The Monitor's View

Public apologies come easier these days. Forgiveness doesn't.

Public figures from Arnold Schwarzenegger to LeBron James to Newt Gingrich to Oprah are apologizing. So many mea culpas create an opportunity to better define forgiveness.

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More public figures these days seem comfortable in offering apologies, either for their own misdeeds or on behalf of an entire group. But while owning up to past wrongs may be more common, what of forgiveness from those wronged?

Few Japanese, for example, have yet to forgive the Tokyo Electric Power Co. for not better preparing for the March 11 tsunami that knocked out the Fukushima Daiichi power plant. Yet the TEPCO president, Masataka Shimizu, has made many personal apologies to refugees from that nuclear disaster. And he promises to make amends and improve safety in other plants.

Basketball giant LeBron James just apologized to former Cleveland fans over his self-centered departure last year to the Miami Heat. But he didn’t appear to win back many fans.

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Former Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak, who was ousted Feb. 11, reportedly plans to apologize for his actions. He may claim only that he took “bad advice” from aides in suppressing dissent. Such a limited admission of responsibility probably won’t qualify for leniency in Egyptian eyes.

BP chief executive Robert Dudley recently said he was sorry for the giant oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico last year. He also detailed the steps aimed at earning back the trust of government and the rest of the oil industry, such as tougher rules on drilling. Critics and many victims still aren’t satisfied.

In US politics, where forgiveness is rare, presidential candidate Newt Gingrich apologized this week for slamming the Medicare-reform plan of fellow Republican Rep. Paul Ryan. And recently resigned Sen. John Ensign of Nevada apologized for being “arrogant and self-centered” in criticizing other senators caught up in their sex scandals while he was hiding his own.

Even the royals are in the mood.

This week Queen Elizabeth II, in the first visit by a British monarch to Ireland since its independence, made symbolic gestures acknowledging past British oppression and violence against the Irish. She laid a wreath and bowed her head at Dublin’s Garden of Remembrance, a memorial to those who lost their lives opposing British rule. Actions may speak louder than an apology in this case, as most Irish seem in a mood to forgive.

Even the talk-show queen of evoking apologies from guests, Oprah Winfrey, said this week she was sorry to James Frey, author of “A Million Little Pieces.” Oprah said she should not have lashed out at him for fabricating parts of his memoir. He thanked and hugged her.

For many, forgiveness is even more difficult than apologizing. It is different from mercy or pardon, and it certainly isn’t condoning. So much depends on the genuine contrition of the victimizer, the consequences suffered, the degree of restitution, and the self-reform to prevent a reccurrence.

For some, no correcting action by a perpetrator is needed in order to offer forgiveness. In their view, unconditional forgiving is seen as a way for one to let go of anger, guilt, or a desire for revenge – or to acknowledge that everyone is equally susceptible to making mistakes or that the perpetrator may simply be a victim of mental illness, bad parenting, or societal neglect.

For others, it requires both sides to have the courage to give up something and then to act on behalf of each other in a new relationship. In such cases of moral reciprocity, to forgive is to “give as before” the wrongdoing. That requires a reform of thinking and spiritual maturity. In postapartheid South Africa, for example, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission asked for an admission of guilt from the country’s former oppressors in order for forgiveness to be granted.

This new era of easy apologies from public figures has yet to usher in an era of easy forgiveness. Why? Definitions of forgiveness differ widely, especially in cases of someone being maimed, raped, or killed.

Judging whether someone has truly repented and reformed is difficult to perceive, as any parole board knows. And time and restitution may not always heal wounds to the point where forgiveness is possible.

So all these public apologies are welcome. Telling the truth is winning half the battle. Apologies create more opportunities for everyone to work on better defining forgiveness.

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