Apology and Humor

Incorporating humor with an apology is risky. If anyone could pull it off, it’d be a cast member of Saturday Night Live, right? But even Pete Davidson, after a few lame comments, delivered a straight public apology Saturday night for mocking Congressman-elect Lt. Com. Dan Crenshaw on “Weekend Update” last week. The apology met the basic criteria of taking responsibility for a specific action, and saying those magic words, “I’m sorry.” It was almost a relief to then see Mr. Crenshaw appear on the show and dish it back to Mr. Davidson with some humorous lines. Given that this was Veteran’s Day weekend, it was appropriate for Mr. Crenshaw to sum up with a sober encouragement that we honor all veterans. To cap it off, Mr. Crenshaw noted that Mr. Davidson’s father was a first-responder who died in 9/11. Note that it was the one forgiving, not the one apologizing, who used humor effectively; but the offender had to be willing to laugh at himself, and Davidson was.

Megyn Kelly Apologizes for “Blackface” Comments

TV host Megyn Kelly apologized yesterday for comments she made earlier this week on her talk show about blackface.

First, the offense: In her morning talk show, Kelly and three guests were discussing inappropriate Halloween costumes. Noting the criticism of actress Luann DeLesseps for dressing as Diana Ross for a Halloween costume party last year, Kelly questioned why it was considered racist for a person to dress up as someone from another race: “Because truly you do get in trouble if you are a white person who puts on blackface at Halloween or a black person who puts on white face for Halloween. Back when I was a kid, that was okay as long as you were dressing up as a character.”

The reaction: This quickly became the trending topic on Twitter, with most users finding Kelly’s comments inappropriate and offensive. Her NBC colleague Al Roker demanded a public apology, noting that blackface carries “a history going back to the 1830s minstrel shows to demean and denigrate a race. … I’m old enough to have lived through ‘Amos ‘n’ Andy,’ where you had white people in blackface playing two black characters, just magnifying the worst stereotypes about black people — and that’s what the problem is and that’s what the issue is.”

The apology: Kelly first emailed an apology to her NBC colleagues. Then yesterday, she apologized at the start of her daily TV show before a live audience:

“I want to begin with two words: I’m sorry. You may have heard that yesterday we had a discussion here about political correctness and Halloween costumes.

“And that conversation turned to whether it is ever okay for a person of one race to dress up as another — a black person making their face lighter or a white person making theirs darker, to make a costume complete. I defended the idea, saying that as long it was respectful and part of a Halloween costume, it seemed okay. Well, I was wrong and I am sorry.”

“I have never been a ‘PC’ kind of person, but I do understand the value in being sensitive to our history, particularly on race and ethnicity. This past year has been so painful for many people of color.”

“The country feels so divided, and I have no wish to add to that pain and offense. I believe this is a time for more understanding, more love, more sensitivity and honor, and I want to be part of that.”

Many in the audience, including people of color, stood and clapped when she finished.

The analysis: First, what’s good about this apology: I believe she is sorry about this mess. She admitted she was “wrong,” and she seems to understand that she contributed to the problem instead of to its solution, expressing a desire to behave differently from now on. She was emotional as she was delivering it: this was heartfelt.

What’s not so good: The comment about not being “a ‘PC’ kind of person” is a bit jarring. I think she’s trying to be honest—that she’s not going to say things she doesn’t believe only because it’s expected. But it could be interpreted to mean that she believes this whole matter is only about “political correctness” rather than genuine offense.

“This past year has been so painful for people of color.” I found this phrase also jarring. I expected her to say that it’s been painful for all of us as we wrestle with racial tension in the U.S. Suggesting that it’s been painful for some people implies that it hasn’t been painful for the rest. I don’t think that’s what she meant – surely she too has been grieved by the police shootings of unarmed black men, the church murders in South Carolina, etc. I think she was trying to express empathy. She didn’t quite do it.

What could’ve made it better: Good apologies are specific about the offense and the attempts to avoid it. I wish she’d added a line specifically about how damaging “blackface” was, like repeating what Al Roker noted – that it’s perpetuated the worst stereotypes about black people. I wish she had acknowledged that it all seemed okay “when she was a kid” because anyone who objected then was silenced, their criticism suppressed. She could’ve expressed gratitude that people speak more freely today, even if it’s to criticize her, because that’s how she learns.

It takes courage to make a public apology, because it’s fraught with minefields. It’s even more stressful when your job is on the line. We can all learn from Megyn Kelly’s example.

What if Judge Kavanagh had Received Conflict Coaching?

Since the Honorable Brett Kavanagh testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee last week, he has issued two statements of regret–an apology to Senator Klobuchar that evening, for answering her question with a question; and an acknowledgment in the Wall Street Journal today that his tone was sharp, and he said some things he now wishes he hadn’t said. Because he is a professing Christian, his statements of regret provide an opportunity to reflect on how some Christian conflict coaching beforehand might have helped him handle his Committee appearance differently. What if he had used Jesus as his model of how to behave when unjustly accused?

