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The art of apology, the truth behind a condemnation

17 August 2017

You know the words – “I am sorry if I have offended you in any way!”  You maybe said them yourself or had them said to you. I have certainly done both. 

But on careful observation this is not an apology at all. The speaker is not saying sorry for what she/he have said or done, but regretted it’s affect. She/he is sorry about how the affected person feels or the response engendered.

This is subtle and very clever. So the problem is not the first action but the reaction by those on the receiving end. The speaker is actually putting the focus on the other person and diverting it from themselves. The offended one now has the onus put back on them for feeling wronged! This is a deft assertion of power over another and highly controlling. In fact it is no apology at all.

Try playing those tapes in your memory of when you have said and heard these words and see how it fits.

Here’s another statement – “I condemn all forms of violence on both sides.” This paraphrases Donald Trump’s vacillating words following confrontations in Charlottesville. But such vague words are commonly on the lips of leaders – consider Theresa May last summer on the USA’s position on climate change or Jeremy Corbyn on Venezuela. What the leader is actually saying is that I don’t feel strongly about the rights and wrongs of this issue, or I may even sympathise with the extreme/ unpalatable positions being taken, or I already have alliances in this area that are gagging me. So in a subtle move the politician ignores the underlying issue and focuses on the headline-making effects. So the political leader makes ambiguous statements rather that taking a much needed principled stand. In these cases no real and deep condemnation is being made. More so, the onus for responsibility and action is then put upon others, especially those on the front line. In saying such things the leader is exercising power and saying I regard control and vested interest over principled leadership. (Indeed violent confrontation may play into the hands of a leader seeking exercise control and appeal to those on the extremes.)

Often in the ensuing days, the weakness of the condemnation is spotted. Advisors come out to clarify and strengthen the initial statement, to ameliorate the damage or ‘misunderstanding. But the hearers are not fooled. In those initial statements we actually learnt where Trump, May and Corbyn truly stand, in what they didn’t say as much as what they did. For a mix of the reasons given above Donald Trump will continally fall short of issuing the clear statement against right wing extremism that is so necessary.

Extremism is to be condemned (likewise abuse of our environment and oppressive regimes). Violence should be too, but the violence is not the primary issue – this is fundamentally about values and justice. The root matter is that we are failing to express our core values credibly/consistently and at the same time give freedom and scope for these to be critiqued openly and peacefully applied. Condemnation is needed at times but it should be unambiguously focused.

Do this well and we uphold inclusion and justice whilst letting all have a voice. Fail to do this and we undermine equality and freedom, in forgetting what it is about and thinking that it can be won by violence.

When it comes to condemning, I guess we can all play a similar game. Moaning about the symptoms and brushing away underlying causes when it suits us.

Genuine apology and responsible condemnation are key elements for a person of integrity and a fair society.

It is time to reflect how apologies and condemnations work in our society and at a personal level how we apologise and what we find time to condemn.

Graham Brownlee, August 2017

 

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