Wednesday, April 9, 2008
I can recall several times as a child when, after committing a transgression against my younger sister or a playmate, my mother or another adult would instruct me to apologize. "Now, tell each other that you're sorry," they would always say, smiling and nudging. In particularly upsetting circumstances, the apology did not come easily.
If at first disingenuous, the adult would echo something to the effect of, "Say it like you mean it." This was usually enough to break the initial stubbornness, and the adult would express appreciation before forcing us to hug. Hugging was typically the last thing I wanted to do in such situations, but a child's capacity for instant forgiveness is amazingly large. That was generally all it took—an "I'm sorry" and a hug—to reconcile even the worst altercation.
But one day, during such a routine encounter, something changed. Upon hearing the command to apologize, I realized that I had done nothing wrong—at least in my eyes. I don't remember the offense, but I do remember thinking it absurd to admit fault where you, yourself, did not find it.
"Why should I apologize if I don't mean it?" I thought.
Most adults didn't encourage this act of honesty. In fact, I was almost always still made to apologize, despite my reluctance. As I grew into my teenage years, I exacted this feeling into a guiding principle. Why should I deliver empty words for the sake of the hearer? After all, I thought, empty words are borne of cowardice, and only further disappointment.
I tried never to make promises I couldn't keep, say "I love you" when I wasn't ready, and of course, never, ever say, "I'm sorry," if I simply wasn't. I discovered loopholes like, "I'm sorry that you're upset," or "I'm sorry things resulted as they did." There was no admission of guilt, but I still expressed remorse for the effects of my actions on other people. As you grow into adulthood, this practice doesn't go over as well as when you're 13.
In 2006, just a year into his papacy, Pope Benedict offended Muslims around the world when he quoted Byzantine Emperor Manual II Paleologos saying, "Show me just what Muhammad brought that was new, and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached." He was delivering a speech on the differences between violence and faith as manifested in the Christian and Muslim faiths.
While the pope expressed that it was not his intention to offend Islam, one has to wonder what ill-advised intent he had when reading a passage that alluded to the "evil and inhuman" nature of their faith. I'm sure there were better passages to cite that would have illustrated his topic without causing the frenzy.
After a week of protests, Pope Benedict evaded an apology by expressing his "sincere regret" that the remarks caused Muslims to be upset.
Just a year prior to the pope's faux pas, in 2005, the U.S. Senate voted to pass a resolution apologizing for not passing anti-lynching legislation years before. The gesture was a measure of good will toward black Americans and to the world in general. It was an attempt to right past wrongs. Hailing from the state with the highest number of lynchings in the nation—581 between 1882 and 1968—Mississippi Sens. Trent Lott and Thad Cochran, both Republicans, refused to co-author the resolution. Wow. Ain't that something. Mississippi? Reluctant to admit wrongdoing?
In 2006, Cedric Willis returned home after spending 12 years in prison for a rape and murder he did not commit. DNA evidence could have prevented his incarceration had a judge allowed it as evidence in his trial, but when the state released him—with the help of the Innocence Project in Louisiana—he had no job or money, and had missed his son's childhood while he rotted away in Parchman. Just in the last year, three other black men—Arthur Johnson, Levon Brooks and Kennedy Brewer—have been released from prison after spending years behind bars for crimes they did not commit. If not for the efforts of a few people who cared, including attorneys with the Innocence Project, they all would still be in prison.
So what has the state done to rectify the blunder? Nothing. They have offered no apology or restitution. Perhaps one has not happened for fear of the other. But after spending decades in prison, collapsed under a broken justice system, these men deserve an apology at the very least.
I have realized in my wee 21 years that an apology doesn't have to be an admission of guilt, but an act of taking responsibility for your actions. It means standing up in front of your peers and having enough character to say, "I f*cked up." If you love someone, some institution, some group of people, knowing that your actions or words have caused them torment or anguish should incite remorse.
I was right as a child to challenge the command to express remorse. But I was wrong to be so prideful as to think I did not—nor should not—have the capacity to feel sorry, too embarrassed that people might find me weak or vulnerable. This is the predicament public figures face today, the sacrifice of others over damaging one's perceived image.
Say "I'm sorry," Pope Benedict. By not doing so, the very thing you are hurting is the image of the Christian faith and Christ himself. Really, what would Jesus do?
Say "I'm sorry," Mississippi. By not doing so, you embrace the images of ignorance and bigotry that so many of us are running from, trying to show the world what Mississippi is really like. Apologize for all of the many years lost in jail by the wrongfully convicted. Take responsibility for an obviously faulty system, and make it right. They are only empty words if you allow them to be.
I tried never to make promises I couldn't keep, say "I love you" when I wasn't ready, and of course, never, ever say, "I'm sorry," if I simply wasn't. I discovered loopholes like, "I'm sorry that you're upset," or "I'm sorry things resulted as they did." There was no admission of guilt, but I still expressed remorse for the effects of my actions on other people. As you grow into adulthood, this practice doesn't go over as well as when you're 13. I remember when someone said to me, "I'm sorry if you were offended." I wanted to smack the person upside the head, but the Holy Ghost wouldn't let me. To me, saying that is the same as saying, "You're an idiot for being offended, but since you're too stupid to figure that out, I'll apologize just to shut you up." As far as I'm concerned, if you can't do better than that, don't bother apologizing.
"I'm sorry if you were offended." Right. That isn't a real apology, and it's blaming the victim. I've been thinking a lot in recent days about how weird it is to live in a world where someone gets in more trouble for uttering the b-word ("bigot") or r-word ("racist") or even o-word ("offensive") than someone saying the n-word. It seems more excuses are made for the latter. It's really twisted. Sometimes it seems like the old white supremacists' revenge was to turn the world in a place where you're belittled and blasted for talking about race in an open, sensitive way. I think this shows the problem with living in a time/place where the dominant culture is still the main arbiter of language/behavior, or thinks they are. It reminds me of the guy here the other day who told me he was not going to "let me" say that McCain is too old to be president (I had called him a "geezer"). Of course, it was then my fault that I was offended by his idiot statement of privilege. As a result, I was thin-skinned, sensitive, blah, blah, blah. It's like when someone catches their spouse cheating and blaming her/him. It's a way to shift blame and try to control the dialogue. And it's stupid.