Wednesday, November 25, 2009


In Eating Crow, the novelist Jay Rayner cooked up an Office of Apology in the United Nations, which is responsible for the task of “penitential engagement.” It was the hottest trend in international relations in dealing with the baggage from wars, genocides and persecutions of the past. The novel’s main protagonist, Marc Basset, is hired as Chief Apologist because of his innate ability to deliver heartfelt apologies and for his “plausibility apologibility.”

Already a world leader in official apologies, this is what Canada needs. Or perhaps, every society or community needs one. In this highly emotional world we live, the words we utter most often, depending on how they are written or said, may be perceived as hurting or hurtful.

Words speak more powerfully than actions nowadays. Never mind political correctness. We have just become too sensitive, not for any lack of humour, but because our personal moral filters have become too tight to allow room for intelligent conversations. In other words, we have become too nice. Every word we utter must be sanitized and non-toxic.

During a debate of ideas, for instance, some would refuse the validity of the arguments of their opponents and respond with slurs of their own, the better to hide their insecurities about their own respectable stature or popular appeal in the community. They will nitpick arguments, choosing a word or two to capitalize and engender animosity against the other side.

Take the word “legal scholar,” for example. An argument that says one is a legal scholar because of one’s pretentious viewpoints is merely a form of harmless sarcasm to put the other party off-kilter. Although a very common rhetorical device, sarcasm may be interpreted as expressing contempt. The comment might have been used originally to elicit humour, however, others might take it as hostile or critical.

In the old days, an effective retort to a sarcastic remark is to expose the shallowness of the other side’s argument. But how often does the person who’s been pushed to his corner respond with intelligence nowadays?

People also have the tendency to appeal to calls for empty unity or sobriety, as if putting the lid on a steaming conversation will resolve a dispute or settle the disagreement. To my mind, this is a defeatist attitude. Instead of finding a resolution, whether by compromise or by quashing all arguments to the contrary, a call for truce is only an intervening event before the two sides strike at each other again. It is a half-hearted effort to conflict resolution and in virtually all cases will contribute more to an impasse.

Is there really a need to apologize when we feel sorry for our actions, or for the words we use?

The word apology originally meant a defence of one’s position. It comes from the Greek word apologia, meaning speaking in defence. Over time, the word assumed a double-edged feature. Rather than a justification for one’s actions, it has become an admission of a harm done, an acceptance of responsibility.

On his last day in Parliament, Pierre Trudeau was asked by then leader of the opposition, Brian Mulroney, to apologize to Japanese Canadians who were herded in internment camps during World War II. Trudeau snickered at Mulroney and said: “I do not think it is the purpose of government to right the past. I cannot rewrite history.”

Yet, we have apologized so often and so fast for our government’s shortcomings and failures. In our personal lives, we have also used the perfect apology for our actions and words such that apologies have become cheap, and to some extent, without true remorse.

Nowadays, there are many tested ways to effectively and creatively apologize. We try to learn successful approaches, styles and techniques for getting out of the doghouse with our spouses, friends, family members, customers, partners, and business associates. There are even sites on the Internet that can help download the perfect apology.

In our desire to be truthful in saying we’re sorry, we often end up giving a non-apology apology. It is a statement, phrased like an apology, but in fact is nothing but a common gambit, so common in politics and public relations. One says he’s sorry not for a behaviour, statement or misdeed, but rather is sorry only because a person who has been aggrieved is requesting an apology, expressing a grievance or is threatening some form of retribution or retaliation.

An example of a non-apology apology would be to say, “I’m sorry if you were offended by my remarks.” The apology does not admit anything was wrong with the remarks made, but it subtly insinuates that the person taking offense was excessively thin-skinned in taking offense at the remarks in the first place.

This type of apology is simply an artful double talk where someone gets what he wants by expressing regret while accepting no blame. Don’t we get this kind of apology so often? Yet, we give or ask forgiveness so often that the act has lost its edge and has become but a mere passing of words.

And oh, I’m so sorry, but I didn’t really mean to write these remarks—and I regret if some might have been offended by some of the words I’ve said.

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