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Posted by on Apr 1, 2013 in Debate, Philosophy | 0 comments

Norm Geras on a worthless apology

In the recent past, I’ve talked about how an apology might sometimes be worthwhile even if you don’t think you’ve done anything seriously culpable. Perhaps you expressed yourself as well as anyone could reasonably expect in the circumstances, but somebody still got the wrong impression – not out of being obtuse or malicious, but simply because of different background experiences or the inevitable ambiguities in even the most careful expression. Or maybe you misinterpreted something despite showing about as much care, sensitivity, and charity as could reasonably be expected given the distractions we all face, your particular experiences with certain words (based on the milieu in which you’ve encountered them in the past), or just the inevitable ambiguities of language.

In these and many other cases, some kind of light apology – “Oops, sorry, I misunderstood that bit!” or “Oops, I didn’t really mean to suggest that!” – might be given, and perhaps reciprocated, without the suggestion that anyone did anything that justifies serious blame, shame, or guilt. I’m not saying this ought to be required of people, but depending on the circumstances it might often be helpful. Even so-called “notpologies” might have a place in the cause of social harmony: perhaps you haven’t done anything very culpable, but you really do feel regret that some people have felt offended by whatever you did or said (and you don’t actually blame them in any serious way, either… just inevitable ambiguity, inadvertence, and so on have produced an unfortunate outcome that you’d like to make less harsh).

So, I am in favour of all sorts of apologies that may be less than abject or which don’t seriously admit to culpability. These may just express concern for the feelings of others, or regret for causing confusion, or whatever, and among people of good will they can often be reciprocated. I’m not going to write off large classes of apologies as worthless, and I think the “notpology” meme is one that we ought to deploy with caution.

But Norm Geras gives an example of an apology that really is, I think, a good candidate for being worthless. Someone (British politician Lord Ahmed, actually) says something that really does appear premeditated and culpable – no inadvertence or ambiguity, no verbal clumsiness or mere lack of care in choosing words, or whatever, seems to be involved – and he later apologises without equivocation or excuse. I suppose that’s good, but his odd reason for why he said what he did is a matter of concern: “It must have been a twisted mind that said those things.”

It must have been a what? There’s a bizarre lack of self-awareness here. Couldn’t he give at least some explanation of what he thought he was doing in his nasty anti-Semitic rant?