It’s Time to Say We’re Sorry

Posted on October 8, 2018

I’m sorry, may I ask you a question? I’m sorry, this isn’t what I ordered. I’m sorry, could I please have a glass of water? I’m sorry, you seem to be standing on my foot. I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry There are two things that the British do more than any other people in the world: talk about the weather, and apologize. Of all of my charming quirks, this annoys my wife Micol more than anything else. She can’t understand why I apologize for things I haven’t done wrong, and more frustrating for her is when I don’t apologize for the things I have. According to the writer Henry Hitchings “the readiness of the English to apologize for something they haven’t done is remarkable, and it is matched by an unwillingness to apologise for what they have done.” There’s a certain degree of irony that it was the British singer Elton John who famously sang: “Sorry seems to be the hardest word”. The truth is that without real intention or meaning, it’s not a hard word to say at all. But, to be truly sorry – to mean it and to really feel it, then perhaps it is one of the hardest words to say. Over the past year, we’ve grown painfully used to what I’ll call the “unapology” given by countless celebrities and public figures, after being caught for a whole host of sins. In the most recent high-profile case, Ohio State Football coach Urban Meyer was forced to apologize after taking no action and remaining silent when a coach on his staff was charged with physically abusing his wife, for the second time. Note that I said forced to apologize. This is not something that Meyer appeared willing or particularly eager to do. In Meyer’s press conference, he apologized to his colleagues, his students and the whole Buckeye nation. But he failed to apologize to the woman who had been assaulted by her husband, failed to apologize for doing and saying nothing in the many years he knew about it, failed to apologize for his own wife encouraging her to stay with him. And when pressed about what he would say to the woman who had been assaulted, he responded: “Well, I have a message for everyone involved in this: I’m sorry that we’re in this situation, and, I’m just sorry we’re in this situation.”1 It took a further three days for a statement to be released on his behalf including a direct apology to her. His punishment: a three-game suspension, because ultimately success on the football field and the revenue it brings is more important than a woman’s, or the students’, safety. We live in a society that is finally, all too late, starting to acknowledge the regular abuse that women have and continue to endure. But how many times, as the #MeToo movement has swept through the country, have we watched celebrities and people in power offer apologies that are anything but – the unapology. I apologize for the situation I’m in. I apologize if, the crucial word, if I have caused anyone any harm. I apologize for the embarrassment to the institutions I belong 1 See Rabbi Danny Burkeman It’s time to say we’re sorry Yom Kippur 5779 2 to or the people I work with. These are not apologies – they are carefully worded press releases designed to avoid guilt and responsibility. In many cases they even have the air of allowing the perpetrator to, in some ways, assume the mantle of the victim. When Harvey Weinstein originally released a statement, it said: “I came of age in the 60’s and 70’s, when all the rules about behavior and workplaces were different. That was the culture then.”2 While I didn’t grow up in that generation, I am 100% certain that assault was never part of the accepted culture; this is an offensive excuse for unacceptable behavior. In a similar vein, Charlie Rose included in his statement: “All of us, including me, are coming to a newer and deeper recognition of the pain caused by conduct in the past, and have come to a profound new respect for women and their lives.”3 I am sorry, but women and plenty of men have always known that harassment was a problem. It’s not some ground-breaking new discovery of the past 12 months; it’s just that in the past 12 months, there has been a long overdue reckoning for years of abuse. I want to tell you a story about a parrot, this parrot had a foul mouth, it swore and cursed all the time. It continued this way for months and no amount of training helped. One day the owner lost his patience and in a fit of anger stuck the parrot in the freezer. There was some muffled cursing and then silence. Worrying that he might have killed his pet, the man relented opening the door. The parrot calmly stepped out onto his extended arm and said: “I’m sorry that I offended you with my language and actions. I ask for your forgiveness. I will try to improve my behavior…” He was astounded and was about to ask what moved him to change when the parrot continued, “May I ask, what exactly did the chicken do?”4 Urban Meyer, Harvey Weinstein, Charlie Rose and countless others are the parrot in our story. They are apologizing not because they are remorseful for what they have done; they are apologizing for fear of the consequences if they do not. We’ve witnessed what can only be referred to as unapologies. And worse than those unapologies, the silence from people who have failed to apologize at all. At this time of