The limits of apologies

IOL pic dec7 eusebius mckaiser SUPPLIED Eusebius McKaiser. Picture: Supplied

Bigots think we don’t see through their b******t. LOL. We do. And here are two strategies from them that they can stop using in trying to cover their bigotry. These strategies are laughable. I suggest bigots discard them, and invent some new tricks.

The first is apologising. Apologies, these days, are offered faster than President Zuma recalls finance ministers. Did you act in a racist manner and got called out? Oh, just offer a sheepish apology. Did you blame a rape victim for the violence visited upon her by her attacker? Just insist the activists calling you out should accept your apology.

You’re a famous boxer who said that gay people are worse than animals? Oh, just offer an apology. That should make the bad press go away, yeah? Well, no. Not so fast. Merely declaring that you apologise doesn’t mean that that is the end of that and we should all move on.

First, victims of your offending behaviour aren’t compelled to accept your apology. There is this weird tendency of people thinking that they immediately move to higher moral ground once they offer an apology. It is the sole discretion of victims to decide whether to accept your apology or not.

Second, conditional apologies are evidence that you do not get, or refuse to admit that you get, the harmful effect of your actions.

“If I offended gay people, I apologise unreservedly”, doesn’t cut it. If you started that sentence conditionally, by the way, you may as well cut out the word “unreservedly”.

More importantly, if you truly understand and accept the harmful effect of your behaviour on other people, then your conscience should not be wrestling with conditional statements. You presumably accept that your behaviour was morally odious, and odiousness will only likely start to stop smelling bad if you allow some ventilation to happen. That means opening yourself up so that you can listen to your interlocutors, and understand and reflect on falling short of the social standards of moral decency.

Obviously, if you don’t think you did anything wrong, then don’t humour us with an insincere apology. Insincerity is hard to hide. But if you are genuinely sorry, then conditional statements are misplaced.

Third, apologies are not effective and meaningful if they aren’t accompanied by evidence that you fully grasp the nature of what you did, and that you’re working hard to eliminate that which motivated your harmful behaviour. Sure, this is a tall order. But then again, meaningful apologies should be difficult to effect, otherwise apologies are just part of a feeble language game, which is unbecoming of a moral agent who truly cares for doing the right thing.

The second strategy some bigots are now resorting to is a little more sophisticated than apologising (but barely so). It is the habit of declaring you had good intentions when you acted in a harmful manner. And now you basically want discount for your bad behaviour because, well, only people with bad intentions should be condemned and punished, right?

Well, not quite. Intentions do matter in moral life. If you accidentally step on my toes, your accident is a different bit of behaviour to someone who deliberately steps on my toes. Intentions tell us something about the mental state of people when they act, and that is important evidence for evaluating character (among other things).

But we are responsible, in part, for the consequences of our actions if we ought to have known and behaved better. Someone said to me that they felt sorry for the backlash Penny Sparrow received for her comments about black people behaving like monkeys on the beach.

He felt sorry for her because he guesses, he said, that it wasn’t her intention to hurt black people. She was merely saying stuff that she probably grew up believing.

But even if her intentions were not malicious, her behaviour had the effect of undermining the dignity of a group of human beings. Pure intentions don’t change the harm. And she is culpable because, in 2016, she ought to know better than holding on to patently false and immoral beliefs when there is plenty of opportunity to get to know people seemingly different to yourself.

Last, it is, of course, possible for victims to refuse your apology even if you meet high moral standards for meaningful apologising. But let’s be clear, a philosophical discussion about the duties of victims to accept apologies under some conditions isn’t a conversation that you, the perpetrator, should rush to put on the agenda. That, too, would be an arrogant move. Simply hope for grace.

* Eusebius McKaiser is the best-selling author of A Bantu In My Bathroom and Could I Vote DA? A Voter’s Dilemma. His new book - Run, Racist, Run: Journeys Into The Heart Of Racism - is now available nationwide, and online through Amazon.

** The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of Independent Media.

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