Thoughts on the Fauxpology

We’ve had some major unpleasantness in the Australian political sphere recently and, while I won’t bore you with the details, a radio announcer has felt it necessary to apologise for a particularly unpleasant comment that he made about the Prime Minster, and the recent death of her father. It was not, I must say, either the most heartfelt or actually apologetic apology that has ever been delivered and the Prime Minster, who quite rightly has better things to do, has chosen not to take this man’s personal phone call for an apology. And, of course, neither should she feel that she has to. Let me state this in plain terms: the offender does not gain the right to demand the way in which an apology is presented, if they wish to proffer an apology. However, let me cut to the chase (for once) and say that an apology without a genuine sense that you have done something wrong, for which an apology is deserved and that will change your behaviour in future, is worthless.

In this case, the broadcaster has previously apologised for remarks, including that the legally elected and sitting Prime Minister of Australia be put in a ‘chaff’ bag and thrown out to sea. However, his apology for the chaff bag comment may have to be scrutinised, in light of what happened at the dinner function at which he made further deliberately offensive and unsubstantiable claims.  At this event he, in between scurrilous remarks, signed a jacket made out of, you guessed it, chaff bags. Therefore, at least in the chaff bag case, it would appear that his previously apology was without conviction and possible not heartfelt: hence, worthless. He did not feel genuine regret or change his behaviour. In fact, if anything, he was now extending his behaviour and disrespect by aligning his signature with a physical representation of his statements.

When public figures mouth the words of regret, yet do not change or feel regret, we are in the territory of what has been neologised as the fauxpology. (Wikipedia refers to this as the Non-apology apology, if it has the form of an apology but does not actually express the expected contrition.) Let me give you some example words (not from said broadcaster I hasten to add):

“My recent comments may have offended some people and, if they did, then I wish to apologise.”

You are not sorry for the action, but you are sorry only because someone has taken offence, or your actions have been uncovered. Ultimately, the idea here is to say ‘sorry’ in such a way that it appears that you have sought, and may be granted, forgiveness without having to actually express responsibility. Of course, if you aren’t responsible for the problem and can move this to being the problem of the people that you’ve offended, then why should you change your behaviour at all? The example above is an “If apology”, where you are only apologising on a conditional basis. Other fine examples include such delightful phrases as “Mistakes were made” because, of course, one is studiously avoiding saying who made the mistakes.

The major problem with the fauxpology is that it is effectively a waste of time. Without a genuine desire to actually avoid the problematic behaviour, the only thing that may change is that the offender is more careful not to get caught. What bothers me from an educational sense is how pervasive these unpleasant non-apologies are.

I have too many students who feel that some sort of fauxpology, where they are sorry that an action has occurred but it is mysteriously not connected to them, is going to make things all better. I’m pretty sure that they haven’t learned it from me because I try to be honest in my apologies and then change things so that it doesn’t happen again. Am I always up to that standard? I’m probably pretty close and I strive to be better at it – but then again, I strive not to be a schmuck and sometimes that doesn’t work either. This separation of responsibility from outcome is a dangerous disconnection. It is most definitely someone’s responsibility if work didn’t get handed in on time and, while there are obvious exceptions and the spirit of charitable interpretation is still alive and well, a genuine recognition of whose responsibility it is leads one towards self-regulation far better than thinking of the work as something that is associated by accidental proximity rather than deliberate production.

I’m lucky in that I rarely expect my students to do anything where they feel they should be contrite (although there are examples, including being rude or disrespectful to their peers, although I wouldn’t push them all the way to guilt on that) but apologising for something as a recognition that whatever it was is both undesirable and now something to be avoided is essential, when you are actually at fault. But it has to be genuine or there is no point. I loathe being lied to so a false apology, especially when immediately backed up by recidivism, is a great disappointment to me.

My students are responsible for their work. I am responsible for their programs, assessment, and ensuring that they can achieve what is required in a fair and equitable environment. If I get it wrong, then I have to admit it and change behaviour. Same for the students. If something has gone wrong, then we need to work out who was responsible because we can then work out who needs to change things so it doesn’t happen again. This isn’t about ascribing punishment or blame, it’s about making things work better. The false apology, like foolish punishment, is easy but useless. As an example. I cannot think of a more useless punishment than writing lines on a blackboard, especially as the simple mechanics of this action lends itself to a deconstruction of the sentence into a form where the meaning is lost by the fifth time you’ve written “I will not challenge the ontological underpinnings of reality” but have really written “I I I I I I …” “will will wll wll wl wl” and getting steadily more squiggly. But this is useless because it is not really tied to the original offence (whatever it happens to be – talking in class, making fart sounds, shuffling the desk) and it has no teaching value at all. This punishment is the equivalent of the fauxpology in many ways: it looks like it’s doing something but not only does it not achieve its aims, it actually works against positive alternatives by providing an easy out.

I’m very disappointed by the public figures who recite these empty phrases, because the community and my students learn their empty words and think “If they can get away with it, so can I” and, ultimately, my students can’t. It’s a waste of their very valuable time and, at some stage, may lead to problems for the vast majority when someone demands more than a fauxpology and there is no real character substance to provide.

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