year, our focus is supposed to be on three actions: Tefillah – prayer, congratulations, you’re all a third of the way there; Tzedakah – either translated as charity or acts of justice; and finally, Teshuva – repentance, which includes within it the need to apologize for past transgressions. The problem is that as a society we have failed to teach our children about how and why to apologize. I am guilty of this. I have on more occasions than I can count told my children Gabby and Benny that they need to say they’re sorry. “Say sorry.” I demand. Often after the initial begrudging apology, there’s a second demand: “say it like you mean it.” We don’t talk about how they should feel, and we don’t spend nearly enough time on why they should be apologizing; 2 Harvey Weinstein statement – 3 Charlie Rose’s statement – see 4 This joke is adapted from one used by Rabbi Barbara Goldman-Wartell Rabbi Danny Burkeman It’s time to say we’re sorry Yom Kippur 5779 3 instead merely hearing the words “I’m sorry” is chalked up as a parental success. And so my children are learning from a young age that simply saying they’re sorry is sufficient. It’s as though these words possess a magical formula – say you’re sorry and everything is automatically alright. The second lesson that comes from this way of apologizing is the idea that we say we’re sorry in order to get something, rather than to give something. Our children say the word so that they’ll be allowed to resume playing, be eligible for a promised treat, or simply so they no longer have to listen to their parents nagging them. These apologies are offered as a defense without any real desire to repair the situation. Just like the parrot in our story, the apology is self-interested with no real concern for the injured party. These are the repeated apologies, or unapologies, we’ve heard from celebrities. They apologize as damage control. All too often the words that they recite are empty, unaccompanied by any real or tangible action. The plan it seems is say you’re sorry, keep quiet for a few weeks, months or even years, and then hope that you can return quietly into your former role. We’re already beginning to see this happen. This is not the way to offer a sincere and meaningful apology, and this is certainly not the way to offer a Jewish apology. Rabbi Moses Maimonides, arguably the greatest Jewish mind of the Middle Ages suggested that there are primarily four stages to repentance.5 We need to confess what we’ve done, we must feel regret and remorse, we are obligated to offer reparation or restitution to the person we have wronged. And then finally there must be a resolution not to repeat the action; full teshuva – complete repentance only happens when a person finds themselves in the same situation as they were previously in and behaves in a different way. Apology expert Aaron Lazare draws on Maimonides’ teachings and suggests that these are the same elements that are necessary for a good apology. Many of these celebrities should have read some Maimonides before issuing their unapologies. Boston’s own Tom Ashbrook offered one of these non-apology apologies. Having been fired as the host of NPR’s On Point for creating an abusive work environment, the statement he released said: “I’m proud of those who thrived with us. I’m sorry to those who found the show’s pace and me just too much… We strove for excellence in really challenging times and sometimes colleagues’ feelings were hurt along the way. I regret that”.6 Not exactly worth of Maimonides’ seal of approval. Less than two months later, he wrote an Op Ed in the Boston Globe titled: “Is there room for redemption?”7 In the article, he details his love and history with the city of Boston and explains his initial response having been born out of shock and defensiveness. He claims to have listened and looked inward and focused on the complaints and his own actions. Recognizing, in his words that: “We are in a historic teaching moment and learning moment. My story is a 5 He outlines three of the stages in Hilchot Teshuva 1:1 and then adds the fourth in Hilchot Teshuva 2:9 –these texts are available in Hebrew and English on 6 7 Rabbi Danny Burkeman It’s time to say we’re sorry Yom Kippur 5779 4 small part of that. I am responsible for what happened. I own it. I’m sorry for it. I’ve learned from it and will continue to learn. I’ve paid a price and come to greater understanding” If we judge Ashbrook against the criteria laid out by Maimonides, while an improvement, we are still left wanting. Despite the admirable words that he puts on the page, there is still an absence of confession; he appears unable to fully admit what he has done. The regret and remorse that we read appears to be born out of regret that he lost his job, rather than for the pain that he caused to the people who worked for him. As for reparation, he has paid a price personally, but what has he done to make amends directly to the people that he wronged? In a response to the article Globe columnist Yvonne Abrahams wrote clearly: “Apology not accepted”, suggesting there may be a way for redemption, but this was not it.8 There is another way. On a summer evening in 1990, Debbie Baigrie was standing with a friend in a downtown Tampa parking lot.9 Three teenagers approached them asking for change and then shouting, demanded