wrong I owe no amends, I just have to be shown that I’m wrong.

What could it mean to owe amends for an opinion which is seen as offensive? Does it mean I change my opinion? Does it mean that I don’t say my opinion? This is the basis for the charge that religious people crying ” that’s offensive” as being an attempt to shut up criticism.  There is nothing to atone for in an opinion spoken, even if it does lead to offense.  So if an apology means that we sympathize, then fine, but I think that’s a weak use of ‘apology’ and I think apologies (in the sense of making amends) should be reserved for when we do something wrong, not merely when offense occurs.

Offense is not the criteria for apologies; doing something wrong, harmful, etc is the criteria for an apology.  Offense can happen for bad reasons, good reasons, or no reason at all.  This is the case because offense happens before we are even conscious of the idea we find offensive, so it pre-exists reason.  it is arational.

In short, there is no right to not be offended, and if we are offended then we are responsible for dealing with it.  It is only when someone actually wrongs us, not merely offends us, that they have any moral culpability which might lead to an apology.