Tuesday, February 02, 2010

[Rant] No Apologies

No Apologies: An article in the WSJ highlights a new internet phenomenon: finding a long lost acquaintance to whom you have done some wrong and making an unsolicited apology decades after the fact. (I'm not sure this is a phenomenon in any serious sense of the word. That's more likely just journalistic hyperbole.) The author seems to think it's the result of our over-therapised, self-help loving, navel-gazing culture, but I'm not so sure. Although I haven't joined this phenomenon I think I understand the regret one can carry over what were probably minor slights from childhood or early adulthood, and the desire to right the wrong; and nobody would accuse me of being a new age namby-pamby. Hell, I refuse to wear a bike helmet and I still dive head first into the pool.

First, let's point out we are talking about small cruelties here. Petty stuff. The sort of thoughtless and mean-spirited slights that young people habitually dole out, intentionally or not. I think I can honestly say, as I look back on my younger days, that I truly regret inflicting this minor pain on others. In a larger sense, I have come to truly regret any unwarranted pain in have caused in my life. On balance, I think I'm OK on this score; I've probably received more cruelties than I've given (although as I think further, that's quite possibly self-delusion). Still, the older I get the more I have come to realize how much the little cruelties inflicted on me added up. Little injustices, insults, exclusions, bullying -- I certainly suffered my share of it. And I remember it to this day, without smiling. Such occurrences are inevitable; they are part of everyday life for Homo sapiens and probably always will be. But when you are young and just building your picture of the world, they are fresh and infuriating. Think of the first time you were ever laughed at or excluded or belittled. This could have been any point from your childhood to your twenties depending on how long you were able to stay in a bubble of loved ones or ingratiate yourself with the cool kids. In adulthood this pettiness is no big deal because you are more self-possessed and you know there are really no such thing as cool kids, but the first few times it happened -- when you had to face the possibility that you could be treated unjustly without consequence or that you were of lesser value than some others -- was gut-wrenching. The first time I remember experiencing this, I didn't leave my room for two days.

Have I ever been the one to inflict this on some poor soul? I don't recall, but it's possible; in fact, it's probable. And though it was going to happen to the poor soul eventually, I would absolutely hate the idea that I was the one that caused that kind of pain. And I feel that way only now, after seeing and feeling the full consequences and understanding that the pain doesn't necessarily disappear over time, it just gets re-situated in your psyche. I'm not a parent, but I can only imagine that re-living these feelings through your own children would be harrowing. When faced with that realization, the impetus to apologize seems natural. So I would argue that such regrets are timeless. I'm not so quick to dismiss this as a by-product of the wussification of contemporary society or an "Internet phenomena," although the Internet makes it more possible and visible. But it does beg the question of the purpose of apologies in general.

Let's point out that we are talking about actual, sincere apologies. Not customer service-style "I'm sorry there was a dead rat on your pizza, here's a coupon" apologies. And not "Forgive me for embezzling your life savings, please give me a reduced sentence" apologies. We are talking about apologies that truly stem from remorse.

The model exchange is apology and acceptance. The apology, in theory, mitigates the pain inflicted upon the victim by acknowledging the injustice and signaling that the apologizer feels he was degraded by his own act (and implicitly elevating the injured party in a moral sense). The injured party accepts the apology, tacitly acknowledging that, as the moral superior with respect the incident at hand, the apologizer has suffered sufficient guilt.

What a complicated dance of emotion. I can't imagine that ever working in any methodical sense. Upon receiving an apology, the victim has to:
  1. Believe that it is sincere.
  2. Determine that the apologizer has suffered sufficiently.
  3. Value some kind of emotional closure more than the leverage that the moral high ground would provide in current or future interactions.
What is the calculus for meeting these conditions? An even then, it's not like the memories are nullified. It's not like the effects of the injury just vanish, despite any high-minded noises about "moving on." I see very little analytic incentive to accepting an apology.

The apologizer is in a somewhat better position. From the article:
When an old high-school rival of Kathy Somes contacted her through Classmates.com last March, Ms. Somes, 46, apologized for her behavior years ago, which included putting gum in the girl's hair, shooting her with a rubber-pellet gun and blowing a trumpet into her ear during band practice.

"I didn't really care if she accepted my apology or not," says Ms. Somes, an investment analyst in Kirtland, Ohio. "I felt better." (And, she says, her classmate did accept her apology.)
I suspect most people would agree with Ms. Somes and say they would feel better anyway. So even if the injured party doesn't come through with acceptance, it's still a plus for the apologizer. Isn't there a problem with that? If you are going to feel better anyway, really what is the cost for you in apologizing? What is the value of your apology if there is no downside? You feel better because by your judgment you have done enough, but who are you to decide that? The other guy is the one who was in pain.

The practical absurdity of the entire process causes me think of it as evidence that the need for justice, and therefore a form of morality, is intrinsic to human nature. I just can't imagine such behavior developing as a learned trait, because there is so little measurable, observable evidence to provide a positive feedback loop for apologies over the course of one person's life. When simply assessing the pluses and minus of apologies as one walks through life, it would be a rare person who felt as though they balanced out to a net individual benefit on a regular basis. Yet we still dance the apology dance. Why? Presumably, because apologies are our somewhat irrational attempt to maintain a fa‡ade of fairness for the good of the human race as a whole. Without it a much larger portion of our lives would be given over to revenge and suspicion, our circle of trusted contacts would be smaller. Having a mechanism such that there is an innate disincentive to those who would simply march thru life domineering and offending others at will encourages cooperation which permits us to progress despite the fact that we are all constantly jostling conflict for status and position. You could take a religious stand on this and say we have been given this sense of justice by God and in our souls we know we will be judged on it. Or you could take a biological stand and say the evolution has selected a sense of justice as a benefit to survival or the species. Either way, apologies are clearly of time-tested value.

In any event, just in case anyone from my past does a Google search on that assclown David Mazzotta who picked on him many years ago, as I said above, I sincerely regret any unwarranted pain I have caused in my life. If it helps you know that, great. But, despite the risk to civilized humanity, please don't accept my apology. Things would work better if apologies were not to be accepted and we did not assuage our guilt by apologizing. We are not small tribes anymore; much better to go forward being careful not to accumulate any more contacts to whom we need to apologize. That will require us to keep our regrets alive and clear in our minds to guide our actions going forward.

And if you are one of the assclowns who picked on me, don't bother to apologize. I already feel morally superior to you and really just don't care enough about you to accept it. That is, unless you are offering money.