This past week Brian Schweitzer managed to offend what could be a record number of people in one interview. He said that southern men were effeminate, that he thought Eric Cantor seemed gay-ish (not that there’s anything wrong with that…) and compared Senator Dianne Feinstein to a hooker. Then he promptly apologized. Hmmm. It’s true you can’t un-say something, and I have said plenty of things that I needed to apologize for, as have most humans, but when you express your opinion, and that opinion is offensive, an apology just doesn’t cut it. You’ve already told us what you think, now you’re just apologizing for getting caught expressing your beliefs. The apology is a lie.
An apology works when you’ve hurt someone’s feelings by being too candid, by using the wrong tone of voice, letting someone down, breaking a promise, perhaps when you’ve betrayed a confidence (all things I’ve been guilty of). If you are sincere, and explain yourself, most people will accept your apology, and move on. If someone uses a racial or ethnic slur, or insults an entire group of people, an apology does nothing. You’ve notified us how you feel, and now you’re sorry someone heard you, you’re not sorry for what you feel, only for where or when you expressed it, and that’s not a real apology!
As a parent I often talk to my daughter about apologies. She is one of the kindest and most considerate people I know, and this isn’t just my parental opinion, her teachers have been telling me the same thing for the past ten years. Even this deeply sensitive and caring girl does careless and inconsiderate things. We all do. When I bring them to her attention it can be difficult sometimes for her to understand why I want an apology, and what she is apologizing for, but that is the key to a real apology. I’m sorry I did X and made you feel bad. I’m sorry I left a mess for you to clean up, I’m sorry I forgot to turn the lights out. These are apologies. I’m sorry I expressed my racist, sexist, or homophobic thoughts out loud… you can apologize all day long for that, but I’m done with you, as you have now revealed your character to me, and for you there is no apology that will repair my opinion of you.
Enter our current climate of polarized opinions, dysfunctional government and a culture of entitlement. Add to that a lot of noisy people who claim they are Christians with special access to God, and God’s agenda, while smacking people over the head with their bibles. ‘Oh, I said gays should and will burn in hell? I’m sorry, what I meant to say is that I don’t support marriage equality’. Thanks for clearing that up… We are all moving too fast to worry about the impact we’re having on others, and if and when someone notices, we slap together a meaningless apology and move on, and chances are so does everyone else, except maybe the injured party, but maybe even them, because we’re not really listening anyway.
We live in a land of lies. In fact the media even encourages it. We demand apologies when what we should be looking for is a change of heart. We let people off easy, with a fake apology, rather than asking them to face the people they have offended, and giving them an opportunity to see they are real people. It is easy to be glib and dismissive, and even perniciously hateful to someone who isn’t real to you, but to sit down with them, with one or two people from the group you claim is evil, forces you to examine both them (as individuals) and yourself, as you are literally brought face to face with your hate-fueled feelings.
It is easy to hate a group, it is just as easy to blithely and insincerely apologize to them. We need to stop accepting both these scenarios. We need to start asking some different questions, and making some different demands. Don’t ask Mitt Romney to apologize to 47% of America, instead ask him to sit down with just five of them, and keep his mouth shut, and really listen to them tell him who they are. Homophobia is on the decline because as more and more gay people are out and part of the community the community embraces the individuals, and that feeling of acceptance spreads wider and wider. It is easy to toss off an apology to a faceless group of people, but much harder to deliver a genuine, from the heart apology to just one.