One of the more bizarre items in the news last week was the revelation that Virginia Thomas, wife of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, had phoned Anita Hill, requesting an apology. Nearly twenty years ago Anita Hill testified against Clarence Thomas during his Senate confirmation hearing, accusing him of workplace sexual harassment. I was an undergraduate at the University of Toronto at the time, and remember the incident and the debates it provoked very well. The news of Mrs. Thomas’s early morning telephone call to Hill’s office made me think about the nature of apology, and in particular about the dynamics of requesting an apology.
Apologies are an example of what philosophers call “speech acts” In a speech act, one does more than just say something; one performs an action at the same time. There is something deeply mysterious about speech acts. Saying “I’m sorry” or “I promise” or “I forgive you” might seem like little more than uttering a phrase. Yet it is clear that someone who speaks one of these phrases has done something more than make a verbal utterance, although they have done that as well. Someone who says “I’m sorry” acknowledges that their previous conduct has harmed another and that they regret this. Someone who asks for an apology asks not just for a string of words to be spoken, but that another party acknowledge and regret an injury against them. The power of this acknowledgment is such that we tend to be very upset when we suspect that an apology is made insincerely. We don’t like it when a speaker seeks the recognition of making an apology without doing the hard work of examining his or her conduct and thinking about what it would meant to atone for it.
Asking for an apology means telling another person that their conduct has been hurtful, and this can be very difficult to do. Yet if one doesn’t request an apology, the other person may never understand the effect that their words or actions have had. The person who feels that he deserves an apology yet fails to ask for it may continue to feel hurt and resentment toward those who have injured him. If an apology is requested and granted, there is a chance that the relationship between the parties might yet be repaired. Parties in mediation may want an apology as much as they want other forms of restitution. Many people choose mediation over other forms of dispute resolution precisely because they expect to have an ongoing relationship with the other party, and mediation can actually help strengthen relationships.
If asking for an apology is sometimes the right thing to do, what was it about Mrs. Thomas’s request for an apology from Hill that struck many as unseemly? The first and most obvious answer is that it is far from clear that Hill owes anyone an apology. She stands by her testimony. Second, if she does owe anyone an apology, it isn’t Mrs. Thomas. While there may be special circumstances in which one may ask for an apology on behalf of another, this doesn’t seem to be one of them. If Justice Thomas feels he is owed an apology he is capable of asking for one himself. But some additional considerations are also important here. Asking for an apology is a gesture towards repairing a relationship. If you’ve hurt me and I tell you, you can make things right by apologizing, then maybe we can be friends again. However the way in which Mrs. Thomas asked for an apology is at odds with the goal of restoring a relationship. If you want to repair a relationship with another person you may have to face them directly, as difficult as this might be. Sneaking around and telephoning when the other person is almost certain to be unavailable is not the way to begin to mend a relationship. What we say is important, but the way we say it, and the circumstances in which we say it, may be equally as important.