their money; as she turned around to look, she heard a bang and felt a searing pain in her mouth. She had been shot. A few days later, 13-year-old Ian Manuel was caught riding in a stolen car being driven by a friend. As he was being taken to the juvenile detention center he felt compelled to confess. “Man, you know that lady that got shot downtown three days ago?” He said to the officer, “It was me, I’m the one that did the shooting.” He was charged as an adult and on the advice of his lawyer he pled guilty to the crimes, including attempted murder, hoping the judge would show leniency. He was sentenced to life in prison without the chance of parole as the judge told him, “sometimes there are no second chances.” A few weeks before Christmas of his first year in prison, Ian was looking through some legal papers and found Debbie’s phone number. Her phone rang and she was asked if she would accept a collect call from Ian at Appalachian Correctional Institution. She was shocked to be hearing from her attacker, but a morbid sense of curiosity led her to accept. Ian simply said: “Ms. Baigrie, I called to wish you and your family a Merry Christmas and happy holidays, and to apologize for shooting you.” Awkward conversation followed and Ian asked if he could write her a letter. A month later the first one arrived, then another, and another. Given the sentence he had received, Ian had no ulterior motives; but he felt remorse and wanted to apologize directly to the person he had hurt. They developed a relationship and kept in touch throughout his incarceration; they inspired one another and helped each other to heal. Twenty-six years later, after the Supreme Court ruled that life imprisonment for juveniles was unconstitutional, Ian was in court again, this time standing before an appeal judge. Significantly Debbie was also in Court that day, sitting on the side of the defense. In his statement to the Judge Ian said: “we’ve been waiting for a long time for the justice system to catch up to my remorse and Debbie’s forgiveness.” He was released that day, and for his first meal as a free man, he 8 9 This primary source for this story is Rabbi Danny Burkeman It’s time to say we’re sorry Yom Kippur 5779 5 shared a pizza with Debbie. Maimonides four steps: confession, remorse, repair, and we can be certain no repeats. A genuine, heartfelt apology has immense power to heal wounds. It is a shame that so many of our celebrities fail to fully confess their wrongdoings, exhibit no remorse for their actions, appear unwilling to say they’re sorry to the people they’ve wronged, and focus on themselves rather than the people they hurt. As we approach the end of our Ten Days of Atonement we can learn from them what not to do as we seek to make amends and apologize to the people we have wronged. But I’ve been thinking a lot about my British apologies. I do apologize for things that I know are not really my fault. I will say I’m sorry even if I’m not the primary person who needs to be apologizing. All of you are actually being very British today and I’m terribly proud of you all. Throughout our service, we have these sections of vidui – confession, where we articulate and confess a litany of sins. Some we have done and some we have not, but together we annually recite these lists and confess. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel famously wrote: “morally speaking, there is no limit to the concern one must feel for the suffering of human beings. It also became clear to me that in regard to cruelties committed in the name of a free society, some are guilty, while all are responsible.”10 It is such an important lesson: some are guilty, but all are responsible. We are all responsible. The #MeToo movement has forced a long overdue reckoning on the every day suffering and abuse that women experience in our society and culture. I have reflected on my past actions and those things that I have witnessed, and while I can say that I have not committed any of these abuses, I do bear responsibility. It has been a harsh reality to face that about 90% of the people who have committed these abuses look very similar to me. So now it is time for my own confession. I confess that there are times I have not recognized that I am receiving benefit from a societal structure that affords me every privilege and opportunity as a white male, at the cost of others. I confess that there were times when my eyes were closed to the frequent suffering that women endure; blind to what was happening right in front of me. I confess that as certain celebrities have apologized, my initial response was sadness at their fall, before I began to think about the victims they had hurt. I confess that I have failed to understand the regular sexism and inappropriate attention and contact that are a part of many women’s experience. I confess that I have not done enough to address the inequalities that still exist in our society and the challenges that women face every day. 10 Rabbi Danny Burkeman It’s time to say we’re sorry Yom Kippur 5779 6 I confess that without the #MeToo movement I would have probably remained unaware and blind to what was happening in front of me. To all of you, to those this behavior has hurt, and to God, I say I am truly sorry. I commit to make amends. I will do better. We must do better. I am sorry.