For Mr. Sterling’s Apology, I Apologize

By Greg Spencer, professor of communication studies

I apologize for this column. If I hadn’t been duped, I’m quite sure I wouldn’t be typing these words. I’m not really like this. I’m Someone Much Better, a person you’d like if you just forgave me one tiny mistake.

As we consider Donald Sterling’s muddled apology (and mine), a couple of reminders are in order. Not all apologies are equal—and forgiveness doesn’t eradicate the need for consequences. Mr. Sterling might like us to forget these truths.Mg75SL12_0331

First, some apologies are better—more authentic and restorative—than others. We’ve all heard various versions of the following:

I am truly sorry. “I take full responsibility. One way or another, I will make it up to you, including the financial and emotional debts. Even though I don’t deserve it, I ask for your forgiveness.” Sometimes we are truly sorry for terrible things we meant to do and did—and sometimes we are sorry for effects we didn’t intend. Here, the apology is “of the heart.” It is sincere, and doesn’t make excuses or even imply that others “ought” to do something. It doesn’t demand an exchange for the admission of wrongdoing.

I’m sorry you were offended. “Some people are just overly sensitive. I didn’t do anything wrong but I don’t like to upset people. Please know that I didn’t mean to trouble you.” In this apology, motive is all that matters. I am not culpable unless I had destructive intentions. You can’t say I was verbally abusive if I thought I was just teasing. The bottom line is that the other person is to blame. Though this apology is sometimes justified, it is usually an exercise of self-justification.

The devil made me do this sorry thing. “I am normally a moral person but, like all humans, I occasionally give into pernicious, manipulative tempters. You’ve had that horny-horned devil sitting on your shoulder, haven’t you? If you want to get at the real problem, get rid of him or her or them!” According to this apology, the problem, again, isn’t the mistake-maker. He or she admits to being a little too trusting, but that’s actually a virtue, isn’t it?

My lawyer wrote this sorry apology. “I recognize that the parties involved have responded in ways that lead to responses by me that will be imprecise and unlikely to say anything of value because what matters is what might be used against me.” Sometimes needed to ward off the vengeful but often just gobbledygook and nonsense.

In light of these choices, we could say that the best apologies have four parts: 1) Take responsibility. Don’t blame others for the humble pie staining your shirt. 2) Be specific. Details communicate that we’ve reflected well about the event. 3) Ask forgiveness genuinely. We should say whatever it takes to help the wronged person see that we care, that we have mourned for the wrong we have done. 4) Offer restitution. “What can I do to make it right?” is a start. A more generous gesture would be to suggest particular life-giving acts.

How we say things matters. A proverb from my college mentor is: “You say what you say because you are who you are.” Though we can be devious, our speech, eventually, tells the story of our lives, of our true beliefs and intentions.

Second, offering forgiveness doesn’t mean that con-sequences should be ignored. If you repented after you tagged my house, I would forgive you but I’d still want you to come repaint it.

If Donald Sterling’s apology is sincere, I forgive him. Heck, I can forgive him even if his apology isn’t sincere. He’s a person. Like all of us, he’s given to fits and furies, errors of the head and heart, bad behaviors and worse motives. A lack of forgiveness maintains broken relationships and can turn us all into bitter, cynical people.

Forgiveness is necessary for true healing—but forgiveness works best in concert with other voices, voices that take the form of tangible consequences: love expressed in unpretentious service and hope manifested in the promise of renewed trust.

I don’t know exactly what the NBA should do about Donald Sterling, but I wish he would meet with his players and offer them a “broken and contrite heart” (Ps. 51:17), an apology that is willing to bear the weight of this deed and others.

There’s a choice that might actually be redemptive.

Printed in the Santa Barbara News-Press May 17, 2014.

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