Apology as a tool for repair

A child apologized to the mother after lying to cover up having accidentally broken a window. An employee apologized to the boss after losing a client due to negligence. A husband apologized to the wife for cheating. A defendant apologized to the plaintive in court during sentencing. A company CEO apologized to the public over some scandal. In Chapter 5 of her book, In the Toolbox: Words and Money, Spelman turns her attention to the roles of apology and (monetary) reparation within the framework of “restorative justice”. Two simple words that belie the complexity of the task facing homo reparans.

indeed, Spelman went on to spend nineteen pages of her book on the first of the two “tools”. An apology may begin with a simple “I am sorry,” but that could very well be just a preamble. As she described it, “[a]n apology is an invitation to share in a ritual of repair, in a dance that takes more than one dancer. (p.85)” In offering an apology, the apologizer is expecting some sort of forgiveness, resolution of conflict, or at least a token of closure, such that both parties can put the past behind them and move on with their respective lives. Spelman suggested that a genuine apology necessitates that the apologizer must make himself vulnerable, for example by an admission of guilt. Then the mind games begin in earnest. Did the apologizer do it in the hope of escaping punishment? Did he do it because he fears even harsher repercussions?  Or as Spelman might have hinted, is it possible that the apologizer is simply hoping to benefit from donning a cloak of virtue? (p. 90, p. 96)

In a sense, apologies are so common and frequent in everyday life that the words “I’m sorry” are probably as devoid of meaning as is the use of the four-letter word as an obligatory adverb. One can actually find templates of letters of apology on the internet! Very often, apologies are also employed as a defensive gambit (as in a game of chess), to forswear any intent and thus accountability. In fact, such practices are so well-known that they have begun to carry a stigma of their own. Even Shakespeare opined, “The lady doth protest too much, methinks.” When a person begins with an apology every time he opens his mouth, will anyone take his apologies seriously? Therefore, an apology sometimes runs the risk of eliciting exactly the opposite effect of what it purports to accomplish.

So an apology must first be deemed genuine before there is any hope of being considered; then there is the question of whether the apology is sufficiently commensurate with the damage it aims to address. In fact, it is not uncommon for a verbal (or written) apology to be accompanied by additional acts of contrition. As the saying goes, “action speak louder than words”. This is why money is often also found in the toolbox. In this modern global capitalistic society, money is the gold standard by which everything else, including justice, is measured. So it is not surprising that monetary reparation often come into the equation. Nonetheless, when the damage involves loss of human lives, reparation purely in monetary terms might come across as callous, undignified, or downright insulting.


In the novel “Fail Safe” (Burdick & Wheeler, 1962), after a stray strategic bomber let loose a nuclear device on the city of Moscow, the American President had to come up with a “proper” apology pronto to avoid a full-scale thermonuclear annihilation. In the end, the president asked a trusted friend to drop an atomic bomb on New York City. In real life, on various levels ranging from personal to international, “players” have to come up with measured apologies to repair broken relationships or forestall potentially dire consequences. Let’s hope that homo reparans will be resourceful enough so that the nightmarish scenarios similar to the one depicted in the novel will never materialize.


In Search of a Cure


In Chapters 4 & 5, Spelman offered a rather substantive comparison between the traditional/prevailing “retributive” justice framework and the “restorative” justice movement. She invested significant number of pages to explore the two key components of restorative justice, namely, apology and reparation. However, what captivated me was where she turned her attention to James Baldwin.

Through roughly five pages (90 – 95), Spelman had me on a rollercoaster. At her very first invocation of Baldwin’s words,

 [T]his is the crime of which I accuse my country and my countrymen, and for which neither I nor time nor history will ever forgive them, that they have destroyed and are destroying hundreds of thousands of lives and do not know it and do not want to know it.

I wrote down on the margin “Baldwin is no Jesus”!

(I am not too familiar with the works of Baldwin. From when I was a teenager, browsing the Fiction section of my local library, I gathered that Baldwin was a novelist. There were several of his books in the BAL section on the shelf, but at that stage of my life I was mainly interested in mysteries, adventures, and science fiction– I vaguely remember reading a book, science fiction, by J. G. Ballard, which appeared in the same section. All I know about Baldwin at the time was that he was black. It was forty years later that I learned that Baldwin had something to say about homosexuality as well when I recently read John Irving’s In One Person. A librarian had mentioned Irving was one of her favourite novelists, and having heard, long ago, about his other works like The World According To Garp and Hotel New Hampshire, I just thought it was high time that I read one of his books. Now, I realized that Baldwin had a pretty big voice about racial relationships too.)

Then Spelman went on to point out that Baldwin saw pity as an alternative to hatred. “Sour grapes”, “reaction formation”, again I wrote on the margin. According to Spelman, Baldwin did not believe forgiveness was in the equation, nor would hatred help – he advocated “pity”. Instead of the passivity of forgiving, the negativity of hatred (and pity too), Baldwin suggested that the solution is to rehabilitate the white psyche and soul [which is filled with ignorance (…do not know it…) and lacks compassion (…do not want to know it…)] with a “fierce Black love”.

“Baldwin may yet BE the black Jesus!”

Within a chapter on apology (and forgiveness) and reparation, following a chapter on justice and retribution, Spelman has suggested that humans are preoccupied with repair and compensation, both necessarily reactive measures after the harm is done. (Here we can see a parallel in the medical sciences, throwing billions into finding cures, and creating a money making microcosm on top.) If Baldwin was to be believed, “love” is the answer. If you love someone, you won’t (intentionally) try to hurt him/her, if you love someone, you will do whatever it takes to ensure the well-being of whomever you love… As in medicine, a term that is already biased towards cures, the solution may well be something more proactive, as in “preventive medicine”, a concept that has gained ascendancy of late. Of course, the “answer” is seldom that simple; in any case, words, and language in general, are but abstractions and rationalizations of the human mind, expressed in mutually recognizable utterances. In talking and thinking about repair, what we are actually doing is improvising, in search of the very “tools” needed to solve the problem(s) we are facing.

