It's the Strong Man That Knows How to Apologize

By Rick Stengel
From TIME magazine of Friday, Apr. 13, 2001

A poet (of sorts) once wrote, "Love means never having to say you're sorry " which, by the way, is patently false. But being the last remaining superpower means never having to say you're really sorry and, if by chance, you do utter the word "sorry," you can always say you didn't mean it.
That's essentially what the U.S. did in its linguistic brinksmanship with China. Yes, we're sorry, Colin Powell said over and over, but we're not apologizing. And by that he meant, we're not culpable. (Basically we're sorry for being forced to say we're sorry.) How can you apologize, he said, when you've done nothing wrong?
I'd put it another way: What does it really matter if you apologize if you've done nothing wrong?
I apologize all the time, even when I think I've done nothing wrong especially when I think I've done nothing wrong. (Honey, please forgive me for all my insincere apologies.) The point is, apologies are not about "I" or "me," they're about "you" the other party. The aggrieved party. Even the party you think doesn't deserve to be aggrieved.
In South Africa, after the National Party refused for about the hundredth time to apologize for apartheid, Nelson Mandela said that it was the strong man who knew how to apologize. Did the pope ever seem more powerful and more merciful than when he apologized for the sins committed by the church against non-Catholics? Tony Blair showed strength in apologizing for the treatment of the Irish during the potato famine.
But somehow American leaders seem to feel that it is emasculating to apologize. Politicians reflexively follow the advice of the comedian Lenny Bruce who, when asked what to do if your wife accuses you of being unfaithful, said, "Deny, deny, deny."
Recall the foofaraw when Bill Clinton considered apologizing for slavery. My lord, if you can't apolize for slavery, what can you apologize for? Sure, I didn't enslave anyone and neither did my ancestors, but I'd be a liar if I said that as a white American I haven't somehow indirectly benefited from that evil institution. I have no connection to slavery, but I regret that it happened in a country that I believe in and call home. Please accept my apology for slavery.
The I'm-not-apologizing-for-something-I-didn't-do argument strikes me as deeply literal-minded read narrow-minded. (It's a moral corollary to the not-in-my-own-backyard syndrome.) In general, I find that the same people who reject the idea of collective guilt are the very ones who take pride in the victories and achivements of institutions with which they identify say their universities or community but have not in any way contributed. That's hypocrisy in my book.
Apologies are powerful. They are disarming. I would even counsel using them in a Machiavellian way. We must all stoop to conquer sometimes. Moreover, apologies preempt further animosity by palliating the aggrieved. What's so terrible about that?
And, by the way, if you disagree with me, I'm very sorry about that. Really.


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