Tuesday, April 15, 2008


As a resident of the state of Pennsylvania, I have been hearing so much about Obama's remarks regarding the people of Pa lately. It's all over the national news, and here, it is also big local news, so I can't help but think about it.

This morning, as I listened to pundits speak about Obama's defense, which is that he is not perfect, I began to feel really angry. There is nothing worse than an insincere apology.

Now Obama supporters, hold your horses! Don't go getting all hot and bothered. This post is more about how to apologize than it is about anything political. This mistake of Obama's can be lesson for all of us. Parents, in particular, should be eager to use this political boo boo to teach their children about how to give a proper apology.

The ability to say "I'm sorry" in a sincere and meaningful way is a strength that unfortunately few people seem to possess. This is a sad fact, because, as we are all human beings, we do all do things that we are often sorry for, or at least regret. When we hurt other human beings, either inadvertently or intentionally, we jeopardize our relationships. The only way to keep a relationship in tact, if you are responsible for the hurt that caused it to fracture, is to offer a sincere apology.

The words, "I'm not perfect" are not indicative of a sincere apology, but rather those words are used to deflect blame. When someone says, "I'm sorry, I'm not perfect", what they are really saying is, "yes you caught me doing something that I would admit is "wrong" (in Senator Obama's case, he was caught making a hasty generalization about the people who populate PA's small towns) but your expectation that I should apologize is unfair. When you defend yourself by saying "I'm not perfect", you imply that the offended or hurt party expected you to be perfect. As human beings, we all recognize that perfection is impossible, so to apologize for being imperfect is silly. Furthermore, it demeans the hurt. It puts the blame on the victim, saying they should not be hurt, but because of unrealistic expectations, they are.

The people of Pa do not expect Senator Obama to be perfect- that would be unreasonable. They do expect that he be respectful of their faith; they do expect that he not cast them in a negative light by characterizing them as "bitter"; they do expect that he not equate their love of hunting with desperation. One does not need to be a perfect person to live up to these expectations .

Of course, words are taken out of context, and it is entirely possible that Senator Obama did not mean to offend an entire portion of the population with his stereotypical generalizations. If that is the case, however, Senator Obama should not hide behind human nature, but rather he should offer a sincere apology- one which recognizes that what he said was hurtful to people, and one that recognizes that the hurt feelings of the people of Pa are legitimate. A proper apology will not attempt to make excuses. After all, it doesn't really matter why he said it, what matters is that he did say it, it hurt people and for that he should be sorry. It's that simple.

Having heard these words personally, and actually having a friendship end when a friend excused herself from hurting me with the line "I'm not perfect", I know that these words can add insult to injury. Having spoken these words myself, I recognize that this phrase is more a cop-out than it is a true explanation. Why can't we, as human beings, say we are sorry? Why is it so difficult?

When we say, "I'm not perfect", what we really mean is I'm not wrong. It may sound like a contradiction in terms, but think it through. When we say, "I'm not perfect" we deny responsibility for the wrong doing, as it is a part of our nature to be imperfect. Marine biologists tell us we can't blame sharks for biting humans. It is part of their nature, it is what they are biologically programmed to do. It is not wrong or bad behavior. As human beings, we are imperfect, so when we act imperfectly, we are not committing a wrong, but rather acting according to our nature.

There is a difference between being wrong and being imperfect. When we act wrongly, we do not act according to our nature, rather we choose to act against what we know is right. The choice isn't always a deliberate one, but it is a choice, nonetheless, for which we are responsible. Maybe Senator Obama didn't think his comments through, but he should have. When we speak about other people, we understand that our words have the potential to be hurtful or harmful, and thus, we have a responsibility when speaking to think through what we say so that it is not offensive, unless we intend it to be so. Sometimes, in order to speak truth, of course, we have to say things that some people will find offensive or hurtful. Even in that case, however, we can acknowledge the hurt. If for instance, Senator Obama believes that part of the problem in Pa is that people use religion and guns as a "crutch", he can still apologize that his remarks are a source of sore feelings, while still standing by them. What he positively should not do is to invalidate the feelings of the people Pa, as this only adds to the initial blow.

His response, that he is not perfect, may excuse him from culpability in the eyes of some people, however, I think that the people, to which this sentiment is directed, will continue to harbor bad feelings. An insincere apology, without a doubt, can cause bitterness in people. The saying, "it takes a big man to say he is wrong"is true. Admitting that you are wrong does carry some risk, but in the end, it is the right thing to do. And since we all know that two wrongs don't make a right, it seems to do right after you do wrong is the best strategy.

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