Endangered: The apology

Americans are living through a crisis. The signs are hard to miss.

We’re losing faith in democracy and in each other. We’re losing faith in our institutions, public and private. A third of the electorate claims the current President is illegitimate and that his predecessor was right not to concede. A greater number no longer trust science and higher education, two pillars of American strength since World War II. Still more lack even a basic trust in our news media.

These are all significant and depressing signs. But my nominee for canary in the coal mine is the apology. It’s the one sign that is sensitive to each kind of loss of faith – institutional, political, communal – and it’s dying.

All of us know the reasons that make apologizing difficult. We’re tempted to minimize the wrong itself or, when that’s not possible, excuse ourselves in some way. “I’m sorry if you were offended.” “I apologize, but X has done worse.” “Mistakes were made.” Politicians are the acknowledged masters of these and many other non-apology apologies. Tactics of self-defense have probably been around as long as language.

But before our defenses kick in, and in matters where facts and falsehoods are in play, we have to first recognize the falsehood. Our diminished trust in science and the news media is putting this crucial first step beyond the reach of many.

Neither journalists nor scientists deserve blind faith. Our internet-addled world abounds in examples of shoddy or fake science and bad journalism that obscure and overwhelm good examples of both. Probably nothing has done more to corrode trust in science and journalism than social media. If we’re looking for reasons to believe what we already believe, the reasons – grounded, groundless, and bat shit crazy – will find us.

Good scientists and responsible journalists stick to what they know and are transparent about what they don’t. The most common phrase in science articles is “Further research is needed.” Most life science articles include error bars, graphical representations of uncertainty. Temperamentally, scientists are maddeningly conservative. They are the last person in the room to claim certainty about anything in their field.

Similarly, good journalists are stubbornly unsexy. Publication is a high bar, and going public with a newsy item requires checking and double-checking.  “Verify,” editors command, and good journalists will, or else sit on the story. They’ll seek alternative perspectives from reputable people. Good journalists’ employers, if they are also reputable, will admit when they get something wrong. One reason Foxnews.com gets a middling 57 score for trustworthiness from NewsGuard is its failure to regularly clarify and correct errors.

The bottom line is that an ample subset of Americans no longer trust the two primary institutions whose business it is to tell us what’s true. Jonathan Rauch’s The Constitution of Knowledge is the best guide I’ve found to this crisis. Add the two accelerants of extreme polarization and the continuing influence of a former president who treats fact and fiction as fungible and who long ago made it a policy to never apologize, and it’s hard to have hope.. Not wrong, but hard.

An apology is rhetorical grace. When we apologize, we humble ourselves. We also bear witness to a shared reality, one that we refuse to deny, even at a sometimes-considerable cost to ourselves. An apology is a sign of strength. The fact that it’s becoming rarer in the public sphere is a sign of national weakness.

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