The phrase “conflict coaching” is a term of art in biblical peacemaking. It means, helping a fellow believer respond to conflict biblically, reflecting on their behavior in the light of Scripture. We all have blind spots, and a neutral person can help us see how well our behavior in the midst of a conflict measures up to the Christian ideals we profess.

Below are some questions a conflict coach might have used to help Judge Kavanagh take a different approach in the hearing. These questions start from Judge K’s perspective that he is completely innocent. They’re not designed to change his mind about that, so much as to offer a different way of behaving in the hearing, that would be less likely to result in regrets (and criticism). These questions assume that the recipient is a Jesus-follower who takes Scripture seriously.  [Just to be clear: these were never used; they’re just examples of how a conflict-coach might have approached this. I have no idea whether anyone tried to talk to Judge Kavanagh from this perspective.]

Conflict Coaching Questions

Q: You believe you have been wrongly accused. Can you think of people in the Bible who also were accused of a crime, yet innocent?

(Possible answers)

  • Joseph, by Potiphar’s wife
  • David, by Saul
  • Jesus, by Jewish leaders

Q: Can you identify one quality that person displayed under those circumstances, that you admire?

(These are just some examples)

  • Joseph (Genesis 39): apparently didn’t have a chance to defend himself to Potiphar, so never even had the chance to tell his side of the story; apparently trusted God while he was in prison, and God worked through Joseph; reading between the lines, Joseph must’ve forgiven Potiphar, and not allowed a root of bitterness to grow while he was in prison.
  • David (I Samuel 18 et seq): David resisted the temptation to retaliate—twice he could’ve killed Saul, but he restrained himself out of fear of the Lord; he could’ve used his power and authority to demolish Saul and Saul’s kingdom, but he chose to flee instead of starting a civil war; he showed respect to Saul right to the end.
  • Jesus (John 18-19, etc.): once arrested, spoke little; kept his focus on his goal of fulfilling the Father’s plan; endured the betrayals of friends Judas and Peter; constrained himself from exposing the Jewish leaders’ hypocrisy; constrained himself from lecturing Pilate; endured humiliation wordlessly; etc.

Q: Are there any qualities in these biblical examples that you want to emulate yourself? Which ones? How will you do that?

Q: How do you think Jesus was able to endure all that torture and humiliation? Not only was he innocent; he also had the power to end it at any time. What empowered him to persevere? Read Ephesians 3:17-19 to learn more about how great is the love of Christ for us.

Q: Given that one of your goals as a Christian is to become more Christ-like, how might you imitate Jesus in this situation? What aspects of Jesus could you adopt and implement? How is this even possible? Reflect on passages like John 15:5-25; Matthew 10:37-39; I Corinthians 5:20-21; Colossians 3:1-3, that talk about how we are transformed when we are “in Christ.”

Q: Are you feeling like you’re being persecuted? Do you recall how Jesus said to respond to that? See Matthew 5:44-45. How can you live out this verse in this situation?

Q: Not many people get the opportunity to defend themselves publicly against a false accusation; God is giving you a rare glimpse of what Jesus went through in his last hours before death. What does it mean to you to be able to identify with Jesus in this way? Are there any other ways in which you especially identify with Jesus as you go through this ordeal? How does that help you?

Q: What goals do you want to keep in mind as you go through this process? What image or picture could you focus on? Reflect on I Corinthians 10:31. How could you glorify God through this process? What would it look like if you made that your primary goal? What would be some things you would be sure not to do, if you’re trying to honor God?

Q: What characteristics do you want to display in this process? What adjectives would you like people to use afterwards to describe your behavior? “He was very ….” Think about the “fruits of the Spirit” (Galatians 5:22-23). Do they play any role here? Is there one that you would especially like to display as you go through this process?

Q: What temptations or pitfalls do you want to try to avoid? How will you do that?

Q from The Peacemaker, by Ken Sande, p. 42: When this is all over, if God were to evaluate your behavior, how would you want God to complete these two sentences:

  1. “I am pleased that you did not …” or,  “I am pleased that you resisted the temptation to …”
  2. “I am pleased that you …” or, “I am pleased that, despite reasons not to, you were able to …”

Q: Are you feeling a need to talk back to your accusers? “Teach them a lesson”? Expose them? Consider Romans 12:14-19. Is it possible that God will take care of this in another way, so you don’t have to be His “mouthpiece”?

Q: Is it possible that, in the intensity of the hearing, you might say something you later regret? If you realize it in the hearing, how might you handle that? How do you feel about publicly apologizing if, for example, you give a response that is sharp, sarcastic, or disrespectful? Consider that “humility” is one of the fruits of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23). If you realize you’ve said something not consistent with the Christ-like attitude you’re striving to maintain, could you apologize right then? What might you say?

