“Neurons” Meta Reflections 2015 #41
September 21, 2015
Creating Response-Able Persons #6

Responsible Apologizing

Some time ago in an interview, Donald Trump said that he doesn’t ask for forgiveness; he doesn’t need to. Since then he has used his media savvy intelligence—not only saying whatever comes to his mind—but also by seemingly intentionally saying provocative things. Why would he do that? Well, it certainly captures the media’s attention, he gets more air time, and by that it has given him a dominating influence in the field of the candidates. So it works. It also allows him to stand out. So unlike the overly cautious political correctness of the others, Trump stirs things up, gets attention, and then later offers a calmer and more reasonable explanation. But now he is beginning to pay a price for that.

The price? A call to apologize. Several have called upon him to apologize for various things— for the names he has called people and for insulting implications that he has intimated. Yet he refuses to apologize. In the Republican Debate this week, when called upon to apologize, he took another tact—he uttered very kind and complementary words to those he had formally insulted. He did that about Jeb Bush’s wife, “I hear she is a fabulous women.” He did that about Carly Fiorina, “She has a beautiful face.” Still he would not apologize. He was asked to apologize directly and explicitly, he said he would not. “I didn’t say anything wrong.”

Dictionary: An Apology can be written or spoken as an expression of one’s regret, remorse, or sorrow for having insulted, failed, injured, or wronged another.

What’s with it that a person can’t utter a simple apology? “You’re right. That was a mistake. I’m sorry for doing that to you, I apologize for what I did.” While I can buy that much of exaggeration and bragging of Trump is for entertainment purposes and to get the attention of the media, and that it does indeed set in motion a focus on him— a simple apology is also powerful and important. A simple apology can go a long way in healing hurt emotions and can be the smartest thing for a person to do. In this instance, it would be the most politically expedient thing to do. But he doesn’t.

That brings up the questions: “Why not?” “What holds him and/or any other person from doing so?” Further, given that this is a human problem and not particularly a political one, what stops so many people from just owning up what they said or did, acknowledging it, and saying so?

At the heart of apologizing is recognizing and owning what one does and says as one’s own. Actually, this is a critical aspect of being a responsible person. After all, this is what being responsible means and entails. Owning your words and behaviors and accepting that they have consequences, when you make a mistake, you say so. When an error of thinking or judgment occurs, you acknowledge it and do whatever you can to make things right. This is the point of making an apology: to make things right between people.

This is important due to the obvious and ubiquitous fact: Things can go wrong between people. We say things that another person doesn’t like, we call names, we insult with disrespectful behaviors, and so on. Then they feel “hurt” about such because it violates their values and what they want and believe in. When people make promises and then break them, we feel betrayed. At that point we cannot sweep it under the rug and pretend that we did not betray a trust, we need to own up to it.

The power and wonder and elegance of an apology is that it enables us to back up. We can go back and re-do something. We can shift into reverse gear and then back up to un-do the path that we have traveled. Imagine a car without a reverse gear. How easily you could drive into a dead-end with no where to go. That’s not a very wise move! With a reverse gear, you can back up, make amends and get to start all over again. It gives you a new beginning. That’s what’s great about an apology— you can have a new beginning!

In claiming that he doesn’t need to apologize, Donald seems to be proud of this. He seems proud that he doesn’t have to say he is sorry for the results or consequences of his actions or words, and that he doesn’t need to ask for forgiveness. Yet now this is to his detriment and unless he changes his tactics on this one, he will find himself in those dead-ends without a way to recover.

The power of an apology is that in acknowledging a mistake, in making amends for a wrong, for expressing sorrow that words and/or actions which led to misunderstandings and hurt feelings, we fail to admit that we are human— fallible and “liable to err.” There is no virtue in trying to present yourself as above fallibility. Pretending to be infallible or perfect is an illusion and, after all, who wants to be around such a person?

If you and I want to truly become a highly responsible person, it’s required that we learn how to apologize and make amends. It takes nothing away from a person, in fact, it adds to a person’s character and quality of character. The person is big enough to apologize, to admit a wrong, and to reverse to make course corrections.

Another politician make that mistake decades ago. Over an activity that was really a little thing, a burglary in a hotel (Watergate), Nixon’s big problem was his cover-up, his refusal to own up to things. He derailed by the coverup, not the burglary. Then there was Clinton and his protestations, “I did not have sex with that woman,” which dominated the news until he admitted that he did. It wasn’t the sex that was the problem, it was the coverup, the denials, the refusal to just simply own up to his responsibilities.

L. Michael Hall, Ph.D.