The Difficulty of Apologizing in America

We live in a litigious society here in the USA!  USA!!!    We are raised to be competitive (cooperation is for the weak) and if things do not go our way– bring a lawsuit.   One of Shakespeare’s characters insults another as a coward, an “action taking knave”.   Here in America taking legal action is not shameful or cowardly in the least, it’s what the powerful do to dominate challengers.  In fact, we have here what’s known in other places as “The American Rule”– each side pays its own legal fees, virtually no matter how the parties found themselves in court.  If I have money to burn I can sue you over virtually nothing, and if you don’t pay thousands of dollars to a competent lawyer, guess what:  you lose.

What the American Rule means in practice is that a very rich person (or “person”) can have lawyers make out a case with just enough substance not to be dismissed outright.   They can often bludgeon the other side into submission with the threat of bankrupting their adversary with huge legal fees.   The less wealthy party will have to hire a lawyer who will make a motion to dismiss the flimsy case outright, based on the papers themselves.   The judge will not be able to do that, if the pleadings are well-drafted, because certain issues of fact raised in the pleadings must be decided in court first.  It could take years in court to resolve all these issues, if the rich man’s lawyer is proactive enough.   Run out of money?   You lose, asshole.   The American rule says so.

Along with this zeal for combat in court comes a moral code that includes never admitting fault, culpability, responsibility, wrongdoing, malfeasance, misfeasance, nonfeasance, anything that could lead to legal liability.  This code comes down from corporate “persons”, these powerful, conscience-free legal fictions understand very well that an apology is an admission of wrongdoing that can come back to bite them in the ass in court.   This “don’t admit shit” ethos trickles down to the masses — when someone accuses you of something, concede nothing, throw it back on them, fuck them.  They are the asshole!

It’s easy to understand how this works in the context of the law.   What is harder to grasp is the reflex to do this among your closest personal relations.   My father was traumatized as a kid by an insane and violent mother, I understand that he was disabled in a fundamental way.   Apologizing was very difficult for him, as was forgiving.   He simply did not trust people enough, including himself, to engage in the vulnerability that is required for a real apology, for real forgiveness.   Most people are not handicapped this way, or seemingly should not be, based on not having lived childhoods of extreme abuse and deprivation. 

It occurred to me just now, in the context of a friendship of almost 55 years I had to finally pronounce dead, that if my old friend had simply been able to apologize the long friendship could have probably been saved.   When, during our last talk, I recounted some of the worst instances of the behavior I find intolerable, things he would have very much hated being done to him, he was silent.   It was a last chance to admit, yes, I would have very much hated that if someone did it to me, I was wrong to do it, I am very sorry and will try to do better, I can promise you that.  

Instead he made distinctions, disputed details, suggested that nobody can promise anything, really, about the future, asked what about me, the things I do, like calling him a “moral retard” and saying I wanted to sock him, offered excuses, used the passive voice to describe how things, indeed, went badly that day in the car, how it was a bad day for him, the last time we saw each other, when, instead of apologizing outright he defended himself, his good nature, his good character, his love of peace, his inability to hurt anyone, his love.

Then, of course, having not been able to take responsibility for the results his own actions had ensured, and seeing me unmoved, he took a few moments to demonstrate that I was as blameworthy as him, my intransigent demand for a better apology, when a perfectly good one had already been given, and would be given again, for what it was worth, in the most general possible terms of regret, without any promise of anything being different, because, as we all know, some promises are pointless to make.

I wonder now why it is so hard for some people to admit fault, even when a consequence they say they very much don’t want is staring them in the face.   There is no court proceeding involved, no police or FBI investigation, no job at stake.  The stakes are saving a personal relationship you claim to deeply value.   I seriously don’t understand the impulse to defend yourself at all costs.  Why?   How does it help you?

Although it is still my reflex to snarl and defend my choices whenever Sekhnet is either confused by something I’ve written, or thinks what I’ve written should not be posted on-line, I usually change the offensive lines after a moment’s reflection.  If a sentence is confusing to a reader, it is not written well.  It needs to be rewritten more clearly.   If putting the otherwise well-written sentences on-line could cause some harm, to me or somebody else, I usually wind up seeing it from her point of view and changing the lines to remove the offending parts.   In each case, the change is for the best and the writing is better for me not resisting the editorial input.   How much does it take for me to listen to criticism from an intelligent reader?   Doesn’t feel like it takes much at all.

To some people, they would rather, it seems, torment and kill everyone they claim to love rather than admit that they have some bad impulses sometimes, impulses that consistently do harm to others and to themselves, that they find impossible to control.  Is it harder to say “I hurt you and I’m very sorry, I’ll try to do better” than to “double down” with the self-justification, no matter how incoherent?    Insight, well, that’s really in the eye of the beholder, isn’t it?

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