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How to Apologize on the Internet: Larry Bodine Comes Clean

Some attorneys and mediators make light of the power of the apology ("it's only about money").  My education, training and experience consistently suggest otherwise.

Today, we learn a lesson in heart-felt apology from Larry Bodine for a post I hadn't seen, but which Bodine himself admits was anti-Semitic.

"Elevator Pitch" Post Deleted I sincerely apologize for the crude and offensive "Elevator Pitch" post I put online last week.  In the clear light of morning, it is clear that it was anti-Semitic and repellent.  I want to thank all the people who commented and called me about it; I listened and took what you said to heart.

If you read on here you'll see that Bodine did not simply say "I'm sorry."  He removed the admittedly offensive post; disowned it; and, empathized with those who found it offensive by sharing his own family's WWII imprisonment story.

As my Second Track International Diplomacy Professor Brian Cox has written in his book Faith-Based Reconciliation

Words that heal include expressions of caring, concern, gratitude and affirmation.  [I]n demolishing the walls of hostility, we must be prepared to examine our own pattern of spoken words and embrace the practice of ethical speech. . . .

Because Bodine himself admitted the anti-Semitic nature of his post, it falls into the category of an identity-based conflict with some or all of his readers.  Though speaking from a religious or "faith-based" viewpoint, I always found Cox' prescriptions for resolution to work equally well from the point of view of secular humanism.  As Cox explains:

A faith-based reconciliation framework applied to an identity-based conflict . . . consists of six basic elements:  imparting moral vision, building bridges between estranged groups, a peace accord, advocacy for social justice, political forgiveness, and healing deep collective wounds.

More particularly, Cox recommends the following specific steps:

1.  Sharing life journeys and building common ground.

2.  Sharing perceptions of the conflict.

3.  Engaging in problem solving.

4.  Sharing how one has caused offense to the other.

5.  Exploring each community's narrative of history and perception of historical wounds.

If you read Bodine's spontaneous apology, you will see all of these elements contained in it.  This is not surprising because apology and attempts to re-build interpersonal bridges are hard-wired into us as toddlers.  As I wrote in "Shame by Any Other Name,"

Shame . . .  "acts as a powerful modulator of interpersonal relatedness and . . . ruptures the dynamic attachment bond between individuals." 30  When an individual has broken this bond, he wishes to recapture the relationship as it existed before it turned problematic. 31 Toddlers shamed by their mothers, for instance, naturally initiate appeals to repair the momentary break in the emotional bond resulting from the shame-inducing behavior. 32 This process is called self-righting. 33 It is natural and universal. 34 The shamed toddler reflexively looks up at and reaches toward his mother. 35 Even a preverbal child will spontaneously express this need to be held in an attempt to reaffirm both self and the ruptured relationship, to feel restored and secure. 36

A healthy and responsive mother accepts and assuages the child's painful feelings of shame, enabling the toddler to return to a normal emotional state, one in which love and trust are ascendant. 37 If the caregiver is "sensitive, responsive, and emotionally approachable," especially if she uses soothing sounds, gaze and touch, mother and child are "psychobiologically reattuned," the "interpersonal bridge" is rebuilt, the "attachment bond" is reconnected, and the experience of shame is regulated to a tolerable emotional state. 38

This may all seem excessively academic.  The point is that we all trespass on the feelings of others; those feelings are critical to our connection with one another; our connection with one another is fundamental to our individual well-being and our survival as a species; the urge toward reconciliation is therefore natural, as are our desire to be forgiven, our spontaneous expressions of remorse, our attempt to explain and normalize our bad behavior (we are all fallible and we have all suffered harm)  and our fellows' willingness to forgive, particularly when we bare ourselves and our histories to one another in the course of our effort to re-establish what joins us and to move beyond that which divides us. 

And for that lesson, we owe thanks to Larry Bodine this evening.



Comments (6)

Read through and enter the discussion by using the form at the end
Anonymous - November 18, 2008 11:50 AM

Hard to square the "heart-felt" nature of the reply with his earlier comments on the subject, posted just a day prior:

"Thanks for all the comments on this post. No one could ever say that you're acting as the Police of Political Correctness. Besides, you can't have enough things that are PC anyway. Nobody would waste their time turning a quick joke into a highly-charged epithet.

"So keep those comments coming. Presumably you'll manage to fit them in between protest marches against "The Producers" outside Mel Brook's house and the orchestrated boycott of reruns of Hogan's Heroes."

Vickie Pynchon - November 18, 2008 12:32 PM

Though I prefer when people with strong opinions are willing to identify themselves, I post Anon's response here because it exemplifies further aspects of the reconciliation process.

First, the apologizer cannot expect the people he has harmed to greet him with open arms. Many will be understandably suspicious that the apology was prompted by an ulterior motive and is not sincere. This is particularly true if the apologizer has justified his offensive words or harsh deeds after first criticized for his behavior.

Second, the apologizer does not withdraw his apology simply because not everyone is ready to accept it. An admission of wrongdoing is a moral act. It cannot be conditioned upon its acceptance by others.

