Originally published in Ellen Notbohm’s newsletter, August 2012
Four years ago a publisher on the other side of the world commissioned me to write an article on teaching children with autism to apologize. The editor didn’t want a typical American list of numbered or bulleted points, but rather a “flowing prose” discussion of teaching empathy to children with recognized social skills deficits. The piece I wrote, “Learning to Say ‘Sorry,’” began, “It seems like it should be such a simple thing, teaching your child or student to say ‘I’m sorry’ when an apology is called for. But beyond simply repeating a conditioned response, truly understanding the nature of an apology and being able to deliver one sincerely requires a level of social competence that many adults find difficult.” I described the social thinking that must precede an apology, the why that underlies the how-to. I argued the importance of the restitution, of not just acknowledging that we’ve wronged someone, but of taking action to put things right—and of learning from our mistakes and not repeating them. I naively drew a connection between understanding one’s own behavior and changing that behavior.
I never imagined that within a few years I’d be picking up my pencil to warn children and adults that there are some apologies we should not accept, that apologies springing purely from self-interest rather than empathy are not apologies at all. That along with teaching our children with autism when and how to apologize, we must teach the mouthy and the thoughtless and the unkind among the general population that they cannot co-opt autism as a trendy general slur and get off with a synthetic apology.
“Fool, you look autistic. . . I don’t want no special ed kids on my time line follow some body else.” These words were recently tweeted by a well-known musician whose name I decline to publicize, as he is neither the first nor the last celebrity to abuse the autism community with incendiary stereotyping. An actress whose son has autism demanded an apology, and here’s what we got: “It was not my intention to offend anyone and for this I apologize.”
Say it again?
If the intention wasn’t to offend, what was it? To inform? To inspire? To entertain?
Harm, foul. Apology not accepted.
Actors, musicians, comedians, talk show gabbers, sports figures, politicians, educators, family members: an apology isn’t an apology when it is nothing more than triage, a stop-the-bleeding tactic applied to end an unpleasant incident in the shortest possible time, and especially when it does nothing to prevent a recurrence. I don’t want an apology for remarks like the one above. I want the remarks left unsaid to begin with. Failing that, I want photos of the offender spending time in a classroom, an occupational therapy room, a speech therapist’s office, a home adapted for a child with autism, a gastroenterology clinic. Seeing what our kids live with every day and the heart with which they face their challenges would silence all but the bitterest cynics among us.
To teach and practice the art of apology is to know that cutting words can never be retrieved. Various versions of an old Jewish parable tell the tale of a man (or woman) who has rashly spoken ill of a friend (or neighbor or family member) and, devoutly wishing to make amends, asks a rabbi how to do so. The rabbi advises the man to take a feather pillow to the top of a hill, break it open on the wind, then gather up the feathers. The man returns a day later, distraught because he found it impossible to gather up all the feathers. Precisely so, says the rabbi. Words released continue to spread, to damage, to wound. A modern telling of this fable would add that thanks to the Internet, hurtful words circulate globally and forever.
The apology is a many-faced reflection of the human condition. Two friends of mine once deliberated the subject at its most personal level. One had a spouse who is in every other way a deeply loving and compassionate person, but will not apologize for anything, ever, even when blatantly in the wrong. The other friend described the opposite, a mate who apologizes instantly and walks away without allowing the offended party to so much as finish a sentence. Which was worse? they sighed. No apology or an insincere apology?
I have to go with deeming the insincere apology worse. Dismaying as it may be, at least there’s an element of honesty in the refusal to apologize, the offender acknowledging that s/he owns the behavior, right or wrong, come what consequence may. I would have more respect for the insolent public figure who bypasses the phony I-meant-no-offense defense with “Being deliberately provocative and insulting is part of my act, my persona, my schtick. I’m well paid for it. Like it or lump it—your choice.”
Within the few days I’ve been writing this, I’ve heard so-called news personalities suggest that mass murderers are likely to be on the spectrum, and that one of our presidential candidates must have autism because he is socially inept. On and on it goes. Most offenders will continue to offend until the consequences become too great: lost money, lost relationship, lost votes or fans, lost freedom. So rather than demand apologies, we can vote with our withheld dollars, our feet, our Facebook Unlike button, the Off button on our televisions, our actual votes. If in fact actions do speak louder than words, these actions say, “Apology not accepted. Victimization not spoken here.”
Lest we underestimate how extraordinary is the concept of the apology, check several thesauruses. No single-word equivalent captures its full essence. It goes against my lifetime of effort to become an empathetic person to reach the point where I find it necessary to reject an entire category of apologies. But in this case, what we have is an invasive species of apology, propagating with little resistance, and choking out the healthy, open-minded, open-opportunity environment we’re trying to cultivate for our children, an environment they need and deserve in order to fulfill their potential as respected and productive members of community.
It’s time to stop demanding and accepting the disingenuous, just-add-water apology. It’s time we reclaim the apology and restore it to its original glorious purpose—a balm for both parties, a healant that begins in the heart, not at the tip of the tongue or in the wallet or ego.
In the years since I wrote “Learning to Say ‘Sorry,’” our steadily coarsening society has made more difficult our jobs as parents and teachers seeking to nurture empathy in our children. If I were to write that piece again, I would retitle it, “Learning to Say ‘Sorry’ and MEAN It,” because it’s no longer enough to simply say “sorry.” We now confront a beautiful counterpoint: when we demand, in the name of our children, education, active restitution and enlightenment over lip service, we have nothing to apologize for.
© 2012 Ellen Notbohm www.ellennotbohm.com