Why We Need Imperfect Apologies
January 12, 2020
From the pages of Issue 5: Black + White
By Frances Lee | hellofranceslee.com
Doing the right thing all the time isn’t just hard, it’s impossible. I think some of us have forgotten this tenet of social reality. Over the past few years, activists across justice movements, including myself, are learning that when the stakes are high, when resources are so scrappy, and binary frameworks pervade ideologies around right and wrong, people with shared political values will experience a great deal of conflict and ruptured relationships. Rather than encouraging people to pause, reflect, and respond when harm has occurred, some damaging social norms have dictated that ideas matter more than someone’s well-being and humility is weakness.
I learned this as I was crafting my essay, Excommunicate Me From the Church of Social Justice. I wrote about watching my friends and fellow organizers tear each other down over needing to be perceived as politically pure. It was a moment of peak in-group punishment, when the wrong word or stance left some people friendless, socially isolated, or bereft of belonging. There was a rapidly shifting new social order, with different types of people up top, but the same structure of hierarchy strong as ever.
Now, more than two years later after writing and reflecting on my germinal piece about the culture of the modern US social justice movement, I want to focus on one of the many processes that continue to lead us away from divisive, dogmatic activism: apologies. How do we apologize? What do apologies do? When is an apology good enough? If we’ve been wronged, how do we ask for an apology? How do we live without them? Some of the apologies I’ve received are empty and unsatisfying, and that’s even if I have the courage to ask for them. Similarly, I’ve given my fair share of imperfect apologies and still don’t know how to apologize well. While I will be trekking along for a while learning how to say sorry and restoring relations, I will not be requiring perfect apologies from others along the way.
A Recipe For Apologies
What constitutes an apology? From what I’ve learned, here are its parts, some optional, some not.
- Admission of the mistake that occurred or the harm that you caused.
- Timing matters too―sooner rather than later is always better. One of my friends shared with me that in their community, everyone addresses conflict within 48 hours.
- A show of genuine remorse.
- A commitment to make things right, or if that’s not possible, to act differently next time when faced with a similar situation.
- Avoid saying sorry that someone was hurt by your actions, which is essentially blaming the other person’s oversensitivity for inconveniencing you.
- It might be meaningful to pause for a moment and listen to the other person’s response to your declarations, particularly if your apology is being transmitted in person.
- Apologies can be complete without forgiveness, though being forgiven closes the loop and can restore relational balance.
And then, you move on with your life, which means you stop shame spiraling and beating yourself up over what you did. Or maybe it means you stop minimizing the harm your actions caused and sit with the reality of your responsibility to take care of those around you as best as you can. If you are alive long enough, you will come across the need to apologize to someone for something, eventually. Whether you do it or not, and how you do it, is a different thing entirely.
It’s easier to direct anger at others and the sorriness of the world, at the unfairness that we have to be here, around all of this. It might like there is a massive well at our disposal, filled with loathing and nasty thoughts to be directed at other people. As if drawing from its core of energy will protect us from harm. It’s as if we’ve conflated anger, activism, justice, and morality, believing they all need each other to keep churning. So we fear that if we lessen any sides to our anger if we let our muscles for rage relax in the slightest, we will reduce the engine for resistance work. This creates a parched, craggy soil unsuitable for germinating apologies. How do we change the makeup of the soil to make it more fertile and able to host tendrils of other possibilities?
When It’s You
Growing up, I was subject to compulsory heteronormative and Asian femininity; I was put in frilly dresses, begrudgingly wore drugstore makeup, and had long, flowing hair. I learned to make my body small and invisible through slouching and silence because I didn’t want to be seen. As an adult, I now veer towards a soft masculinity involving oversized workwear, fade haircuts, and a playful effeminacy. Yet the passage from one to the other was neither straightforward nor seamless.
When I started toying with my gender presentation, it was the first time I had exercised so much autonomy over my social body. Thus, I leaned away from femininity into more pleasurable ways of dressing and bodily comportment. Being mistaken for a man by strangers brought a special thrill; even though I wasn’t a man, I was no longer being treated as a woman.
But my personal experimentation soon turned into a level of self-centeredness that became obnoxious for everyone else around me. I still don’t comprehend the degree to which I was monopolizing conversations, making them about my budding masculinity and broadcasting entitlement to femme attention and desire. Coming into one’s queerness is often a hard-earned task worthy of much celebration, but it should never be an excuse to hit pause on being decent. A close friend, who had had enough of a one-sided relationship with me, decided to abruptly end things between us. It shocked me and I smarted with hurt and self-righteousness.
Months later, we attempted a reconciliation meeting, but I was still focused on the painful way they broke things off. Thus, I was not able to access an alternate, more comprehensive reading of reality that included other people’s experiences of my behavior over the past year. The apology I gave in person was meager. I wish I could present a real apology sculpted by gift of hindsight, one that included an understanding of a collective perspective, but the moment has forever passed. The best thing I can do is use remorse as a teacher and forge new patterns of self-actualization that don’t emotionally bulldoze those around me.
An unhealthy version of broken connections in our society is displayed in the practice of ghosting—when you go on a romantic date or hook up with someone once or several times, and while it’s apparent the other person felt an intimacy with you, you never call, text or message them back. Ghosting someone not only creates an awkward situation where an apology is surely warranted—because you rudely ceased all communications without explanation—but also makes the transmission of an apology highly improbable because you rudely ceased all communications without explanation.
