What is the point of apologizing, especially when apologies are often inadequate to address the harms to others? The Brad Wilcox story remains in Mormon news because he has now apologized a second time, this time with his black colleague sitting next to him as if to illustrate, well, we all know what he’s going for here. His wife was there, too, but as a woman, she does not represent me, so personally that tokenism fell flat. But there are those who are now defending Wilcox, saying either that his apologies need to be enough, we should assume sincerity, and everyone should let him off the hook, or that nothing he will say will ever be enough for the bloodthirsty enemies of the Church, and blah blah blah. You get the gist.

Sometimes individuals apologize, and sometimes organizations apologize. Often those apologies fall short, and Wilcox’s apologies are illustrative of several common shortcomings apologies suffer:

  • An apology that’s too fast shows that it’s unlikely the person has had time to reflect and understand what they did sufficiently to be able to change the behavior.
  • An apology that’s in reaction to a public backlash can feel insincere.
  • All apologies can feel like they are suspect because of the attempt to restore the reputation of the person who did something offensive. The act of apologizing centers the offender as if they were the victim.
  • Apologies that “share” or deflect blame from the offender toward his or her victims are problematic because, again, they sound like the real point is reputation management, not restoration toward the person injured. An example would be a comedian accused of sexual misconduct who apologizes but also claims that it was a “misunderstanding.” That’s not really apologizing and owning a mistake. It’s reputation management.
  • A partial apology, one that acknowledges some error while overlooking other issues, is evidence that the individual doesn’t really understand why they are apologizing, at least not fully.
  • Defense of the apologizing individual adds to the damage because it places a double burden on the victims–not only were they wronged by the individual, but now they are being re-cast as perpetrators of harm toward the one who was offensive in the first place.
  • When someone apologizes for an individual incident, and later that incident is revealed to be part of an ongoing problem that has gone unchecked for years, the apology doesn’t work.
  • There’s also a potential issue between organizations and individuals. If an individual apologizes, but the organization or system they are part of is also culpable yet does not apologize, the message is that the individual is the only one who must change, not the system that enabled them. If the organization apologizes, but individuals who perpetuated harmful ideas have no reckoning, that can also be a problem.

We are all very familiar with the quote by E. Oaks that the Church neither seeks nor gives apologies, which I hope we can all agree is just one man’s opinion (mingled with Fox News talking points, no doubt). Many churches should and do apologize, just not ours, even when it really should because it’s obviously and demonstrably in the wrong as with Mountain Meadows Massacre (which I believe it did apologize for, sort of, without really claiming direct culpability), and the racist priesthood ban (which Bruce McConkie came really really close to apologizing for, but instead apologized for the bad justifications for it).

The fruits of not apologizing at all may be worse than the fruits of a bad apology, or maybe both are equally bad because people will say “There are some people out there who won’t accept any apology, so why bother?” Say what you will about Wilcox, and honestly, I have no time for these youth circuit speakers whose egos seem to know no bounds, but he did at least apologize, very weakly, twice. (Anyone up for a third strike? Me neither. Maybe in ten years if he finally understands what he did wrong, which I doubt will happen.)

So I’ve outlined what a bad apology entails, but I think an important piece of the apology question is “Who is the beneficiary of the apology?” There are several candidates:

  • The person or group of people who was wronged. There’s good reason to try to make things right with the people we’ve wronged (and we’ve ALL wronged people, nobody is exempt from needing to apologize sometimes). There are a lot of people who could have been wronged.
    • The people who were being ridiculed, dismissed or mocked.
    • The Church or employer who expect more professionalism and better skills and humility.
    • One’s own family members who are embarrassed by association with racist, sexist or homophobic attitudes.
    • The people who had to listen to the perpetuation of these bad ideas for years.

But when an apology is performative and insincere, or perhaps lacking understanding for why a thing was wrong or hurtful, the audience is often different:

  • The employer or Church who are embarrassed about bad PR or who might bar you from further promotion in their organizations.
  • The organization or individual boss for whom you are falling on the sword so that later, they will recognize and reward your loyalty.
  • One’s actual followers and defenders who will rise up to make you feel better, and who don’t actually care about the people you’ve wronged.
  • The people you’ve wronged, but to avoid responsibility or retribution from them, not because you think you did anything wrong.

In these cases, the beneficiary is oneself. Do those types of apologies improve things? I suspect that they do, a little, but only insofar as they create awareness, prevent an exact recurrence (some kind of adjustment to future talks by these circuit speakers will have to happen, surely), and possibly get more people to think about the issues here: how we talk about race, how we talk to and about women, how we respect people of other faiths, and how we foster devotional experiences that help retain our youth. Given that we went through all of this with Randy Bott just a few short years ago, I question that we’ve actually learned anything, but the one difference here (or two I guess) is the apologies. Bott didn’t apologize, and instead he was just relegated to the dinosaur bin. Wilcox is apologizing like his job depends on it.

What do you think?

  • Do apologies make a difference in the Church? Can you think of an example of when they did?
  • How do you see the relationship between institutional and individual apologies?
  • Do you think Wilcox’s apologies, whether sincere or not, will make a difference in the Church? What difference, if any, do you expect to see?
  • Do you agree with E. Oaks that apologizing is something the Church shouldn’t do because it doesn’t work?
  • Have you ever received an apology that really made a difference to you? Why was it impactful?