Thursday, May 01, 2008

Book Review of I Was Wrong: The Meanings of Apologies by Nick Smith

Alfred Kinsey’s work elevated the conversation about sex. Timothy Leary’s work elevated the conversation about drugs. Now, Nick Smith gives us his thorough study of apologies, a work that promises to elevate the conversation about what it means to say “I’m sorry.”

I Was Wrong: The Meanings of Apologies exposes how contemporary gestures of contrition demand our critical attention. Smith, who teaches Philosophy at the University of New Hampshire, examines the significance of various forms of regret. From collective apologies for the holocaust to a pet owner’s apology for forgetting to fill his dog’s bowl, all remorse receives scrutiny. Smith writes with the learning and patience of a benevolent professor. His message persuades a reader that today’s public and private apologies are playing fast and loose with morality.

Smith wants to move the conversation beyond what he regards as the juvenile exchange of “I’m sorry.” “No you’re not.” His book challenges readers to consider the moral force, or lack thereof, behind any act of contrition. His purpose is to guide a reader through an exercise that assures her moral sensibility will grow more sophisticated upon confronting the meanings of apologies. Smith leads us on a journey through a quagmire of questions. For example, who--precisely--is responsible for the 2006 Abu Ghraib torture scandal, and what would be the most suitable redress to those who were injured?

I realized the full urgency of Smith’s work when considering blame, redress, and emotions. Smith illuminates the contemporary practice of blaming corporations for wrongs when culpability lies with individuals and their complex social associations. Blaming an automobile manufacturer for a death caused by an SUV that rolled over, or blaming a television network for one commentator’s sexist comments, appear to be comparable to X throwing a rock that injures Y and Y asking the rock to apologize? Corporations, like rocks, cannot be held morally accountable for injuring someone. Can throwing money at the loss of human life or dignity restore moral decency? These are some more issues that Smith’s work helps us approach with clearer thinking.

I Was Wrong also gives a reader a fresh perspective from which to read the newspaper. All the lip service people pay to newsworthy remorse reveals a glaring shortcoming—most apologies fail to address moral culpability. For instance, a recent article in the San Diego Union-Tribune reported the misdemeanor of a City council candidate John Hartley. Two women complained Hartley was masturbating and urinating into a cup inside his truck while parked in front of their house. The paper reported “an apologetic mailer [in which] Hartley admitted he had to ‘take a leak’ but denied he was masturbating.” Hartley’s apology rivals an excuse a potty trainee might give when nature calls. The news article simply relates that Hartley said the voters will decide whether or not they accept his apology. Beyond the question of whether the apology will be accepted, Smith’s work encourages one to wonder to what degree the candidate’s apology contributed to the dropping of an indecent-exposure charge.

Another example from the local news here was a story about Chinese Americans rallying outside CNN’s Hollywood office to demand the firing of Jack Cafferty for calling China’s goods “junk” and its leaders “a bunch of goons and thugs.” The article reports how China “snubbed an apology from CNN over the remarks, which Cafferty said were in reference to China’s government, not its people.” This snubbed apology raises all kinds of problematic issues discussed in Smith’s book. First, for CNN to apologize for remarks made by one commentator raises questions about whether a collective can or should apologize for one person’s remarks. In this situation, CNN’s apology looks that much more suspicious when Cafferty further tries to justify the target of his comments. This is a clear case in which an apology is only making matters worse.

Anyone who has a moral debt to pay, or is owed a moral reckoning will want to read this book and embrace its wisdom. As Smith suggests, the work of a satisfying apology for many injuries and injustices in the world could take lifetimes to fulfill. Those committed to moral justice will want to begin this tremendous work with I Was Wrong.