On Apologizing for Others

A rhetorical practice I’ve seen more and more lately is apologizing for others. This usually happens in the context of a Church leader saying something the supposed apologizer disagrees with, and often takes the form of “as a Mormon, I apologize for…”

I think this approach is wrongheaded, whether you agree with the apologizer or not. 

  1. Apologizing implies having been in the wrong. Being “punished for [our] own sins” means we don’t carry the guilt of what others have done. Full stop. There is simply no reason for you to apologize for what somebody else has done. If you feel like your involvement in the Church is itself de-facto wrong, then you can apologize for that in regards to your personal participation, but it still doesn’t make sense for you to apologize for whatever sins you feel a Church leader or the Church as an institution has committed. 
  2. People generally understand the principles involved in #1; therefore, the act of apologizing-by-proxy doesn’t actually involve any humility on the part of the apologizer. The term “virtue signaling” gets overused, but I think it’s use in this case is appropriate. Because people intuitively understand #1 and don’t actually think that the apologizer carries any personal guilt for the issue in question, apologizing by proxy smacks more of virtue signaling on the part of the apologizer than any attempt to actually exercise humility in admitting wrongdoing.
  3. The person you are apologizing for probably does not think they need an apology; therefore it is presumptuous to essentially speak for someone who did not ask you to speak for them.

I don’t want to exaggerate how much I see this in the wild, but it’s enough to merit a brief post on why it’s a wrongheaded practice.

16 comments for “On Apologizing for Others

  1. Any parent could tell you that your assumption in #1 is wrong. Anybody with “that uncle” at a gathering can tell you your assumption is wrong. As human beings who can recognize when another has been hurt or offended, we apologize for the behavior of others all the time show regret for what happened or sympathy to their hurt/offense/inconvenience.

  2. As a parent and as some with “that uncle” at many a gathering, as someone capable of seeing when other human beings are hurt and offended:

    Loyd is wrong.

    I’m sorry you had to read his comment.

    [I am not apologizing for Loyd, I am expressing regret for Loyd’s inability to distinguish between “I’m sorry that happened to you” and “I apologize for whatever it was that other person did”]

  3. I think there’s a nuanced but important distinction between the kind of “I’m sorry” one would offer when the proverbial drunk uncle makes a scene at the wedding and what I’m alluding to. The former means “I empathize,” or “I realize this is bad and I want to help,” but it isn’t “I apologize for my uncle.” You don’t have the right to apologize for your uncle. He did not appoint you to be his spokesman, and you are not to blame for his shenanigans. In the Latter-day Saint sense it’s the difference between showing empathy for a group you believe is wronged versus verbiage along the lines of “As a Mormon, I apologize for Elder so and so….”

  4. Hmmm… I think it is okay to apologize for someone else’s action or word. I think there is a hidden agenda here, which is partially uncovered by Stephen C.’s umbrage against “As a Mormon, I apologize for Elder so and so…” I don’t know the context of someone apologizing for Elder whomever, and I don’t know if Elder whomever was right or wrong (I could give my opinion if Stephen C. had told the story, but he didn’t), and I don’t know the purpose of the apology (real ministering to a wounded soul or an uncharitable attack on the church?), but I think a reasonable and honest person could sincerely apologize for the errant or harmful, perceived or real, action or word of Elder whomever. If another member of a group to which I belonged said or did something that was troubling to someone I was ministering to, I could see myself apologizing for Elder whomever and whatever he said or did.

    Elder whomever may never know that I apologized to someone else for his action or word, and my apology doesn’t undo anything he said or did, and he might or might not feel apologetic, but isn’t that all irrelevant?

    I am not saying that the person was or was not justified in apologizing for Elder whomever — that story is hidden and I don’t know it. But I do disagree with Stephen C. that no one can ever apologize for the deed or word of someone else.

  5. “I am not apologizing for Loyd, I am expressing regret for Loyd’s inability…”

    As a member of the LDS blogging community, I would like to apologize to Loyd for being treated so condescendingly by someone else in the blogging community.

