Most Americans are highly apologetic. The few who aren’t are considered, by the campaigners for the apology, to be altogether too arrogant indeed. Yet, in most cases, the effusive may be as much in error as the abstainers, the apology failing to suit, pushing us further apart.
The apology’s native soil is the infraction. If I have wronged you, intentionally or not, then my unbidden apology seeks to make amends.** Your wholehearted apology must also come unbidden and be given gently. Provided the open hand meets the outstretched arm, the guilt of the former is nullified in the reach of the latter.
Apart from guilt culture, apology’s first home, social mores also elicit the support of the apology and this when a convention has been broken. Seeing an old lady but failing to offer her my seat immediately would be a violation of etiquette, and an apology would be in order. Even though the old lady is not harmed (or not unduly harmed) by the slowness of my reply nor would she be harmed by standing for a spell, even though (that is) there is no wrongdoing, the apology reveals my failure to recognize prevailing social distinctions: that the old are higher than the young, that parents are more senior than children, that guests are more vulnerable than hosts. The apology, in this social setting, is a memory of shame culture, a memory now dying out. (On the distinction between “guilt culture” and “shame culture,” see the late Bernard William’s excellent book, Shame and Necessity.)
The truth is that most of our missteps are neither wrongdoings nor shameful acts but errors in judgment. They are follies which, as such, serve to illuminate our lack of wisdom, our shared human frailties, and our common misunderstandings. Suppose you are in need of hearing the right words and suppose I am properly aware of your needs. It does not follow that I have the judgment (phronesis) to know what words exactly will be fitting and needful. I may be aware that you have needs, aware that you have these needs, aware, in principle, that I can furnish these needs, but not sure exactly what words or actions would be suitable. More likely still, I may only be aware of the latter once the essay has gone arrant: after having tried out some formulation or some gesture and then found it wanting.
And what are we feeling now? Heaviness, almost like a debt incurred on both our parts. Anything else? Yes, the loss of what Hegel calls a “friendliness of life,” the demise of gaiety, the end of elan; in essence, a small tear. An apology, though yearned for by the young and the unwise both, should not be called for nor is it mete. On the contrary, an apology can do nothing but cleave us further. Something more subtle, more pianissimo, is called for: the silent, atonal music of mutual pain, the cultivation of patience long into the night, and, in the morning, the slow trying out of new words and actions in hopes that a few may prove right. In the best of all possible worlds, we would merely close our mouths and then make love to each other.
** A solicited apology is a contradiction in terms. Once one has asked another for an apology, both have lost.