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Nick Smith is professor of Philosophy at the University of New Hampshire with a particular interest in how apologies work. He’s also a former trial lawyer for a major New York law firm. What does this mean for us? An unusually close look at Spitzer’s oft-sound-bite-ed public apology for his involvement with a prostitution ring.
He’ll be on NPR’s The Diane Rehm Show tomorrow.
Watch the apology:
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Elliot Spitzer’s recent statements accompanying his resignation as governor of New York provide an occasion to reflect on the meanings of apologies. I find apologies dizzyingly complex social rituals. In I Was Wrong: The Meanings of Apologies—published by Cambridge University Press—I identified more than a dozen kinds of meaning that we seek from gestures of contrition. Instead of worrying whether an example “is or is not” an apology, I wonder how well it serves certain purposes and to what extent it conveys certain kinds of subtle social meanings.
The book considers the many nuances and gritty details of apologetic meaning, but in general I find that asking a few simple questions can take us to the heart of the meaning of an apology: Did the offender explain what she did with an appropriate degree of specificity? Does she accept blame? Does she make clear why her actions were wrong and identify the principles she violated? Does she promise not to do it again redress the problem she caused?
These questions tend to lead to further questions about the meanings of any given apology, but they can provide some insight in Spitzer’s case.
First, Spitzer’s statements obviously admit very little. Rather than “coming clean” and confessing the details of his wrongdoing, he leaves us to speculate. He could have admitted all of the relevant facts, but instead it may require years of investigations and legal proceedings to disclose the extent of his transgressions. Or he might strike a deal that effectively ends the discussion. His repeated description of the reason for his resignation as a “private failing” seems untenable given that he is a former governor and attorney general facing charges in several federal crimes, but casting the offense in this way suggests that he may deny the prostitution-related charges and instead cast the sexual relations as an affair but not a crime. This may seem like a losing argument given the facts discussed publicly to date, but Spitzer may negotiate himself into a position to sustain this claim and avoid criminal charges. If he denies relations with a prostitute, he will not apologize for that specifically.
This discussion is featured in the March/April issue of Tikkun.
Griswold, of course, is author of Forgiveness: a Philosophical Exploration.
Meninger is a Trappist Monk at St. Benedict’s Monestary in Snowmass, Colorado. He founded a workshop in contemplative prayer: http://www.contemplativeprayer.net