  6. I am so so sorry there as so many commentators who are missing the point and seem incapable of realizing they are making serious categorical errors

  7. SoG, I’m wondering — these “so many commentators” of whom you speak as “missing…” and “incapable…”, would they be me, Loyd, and budda bing?

    Isn’t your apology to T&S readers for the failing of commentators exactly the same as a church member’s apology for Elder whomever’s deed or word? Granting, arguendo, your point of my stupidity, I cannot see the difference.

    I read what you and Stephen C wrote in this thread, but I disagree. I do not think of myself as incapable of understanding complex matters, but I do choose to be charitable. Certainly, I hold that someone can properly and honorably apologize for someone else’s deed or word, with a dual and simultaneous message of (1) I am sorry you had to endure that; and (2) I am sorry that Elder whomever, a member of my faith community, said or did that. I recommend charity as a worthy path.

    Do you know the story of what we’re talking about, the unspoken apology that prompted Stephen C’s original posting denouncing such apologies? I’m still in the dark.

  8. Ji: My agenda isn’t hidden, I’ve explicitly stated that I’m referring to cases when people say “as a Mormon, I apologize for Elder X.” I’ve seen this happen a number of times, but sure, if you want more detail one time I saw this it was in regards to Elder Holland’s musket talk.

    I agree with your point 1, but it’s the point 2 that I think is slightly redolent of the group sin concept. To take an extreme example to make the point, if a member of the Church in the British Isles ran across one of the child survivors of the Mountain Meadows Massacre, it’d be pretty pointless for them to apologize for Haight or the Church. They weren’t there, they weren’t involved. They can say “I’m sorry” sense #1 and again if they feel their membership in and of itself somehow contributed to the atrocity, then a personal apology would make sense. I think much of this abuts with the concept of group sin and whether a personal apology can, in a sense, help an expiate somebody’s “share” in the group sin.

  9. But is that applicable here, Old Man? No one is saying that you can’t speak up and voice your opinion. Just don’t give a faux institutional apology in the process.

  10. It’s interesting to me that what this post and conversation, especially those being humorous, seems to be showing is that the act of apologizing has several different nuanced meanings. One of those is empathy toward the injured party, even (possibly especially) if the one apologizing is not the offender. That’s what I experience from reading the comments. Person A is showing empathy for Person B.

    The meaning behind words and action changes and ‘apologizing’ has shifted.

  11. “Father forgive them for they know not what they do.”

    This OP is a nothing burger. This is neither a topical or an important problem. And to say that those apologizing for others behavior is “virtue signaling” is being unnecessarily judgmental.

  12. The question is, why add “As a Mormon…”? What does “As a Mormon, I apologize for…” convey that “I apologize for…” does not? A few possibilities come to mind:

    1) “I may be a Mormon, but I’m not like [the person I’m apologizing for].”

    2) “Not all Mormons are like [the person I’m apologizing for].” The difference between #1 and #2 is that #1 is about distancing the speaker from the person being apologized for while #2 is a claim about the group.

    3) “I’m about to say something that goes against my group identity, so you should consider it extra credible.” Similar to “I’m a liberal but I still think the hush money case against Donald Trump is weak.”

    4) “I do believe that a group is responsible for the actions of its members, so as a member of the group I will speak for the group and apologize.” Note that speaking for Mormons as a group is very different from speaking from the Church as an institution (highlighted by the fact that the institution has asked you not to use the term “Mormon” to refer to the group). An institution sets rules about who can legitimately for the institution; when speaking for a group legitimacy mostly comes from a significant proportion of the group agreeing with you. By that definition I suspect a Church member apologizing for Elder Holland has very little legitimacy.

    If someone wants to convey message #1 or #2, better to do so explicitly. I suspect #3 is part of what bothers Stephen C, given his sense that some people are claiming to be part of the group in order to undermine the group. As for #4, I’m not so quick to dismiss group responsibility. Intellectually we reject it, but I think we all feel it so I’m willing to give people some leeway for acting on that feeling. On the other hand, demanding that others feel responsibility for the actions of all the members of a group they belong to crosses an important line.

  13. Is there an actual example,Stephan C, you can give of this because I am not sure I can remember this kind of awkward third party apology happening as you describe.

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