The art of parsing apologies

A wave of recent apologies by public figures requires a fine discernment to understand when someone does right for the original offense.

A woman in Guernica, Spain, watches an April 18 news program announcing the dissolution of the Basque separatist group ETA due for the first week of May, according to local television station ETB.

Sorry to say but in recent days there has been an abundance of apologies from public figures. Mark Zuckerberg, Laura Ingraham, Tony Robbins, Theresa May, Jimmy Kimmel – all have issued some form of regret over words spoken, actions taken, or past neglect. Even the pope apologized for misjudging the cover up of sexual abuse of many minors in Chile.

On Thursday, Philadelphia’s police commissioner apologized to two black men, Rashon Nelson and Donte Robinson, who were arrested while merely sitting in a Starbucks. He promised a new policy for police in responding to calls about alleged trespassing. The head of Starbucks, Kevin Johnson, apologized many times and plans to do so again in person. He has already ordered a day of race-bias training for all employees.

The task of parsing so many public apologies in such a short time can be humbling. Yet here are a few questions that often need to be asked:

Was the person’s apology sincere, unforced, and unequivocal about culpability, the wrong done, and the lesson learned? Was there genuine empathy with the victims? Did the apology come with restitution and a real change of behavior?

Such steps are necessary to heal a social wound and curb a repeat of the offense. Societies rely on trust, and real apologies help restore lost trust. They speak to a shared ideal about integrity.

Judging an apology from afar can be difficult. For the public, the task is easier when victims accept an apology, forgive the offender, and accept any reparations made. In the case of Mr. Zuckerberg and the mishandling of private data by Facebook, many users still await further privacy controls.

In a few cases, misreading an apology can have serious consequences.

On April 20, a terrorist group known as ETA, which had long sought independence for Spain’s Basque region, issued an apology for its four decades of bombings and shootings, in which more than 800 people were killed. The militant group disarmed last year. And it plans to dissolve itself in coming weeks.

But its apology was met with skepticism. While ETA said it was “truly sorry” and took “direct responsibility” for causing “damage that can never be put right,” it seemed to imply that it had inherited a culture of violence from Spain’s civil war and that the current government should somehow share some responsibility for the suffering.

The group’s weak apology suggests it may be seeking an amnesty and the release of ETA prisoners. While the government welcomed the statement as an apology, it remains wary of cutting any deal until the victims and their families are satisfied about ETA’s motives and acceptance of any punishment.

Apologies do matter, but some more than others. Discerning their honesty and their effects can help save both individual lives and entire groups. The truth-telling can also give the lie to any notion that the original offense was right to begin with.

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