We have had two news events recently concerning the issues of apology and forgiveness.
The first is an incident I mentioned yesterday. It concerns a shop owner who put up a sign that said, "Skepticon is NOT welcomed in my Christian Business." he took it down 10 minutes later and issued an apology.
It is an apology that PZ Myers has decided not to accept.
GelatoGuy lives in one of the most religious countries on earth, in a particularly intensely religious part of that country, and in a moment of smug self-righteousness, felt he could openly discriminate against people who do not respect his beliefs. And now he thinks he can walk away, forgiven, and return to his blithe happy Christian pocket universe, just by saying a few words. And we, of course, will turn around and think he’s a nice , sincere, classy guy. Meanwhile, we will still be regarded as the least trustworthy minority in the country; we still have to deal with the fact that we are excluded from the political discourse; we still have to walk into courtrooms with the ten commandments on display; we have to watch these nice, sincere, classy people elect gay hating bigots, anti-science know-nothings, and flaming misogynists to high office…
See Pharyngula, Fair Weather Atheists and Sunshine Skeptics"
In the second incident, Kansas high school senior Emma Sullivan was called into the principle's office and told to submit an apology to Kansas governor Sam Brownback fit tweeting, "Just made mean comments at gov. brownback and told him he sucked, in person, #heblowsalot." apparently, the Governor's communication director felt that the comment wasn't respectful and called the principal, who told Ema that he needed to do damage control.
Sullivan refused to write the apology. In the end, Governor Brownback apologized, saying that his staff over-reacted.
(See New York Daily News, Governor Brownback apologizes to Emma Sulliven over Twitter Tiff)
So, when do we apologize. When do we forgive?
Here are some of the elements relevant in assessing an apology and deciding when to forgive.
An Absence of Duress
To start with, a sincere apology is freely given. An apology given under duress does not count. So, to call a student in and say, "Apologize to the governor or suffer the consequences" does not elicit a sincere apology. Neither is it the case that an apology delivered out of fear of losing business count as sincere.
However, having said that, there still may be good reason to force somebody - particularly a child - to apologize. It communicates to that person and to others who are a witness to the events that the behavior in question is the type for which an agent should apologize. A forced apology is a statement of condemnation against those who act in ways for which the apology is being extracted, and a statement of praise of those who would offer a sincere apology in such a case. As such, it builds aversions to the type of act for which the apology is being extracted. When a child is forced to apologize for taking something that did not belong to him it communicates to that child and others a condemnation of taking things that belong to others, and builds a social aversion to those types of actions.
In the case of Emma Sullivan, a forced apology communicates that making disrespectful statements about the governor deserves condemnation, even if the apology is insincere. The problem here is that making disrespectful statements about the governor is not, in fact, a type of act that deserves condemnation. In fact, the right to express harsh opinions about political leaders is an important right worthy of protection. It is the person who demands an apology for criticizing a political leader that deserves our condemnation, not the critic. Thus, Sam Brownback was right to apologize for the inappropriate behavior of his communications officer.
Note: There is a difference between showing a lack of respect for a person in public office and a lack of respect for the office that person holds. In a society governed by the rule of law, the office may be worthy of respect where the person holding that office is not.
So, one of the main elements of an apology is an admission of a personal failing. When an agent apologized, he says, in effect, "I acted in a way that a good person would not have acted. I was wrong. I feel bad about what I did because I have a sincere interest in being a better person than that. I will work to make myself a better person and will not engage in similar behavior in the future." a sincere apology is given when one actually believes this message.
Here, PZ Myers' response to GelatoGuy in the first example is way off base. Myers response would make sense if it were the case that GelatoGuy personally brought about all of the injustices that atheists suffer in the world, and had the capacity to remove them. In this case, GelatoGuy's refusal to remove those prejudices and their consequences would be a reason to reject his apology. However, that is simply not the case - and Myers' reasoning in this case is flagrantly unjust.
