on March 24, 2008
Dr. Nick Smith has done us all an enormous favor. Apologies are a dime a hundred these days, but this central ritual in our civilization has become more confused than ever.
"Much of our private and public moral discourse occurs in the giving, receiving, or demanding of apologies, yet we rarely make explicit precisely what we expect from a gesture of contrition. As a result, apologizing has become a vague, clumsy, and sometimes spiteful ritual," Smith writes in his introduction.
Smith is a scholar - an assistant professor of philosophy at the University of New Hampshire - and has marched bravely into the swamp of contemporary apologies with a machete and a clipboard. The good news is that he has cleared away a lot of debris and clearly outlines the dozens of complex issues surrounding the process of apology in a way that makes this book ideal for discussion groups.
In fact, it's also a great choice for congregational discussion groups, because this certainly is a spiritual issue. Smith makes that point himself in a fascinating chapter about various cultural and religious approaches to the practice around the world. This book is not an in-depth religious analysis of the issue, but Smith gives us enough analysis here so that the thousands of congregationally based discussion groups across the country could build from his framework - agreeing or disagreeing with his analysis as they consider his book.
The best thing about the book is that it never reaches a point at which Smith inserts a page labeled something like "The 5 Steps to a Perfect Apology." Early in the book, he does talk about various scholars' attempts to come up with a concise set of rules. What he does, instead, is argue that there are many factors closely associated with apologies, forgiveness, repentance and reconciliation that we tend to lump together into our assumptions about the practice.
The rich and powerful in our world haven't helped the confusing situation by offering some of the lamest possible apologies in recent years - many of which amount to excuses or self-justification masquerading as apologies. When you're done reading Smith's book, you'll be able to talk about dozens of issues that such shallow attempts to shift blame have completely overlooked.
And, here's the best part! You'll actually be a better person after reading this book - well, at least theoretically if you've taken Smith's advice to heart. The next time you've had an unfortunate accident, made a mistake, or willfully committed a violation of someone's rights - you'll know they're all morally different categories of behavior requiring, from the start, different forms of apology.
I'm sorry, but you really do need to buy - and read - this book.
on September 6, 2008
Since the preceding reviews are quite thorough and touch on the most salient points of Nick Smith's work, I will aim for brevity. If you've ever felt that a personal or collective apology was somehow lacking, read this book. Mr. Smith does not presume to provide easy, prescriptive answers, but he does plant signposts to help us navigate the complex landscape of modern-day apologies and their meanings. Most importantly, Mr. Smith encourages the reader to engage her curiosity, follow her own intellectual intuition, and engage in spirited discussion along the way.
on May 5, 2008
Alfred Kinsey's work elevated the conversation about sex. Timothy Leary's work elevated the conversation about drugs. Now, Nick Smith gives us his thorough study of apologies, a work that promises to elevate the conversation about what it means to say "I'm sorry."
"I Was Wrong: The Meanings of Apologies" exposes how contemporary gestures of contrition demand our critical attention. Smith, who teaches Philosophy at the University of New Hampshire, examines the significance of various forms of regret. From collective apologies for the holocaust to a pet owner's apology for forgetting to fill his dog's bowl, all remorse receives scrutiny. Smith writes with the learning and patience of a benevolent professor. His message persuades a reader that today's public and private apologies are playing fast and loose with morality.
Smith wants to move the conversation beyond what he regards as the juvenile exchange of "I'm sorry." "No you're not." His book challenges readers to consider the moral force, or lack thereof, behind any act of contrition. His purpose is to guide a reader through an exercise that assures her moral sensibility will grow more sophisticated upon confronting the meanings of apologies. Smith leads us on a journey through a quagmire of questions. For example, who--precisely--is responsible for the 2006 Abu Ghraib torture scandal, and what would be the most suitable redress to those who were injured?
I realized the full urgency of Smith's work when considering blame, redress, and emotions. Smith illuminates the contemporary practice of blaming corporations for wrongs when culpability lies with individuals and their complex social associations. Blaming an automobile manufacturer for a death caused by an SUV that rolled over, or blaming a television network for one commentator's sexist comments, appear to be comparable to X throwing a rock that injures Y and Y asking the rock to apologize? Corporations, like rocks, cannot be held morally accountable for injuring someone. Can throwing money at the loss of human life or dignity restore moral decency? These are some more issues that Smith's work helps us approach with clearer thinking.
"I Was Wrong" also gives a reader a fresh perspective from which to read the newspaper. All the lip service people pay to newsworthy remorse reveals a glaring shortcoming--most apologies fail to address moral culpability. For instance, a recent article in the San Diego Union-Tribune reported the misdemeanor of a City council candidate John Hartley. Two women complained Hartley was masturbating and urinating into a cup inside his truck while parked in front of their house. The paper reported "an apologetic mailer [in which] Hartley admitted he had to `take a leak' but denied he was masturbating." Hartley's apology rivals an excuse a potty trainee might give when nature calls. The news article simply relates that Hartley said the voters will decide whether or not they accept his apology. Beyond the question of whether the apology will be accepted, Smith's work encourages one to wonder to what degree the candidate's apology contributed to the dropping of an indecent-exposure charge.
Another example from the local news here was a story about Chinese Americans rallying outside CNN's Hollywood office to demand the firing of Jack Cafferty for calling China's goods "junk" and its leaders "a bunch of goons and thugs." The article reports how China "snubbed an apology from CNN over the remarks, which Cafferty said were in reference to China's government, not its people." This snubbed apology raises all kinds of problematic issues discussed in Smith's book. First, for CNN to apologize for remarks made by one commentator raises questions about whether a collective can or should apologize for one person's remarks. In this situation, CNN's apology looks that much more suspicious when Cafferty further tries to justify the target of his comments. This is a clear case in which an apology is only making matters worse.
Anyone who has a moral debt to pay, or is owed a moral reckoning will want to read this book and embrace its wisdom. As Smith suggests, the work of a satisfying apology for many injuries and injustices in the world could take lifetimes to fulfill. Those committed to moral justice will want to begin this tremendous work with "I Was Wrong."