Sunday, September 23, 2012

Autotuning Confession

Why do we confess to wrongdoing? Some options.
1. Because we're genuinely sorry for them.
2. Because we want to restore a relationship broken by the wrongdoing
3. Because we think we might become more popular by doing so.
4. To try to change people's perceptions of us.
5. Because we know God wants us to.

Who should we confess to?
1. Everyone
2. God
3. The people we've wronged
4. The people we've wronged, and everyone else who's got upset because someone got wronged, even if it wasn't them.

How should we confess?
1. In private, one to one.
2. On TV
3. By saying sorry, but not necessarily for the thing people think we should be sorry for. (e.g. 'I'm sorry if you took offence' rather than 'I'm sorry I offended you'. Though I suspect some people are just an offence waiting to be taken)
4. By saying we'll never break another promise again (which begs the question...)

I mentioned Nick Clegg in the introduction to our Confession this morning - there's a first time for everything. All of us have got stuff to say sorry for, but politicians mistakes are made to more people, and about more people, than my petty sins-in-a-corner.

One of the sequals to Gary Chapmans brilliant '5 love languages' is the 5 languages of apology. Chapman suggests that we have a range of ways of giving and receiving apologies. It's probably a bit too neat, fitting the profile of Chapmans 5 love languages, but the blurb suggests  the five basic languages of apology (are): expressing regret, accepting responsibility, making restitution, genuinely repenting, and requesting forgiveness.

There's something behind the Catholic notion of penance, that even though forgiveness is freely granted by God, restitution is part of repentance. That idea is carried through in restorative justice, that part of justice is the offender doing something for the victim, rather than simply being punished.

Politicians are aware that actions speak louder than words, but there comes a point where the actions are no longer heard, because the words in the narrative are so fixed and given that everything else is heard through the story they tell. No amount of restoration is enough. Part of the political game is to bid publicly for the controlling narrative - win that contest, and you're sorted. The Libdems can apologise until they are blue in the face and work their socks off for the poor and disadvantaged for the next 30 months, but many have already bought the story that they sold out for power, and nothing will move them.

But it would be a shame if Clegg's apology were simply a political manoevre. Politicians being what they are, that's what it's seen as. At its most basic, this could simply be a bit of political calculation - nothing to lose, now lets see what the other leaders have got to apologise for. Next up, but not much better, is being sorry for being found out. "I'm sorry we didn't get away with it" is the rough translation. Next up from that is what the message seems to say, is that he's sorry for making the original pledge. Some of this might be a genuine confession of weakness, making the pledge to keep people in the party happy when he didn't actually believe in it. It's a failure of integrity. But it did win him a lot of votes....

I just hope that the language and practice of apology, repentance and confession doesn't become debased by all of this. There is a modern fad for confessing and apologising for things we had nothing to do with: the slave trade, the crusades etc. On one level that's ok: there is such a thing as corporate guilt and responsibility, which is borne even by those who aren't responsible themselves (look at Daniels prayers of confession). But should genuine confession for these things then go hand in hand with some form of reparation? There is a certain amount of emotional tourism in our society - we seem to like getting upset, or angry, or apologetic, on behalf of people who until yesterday we had nothing to do with, and whose lives never intersect with our own. We naturally do this with film and drama anyway, it's more troubling to see that spilling over into real life.

If saying sorry becomes detached from actually being sorry, repentant, then we are in trouble. Because at its heart apology and confession is not about me, the wrongdoer, assuaging my conscience. It is about you, the wronged, being recognised, and recieving what is due to you. If we manipulate the language of confession, we devalue all those we are apologising to.

It's a vain hope, perhaps, but it would be great if we all found it came a bit more naturally to say sorry, and to be sorry, and we all agreed that it didn't demonstrate weakness to do so. It takes much more strength of character to make apology and restitution than it does to make excuses.

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