In the case of Brownbeck, the apology may seem illegitimate because the wrong was committed by his communications director, and not by Sam Brownbeck himself. Thus, the principle of personal responsibility is violated. However, Brownbeck has a personal responsibility to establish procedures that respect the freedom of speech - the right of citizens to speak critically of their political leaders. The actions of Brownbeck's communications director reflect Brownbeck's own failure to establish procedures that respect this right, with is Brownbeck's personal failing.
However, this brings up a question that, as far as I can tell, nobody has investigated yet. Was this a unique incident in the life of Brownbeck's communications director. Or was his communications director in the habit of searching the internet for statements critical of the governor, and then strong-arming those critics into making a retraction. If it turns out that the latter is the case, then Brownbeck's apology is not acceptable, nor is it sufficient. There is a much greater wrong being committed.
A Promise Not to Repeat the Behavior in the Future
One of the elements of a sincere apology is the admission that the behavior was wrong, which implies that it ought not to be repeated in the future.
We see this in the apology from GelatoGuy. He removed the sign - believing that he acted inappropriately, and gives every indication that he would not perform that act in the future. He yielded, in a moment of anger, to a baser nature that ought to be kept under control.
We haven't seen this same type of statement from Brownbeck. I have not seen any communication that suggested that any steps are being taken - or any commitment is being made - to ensure similar events do not happen in the future. Certainly, Brownbeck does not want another incident that hits the press like this one did. Care may be taken in this direction. But there is a difference between considering an action wrong and something to be avoided, and simply seeking not to get caught so one does not suffer the ill consequences of condemnation.
What we should demand from Governor Brownbeck is some statement governing the principles by which the communications director will respond to criticisms of the governor. Exactly what are the principles and procedures in play, and in what ways will they be changed to help protect the right of citizens to criticize their elected officials?
"I'm sorry. How can I make it up to you?"
A sincere apology comes with an admission that one has wronged other people. Which in turn should motivate a desire to make up for the wrong that was done. Sometimes it is as simple as, "Let me buy you a drink." At other times, it requires something more. It all depends on the magnitude of the wrong that was done.
The people who are owed the apology always have the right to revoke compensation. They can say, "That's okay, just forget it." However, this decision is up to the recipient, not the person who performed the wrongful action. The recipient can be magnanimous and let the issue slide. Or, the recipient can accept the drink or other form of compensation.
It is actually possible for an offer of compensation to be insulting, and to indicate that the apology itself is insincere. "Let me make it up to you. Here's a quarter. Call somebody who cares," follows the form of offering compensation for a wrong done. However, it clearly communicates that the agent does not think that a harm was done or that there is any call to offer legitimate compensation.
In the case of GelatoGuy has not expressed an interest in providing compensation, it is possible to see in his actions that he has done so. He has gone public with his apology. This in turn spreads the message through the community that actions like those he performed earlier ought not to be done and are worthy of condemnation. By doing this, GelatoGuy is taking a reasonable step in combating the ills that Myers wants to place squarely on his shoulders. It is - or should be - worthwhile to atheists to get that message out into the world. In providing atheists with this benefit, GelatoGuy has offered compensation.
In the case of GelatoGuy, I believe all of the elements of a sincere apology have been met. From this, the only legitimate option is to accept that apology. Refusing to do so is unjust. Refusing to do so because one holds GelatoGuy personally responsible for a culture over which he has no control compounds the injustice.
Given these facts, PZ Myers’ refusal to accept the policy is unprincipled and unjust.
In the case of Emma Sullivan, no apology was given, and no apology was needed. The criteria that would make an apology required were not met. She did nothing wrong.
In the case of Sam Brownbeck, we still have some open questions. We still do not know Brownbeck has his communications director routinely strong-arming critics of the governor, or if this was a single instance. Nor have we seen any indication that steps are being taken to avoid similar wrongful actions in the future.