A 2023 Column Contest grand-prize winner, Laurence Pevsner’s Sorry Not Sorry investigates why we’re sick of everyone apologizing all the time—and how the collapse of the public apology leaves little room for forgiveness and grace in our politics and culture.

- - -

Agnes Callard is among the world’s most famous living philosophers, and certainly the one most likely to trend on your social media feed for a hot take or ill-advised poll (most recently, “Would you prefer to live the life of a slave owner, or the life of a slave?”) The University of Chicago professor is known for her public contrarian stances, like making a case against travel or for divorcing your husband but having him still live with you as you date your grad student.

Professor Callard penned another piece recently for The Point that got less attention, but I take it to be just as contrarian, on the “Paradox of Apology” or why she believes apologies are miracles. I was intrigued by this argument, especially coming from the woman who once wrote an op-ed for the New York Times entitled: “If I Get Canceled, Let Them Eat Me Alive.” Clearly, Callard had some unusual opinions on how we ought to navigate wrongdoing in public.

She contends that apologies are “social miracles,” and that they are “especially miraculous, as [apologies are] tasked with invoking a second miracle.” By that, she means that forgiveness, too, is a miracle.

“Miracle” is a word generally reserved for religious beliefs—water turning into wine, oil lasting a while, Taylor Swift teleporting from Tokyo to the Super Bowl—and that might make sense to connect to apology, a practice whose own history is wrapped up in religion. But Callard takes pains to clarify that she is not talking about religious miracles but what she calls “social miracles,” like giving someone the perfect gift or trusting a lover not to cheat.

Neither of these examples strike me as particularly miraculous—perfect presents exist because we don’t always know what will delight us the most. Trust can be a completely rational choice if someone has given me good reasons to trust them. Under a more pedestrian definition of miracle, making the impossible possible, neither would apply.

But let’s say we accept Callard’s unusual definition of a miracle as “a paradoxical event, one whose very description seems to contain an internal tension that would ensure it couldn’t come about, and yet, somehow, inexplicably, it does.” So, what is the internal tension in an apology? What makes it paradoxical?

Callard seems to have two competing views for why apologies are paradoxical. The first is that asking for an apology invalidates any apology given afterward. In describing her inability to ask a friend for an apology she believes she’s owed, Callard says, “It’s possible that a simple ‘I’m sorry’ would do the trick, but one way to definitively disable the power of those words is by instructing someone to say them.”

But this is not true. Many successful apologies start with someone asking for them or detailing what they want to hear.

In Australia, for example, the government knew it had to make amends to Aboriginal children who had been forcibly removed from their families by government programs up until the 1970s. They started with the most direct route: offering millions of dollars in reparations. However, according to historian Robert Weyeneth, “Aborigines deemed the offer ‘fundamentally flawed’ because the government had refused to apologize as well.”

So, in a famous speech, Prime Minister Kevin Rudd offered that apology. Ask any Australian alive in 2008, and they’ll remember Rudd’s short but effective statement of sincere contrition on behalf of his country. The apology was met with applause, tears, and relief from Aboriginal people. May 26 is still celebrated annually in Australia as “National Sorry Day.”

Asking for what you want proves effective in interpersonal contexts too—in my last column, we looked at Dan Harmon’s apology to Megan Ganz. That would never have happened had Megan not tweeted at Dan asking for more detail in his apology. “Redemption follows allocution,” she told him. That spurred Harmon’s attempt at allocution, which did, indeed, lead to redemption. Put simply, it doesn’t matter whether you asked for an apology. It matters whether they mean it when they say it.

Callard’s other view on what makes an apology paradoxical comes from how you have to characterize your actions in an apology. “In order to apologize,” she argues, “you have to avow the offending action as your own, otherwise you’d have nothing to apologize for; but you also have to disavow it, otherwise you wouldn’t be apologizing.”

While her wording is cleverly symmetrical, it’s unclear what makes this paradoxical. It is totally normal and not paradoxical that we change our minds about our actions. We do this all the time. We might learn new information or simply recognize that we’ve made a bad choice.

Say I promised to pick up my friend at the airport, but got the day wrong and failed to show up. I might apologize by saying, “I’m sorry I didn’t pick you up like I promised. I meant to write down what day you were coming but got distracted by March Madness. That was stupid—let me buy you tickets to the Final Four.” The apology includes an avowal of my past behavior (I was that person who forgot to pick you up) and a disavowal (that was stupid), and yet it comes easy and makes rational sense. Where’s the paradox? If we were perfectly rational beings with perfect information, then maybe a paradox would present itself. But since we’re not, it’s hard to see the logic. We can avow and disavow because we all recognize we’re human.

Callard’s final argument is that forgiveness is also a miracle because it also contains a paradox: “You have to both hold me responsible and absolve me of responsibility.” Perhaps this would be what the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard called the qualitative leap, or a leap of faith. A miracle, in other words, of the will.

But the reason this miracle of the will doesn’t apply to forgiveness after an apology is you aren’t just absolving someone of responsibility by faith alone. You have a second data point beyond their bad actions—their apology. Forgiveness isn’t a paradox because when you forgive someone, you say, “Yes, you did that action, but I also appreciate you’ve done something since then to try to remedy it. Your apology gives me good reason to believe you won’t do it again.”

What makes calling apologies and forgiveness miracles mildly insidious is it implies how they go—and how they are received—is random. That what makes them work is inscrutable and unknowable and up to chance or God. Callard likens apologies to tests, that “my victim hears what I say in the light of the Platonic Ideal of Perfect Apology.”

That may be true, but how we do on tests is not miraculous. It is not, for the most part, up to some alchemy of mystery and belief. Nor is it a paradox in any sense. It is a choice—to prepare, to study, to try hard. So, too, is it with apology and forgiveness. Most of the time, we know what makes for a good apology. We know why we choose to forgive someone. In both cases, it is because the offender has been sincere and convincing in their effort to say that they feel awful about what they did or were responsible for, and that they will not do it again.

Apologies are difficult, yes. They aren’t difficult because of some fancy or clever paradox, but because communicating sincerely, evaluating our own feelings honestly, and overcoming our hard-wired self-bias is hard work. That’s why most apologies fail. And it’s why we can’t leave our attempts at repair up to chance.