The Meaning of “I’m Sorry”
November 15, 2012
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In considering the efficacy of truth commissions, the literature continually touches on the potential healing effects vs. re-traumatizing effects of “truth telling.” While it’s acknowledged that truth telling can be detrimental to victims yet is also thought to promote healing and reconciliation, none of the literature delves deeper into the various constructions of confronting the “truth” that arise. In the class film on Cambodia, a female victim who contributed in the Duch trial specifically stressed Duch’s apology, indicating that it was possibly the most prominent contributor to her process of healing.
It seems that the psychology of apologies speaks to themes within the literature and gives insight into whether victims are re-traumatized vs. helped by confronting the “truth.” On the receiving end, apologies (when perceived to be genuine) are empowering to those who were wronged through validation and acknowledgement of them as human beings with emotions and rights that should be respected. In addition to this, and possibly more salient to the topic, when an individual is wronged, the perception of the wrong is inherently linked to social norms in so far as the wrong violated a norm. By acknowledging the violation, an apology reestablishes the social norms that are necessary maps for individuals to navigate existing within a social system (there are obviously implications of this on a larger scale when the norms themselves are being restructured).
Additionally, as social creatures, humans are naturally empathic beings and we seek to connect with others by visualizing their humanity and thus likeness to us. A perceived genuine apology can also open space for empathy by giving us an opening to another’s humanity and through this empathic connection victims are potentially more disposed to move into forgiveness. And through first the recognition/reestablishment of the broken social norm, and then through this hopeful empathic connection, the wrong-doer may cease to exist as a a permanent threat in the victim’s mind.
It would be fascinating and I believe insightful to study the aspects of apology in truth telling, looking at effects of reconciliation and healing in relation to, i.e., when a perpetrator does not come forward, when a perpetrator comes forward but denies the crime, when a perpetrator comes forward and acknowledges crime without expressing remorse or apology, when a perpetrator makes a forced (and unbelieved) apology, and when a perpetrator makes an (unforced) apology that is perceived by victims as genuine. I think the nuances of this would shed substantial light on what variations in truth telling mean for the objective of victims’ reconciliation.
The Science of Effective Apologies, Psychology Today (these are just articles not research articles, but they point to interesting things to consider)
The Power of Apology, Psychology Today