Thursday, September 3, 2015

How to Apologize

As the Days of Awe draw near, I’ve been thinking about apologies.  Our tradition offers this season as an opportunity to make amends, and Jewish writer Marjorie Ingall (who blogs at recently shared an example of what it means to apologize well: an open letter by Chuck Klosterman.

Klosterman, who writes the New York Times “Ethicist” column, was responding to a post by Kari Wagner-Peck, a disabilities rights activist whose son has Downs syndrome.  She sharply criticized Klosterman for using the word “retarded” in a highly pejorative context in several of his published essay collections,  concluding: “. . . You appear to be an unrepentant hater of people with cognitive disabilities.”

Here is Mr. Klosterman’s brief but exemplary response, in its entirety:

Dear Ms. Wagner-Peck:

I have spent the last two days trying to figure out a way to properly address the issue you have raised on your website.  I’ve slowly concluded the best way is to just be as straightforward as possible: I was wrong.   You are right.

I should not have used “retard” perjoratively.  It was immature, hurtful, and thoughtless.  I have no justification for my actions.  I realize the books that contain those sentiments were published over 10 years ago, but that is no excuse; I was an adult when I wrote them and I knew what I was doing.  I feel terrible about this and deeply embarrassed.  I take full responsibility for my actions and understand why this matters so much to you.  I’m truly sorry.

Feel free to re-post this message on your website.  I deserve the criticism I am receiving, and I want other people to know that I realize I was wrong.  I would also like to donate $25,000 to whatever charity you feelis most critical in improving the lives of people with cognitive disabilities.  I have done something bad, so help me do something good.

Again, I apologize—and not just to you and your son, but to anyone else who was hurt by this.

Chuck Klosterman

Why is this such a great apology?  Marjorie Ingall points out that it is the rare example of one that follows five basic rules:

1.     Say you are sorry (with no “buts” to follow)
2.     Say the thing that you are sorry for—a good apology is specific
3.     Show that you understand the import of your misdeed
4.     Make amends
5.     Take steps to see that this same misdeed doesn’t happen again

Chuck Klosterman apologizes for his very specific failing, makes no excuses, demonstrates a genuine understanding of the impact of his insensitivity, makes amends ($25,000!) and, by publishing his response publicly, makes it harder for both himself and others to commit this same transgression in the future.

As we enter the High Holy Days, may we ponder—and act upon—these same principles, and in so doing, rejoin the path of true teshuvah—healing the world by healing our own brokenness.

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