Sorry Lessons

Posted in: Human Rights

One of the earliest lessons parents impart to children is that when you hurt someone, you need to apologize. It is a basic human desire to have one’s individual harms acknowledged and addressed. And yet, the current news cycle suggests that individuals and institutions often fail at providing the kinds of apologies that their victims and their communities seek. One need look no further than the growing list of apologies and quasi apologies from celebrity men like Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacey, Louis C.K., Charlie Rose, Jeffrey Tambor, Ben Affleck, and Al Franken. The satirical celebrity apology generator deftly highlights the rote nature and significant shortcomings of these apologies. But it is not just individuals who are getting this basic task wrong. As the New York Times recently reported, the United States has no systematic condolence or amends program in place for civilian victims of US airstrikes against ISIS. The United Nations has repeatedly declined to fully acknowledge fault or provide individual compensation to victims of its negligence, including the nearly 10,000 killed by cholera in Haiti and the hundreds of Roma suffering from lead poisoning in Kosovo. Even as UN Secretary General Guterres announced a new approach to prevent sexual abuse by UN peacekeepers and provide funds to survivors, the UN has not directly apologized to victims. We have many good examples of what not to do. But what about contemporary examples of how individuals or institutions should apologize for grievous harm-doing?

At a time when the public is consumed with the questionable adequacy of apologies from those accused of sexual harassment and assaults, it might be worth looking to our neighbor Canada to get a sense of how to handle an apology from the very top. Canada departs from its contemporaries in offering both apologies and compensation for harms that other states often fail to redress. In addition to the high-level apology and compensation for torture victim Omar Khadr, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau just apologized to the victims of the Canadian government “gay purge”the institutionalized sexual orientation discrimination that victimized thousands with job loss and sometimes imprisonment. That apology was accompanied by 110 million Canadian dollars to pay out individualized compensation to victims who have spent years pursuing a class action lawsuit on behalf of all those who were “investigated, discharged, terminated, sanctioned or faced threat of sanction, by the Government of Canada because of their sexual orientation, gender identity or gender expression.” In addition, Canada has earmarked funds to finance community projects combatting homophobia and “commemorating the 50th anniversary of the federal decriminalization of homosexual acts.” The liberal government is also introducing legislation to allow the expungement of criminal convictions for consensual same-sex activity. Similarly, last week Prime Minister Trudeau apologized to indigenous people in Newfoundland and Labrador who were separated from their families and forced to attend unfit and often abusive boarding schools and settled a class-action lawsuit by providing 50 million Canadian dollars to the approximately 900 victims. These acts followed on the heels of an agreement to pay 750 million Canadian dollars to settle litigation over the forced adoption of indigenous children.

One core component of an apology is directly addressing those individuals that suffered harms. In their apology to Khadr, the Minister of Foreign Affairs and Minister of Public Safety identifies Omar Khadr by name in the jointly issued statement of apology. In the recent Canadian apologies that address large groups of persons, Trudeau went to some length to identify the intended recipients. And in apologizing for the “gay purge,” Trudeau addressed “all the LGBTQ2 people across this country who we have harmed in countless ways” but then goes on to further individualize “to those who were left broken” and “those who took their own lives” and “the victims who were surveilled, interrogated and abused” and “those who were fired . . . resigned . . . and stayed at a great personal and professional cost” and “those who wanted to serve but never got the chance.” Contrast this with Charlie Rose’s apology to “these women [who made claims about his behavior]” or Jeffrey Tambor’s address to “anyone” who he ever offended or hurt or Harvey Weinstein’s apology to “colleagues” to whom he has caused pain. Apologies are about recognizing the dignity of individuals, their capacity to suffer pain, and appreciating the inherent importance of such. The failure to directly acknowledge the individuals that were hurt undermines this purpose.

Relatedly, another core component of an apology is identifying, with specificity all of the harms that were inflicted on the individuals and the array of wrongdoing for which the apologizer is responsible. In the Canadian residence schools apology, Trudeau described the wide range of harm-doing inflicted on the child victims including abuse, neglect, and the deprivation of the parents, families and communities. Importantly, he also recognized the government’s responsibility not just for the schools but the deception regarding the nature of the care to be provided at the residential schools and the harm inflicted by the wait for an apology once discovered. Trudeau also specifically addressed the harm of excluding those from Labrador and Newfoundland in a 2008 apology, though some in the Innu nation reject the apology as not fully addressing more systematic harms inflicted on the community. In contrast, the sexual harassment apologizes I’ve read either fail to acknowledge any responsibility or, at best, only admit the harasser’s responsibility for the harassing behavior and not their role in any subsequent denial, deception or retaliation. Similarly, the harm acknowledged is often only the direct harm of the harassing act itself and not any of the harms from secondary bad acts. Even Louis CK’s extensive apology did not meaningfully acknowledge his role in costing his victims financial opportunities or the harm imposed by his silence in the face of a widespread rumor.

The last component of an apology on which I want to focus is a promise of non-repetition. Part of affirming the dignity and status of the harmed individual is a pledge to take steps to avoid perpetuating similar wrongdoing or harms on this person and ideally extending that pledge to others as well. Such efforts repair the relationship not just at the time of the apology but heading into the future. Canada has done will in offering such assurances. For instance, Trudeau vows to “be a partner and ally to LGBTQ2 Canadians in the years going forward” and emphasizes “never again” with “a promise to consult and work with the individuals and communities to right these wrongs and begin to rebuild trust. We will ensure that there are systems in place so that these kinds of hateful practices are a thing of the past.” Victims emphasize that such promises can help repair the relationship, but only if the promises are actually carried through. While an apology may be a one time-event, the larger project of amend-making in which it is engaged is often an ongoing endeavor.

And as we turn from apology to amend-making, the question of compensation looms large. Apologies often attempt to undo the harm to the individual. When literally undoing the harm or restoring the person is not possible, is compensation required? Interestingly, significant debate exists in the apology literature and the answer may vary culturally. As I wrote about the last wave of celebrity sexual assault cases, plaintiffs may be loath to seek individual compensation for themselves. And in the wake of the Harvey Weinstein scandal and the unleashing of #metoo stories, I’ve found no public figure offering financial compensation as part of his apology even as some have acknowledged the significant emotional and potential financial consequences for their victims. Of course, some did provide payments through secret settlements, but by definition excluded the public acknowledgement of their wrongdoing. In contrast, as mentioned above, each of the recent Canadian apologies was accompanied by a system for individualized compensation. But interestingly, those payments were made as part of a mass tort claim settlement. While the law often requires financial compensation for victims of singular or mass torts, need they or should they be provided as part of a voluntary apology? In the absence of clear cultural norms, one might defer to what victims say they want. For instance, Haitian victims of the UN-induced cholera epidemic have repeatedly emphasized the importance of financial compensation. They wish to pay for funerals, for medical care, and major life disruptions imposed by extended illnesses. In contrast, at least some victims of US airstrikes in Iraq have sometimes viewed compensation payments as insulting, particularly in the absence of a full throated apology. While domestic victims of sexual harassers have certainly incurred emotional and financial costs, they too might view money as incommensurate with the harm they have suffered and view offered payments as problematic.

While there are some important differences between institutional apologies and individual apologies that I hope to explore in future posts, Canada’s recent apology tour for grievous harm-doing provides some much needed lessons for some very sorry episodes closer to home.