The art of the non apology

In the December 2012 issue of Psychology Today, psychoanalyst Joseph Burgo discusses the art of the apology. He lays out some simple rules, starting with "genuine apologies never contain the words 'if' or 'but'.

In the December 2012 issue of Psychology Today, psychoanalyst Joseph Burgo discusses the art of the apology. He lays out some simple rules, starting with “genuine apologies never contain the words ‘if’ or ‘but’.” Those words, Burgo explains, are qualifiers, and the best apologies are unqualified.

The news this week presents two very public apologies, one of which meets the Burgo test of unqualified simplicity, and one of which fails. The latter is Toronto Mayor Rob Ford’s attempt to avoid being sued for implying that Toronto Star reporter Daniel Dale is a pedophile. More on this anon. The better-worded apology came from Canada’s industry minister, James Moore.

Moore had a lot to apologize for, though perhaps not as much as Ford. Last week a B.C. radio host questioned him about child poverty and hunger. The minister replied, “The government says it’s my job to feed my neighbour’s child? I don’t think so,” and then laughed.

Moore is the senior federal cabinet minister for B.C., the province with the highest rate of child poverty in the country, at 18.5 per cent. Needless to say his jocularity didn’t go over well with anti-poverty activists, or just about anybody else. Adrienne Montani of First Call summed it up when she said, “It’s a very callous statement. It is his job as a federal minister to look after the welfare of some of our most vulnerable citizens and that would include children.”

At first it appeared that Moore would choose self-justification over apology. On Sunday he tweeted, “it is a ridiculous ‘story’ that completely takes a comment out of context.” By Monday, however, he seems to have realized that there was no extenuating context, no way to blame the press for his own gaffe, nothing for it but to apologize.

That’s where the minister finally got it right. He posted an apology on his website, with a shorter version on Twitter. Neither edition of the apology contains a single if or but. Here is the tweet: “An apology. The cause of fighting poverty is not helped by comments like those I made last week. I am sorry.”

If he’d said that right away, instead of trying to bluster and shift the blame, it would have scored an A+. Given the timing, it’s looking more like a C at best, hardly a passing grade for a cabinet minister making more than $230,000 a year, but better than F for Ford.

On May 2, 2012, Daniel Dale was on the public land behind Ford’s house, photographing a piece of green space the mayor was trying to buy. Ford accosted the reporter and called the police, who found no evidence to support any of his accusations. In a recent TV interview with Conrad Black, Ford had this to say about the incident. “I guess the worst one was Daniel Dale in my backyard taking pictures. I have little kids. When a guy’s taking pictures of little kids” – pause for insinuating snicker -“I don’t want to say that word but you start thinking, ‘What’s this guy all about?’”

None of this was true. Police have confirmed that Dale was not in Ford’s backyard, nor did he take any pictures except of the public land. But Ford didn’t stop there. He accused Dale of climbing up on cinder blocks and “leering” over the fence. He stood by that story long after the cops found that there were neither cinder blocks to stand on, nor anyone in the yard to be leered at, nor any evidence that Dale was near the fence at all.

Faced with a lawsuit, Ford stood up in council chambers to deliver a statement he claimed was an apology. He apologized, not for what he said, but “for the way in which the media has interpreted my statements.” He denied calling Dale a pedophile, though he didn’t offer an alternative explanation for his remarks. He repeated the “leering” accusation. He repeated the unsubstantiated claim that he found Dale “very far from the land Mr. Dale advises he was researching a story about” and used the statement as an opportunity to accuse the Toronto Star of an “incredible assault on me and my family.”

In short, although Ford’s statement made use of the word “apology,” it didn’t include an actual apology. It was in many ways a restatement of the original accusation, and it made an absurd attempt to accuse the media of making the whole thing up. If Ford was trying to put an end to Dale’s defamation suit, he failed. The suit proceeded. This outcome was so predictable that it’s hard not to think the mayor wanted his day in court.

If so, it was a bad idea. Court is not a good place for someone who is inclined to play fast and loose with the truth; unlike the loyal dogs of Ford Nation, judges take offence at being lied to, and the consequences can be severe. Perhaps someone reminded Ford of this. On Wednesday, the mayor made a second apology to Dale, one in which he acknowledged that almost every word he’s said on the subject to date has been false. Dale responded by dropping the lawsuit.

There’s a lesson here. When you owe someone an apology, don’t stall. Say you’re sorry before you dig yourself a deeper hole. And leave out the ifs and buts. Otherwise, instead of appearing sincerely apologetic, you’re just another sorry-looking fool.

Al Pope won the Canadian Community Newspaper Award for best columnist in 2013. He also won the Ma Murray Award for Best Columnist in B.C./Yukon in 2010 and 2002.