To those of you who never offend anyone: read no more. This is not the post for you.
For those, however, who go through life like some kind of possessed windmill that’s come unmoored from its foundations and goes blundering across the landscape, whacking and smacking and swinging indiscriminately, leaving wreckage and pain in its path: Hello. My name is Simcha Fisher, and I’m a windmill.
Which is to say, it’s a rare day when I don’t offend someone. Writing publicly is still new to me, and I’m trying to figure out my responsibility when someone’s offended. I’ve been thinking about apologies lately, and have discovered several categories:
1. The official apology for serious offenses. For instance, state apologies for slavery or genocide, or the Pope apologizes for abuse. I don’t officially represent anybody, of course; but in general, I’m in favor of official apologies, and don’t consider them part of some sort of squishy liberal conspiracy to feminize the political realm. The official apology is just part of governing, and at least some victims may get genuine solace from hearing a public, heart-felt apology that acknowledges their suffering.
2. The apology for serious offenses from some random innocent but representative member. For instance, during a discussion about married priests, it gradually dawned on me that an angry Eastern Rite Catholic reader wanted me to apologize for the way Bishop John Ireland had insulted the Ruthenian priest Alexis Toth in the late 1880’s, because it was a good example of the way Romans like me treat Easterns like him.
I didn’t want to apologize. The idea of inherited bitterness is very foreign to me (I don’t, for instance, dislike Germans just because I’m Jewish by heritage). As a historical ignoramus, I wasn’t even aware that there was much to apologize for. But then another reader stepped up and wrote a very warm and heartfelt apology on behalf of the Latin Rite Church. The discussion took a very cordial turn, and it was hard to deny that something good and powerful and pleasing to God had just happened there.
3. The personal apology for a genuine, personal offense, whether it was malicious or just careless. If I discover (or knew all along) that I’ve done something wrong, I apologize and try to learn from the experience. This is true if it’s someone I know personally, or some stranger who read my words on a friend’s Facebook wall. Make a good case that I was out of line, and I will respond as sincerely as I can.
4. The personal apology for the bogus offense that causes phony pain. This is by far the biggest category of offenses that I putatively cause, and I refuse to apologize for them. When people are offended:
-Because I was writing “My Ideas About Subject Y” and failed to include a large passage about Subject Q;
-Because I’m writing about my personal experience, but the reader’s personal experience was different—DIFFERENT, I TELL YOU;
-Because they just flat out didn’t read carefully, and either missed the point entirely, missed a key paragraph, or somehow read some invisible paragraph that I didn’t actually write, but which was apparently chock full of offensive statements; or
-Because they think “charity” means “liking everything all the time.”
I generally don’t even bother to respond to this kind of thing. I work hard at saying exactly what I mean, and don’t have the responsibility to say things twice to people who aren’t listening anyway. Apologizing to people who haven’t actually been injured is like giving someone candy to make their tummy ache go away: it just makes things worse.
5. The personal apology for the bogus offense that triggers genuine pain. These are the one that keep me up at night.
Subcategory a: the suffering nut. Sometimes I’m writing a perfectly neutral observation about such-and-such, and some reader unreasonably demands an apology. I’m innocent, but there are almost visible waves of hurt coming off the monitor. My usual policy is not to say anything, because crazy people tend to latch on and demand more and more. On the other hand, sometimes another reader will step in and, without saying anything that is false, will convey love and tenderness—apologizing, in effect, on behalf of Adam and Eve, and wounds are soothed.
Subcategory b: the person who is otherwise reasonable but has an irrational but understandable sore spot: the mother whose child who has died, and who is grieving so terribly that she can’t understand that the whole world is not grieving; or the Irish reader who has no tolerance for Americans’ cavalier jokes about drinking. My husband reminds me that I can’t pull punches when I write, because punchless writing is no fun to read. But I don’t want to kick anyone who’s already down.
So category 5 is the one I’m still working on, I guess.
As a christian, what’s your apology policy? Especially if you have a public voice, how do you handle an offended audience?