Entire generations moving through the world accumulating countless throwaway encounters, each aching for resolution, creates widespread psychological malaise. To ghost people and be ghosted, to turn away from the human urge to reconcile, is to exist in an unsettling state of incompleteness. It is a failure to take responsibility for the well-being of your peers. While nothing may be in crisis, deep down, you know that things are not as they should be at all.
When It’s Them
I have been returning to the final paragraphs of Kai Cheng Thom’s essay, The Last Essay I’ll Ever Write About #CanLit And Sexual Abuse. Thom writes about being verbally mistreated by a famous queer writer, who, when privately confronted, apologized for making her uncomfortable while claiming harmless intentions. When reflecting on how she deserved so much more than a half-apology, Thom decided to cease pursuing the matter: ”I didn’t want a second apology… I wanted the apology they had to give.”
What does it mean to accept imperfect apologies? Not to merely take what works and leave the rest, but to embrace the entirety of what the person who harmed you is offering, including the glaring absences? If nobody is perfect or knows how to apologize perfectly, then holding onto the expectation that you deserve the most up-to-date, social justice-informed accounting of all the ways the other person wronged you can only be a source of constant disappointment. We have memorized the checklists of the many ways that people experiencing privilege can fuck up and dodge accountability, and yes, we have to keep bringing them up with one another as folks get more savvy. But that doesn’t mean we have to let those imperfect apologies hold us back from accessing the inner peace needed to move on from the situation.
Hugs For Everyone
Recently, my partner and I were catching quality time with another couple, who are fairly new parents. After their cranky toddler whacked his infant sister in the face very forcefully, I observed them trying to coach him into apologizing to his now shrieking, unconsolable sibling. Young children tend to display their emotions openly in their expressions, so I watched the toddler journey through the states of glee, denial, guilt, shame, and regret. I empathized deeply with this small person, especially when he tried, unsuccessfully, to escape the predicament he created by using humor as deflection.
During this time, both children were being held tenderly by each parent: the toddler, because he was so shocked by the great power he possessed over another person, and of course, the infant, because she was bruised. Unpopular opinion: When you harm someone, you need a metaphorical (or literal) hug as much as the person you harmed. For those of us who don’t have loving people to gather us up when we hurt someone—far too many of us have never had that—we have to learn how to hug ourselves, to comfort ourselves enough so we can go follow through with the steps of giving an apology to the person we harmed (who, we hope, has access to hugs or comfort from someone else).
Let’s be clear: for the perpetrator, the hug is not a validation of their bad behavior, it is a validation of their humanity. My partner and I had to leave to catch the ferry, so we weren’t around for the toddler’s apology, but left knowing the conditions were ripe for one.
It Takes Noticing
Apologizing in a “right-sized” manner in order to make amends is a lifelong skill that eludes the realm of human mastery. My heart weighs heavily at how unable I’ve been to model this in community, how steeped I am in perpetual beginnerhood. But there’s hope, there always is. In a recent bitch interview with Corinne Manning, Adrienne Maree Brown pointed out that opportunities to respond more humanely arise after every act of harm. “It helps so much to notice small ways you can shift. When a friend hurts your feelings, can you get curious?” she shared.
When I hurt someone else’s feelings, can I also get curious and be moved by that curiosity to assess previously hidden options? Can I slow down and feel what’s going on in my heart and body, even if it can’t be put to words? Can I take in what they are communicating to me in response to being hurt? Can I relate to their emotional state or the position I’ve put them in? Can I remember my values and let them guide me in my next word or action? These pauses and small acts of bravery are available to all of us.
On Reconciliation and Restoration
I’m not here to lie about how everything that is broken can be fixed, as living in that myth is another form of suffering. In the Buddhist tradition of radical acceptance, Block Build Be organizer LiZhen Wang said, “We acknowledge that harm can be part of relationship and our sincere wish is to be honest in the relationship, because we know that truth brings us closer to liberation.” We know that not all relationships last for a lifetime. When conflict and harm arise between people or groups, sometimes the kindest thing to do is stop being in connection to stop the wounding.
Reconciliation and restoring the relationship simply may not be in the cards. Going through the process of making an apology does the work of acknowledging the harm that occurred on all sides, rather than acting as if it never happened or concocting elaborate stories about each other’s dreadfulness. If there is no longer connection, at least let there be an honest accounting of how things ended to store in collective memory. Then the balm, the necessary process of healing, is able to occur after this clearing away.
Where does this leave us? We can practice apologizing to each other better and accept our fumblings in responding after we’ve harmed someone. A shitty or late apology is better than none. You could always try and go back to revise it later, if the other person is open to receiving an improved version—I’ve tried this before and sometimes the effort comes across. Offering up good apologies is still really hard, because we have tender egos and we can’t always access multiple truths in a moment of high-running emotions. That has got to be OK.
On the flip side, receiving imperfect apologies helps us cultivate grace and humility. I should be slow to judge others for their faults, lest it be me in that same bind next time (which it will likely be). While receiving a subpar apology can be quite discouraging, it still is giving you something—a feeling of slight ease or relief, perhaps a slice of being seen, a thing you are able to integrate and carry with you as a seed of possibility. What we are owed and what we need to keep going are not always the same things.
Learning how to be with each other in community, while banding together to rewrite the world towards wholeness and freedom, is vital. Together, we inhabit a multitude of contradictions, failures, and potentials. Let’s endeavor to apologize better to each other in the only way that we can—with imperfection and full of glorious messiness.