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Did Joyce Murray offer a kosher apology?

Dave Gordon - Wednesday, 15 July, 2015

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Liberal MP Joyce Murray has been under fire for an offensive ad in the First Nations Drum newspaper, that she claims she had no prior knowledge of.

The ad included her image, with text that congratulated aboriginal high school graduates. The controversy is where the ad continued, “Sobriety, education and hard work lead to success”.

The MP from the Vancouver-area, the Liberal Party, as well as the newspaper, claim the ad was created by a salesperson at the paper, and given the greenlight by one of Murray’s staffers.

Murray subsequently issued two apologies.


Did Murray offer an acceptable apology?

First, we must look at what’s involved in making a good apology. How do we know what a good apology is?

In just about every society and every religion there are universally-understood similarities in what is expected from the apologizer.

For all that separates us, we are in fact united by what it is required when one man harms another.

In Christian tradition of confessionals, the penitent enters the booth next to the clergy, to admit what they’ve done wrong.

They are obligated to perform this act at the earliest possible time.

If they don’t mention a certain sin, it’s assumed it doesn’t exist or they’re not sorry for it.

As the penitent leaves the confessional, they are given prayers to say and means to make amends.

The Catholic Church teaches that confession requires three “acts” on the part of the penitent: contrition (sorrow for the sins committed), disclosure of the sins (the confession), and penance (doing something to make amends for the sins).

This, in many ways, is similar to the Jewish formula for a kosher apology.

I’ve distilled the elements: Expeditious, Specific, and Promise through words/actions not to repeat it. (In Hebrew: m’hera, dikduk, and neder – spelling out the acronym for “being judged”)

When a person races to say sorry, it shows they care, rather than ignoring the issue or/and allowing the harm to fester. The more specifics, the more the victim understands that the transgressor understands the problem.

The word conscience, in fact, derives from a Greek verb meaning “to have common knowledge” or “to know with” someone.

While the act of speaking the transgression acknowledges the issue, the harm that was done, and recognizes what needs to be changed, the final step is to repair the damage.

Let’s take a look at Murray’s apologies and see where she could have improved:

Initially, she Tweeted an apology. I’m not convinced that an apology for a serious insult should be crunched in under 140 characters:

“Today I was made aware of a print ad published under my name, which included a completely inappropriate statement. My sincere apologies!”

As has often been said, a bad apology can add further insult by insinuating indifference; trivializing the harm caused. The Tweet looked like she couldn’t be bothered to put in the proportionate effort to offer a heartfelt mea culpa.

The Tweet was remarkably vague in detail, and didn’t explain the situation or what's being done to fix it. Trying to toss a pocket-sized apology looks like she’s just trying to get it over with or imply the harm caused was inconsequential.

A notch higher would have been to include the URL of her apology from her website, to redirect people to something of substance.

In her Facebook post and website, she elaborated on the apology:

“Today I was made aware of a print advertisement published under my name, which included a completely inappropriate statement about Indigenous Peoples in Canada.

I would like to apologize unreservedly for the deeply offensive language in this advertisement.

I was not aware of this advertisement and did not approve of its content. However, I assume full responsibility for what has happened and I offer my most sincere apologies to all those who were offended by this comment.

Joyce Murray, M.P.”

For the first two elements of a kosher apology I’ve given her a “pass” – she raced to say sorry and alluded to the offense.

Generally, however, a good apology is specific enough that even a person otherwise uninformed would know precisely what’s being apologized for, and become aware of the depth of harm.

Her apology would be mysterious, were it not for the context that I provided above it.

But what she did not do is the third, and most important part: make amends.

Problem areas:

*By “assume full responsibility”, what does that mean, to her? We have no clue, because she didn’t specify.

It should mean a follow-up apology letter to the editor  in the next First Nations Drum, insisting that she did not know about the ad before publication.

And it should mean the staffer that approved the ad be dismissed - or least be suspended.

*Moreover, the paper's salesperson should be suspended and the newspaper should take steps to ensure that there is proper protocol in the future to prevent these and other problems from occurring in the future.

For a deep offense, what is expected isn’t just recognition of the problem and its impact, but a tangible, concrete way for trust to be mended.

Both Murray and the paper ought to have jointly explained how this problem was not going to happen again.

*It’s best to talk about the wrong in the moral category as well as the impact it had. For example, it’s not enough to say “I had an affair and I’m sorry.”

It’s better to say “I betrayed you, and your trust. I’m going to do A, B and C to make it up to you.”

A bonus would have been for her to outright condemn the stereotype and racist implication of the offensive words in question.

The transgressor must express that lines were crossed.

The victim wants to know the transgression has caused self-reflection – even if it wasn’t entirely her fault.

That is to say, the offended party wants to know the transgressor is personally appalled at what occurred.

*Ultimately, the editor in chief of the newspaper should be reprimanded, and apologize, for he or she would have known the aboriginal sensitivities at first glance.

It’s baffling how this ad slipped by copy editors and the editor in chief in the first place.


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