Apologies from Peterson to Palin
Apologies from Peterson to Palin
Photo by Perry Smith, Perry Smith Photography
Apologies are where we fight our moral battles, according to professor of philosophy Nick Smith, and in the modern media landscape, that means that every day presents new battlefields.
“Either someone is calling on (a public figure) to apologize, or someone is apologizing for something,” says Smith. “We talk about values and morality in the context of someone’s apology. That’s now the most common secular way we publically discuss our principles.”
How common is it? The first few weeks of September 2014 saw apologies from Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson, who apologized for using corporal punishment to discipline his son; DiGiorno Pizza, which said it was sorry for using a Twitter hashtag about domestic violence to sell frozen pizzas; Vice President Joe Biden, who admitted that using the term “Shylock” in a speech was a poor choice of words; and former vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin, who, during a Fox News appearance, apologized that John McCain did not win the 2008 presidential election.
Demanding and dissecting apologies are the “way we level charges against people” now, Smith says. “It’s a weird way to go about things … but that’s how we’ve been doing it for at least five years.”
Smith has spent much of the last decade thinking about apologies—what they mean and how our society responds to them philosophically, legally, spiritually, and practically. His latest book, Justice Through Apologies: Remorse, Reform, and Punishment, examines apologies through the lens of civil and criminal law. It’s a follow-up to his first book, I Was Wrong: The Meanings of Apologies, which explored the cultural, legal, and spiritual attitudes that have shaped our perceptions and expectations of repentance.
What makes a good apology? For Smith, a deep apology can be something of a “lifelong process.” When we encounter a person or institution expressing contrition, we should ask ourselves, did they admit wrongdoing? What will they do about it? How will they prevent it from happening again? And do we have any reason to believe them?
But in the moment, when confronted with, say, a repentant politician or somber athlete, our judgments about the quality of an apology become impressionistic, Smith says. “People use all these weird indicators that don’t have any necessary correlation to the most important meanings of apologies. If someone is crying, for example, we might think it is a better apology. But do the tears mean they admit blame or they’re not going to do it again tomorrow?”
The 24-hour, social-media driven news cycle is dominated by apologies, and according to Smith, that further complicates our attitudes about contrition. “So much more of what you say is going to get captured and it’s going to be uploaded, and people are going to call you on it,” Smith says. As a culture, we are demanding more apologies from more people than ever before, and as a result, apologies can often be reduced to the size of a sound bite or tweet.
“There’s not such a good fit between the sound bites of social media and moral transformation,” Smith says. “There are all these cases in which someone will tweet, ‘I’m sorry,’ and you have no idea what they mean, what they’re confessing to, or what they’re taking responsibility for.”
Meanwhile, when the less powerful—poor people, minorities—apologize, Smith says their apologies are seen as insufficient or disingenuous. “It’s a compounding of privileges…the rich are able to come off as more contrite." Whether you come off as contrite and remorseful makes a big difference in legal judgment,” Smith says. In his latest book, Smith explores the disconnect that forms between the rich and the poor when it comes to apologies and considers how our historical perception of penitentiaries, as places where penance and reform can happen, has been destroyed by a prison system that encourages mass incarceration. Meanwhile, corporations and governments have manipulated the legal system in such a way that they can offer apologies to manage public perceptions and settlement agreements with victims without legally accepting responsibility for their actions.
But all is not lost when it comes to apologies. Smith believes that with so many shallow attempts at apology in circulation, we more easily recognize and more deeply appreciate true, meaningful apologies when we encounter them.
Smith discusses these issues with the students in his courses on political, legal, and social philosophy, but he’s recently been extending his reach to younger students. In July, Smith and professor of classics R. Scott Smith directed the first session of the Future Leaders Institute (FLI), a week-long residential philosophy summer camp for New Hampshire high school students. This year, the 23 FLI attendees looked at the impacts of money, greed, and corruption.
“For a lot of students, philosophy is not the typical thing you study in high school,” he says. “But the earlier they get exposed to it, the more they see that it’s fun, that they get to go wild with these huge ideas. It’s nice to see philosophy feel more naturally at home outside the university.”