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Why do some apologies heal while others fail and even offend?

Question & Answer


Q: By A Reader

Why is it so difficult to apologize? Why do some apologies heal while others fail – and even offend? 

A: By Rev. Irene Monroe

Dear Reader,

One of the most healing and humble exchanges between two people is an apology. Saying, “I’m sorry!” can restore feelings of safety, dignity, and respect. Because it is a sign of strength, the words can even repair relationships, especially when based on the concept of restorative justice. However, not all apologies are the same or have any meaning behind them.

For example, Hollywood film mogul, Harvey Weinstein, was recently convicted of sexually harassing, assaulting, and raping dozens of women. Weinstein’s public and scripted mea culpa stated the following: “I so respect all women and regret what happened.” Weinstein’s apology is the classic conditional non-apology. It means the following: If you are hurt, I am sorry. Or, stated another way: I am sorry only if you are hurt.

In my hometown, members of the Cambridge School Committee, along with many students of Cambridge Rindge and Latin School – past and present – their parents, and the wider Cambridge community have been embroiled over School Committee member’s use of the n-word. Many have requested her resignation as a beginning step toward restorative justice. On the surface, an apology should have extinguished the imbroglio. However, sometimes an apology inflames rather than informs, and mends the situation toward healing.

The School Committee member’s apology was experienced by many as insensitive and tone-deaf, at best, and, as racist, at worst. Her apology exacerbated fraught racial tensions; thus, creating another missed opportunity toward restorative justice.

Also, given the uneven power dynamics and racial hierarchy between the School Committee member and the students, she, as an educator, missed another teaching moment to model what to do when an apology is needed. Apologizing doesn’t always mean that you’re wrong, but instead, you value a relationship with the injured party more than trying to prove a point or delving into the minutia that inevitably compounds the chaos, confusion, miscommunication, and hurt feels. Restorative justice creates relational strategies to remedy racial disparities, institutional and implicit biases, and hurt feelings when it can build from an effective apology.

However, ineffective apologies make restorative justice impossible because they intentionally change the topic, minimize the blame, and most egregiously wait too long to be sincere or sufficient. We all have experienced these types of ineffective apologies when someone does the following: apologize to be polite; apologize to appease; apologize on demand; apologize from guilt, and apologize without apologizing. These apologies fail to recognize an offense, the aggrieved parties, and to lay a foundation toward reconciliation.

~ Rev. Irene Monroe

About the Author
The Reverend Monroe does a weekly Monday segment, “All Revved Up!” on NPR’s WGBH (89.7 FM). She is a weekly Friday commentator on New England Channel NEWS. Monroe is the Boston voice for Detour’s African American Heritage Trail, Guided Walking Tour of Beacon Hill: Boston’s Black Women Abolitionists. A  Huffington Post blogger and a syndicated religion columnist;  her columns appear the Boston LGBTQ newspaper Baywindows, Cambridge Chronicle, and the Boston Globe.
Monroe stated that her “columns are an interdisciplinary approach drawing on critical race theory, African American, queer and religious studies. As a religion columnist I try to inform the public of the role religion plays in discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer people. Because homophobia is both a hatred of the “other” and it’s usually acted upon ‘in the name of religion,” by reporting religion in the news I aim to highlight how religious intolerance and fundamentalism not only shatters the goal of American democracy, but also aids in perpetuating other forms of oppression such as racism, sexism, classism and anti-Semitism.” Her papers are at the Schlesinger Library at Radcliffe College’s research library on the history of women in America. Click here to visit her website.

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