In the vein of continuing to use this experience as a representative example, I’m going to address things I’ve seen floating around the internet.
“Why would you accept it?”
I think he was sincere.
If it had been a fauxpology, then, no. But, again, I think it was sincere. Was it a perfect apology? Well… no. But if you’re grading apologies on their technical merit, then there are very, very few perfect apologies. It’s like getting a perfect score in figure-skating. Sometimes, people try to apologize and trip over the same things, even though they are totally sincere about the apology.
“There was still [problematic language/defensiveness/points missed].”
It is hard to step back. Expecting someone to step back from a mistake, magically learn everything about the issue before they apologize — including high level discussion about embedded societal problems — incorporate all of that, and admit fault without screwing something up, is unrealistic. My mentor back in my puppetry days used to say, shoot for 100%, learn to be happy with 80%. His point was that it’s easy to beat yourself up about the things you got wrong. But 80% right? That’s still good. So what I look for in an apology is the direction it indicates. Did the person step back from the mistake, even if it’s not 100% back? Then good.
The other thing is that, if the topic is controversial and highly visible, there are probably people who are quietly emailing the person and saying, “Hey. Sorry they bullied you into apologizing,” or actively angry that the apology happened.
So what happens is that the person who screwed up gets slammed by both sides. Now, you might say, “Good. They screwed up.” But…
But there’s this thing I talk to my writing students about. Every line exists to drive the narrative and shape the audience experience. So when an apology is offered, what narrative do I want to participate in? The one where the step back is a first step or the one where the person is so burned they never participate again? Thank you, I’ll take the first step.
And that means accepting the apology.
“But he was forced to make the apology.”
We don’t actually know that, but for the sake of argument, let’s say that he was. There are many, many different forms a wake-up call can take. It does not matter if that call takes the form of the HR department sitting you down, or the internet falling on your head, or your best friend taking you out to drinks and saying, “Dude, WTF?” What matters is that the wakeup calls comes and you step back from the mistake.
I mean…what you want next is a lot of introspection and learning, but the first thing is that step back. Mistakes like this has been the crux point for a lot of people, where they’ve taken the first step into becoming an informed ally. More importantly, there are people watching this who have probably made the exact same mistake, just not so visibly. It’d be unfortunate if one of the things they learned was that apologizing is pointless.
Now, this isn’t to say that people shouldn’t have conversation about problems with an apology. Particularly when it involves something that is really deeply embedded in the societal structure. Those conversations should absolutely occur, because that’s the way we unpack the problems, so the next person who screws up doesn’t have so far back to step.
And you know that there will be a next person. So refer back to this representative example the next time something happens and look at how we shaped the narrative from here.