Writer: Fahmi Fadzil
Published: Fri, 01 Jul 2011
I’m not sure if you’ve been following the news, but earlier in June I was kind of in the news as I had to apologise for some things that I had tweeted in January.
I can’t really talk about the matter because – as my meticulous lawyer advised – I shouldn’t do anything that may jeopardise the settlement. And so I won’t. But what I would like to do is to maybe just go through some thoughts about the idea of saying sorry.
What does it mean for someone to say “I’m sorry”? What does it take for people to say sorry? And in fact, how does apologising affect the wider society?
First of all, what is an apology? It is, as my laptop’s dictionary puts it, “a regretful acknowledgment of an offence or failure”. I guess we can also see it as an attempt of correcting an erroneous stance, position, or observation by first stating one’s cognizance of said error. It is, in effect, a confrontation with one’s self, whereby the idea of “the self is the measure of all things” is disputed, challenged, and replaced.
Basically, someone proved you wrong and you’ve accepted it.
But what is the value of an apology, particularly in our Malaysian context? In these turbulent and interesting times, do apologies really amount to anything more than that feeling of “I’m right and you’re wrong”? Is it about “bragging rights”? Or is there something more to this acknowledgment?
I propose that there is, and that it is virtuous action in the form of accountability, transparency, and responsibility for one’s actions. It is, in my thinking, about integrity and credibility – something that often appears to be in high demand in the high-octane contact sport that is Malaysian politics.
To me, when someone says sorry, that person is taking responsibility for the statement or action that he or she had made. What does “taking responsibility” mean? Perhaps it means that whatever after-effects of that statement or action is attributable to him or her.
This involves another concept which is thought to be rather mythical these days: honour. When you own up to your mistake(s), you are also saying that you have caused your honour disrepute, and that your honour is an important quality of your self that must be restored.
Okay, maybe that’s a bit romantic and too bushido-like (I’m seeing Japan’s Tepco administrators saying, “We are extremely sorry for the grievances we’ve caused the world due to the Fukushima nuclear plant’s near-meltdown”), but I think you get my point: that some things are worth more than any ringgit figure we stamp on it.
And this brings me to my next point: the act of apologising has many ramifications beyond the act, and this demands consideration as much as the idea of the apology itself.
Forcing a person to grovel in public may potentially be damaging not just to the person making the apology, but also to those who thought up the act; likewise, letting someone off with a gentle slap on the back of the hand leaves little room for thinking about the mistake that was made.
In this sense, an apology is also about the image that one wants to impart beyond the act itself. “It is not only you, but all of us must learn from this” I think is the key takeaway from the act of an apology.
Ultimately, an apology is about justice – as much as it is to those wronged as it is to the wrongdoers. Just remember that while justice should be blind, it should never be without heart.