On Public Apologies
Who Can Actually Forgive?
There’s been a bit of recent discussion about apology and forgiveness, particularly our culture’s apparent reluctance to forgive people when they apologize. I don’t know that we’ve grown less apt to forgive, but I do think we have more contact with the public, especially on social media, and the public basically can’t forgive anybody. That’s because the public isn’t really anybody or anything: it's amorphous, shapeless, and has no character. It is always the public no matter if its opinion changes, it is “an abstract and deserted void which is everything and nothing.”
As Kierkegaard wrote in his polemic on modern society The Present Age:
…[A] public is a phantom which forbids all personal contact. And if a man adopts public opinion and is hissed tomorrow he is hissed by the public…A generation, a people, an assembly of the people, a meeting or a man, are responsible for what they are and can be ashamed if they are inconstant and unfaithful; but a public remains a public. A people, an assembly or a man can change to such an extent that that one may say: they are no longer the same; a public can on the other hand can become the very opposite and still be same—a public.
Public apologies don't really work because the public is not a concrete entity you can apologize to: it doesn't have a representative that can accept the apology. Who really represents the public? Most people who set themselves up with that pretense quickly find themselves violently disabused of the notion. It's totally a matter of contingency whether the public finds an apology acceptable, and it usually doesn't. The climate of public opinion might appear forgiving one day, but that’s not because the public has a forgiving nature, just that its mood has temporarily shifted. K. writes that the public is like a Roman emperor, “a large well-fed figure, suffering from boredom, looking only for the intoxication of laughter…And so for a change he wanders, indolent rather than bad, but with a negative desire to dominate.”
If someone apologizes to a group, that group, through a representative, can accept the apology, but the public won’t be swayed. This is because everyone has just as much right as everyone else to be a part of the public: as K. writes, “a drunken sailor at a peep-show has just as dialectically absolutely the same right to a public as the greatest man.” Anybody can decide, even if the issue has really nothing to do with them, that they don’t accept the apology or that’s insincere or coerced or whatever, and rally a new crowd with that notion. It doesn’t even really matter why.—Why not? It costs people nothing and it frequently redounds to their benefit for a time. It might even just give them something to gossip about.
It’s not just that people can do this only for some material gain or attention, it’s actually the way people try to form themselves as individuals in a formless public, to find something to believe or do “on principle.” Here’s K. again: “[A principle] is something immense which even the most insignificant man can add the most insignificant action, and thus become tremendously self-important…” By refusing to accept an apology on principle—even if the wrong doesn’t really affect us—we can suddenly appear to become part of something bigger. People’s isolated opinions appear to become representative of these giant, frightening abstractions like “the public” and this or that “principle,” making it very difficult to just say, “Well, that’s just your opinion.” It seems like it’s OPINION, Vox populi, vox dei.
This paints a pretty grim picture of modern life, especially for us that are interested public opinion and even have the (perhaps vain) hopes of influencing it. But certain things, I think, are actually private or at least can happen only between concrete individuals, whether they are individual people or groups.
But I want to shift for a moment to another possible way to think about apology and forgiveness. In Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit, there’s a famous section on the “beautiful soul,” a particular type of moral consciousness that manifests itself in modernity, around the birth of Romanticism. It is in fact, two types of moral consciousness that are apparently opposed to each other. One type of beautiful soul will not do anything and thinks everything people do in the world is a violation of moral principles; they retreat to a position of moralistic inaction and judgment and thus keep their consciences clear. The other type of beautiful soul goes about in the world and does things—has a career, runs for office, etc.—but every time they violate a moral principle, excuse it to themselves and others as just the way the world works. To quote from Terry Pinkard’s commentary on the Phenomenology:
The beautiful soul of judgment and the beautiful soul of action call each other hypocrites: one does nothing to keep their conscience clear, the other does bad stuff and then comes up with ad hoc justification. (In fact, they are both kind of hypocrites, which leaves the path open to reconciliation.) Eventually this impasse breaks down: the ironist, the beautiful soul of action, internalizes the beautiful soul of judgment’s criticisms and makes a kind of confession. They essentially say, “You’re right, I did wrong according to the standards we’ve adopted, but you’re no different because you’re acting like your standards are not just as contingent and historical and ad hoc as mine, but they are just the standards of our society right now. We’re both right and both wrong.” The beautiful soul of judgment might just rebuff this confession and become a “hard hearted” moralist and refuse to identify with the ironist, but the exchange might result in a mutual forgiveness. The beautiful soul of judgment recognizes themself in the ironist, and a new understanding takes hold that both are limited, contingent agents in a particular historical context. This sounds nice, if a little bit abstract. How could we possibly institutionalize this process of mutual forgiveness and understanding? Hegel thinks it’s done through what he calls religion, but he has a very particular understanding of what he means by that term that I can’t get into now. In any case, this is perhaps another way to think about forgiveness, but I believe it still has to happen between individuals.