When communities were closer knit, apologies were much more likely to have meaning. People had a larger concern about how they impacted others. That concern was based in part on the impact their actions would have on their reputation in future dealings with people within that community. Sometimes, of course, that fear of damage to reputation was oppressive, serving as a social vice grip that demanded excessive conformity. But our efforts to cast off the oppressive dimension of undue concern for reputation has caused us to throw the baby out with the bath water. It has led to an equally oppressive situation: one where people fear that if they show genuine concern about the fact that they had caused suffering to another, they will be severely disadvantaged. This fails to recognize that when an apology is genuine, it serves the very useful purpose of recognizing interconnectedness and the responsibilities that come with it. As a child I always imagined this was why my grammar schoolteachers - skillfully or otherwise - insisted that when a student caused pain to one of his peers, an apology was one of the way of the ways that student could learn from a situation and move on. Processing shame skillfully is only possible if a person experiences that shame, learns from it, and then figures out how to move beyond it. It’s a fundamental way human beings transform narcissism into healthy self-confidence.
The logic of all this only makes sense when people feel they are part of a community, and the opinion of that community is valued. When community isn’t valued it’s invariably been replaced by the fierce form of individualism that has come to symbolize an overemphasis on the values embedded in the frontier ethic. That overemphasis falsely equates restraint with conformity, and irresponsibility with freedom. It gives a person license to “act as he sees fit”, even if what he chooses to do is completely untethered from an appropriate sense of conscience and community.
When the frontier ethic exerts undue influence in a society, apologies are viewed strategically. Suddenly, it’s easier to apologize after one’s transgressions than it is to ask permission before them. A kind of psychological “cost-benefit” analysis is done which recognizes - accurately in contemporary times - that people value a “winner” more than the quiet humility required to discover if a genuine transgression over somebody else’s sovereignty has occurred. Humility is feigned after the fact, as if the person didn’t realize beforehand what he was doing. Do you really think Rupert Murdoch's apology for what happened to the individuals and families subjected to the widespread journalistic terrorism employed by News of the World came out of learning about it for the first time after the fact? Even in less dramatic circumstances - such as Facebook’s decision that you have to “opt out” rather than “opt in” to insure your privacy from their invasiveness - decisions are made strategically and then cloaked in insincere apologies afterwards because, quite simply, it’s less damaging. Our society hasn't figured out what consequences are necessary to employ to make people accountable for such behavior in ways where that result in genuine behavior change. All those “fines” administered to banks who instigated the financial meltdown through unethical, illegal, and socially destructive activity, for instance, are just drops in a bucket to them. In the world of the strategic apology, public performances simulating contrition take precedence over authentic remorse almost every time.
Sincere apology requires elevation above narcissistically driven individualism. It means a person has understood that despite the embarrassment or shame they feel when they’ve wronged somebody, those feelings are the starting point for responding genuinely to someone else’s distress. It’s one of the principles underlying juvenile justice system experiments such as the restorative justice programs of New Zealand, an approach that has been adopted subsequently by many countries. The idea of such programs is that when a young person starts to realize the consequences on others of the suffering he has caused - through vandalizing or robbing a store, for instance - he learns how to process shame without being overwhelmed by it, he takes a step towards recognizing the value of community, and he becomes more likely to show appropriate restraint in the future.
As adults, this all sounds very “naive”. In our society, it is! When a society values cleverness ahead of wisdom, success ahead of collaboration, and conquest ahead of reconciliation, anyone stepping outside of these values is seen as a fool. This is a consequence of becoming so trapped by our survival instincts - so fearful of being taken advantage of if we’re vulnerable - that we fail to find the courage necessary to rise to the occasion of admitting we did something inappropriate or wrong. Finding that sort of courage is never easy, but it’s the only way to turn apologies from something worthless into something that builds trust and respect in the larger community.