As befits a time of victimhood and self doubt, the demand for an apology from someone in a prominent position has become a routine news story. Today it is the turn of the bankers appearing at the Treasury Select Committee.
Perhaps it’s time to take a more systematic approach to apologies. After all, not all ‘sorries’ are worth much. When I worked in Number Ten, Tony Blair used occasionally to admit he’d made a mistake but only when he wished he had listened to himself earlier!
A distinction to start with when grading apologies is between apologising for the act and apologising for the consequences. Insincere apologies will tend to be weak on one or other side; either ‘I’m sorry for what happened but there was nothing I could have done about it’, or ‘I made a mistake but I’m not responsible for what happened as a result’.
In saying sorry for the act there are three key points on a continuum. At the strongest end the confessor admits that they knew what they were doing was wrong but, for self interested reasons, they still chose to do it. In the middle of the range the apologiser recognises they did the wrong thing but argues that there were mitigating circumstances that stood in the way of them appreciating that it was the wrong thing, (most often that everyone else was doing it as well). The weakest version (‘wise after the event’) is when someone apologises formally but refuses to admit they could have realistically chosen any other action at the time.
In terms of consequential apology, there are again three points. The strongest is for the apologiser fully to recognise that it was their action that led to the consequences and that they owe a debt to society. The next level is for the apologiser to agree that their actions may have contributed to the consequence but that these need not have happened had other factors not been at play. The weakest position is to recognise that there have been consequences but to essentially separate the action from the unpredictable events that subsequently occurred.
There is, of course, an even weaker apology which takes the form ‘I didn’t do anything wrong at all but I’m sorry you don’t see it that way’. But I’m not even counting that.
So multiplying the two dimensions gives us a nine point scale ranging from:
‘I am sorry, I knew what I was doing was wrong and I accept personal responsibility for the consequences that have flowed from my action’
‘I am sorry but I had no choice at the time and what has happened since, however terrible, cannot be directly traced to anything I did’.
A final point to bear in mind: if what we want is catharsis it may be we are hoping that Sir Fred and his mates score a full nine. However, if what we want is explanation it may actually be more useful to get a lower score in the context of understanding how intelligent senior people got themselves caught up in mass hysteria.
I will reflect tomorrow on how the bankers rate.
Tamsin Hanke Sash Scott
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