Barely a day goes by that someone is not in the news, apologizing about something or being told they should.
The latest example is Ilhan Omar, a Congresswoman from Minnesota, who has been accused of making anti-Semitic remarks. Before that, it was sixteen-year-old Nick Sandmann, who was part of a group of Catholic high-school students waiting on their bus in front of the Lincoln Memorial. When a video of Nick surfaced, showing him wearing a MAGA hat and smiling at a Native American activist who approached the group of boys, he was lambasted by social media, as well as mainstream outlets such as the Washington Post and CNN. They accused him of being a racist and the product of “white privilege,” among other things. Nevertheless, a quick look at the entire video shows Nick did nothing wrong. The media grossly overreacted.
But my purpose here is not to debate whether Ms. Omar’s comments were inappropriate or merely an expression of her views on U.S. policy toward Israel. Nor am I going to comment on whether Mr. Sandmann will—or should—be successful in his lawsuits against the Washington Post and CNN. My purpose here is, in part, to point out that such events seem to dominate public discourse much more than important issues, such as our country’s relationships with China and North Korea, for example.
Why is it that so many people seem to be fixated on who owes whom an apology?
The political commentator George F. Will described it this way:
“The cultivation - even celebration - of victimhood by intellectuals, tort lawyers, politicians and the media is both cause and effect of today’s culture of complaint.”
It wasn’t always this way. There was a time, not too long ago, when folks didn’t take themselves so seriously. Now, it seems, you can find yourself offending someone without even realizing it.
The comedian, Jerry Seinfeld, has stopped performing at college campuses because they are “too politically correct.” As he explained, “College students throw around ‘that's racist / sexist / prejudice’ without knowing what they're talking about.”
Even Dr. Seuss has come under fire. Researchers Katie Ishizuka and Ramón Stephens recently published the results of their study of his iconic children’s books in an article titled: “The Cat is Out of the Bag: Orientalism, Anti-Blackness, and White Supremacy in Dr. Seuss's Children's Books.” The title says it all.
Where does all of this end?
There’s no doubt that our society has become hyper-sensitive. Clearly, many folks need to take a deep breath and “lighten up.” But pendulums have a way of swinging to the extremes. Some of the ridiculous claims of victimhood and calls for apologies could cause a backlash, which wouldn’t be good for our society either. If we start dismissing calls for apologies—even reasonable ones—as simply more chatter from the “snowflake generation,” then we run the risk of not apologizing in instances when we should.
So that begs the question: When should we apologize?
The simple answer is that one should apologize when he or she has wronged someone else. Sometimes, it is obvious when that happens. Many times, it’s not.
Deciding whether one has wronged someone else requires careful thought about whether it is reasonable to conclude that something one has said or done is offensive. But as any lawyer will tell you, what is “reasonable” depends on innumerable factors. So, perhaps the answer is not so simple.
No doubt, questions of right and wrong can be clear. No one would argue that murder is acceptable, for example. But there are grey areas, and they seem to be expanding rapidly. Should I apologize for being insensitive to another’s political beliefs if I disagree with them? What about religion? Although most people refrain from making derogatory remarks about another’s religion, we’ve all heard jokes involving the Pope or Baptists or Jews or fill-in-the blank.
To some extent the answer lies in considering how much another person might identify with something; that is, how much it is a part of who they are. If it is something immutable, such as the color of a person’s skin, then making that characteristic the butt of a joke is clearly insensitive.
But what if someone takes himself too seriously? Is it really reasonable to conclude Dr. Seuss was a racist, sexist, xenophobe? Or that the Washington Redskins should change their name because it’s offensive? Is an apology called for when someone is offended because he takes himself too seriously? Probably not. But who decides if someone is taking himself too seriously?
Politics are another matter, in my humble opinion. Having strongly held beliefs should simply mean you’re ready to defend them. Political beliefs do not define an individual, as evidenced by the transformation of some public figures such as Ronald Reagan and Thomas Sowell, each of whom started his adult life as liberal and later became an ardent conservative. To me, one’s politics are fair game for criticism, and if someone doesn’t like it, then . . . well . . . he can lump it. That said, I also believe that a political argument should never destroy, or even undermine, one’s relationship with a family member or friend. And, the discourse should be respectful, not ad hominem.
So I guess I can’t offer clear guidance about when one should apologize, other than to say we should each examine our own heart. I was prompted to write this blog post, because I recently had an occasion to do just that.
As the readers of my novel Death in Panama know, it is loosely based on my experiences while stationed in Panama where I prosecuted a murder case. The novel also makes observations on Army life and briefly on Panamanian society and life in the Canal Zone.
To my dismay, I received an email from a reader who grew up in the Canal Zone and felt that my portrayal of Zonians was insulting. It would have been easy for me to dismiss her complaint, especially since much of the book, including some of the stories about Zonians, is based on my actual experiences in Panama. But I didn’t do that. Instead, I tried to understand why she might have been offended and concluded that her complaints were justified. So, I apologized. Later, I began to wonder whether other readers might be similarly offended, in particular because last summer I sold a number of copies of my book at the Panama Canal Society Reunion. So, I decided to publish an open letter to the Society in an effort to explain myself.
I’m not suggesting I’m any sort of “good guy” for apologizing. On the contrary, the author of the email was correct: I should have been more sensitive, especially with regard to something so personal as someone’s identity; that is, being a “Zonian.”
Questions of right and wrong are as old as time. I’ve concluded that there are no easy answers for many of them. All that well-intentioned people can do is try to be sensitive and respectful of others; refrain from taking themselves too seriously; and most important, as the Good Book says: “be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry.”