- William Sloan Coffin, Jr.
Apology and Forgiveness
Updated February 2013 by Heidi Burgess
An apology is an expression of regret over some admitted past harm one has caused.
While apologies are most often made by individuals, larger entities such as organizations and even countries have offered apologies.
Strictly speaking, making an apology means saying "I'm sorry" to another party. Yet, as we all have probably experienced, just because someone says they are sorry does not mean they really are. Sometimes apologies are offered rather disingenuously, as mere placating or begrudging compliance to expectation. Therefore, there is a distinct difference between what is considered mere words and a genuine apology.
First, a genuine apology implies that the party feels responsible and is therefore taking responsibility. While this might imply an admission of a mistake, it can also effectively mean a reversal of previously held views or policies. Secondly, a genuine apology is fueled by sincere regret for the past harm caused. In other words, if given the chance to go back and do it all again, the party would act differently. In this respect, the apology would include little or no defense of one's past actions. Lastly, a genuine apology might require that reparations be made - especially in the case that those who are being apologized to are still being harmed as a result of past actions. Otherwise, the offended party is likely to think of the apology as just words.
A genuine apology can be seen as an opportunity for both sides of a conflict to enter into an improved relationship, and is an important step in that direction. The new relationship can be based on a greater sense of mutual trust, acceptance, and understanding than previously thought possible. Apologies can take some of the sting of past harms away, along with the subsequent bitterness and reluctance of the offended party to negotiate or have a continuing relationship with the offender.
Apologies are a very important part of resolving or improving conflicts. Past wrongs are often remembered and felt for a long time and at all levels, from the hearts and minds of individuals to the policies and relations between nation states. Long-standing stumbling blocks to resolution can be overcome when one party apologizes to the other. This can be difficult to achieve, however. Parties are often very reluctant to admit they are wrong, especially when it implies expense in time and resources incurred in reversing past positions and/or making subsequent reparations.
By the same token, the victims of past wrongs have to find the space in their hearts to forgive those who victimized them, even though the pain and suffering may never disappear. But forgiving is just as important as apologizing in any interpersonal relationship or society which wishes to put its struggles behind it and create a more peaceful and cooperative future. Forgiveness, like apology, requires more than lip service to be genuine. It means that the offended party has given up some of its feelings of resentment and anger, quite possibly implying they let go of what was previously thought of as moral bargaining power.
Despite the saying "forgive and forget," accepting an apology by offering forgiveness does not necessarily imply forgetting anything. Offended parties may let go of some of their ill feelings toward the opposing party, but they may not need or desire to forget past harms. By remembering the past, valuable lessons learned are not lost, and those who died or were otherwise harmed are dignified.
In 1997, U.S. President Bill Clinton offered an official apology on behalf of the United States for slavery. Although the U.S. did not acceded to the demands for direct "reparations," some compensation for past wrongs has been given over the years in the form of affirmative action programs that try to help blacks (and other people of color) make up for past acts of prejudice and discrimination. Similarly, in 2009, President Barack Obama signed into law an apology to the Native Peoples of the United States for violence, maltreatment, and neglect.
Apologies are valuable in many conflict situations from minor interpersonal disputes to long-lasting, deep-rooted, and violent conflicts. In minor interpersonal disputes, often an apology is all it takes to remedy the situation and resolve the conflict for good. In long-lasting conflicts, apology is one, albeit very difficult, step toward ultimate peace and reconciliation between the parties.