Monday, March 20, 2023

Sorry Because You Got Caught

Often times, when a public figure is revealed to have engaged in some misconduct and is in the process of apologizing, you will hear dismissal of that apology via some variation of "he's only sorry because he got caught."

I've been reflecting on this for the past few days, because I think it is a more interesting problem than often given credit for. What are the conditions for which we might think sorrow is genuine notwithstanding the fact that it follows after "getting caught"?

After all, temporally-speaking I suspect it is the case that most public gestures towards repentance only follow getting "caught" or called out. It's not impossible to repent for wrongdoing without ever being caught -- one can turn oneself in -- but most of the time the former follows the latter. And I actually suspect it is true that most people who are not caught doing X wrong are unlikely to unilaterally engage in public actions of repentance. At most, they'll feel ashamed and bad in private. Which is not nothing, and can yield genuine changes in behavior. But it's also typically not viewed as sufficient expressions of remorse for the person who is "caught".

So if most public figures are, in some sense, "only sorry because they got caught", does that mean that most public figures are insincere in their apologies? Or that their apologies are inherently unreliable and insufficient?

I don't think that can be right. The very fact that the vast majority of repentance work occurs after being caught should make us leery about saying that such work is inherently suspect when it follows being caught. For most people, "getting caught" is a triggering event in a process that one hopes will lead to genuine repentance, remorse, and repair. It strikes me as implausible to dismiss any gestures of remorse that follow getting caught, unless we think most human beings are basically incapable of true remorse but are low little sociopaths.

This doesn't mean that any individual person -- observer or (especially victim) is obliged to "forgive" a public wrongdoer upon the first gesture of apology. Your relationships are your business, and if you decide that you need to write someone off temporarily or permanently due to something they've done, that's up to you. I think we vastly overweight obliging forgiveness. Himpathy and all that. And more over, "being sorry" doesn't liquidate one's obligations to try and make right what one has done wrong. Repentance should come at cost.

But on the flip side, there's a version of the "we're too quick to forgive" politic that acts as if people are at best suckers, at worst complicit, if they don't view essentially all efforts at remediation and reparation as so much manipulation -- being taken in by someone who is "only sorry that they got caught." And to that, I'd also say "your relationships are your business," you're allowed to believe that someone is actually remorseful and wants to go through the steps to make a repair. If you're the victim, it can be doubly traumatizing to hear that you're a dupe or a sellout for trying to work with the wrongdoer to mend the break. If you're an observer, you can't forgive on behalf of the victim, but you're allowed to come to your own judgment about what the wrongdoer is trying to do and assist them on a journey towards repentance.

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