In the skeptical community, people have been talking about apologies. We’ve been working on being open about when we’re wrong, valuing the apology, and discussing what constitutes a good or a bad apology. What is more fascinating to me than these practical discussions is the question of how apologies actually work. What is it about saying two words that can change the nature of a harmful act? What are we doing when we apologize?
The place to start might be when you should apologize. In general, an apology is expected when you harmed someone and you could have acted differently, particularly if you harmed them intentionally. An apology usually implies that you will change your behavior in the future and that you can see you should have acted differently. Oftentimes we might say “I’m sorry” just to express sadness or sympathy. That is not the same as an apology. This is the type of thing you might do with an accident, although if the accident is bad enough you may apologize with the intent of improving your behavior in the future, especially if you were reckless or careless.
In college, I had a professor who likened apologies to the lifecycle of a phoenix: you kill off a small part of yourself and are reborn better and stronger. I think that this conception of an apology is important: an apology is more than simply saying words. It is a speech act: you are doing something with words. You can threaten someone with words, you can question someone with words, and similarly you can apologize. So what are you doing when you apologize?
The image of a phoenix is particularly pertinent to an apology, because a good apology is one in which you identify a piece of yourself that you want to kill off or change into something new. An apology that truly understands what you have done wrong and seeks to right the wrong will want to distance the new self from the self who did the harm. Each of us spends our whole lives choosing which parts of ourselves to cultivate and which parts to cull off. When we apologize, we clearly identify a type of behavior or attitude that we want to kill off. When we do that, we open the way for a new behavior that is more positive and more in line with our values.
What I find the most interesting about this is that it helps to explain why apologies are so painful and often difficult. We have to clearly identify something about ourselves that we don’t like and that we want to change, openly get rid of it, and then somehow try to come out with new life and growth from the experience. It hurts to change, it hurts to realize that you dislike a part of yourself, and it’s painful to try to remove something. The very image of the phoenix is one of violence towards the self, but it also explains why apologies can be a great thing; only by burning away the mess can you turn into something better.
And when we use this image to understand what someone is doing in an apology, we begin to understand why it holds the power that it does. When we’re talking about our identities and how we form our identities, the most we have are metaphors, symbols, and words. No one can see our identities or our personalities, and so the things we do with words are often the most important. When we apologize, we are doing something to ourselves even more than we are doing something for another person: in front of witnesses, we are killing off one piece of ourselves and committing to the growth of another piece. We are allowing others to see a process of change in ourselves, which is something personal and difficult. The intimacy of an apology is something that is rarely discussed, but I believe it plays an important role. We could go through the same process of recognizing that we are wrong and committing to change our behavior without telling anyone, however the fact that we do it in front of others and as reparation for the harms that we’ve done makes it a kind of justice.
In the atheist community we don’t like to talk much about the power of metaphors and symbolic acts but let’s be real for a minute: symbols mean something. People wouldn’t hold on to them so hard if they didn’t mean things to us and if symbolic acts didn’t mean things. And so the symbolic act of an apology does more than simply let someone know you’re sorry and sad for what’s happened. It illustrates to them that you’re willing to distance yourself from someone you used to be, perhaps even to the point of destroying that part of yourself. Apologies are powerful symbols.