Apology School

An apology is supposed to feel uncomfortable. After all, you did something WRONG. It is supposed to expose you and make you vulnerable. The movie, A Fish Called Wanda, provides a textbook apology by John Cleese after he is hung out a window by his ankles and schooled in the art by Kevin Kline.

In contrast to a fulsome apology, when it contains small flourishes to diminish your discomfort, it ceases to be an apology because it is now about you and your discomfort and not about the people you wronged. If you go so far as to try and suggest that the people who were offended need a new perspective, you really have stuffed it up.

Yesterday I had an opportunity to contrast two apologies and they could not have been more different in tone or impact. One was made by an extremely powerful voice in global health and the other was made by one of the many sincere workers in the field.

The power-apology was given by Richard Horton, Editor in Chief of The Lancet, who had approved the cover of the most recent issue. The cover was, in its entirety, a degrading observation about women. It reduced women to a reproductive body-part. The article, from which the cover quote was extracted was fine and, in the context of the article the text was relevant and reasonable. Decontextualised and displayed as the cover image, it was simply offensive. Think of putting a racist quote on a billboard that was extracted from an article on the horrors of racism.

Many readers were profoundly upset by the cover. They tweeted about it (giving rise to the hashtag #morethanavagina) and they wrote letters to the Lancet about it. With much cajoling, the Editor in Chief finally published an apology,

“I apologise to our readers who were offended by the cover quote and the use of those same words in the review. At the same time, I want to emphasise that….”

And here, in the second sentence, he lost it. He wasn’t apologising. Not really. It was insincere and an attempt to diminish the offence by suggesting that there were good arguments on both sides. He has undoubtedly made a difficult situation worse when his intention — badly executed — was to try and placate.

The contrasting apology, the sincere-apology, followed a large on line meeting to discuss a research protocol. One attendee (who had earlier raised pertinent questions about the protocol) inadvertently left his microphone open. He was heard to comment at the end of the meeting (in colourful and disparaging language) that the protocol was poor and should never have been funded. I missed the moment but as soon as I was told about it, I wrote to him. He replied.

I beg forgiveness for my unintentional comments. I had previously raised all the issues I needed to. So with this email I am begging sincere forgiveness from my colleagues. Sorry once again.

Now that is an apology(!), which will be circulated. I don’t know if it will be accepted by others but one cannot fault the sincerity of it. And that is in the nature of the genuine apology. You put yourself out there, take the risk, and hope the injured party will accept it. There was no prevarication and no attempt to diminish or justify the offence. He simply apologised.

In the absence of Kevin Kline on speed-dial, a sincere apology from those in power remains as elusive as a unicorn.

Global health researcher based in Bangladesh