Getting to the Heart:

Q: Do you know what an “idol” is? One definition is that it’s a good thing that we want too much, for which we’re willing to sin to attain. So let me ask you a question for you to reflect on—don’t answer it yet, just think about this: Is it possible that you have made your desire for a Supreme Court seat into an idol? Or, is it possible that you have made your desire for a good reputation into an idol? What might it look like if you had? One sign of idolatry is that we’re in conflict with anyone who doesn’t worship our idol. The cure for idolatry is to confess to God that you have been worshiping something other than God; repent; and replace idol worship with worship of the one true God.

An Apology After the Hearing

The evening after the Honorable Brett Kavanagh testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee, he apologized to Senator Klobuchar regarding his response to her: “She asked me a question at the end, and I responded by asking her a question and I’m sorry I did that.”

This article has an interesting perspective on that apology. The author notes how an apology can short-change the opportunity to deal fully with an offense and all its effects. She asserts that studies show that people appreciate apologies even when they are incomplete or insincere. I’ve seen other studies establishing that a bad (incomplete, insincere, self-serving, etc.) apology is actually worse than saying nothing. (See, e.g., Jennifer Robbenolt, “Apologies and Legal Settlement: An Empirical Examination.” 102 Michigan Law Review 460, 497 (2003))

But it’s also true that people of goodwill often appreciate the offender’s efforts at an apology, even if its content is less than satisfying.

Could Brett Kavanaugh Apologize His Way Out of This?

Judge Brett Kavanaugh testified yesterday that he did not assault anyone, but he also admitted that he drank too much in his younger days. He insists that he never drank so much that he blacked out, but apparently his college friends tell a different story. So, what if Judge Kavanaugh acknowledged a memory lapse and admitted to the possibility that events happened as his female accusers have said? Instead of sounding like an alcoholic-in-denial, he would create rapport with many Americans who regret adolescent behavior, and just might persuade doubters that he’s no longer who he was then.

Here’s what he might say:

[Acknowledgment of offense] Like everyone else, I was stunned by the allegations from Dr. Ford. The behavior she described is so abhorrent that I instinctively denied ever doing anything even close. I honestly do not remember ever doing anything like this. As I have continued to reflect on this, I have to admit that I don’t remember everything I did while I was in high school and early college. As I testified, I drank too much. I did that too often. Although I don’t think I ever blacked out from drinking, and I don’t recall my friends telling me things I’d done while drinking that I did not remember myself, that may have happened. No one ever told me that I attempted to assault someone, so I still have trouble believing I am the one who did this; but I admit that there is a remote possibility that this could have happened.

[Responsibility] If I was actually the one who assaulted Dr. Ford, then I must apologize to her. I will do that privately, but I also owe the public an apology, since it’s a horrible act that I initially denied. The idea that I could behave this way is contrary to who I am, so it’s revolting to think I’m capable of this—but I know, as a man, and as the sinner God knows me to be, that I am capable of such vile behavior. It’s easy to blame the alcohol, but I’m the one who kept choosing to drink; I am responsible.

[Remorse] I am disgusted by the thought that I did this to another human being. I will regret it as long as I live. It’s especially painful to hear that Dr. Ford has suffered the effects of this incident for years, while I have been free of it. Now the tables are turned; I hope my apology will bring some measure of healing for her, whereas I will now carry the shame of this incident for the rest of my life. I wish I had made amends long ago for the sins of my youth, but I believe it’s never too late. I deeply regret the offenses I committed while in high school and college, and ask your forgiveness. It will not happen again.

[Repair] There are some who say I should withdraw from being in nomination for the Supreme Court. Indeed, some say that I should withdraw from the bench altogether. Frankly, in some ways that would be easier—and that’s why I will not do it. The fact is that I am not the person I was then.  I recognized at some point in college that my drinking was interfering with my goals, and I cut way back. In effect, I matured. Decades of service demonstrate this, and it’s corroborated by many colleagues who have observed my work for years. I hope my behavior when I was a teen does not determine who I am now, or will be the rest of my life.  I believe that what I and my family have suffered in the last two weeks is penance for my past sins, and I hope to move on. This episode has heightened my awareness of both sexual assault and the dangers of drunkenness, and I will continue to work against both.

 

It still wouldn’t be a great apology. One element of a good apology is being specific about the wrongs done, and Judge K does not want to, or cannot, do that. Another element is making some form of restitution, and I don’t know how he could do that here. Another element is to accept the consequences, and arguably for him to be a judge is rewarding rather than punishing his criminal behavior.

But perhaps his misery these last two weeks is punishment enough. If we believe in second chances, that we shouldn’t be punished forever for stupid, even criminal, things we did in our youth, then we could permit him to remain a judge. If he apologized.

 

 

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