Solutions that start with 'I'm sorry'

Mea culpas by public figures help open doors for reform of tough problems like gun violence.

Omar Ornelas/USA Today Network via REUTERS
Steven McCraw, director of the Texas Department of Public Safety, prepares to speak outside Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas.

If the recent mass shootings in the United States result in meaningful reforms, one reason may be a rather rare but important moment of contrition. After the shooting in Uvalde, Texas, Steven McCraw, director of the Texas Department of Public Safety, admitted that the hesitation by police to confront the gunman “was the wrong decision, period.”

Then he added: “If I thought it would help, I’d apologize.”

Such an admission by public officials is a door opener to reform. And Mr. McCraw isn’t the only prominent figure expressing remorse these days. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen told CNN on May 31, “I was wrong about the path inflation would take.” Her mea culpa was matched by a comment in March by Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell: “Hindsight says we should have moved [against inflation] earlier.”

At a time when public leaders seem more apt to evade and deflect when things go wrong, it is worth noting when someone takes responsibility. Meekness can shift a stalled debate from recrimination to joint problem-solving.

“We live in a culture of inquisition rather than inquiry, more concerned with identifying a person with an action [of wrongdoing] than curiosity about what’s gone wrong or why,” British psychoanalyst Stephen Blumenthal told The Guardian. Genuine contrition, he said, “emanates from a place of wanting to validate and care for the other person, not shame them.”

Official apologies often involve complex calculations and can have questionable effects. In focus groups on hypothetical public apologies following controversial comments on controversial issues, for example, Harvard Law Professor Cass Sunstein found that the apologies backfired among voters. “In a diverse set of contexts,” he wrote in The New York Times, “an apology tended to decrease rather than to increase overall support for those who said or did things that many people consider offensive.”

Even so, he noted, apologies “might be a way of showing respect to those who have been offended or hurt, and of recognizing their fundamental dignity.”

That matters in bridging political divides as much as in healing individual sorrow. Admitting that it misread the threat of inflation may not help the Biden administration win over voters in November. But the optics of empathy have value.

In Texas, the genuineness of Mr. McCraw’s contrition will be tested in the days and months ahead as the department considers its response to the shooting. But humility could move a shaken nation toward a shared inquiry of reforms that curb gun violence.

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