When Spelman charmed us with her examples of repair in the beginning of her book, it was sort of lighthearted fare: Willie was endearing; Fred was an anachronism; Louise, and company, could have been the three fairy godmothers in Sleeping Beauty protecting, or Florence Nightingale in triplicate nursing back to health, the painting. Now we have graduated to strife and violence: racial discrimination, slavery, and the holocaust, demanding answers, crime victims confronting those who had hurt them. Gone are the dutiful automobile, or the transcendental artwork, we are dealing with gut-wrenching conflicting emotions, motives, and interests. Things are no longer black and white, all the nuances lumped together would probably loom larger than the primary issues. The victims are demanding reparation, even an apology. Well, not just any apology, but a genuine and heartfelt APOLOGY! But then, how can one be sure that it is genuine-genuine? The apology could have been offered in the hopes of a reduced sentence, a smaller fine, and, dare one hope, forgiveness… And then there is an extra twist. Once the offender offered an apology, the ball would be in the plaintiff’s court – was there enough sincerity, signs of repentance, guilt, such that it could be deemed acceptable? And if not, would it appear to third-parties that the plaintiff was just too demanding (even greedy) or unreasonable. Wait, are we then saying an apology could be used as a “weapon” on these kinds of battlefield?

Indeed, Baldwin has brought up the futility of apologies, even though he offered the possibility of forgiveness, through what he described as “”fierce Black love”. It seems Baldwin believed that the only solution that one could hope for is “self-repair”:  The whites MUST “repair” their own souls, with some help from the blacks (in the form of a fierce Black love), who in turn WILL BE repairing their own (black) souls by recognizing that they (the whites) are currently unable to comprehend the immensity and inhumanity of what they have done, and continue to be doing. In this sense, the “restorative justice” movement parallels Baldwin’s vision that a solution can only be found with participation (not just in confronting and antagonistic roles, but in true cooperation and understanding) from both sides.

Human interactions can be quite tricky. What with second-guessing, posturing and feinting (as a strategy), how could we even begin to assess the validity and veracity of any “repair work”? How could we be sure any gestures are sincere? Could we detect a hint of condescension, a symbolic grasp at the title of superiority from the whites, on the part of Baldwin? As Spelman herself pointed out, apologies under the right circumstance allow the apologiser to don the cloak of virtue. By the same token, forgiveness could also be worn as a badge of nobleness.  Don’t we envy Willie, where there can be little doubt whether the automobile is roadworthy once more and exactly what Willie and his clients wanted?



Homo reparans

The world we live in is not perfect nor indestructible, objects in our daily life need repair, our bodies need repair, human relationships need repair, the world economy needs repair, the geopolitical relationships among countries need repair, homo sapiens is in need of repair.

Almost with effortless ease, Spelman seduced the reader with three anecdotal illustrations of varying aspects of homo reparans. Starting with a bricoleur who could do wonders with whatever was on hand to coax back into running condition a broken down automobile, to a “restorer” who was somewhat enamored (and obsessed) with an old broken Indian Chief motorcycle (hidden under a pile of junk in a corner of the garage) and decided to bring it back to its former glory, and finally the ladies in a museum trying to navigate the high-wire act of preserving a vandalized piece of artwork.

Scattered here and there, Spelman was also dropping hints at a different agenda: She pointed out not just objects and machinery need repair, “… our bodies and souls…”, “… relationships between individuals and among nations…], up to tikkun olam, a Hebrew term that can be translated to “repair the world”. Along the way, she also brought up the issues of inequality and prejudice – racial/ethnic, sexual, and class. I was really drawn in by her clever and evocative prose, that is until I hit Chapter 3.

Introducing the “household” as the locus and focus of repair, Spelman seems to be floundering for a platform to launch her thesis, or at least commentary, on examples of injustice in the society as a whole, ranging from the implicit prejudices to outright intimidation faced by women workers in a “traditionally” male-dominated workplace, based on arguably arbitrary gender-role expectations both in the workplace and at home, to racial and class inequality epitomized by slavery and the by-now faded distinction between blue and white collar. The choice of the “household” appears to be the result of a feminist attempt to claim credit for women because they serve an important role in repairing the working men so that they can face another day of draining (body and soul) labour – suggesting that without the succorance of the women when they come home from a hard day’s work, these men’s capacity to be productive (in work) will surely diminish, at least over time.

Then Spelman introduced another pair of obfuscating terms: “ethics of justice” vs. “ethics of care”. So by the end of Chapter 3, I was ready to throw the book into the trash bin. Whatever theme she had in mind, she has sort of lost me (or at least my interest)! Make no mistake about it. Spelman brought up many issues confronting us, and the world we live in. I literally could not read the book straight through, without my mind branching out, all the while trying to limit the impulse to furiously scribble down some of my own thoughts on the margin of the book. So, in a sense, as a philosopher, Spelman has succeeded in stimulating my brain and tugging at my heartstrings, and it was unsettling to say the least. Just look at the pathetic state the world is in: In our push to “better our lives”, we have neglected the deleterious effects of our actions on the environment (and society). In an attempt to uphold justice, we have allowed criminals to get off on court-room technicalities. The health care system is constantly mired in legal battles. Democracy has degenerated into propaganda and filibusters…