With the latest hysteria over the Mohammed cartoons and the Muslim world’s demands that Denmark apologize, I’ve been thinking about the nature of apologies.
It’s a strange form of integrity, I know, but I tend to think a lot of and about apologies. And I have come to some conclusions.
1) An apology should indicate that the action taken was actually wrong in some way.
2) An apology should only be offered if the apologizer was in some way responsible for the offending action.
3) An apology should indicate a measure of remorse for the offending action.
4) An apology should imply that actions will be taken to prevent the offending action from recurring.
Let me cite a few examples:
First, I once accepted an apology I should have refused. Once, in a rather lengthy essay, I made a careless mistake that insulted a lot of people — including several readers, who called me on it. I realized just how badly I messed up, and made a second posting apologizing for it. Those readers gracefully accepted my apology, but Allen Yackey went too far.
I should have refused his apology, because he did nothing wrong. His interpretation of what I wrote was dead-on accurate — the problem was not in his reading, but in my writing. Allen, I hope you read this, because you were right in the first place, and had no business apologizing for being right.
Second, the one offering the apology should be in some way responsible for the initial offense. For example, the frequent calls for President Bush or the government to apologize for slavery.
There is not a single person alive today who was alive when slavery was legal in the United States. It’s been outlawed for nearly one and a half centuries.
Finally, an apology should involve both remorse for the action, and implications that steps will be taken to keep it from happening again. If I step on your foot, my apology is saying that I should have been more careful, and will be in the future. But if I bull my way through a crowd, muttering “sorry” with every elbow I toss, that’s worse than saying nothing. It’s saying that I do know what I’m doing is wrong, but I don’t care.
To take this from the personal to the global: a lot of Muslims are demanding apologies from the governments of Denmark, and now Germany and France, for the publication of those dozen cartoons of Mohammed. Those governments should not apologize, as none of the criteria above are met:
1) The cartoons were initially published to symbolize the dangers of self-censorship and fear of mob rule. As such, they have made their point admirably.
2) The respective governments had absolutely no responsibility for the publication of those cartoons, and had absolutely no right to prevent them — or sanction the publishers after the fact. All three nations have laws protecting the rights of free speech and freedom of the press, and what the publishers did was absolutely not illegal in any way.
3) The governments in question should have no remorse for the publication. Remorse would imply that they regretted permitting the publication, and that would be a betrayal of those aforementioned rights.
4) Finally, the governments should have no intention whatsoever of preventing further publication of offensive cartoons. To do so would be to foreswear some of the most critical rights of free people, and any government that would compromise in the face of threats of violence such important principles has no business calling itself the representatives of a free nation.