Wednesday, 7 October 2009

The Meaning of Apologies

Iedul Fitri, or the end of the fasting month of Ramadhan for Moslems, is marked by asking each other for forgiveness, normally by saying ‘mohon ma’af lahir bathin’ (forgive me body and soul.) This is supposed to be the time when past wrongs are exonerated, sins forgiven and everybody starts the new year with a clean slate, innocent like new born babes.

Which begs the question, if everybody every year says sorry, but then continues with their bad ways, what is the point of apologizing or asking for forgiveness? Unless of course, they’re not really sorry or don’t understand the meaning of remorse. Or worse, since they know they will be forgiven at the end of day, might as well use the rest of the year to pack in as many sins as possible.

Hence, it is no surprise that although Indonesia has the largest Moslem population, it also ranks high on the list of most corrupt countries and probably the most tolerant of preventable human failings such as lacking in discipline and irrational and irresponsible behaviours.

Since every year we are always asking each other’s forgiveness, what is that we’re actually remorseful about? Certainly not for anything specific, I’m sure, such as ‘sorry for stealing the company’s money,’ or ‘sorry for being too lazy to get my work done,’ or even, ‘sorry for being a nasty boss, a nagging wife, a cheating husband or a good-for-nothing son.’ (Or if you’re in Aceh caught canoodling in public with your paramour, ‘sorry for showing affection, please don’t stone me to death.’)

No, for these would be an admission of actual wrong doings and personal failures.

While we are good at asking for forgiveness in the general and rhetorical sense, such as during the Iedul Fitri or at the end of pompous speeches where we apologize profusely for words wrongly spoken and feelings unintentionally injured, or on invitation cards, for names and titles misspelled, wild horses will not be able to drag out an apology when it comes to real wrong doings for which sincere apologies are required.

As a matter of fact, I cannot recall any public official calling a press conference to apologize over personal failings, corruption and misdeeds that come under his responsibility, let alone entertain the thought of resignation. Apologizing is seen as an act of weakness rather than strength. There’s more honour in defiant indignation and vehement denial than in the humble admission of guilt.

The standard responses for real misdeeds are feign ignorance, deny responsibility or point the finger at somebody else. If really pushed to a corner, when an apology is warranted, we could always blame the Almighty for making us imperfect creatures. It’s not our fault that we’re a bunch of lying, cheating and weak-willed lot, but our Maker’s.

When pushed to a situation where we have to say sorry, our ego’s impulse is to reject the notion that we might even be the slightest bit in the wrong. When it comes to our own failings, remorse seems to come below indignation and self-denial.

This is a pity, because a well-honed and properly constructed apology can actually go a long way in furthering one’s interests and transform a personal weakness into public magnanimity.

Celebrities and public figures for instance are normally quite good at airing their apologies. After all, for people living in constant pursuit of paparazzi and who feed off the media for their fame, there is no such thing as bad publicity and a beautifully crafted display of regret can generate a lot of mileage in the media.

For example, for all the amount of bile and antipathy directed at singer Kanye West on his rude behaviour against Video Music Award winner Taylor Swift, the singer’s public outburst during the show earned him the enviable top spot in Twitter’s trending topic for a few days.

As a matter of fact, public apologies by public figures are often a good way to put a closure to scandalous behaviours (especially where exposed marital affairs are the issue) and for putting the onus on the public to let the matter go one way or the other. Our public officials would do well to learn from them. A contrite face, a public mea culpa, some verbal self-flagellation can be an effective character boost to a flagging popularity for our politicians and public officials. Especially if nobody else is doing it.

At least this type of apologies actually have a more beneficial purpose than the general, rhetorical ones we hand out on an annual basis.

(Desi Anwar: First published in The Jakarta Globe)

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