Third, people are quite correct to view an apology with suspicion until they see that the apologizer did indeed experience a transformative moment, i.e., really did GET that the behavior was morally wrong. The harmed parties do not require more apologies or further explanation. They will be convinced, if ever, of the apologizer's sincerity only if he amends his ways in accord with what he claims is his reformed nature.

Later in the article cited, I note what Bill Wilson, founder of Alcoholics Anonymous, had to say about making "amends" to the hardest audience possible -- the family of the alcoholic who has heard these promises of sobriety before.

"there may be some wrongs we can never fully right. We don't worry about them if we can honestly say to ourselves that we would right them if we could. Some people cannot be seen -- we send them an honest letter. And there may be a valid reason for postponement in some cases. But we don't delay if it can be avoided. We should be sensible, tactful,
considerate and humble without being servile or scraping." The "Big Book" of Alcoholics Anonymous at 83.

Finally, here are the "steps" that follow the making of amends, steps that the most successful mutual aid society of all time suggests are necessary to the process of recovery:

10. Continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong promptly admitted it.

11. Sought through prayer and meditation to
improve our conscious contact with God, as we understood Him, praying only for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out.

12. Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to alcoholics, and to practice these principles in all of our affairs.

Id. at 59-60.

Diane Levin - November 21, 2008 8:38 AM

Hi, Vickie,

I have to say that Anonymous (and I, too, wish they had been willing to identify themselves) has a point.

I admire Bodine for his willingness to acknowledge his wrong and to apologize publicly. But what happened here emphasizes how important it is to respond carefully. Contrast his initial response to that of Carolyn Elefant, who first praised Bodine's post and then immediately issued a gracious apology, sans defensiveness. He's earned well-deserved praise for his apology, but Anonymous is right to remind us that he could have made different choices from the beginning.

As someone who has a talent for stuffing both feet into her mouth, I feel for these two bloggers. Believe me, I know how hard it is not to get defensive -- even for mediators like me who should know better. But this leads to a question that I raised in a post yesterday -- how is it that we screw up in the first place? Specifically, how is it that two smart, observant people missed something so big the first time around? How did they miss the anti-Semitism of a cheap gag (not to mention how insulting it is to lawyers, too, and to women for that matter -- did nobody catch the fact that the pitch repeatedly refers to businessmen)? And if they missed it, every one of us could miss it, too.

I'm interested in why that happened. If we know why, if we can prepare ourselves for it, then maybe next time around we won't miss it. We'll see it, clear as day.

anon - November 21, 2008 10:49 AM

Actually, Larry Bodine handled it badly. His first response was to defend his comments, and reiterate his support for the Nazi line. It wasn't an apology, it blamed the reader for not being smart enough to understand that the offensive remark was a joke:

"Ken: the guy was JOKING. It was humor. To achieve a laugh, one must often exaggerate. The joke may offend you, but it works great for this rainmaker. Everybody's got a different style. You should use the one that works best for you. ~Larry Bodine"

His next offensive reply was posted by Anonymous, above. His final "heartfelt" one still blamed "rural Illinois" for starting the commotion.

This doesn't show how to apologize; it shows Larry Bodine was finally backed deeply enough into a corner that he couldn't defend the comments any longer.

Vickie - November 21, 2008 1:06 PM

Thanks to Diane Levin and once again to "anon" for the comments.

We can never truly know the mind of another, particularly the sincerity of a belated apology for passing along as "a good business conversation" a remark that many (but not all) people believe should have struck any thoughtful person as beyond the pale.

I'm going to tell you something now I have NEVER TOLD ANYONE, including my immediate family.

When I was a first year associate working for two brothers in a small plaintiffs' P.I. law firm, I used the phrase "Jew me down" in regard to salary negotiations with my Jewish employers. I was 28 years old. I had both a University and a law school education. I'd been an activist in the women's movement and hanger-on in the anti-war movement.

I have NO excuse for having made this remark. The REASONS I made it would all sound like pathetic excuses. This is how my family of origin talked. "Cute little pickaninnies" was also in my family vocabulary (though by that time I'd banished it from my own). I'd MOSTLY scrubbed my language clean and was still fighting the "girl"/"woman"/"chick" and Miss/Mrs./Ms. wars (this was 1980).

Still, there was a pocket of total unconsciousness or perhaps actual anti-Semitism lurking just below the surface of my otherwise pretty thoughtful speech. I do not believe that at the time I even thought the word "Jew" meant "Jewish." SERIOUSLY. It was a phrase my family used. I didn't even THINK to look for a substitute.

I did not defend my remark, but burned with shame the moment I saw the startled expression on my boss' face. It was (I know this is shocking) the FIRST TIME I put together "Jewish" with "Jew me down." Those my own age might think "Mexican stand-off" or "Irish drunk" or "no tickee, no laundry".

It's been 28 years since I used this GROSSLY OFFENSIVE PHRASE and I STILL feel ashamed of myself for having done so. I will never forget it.

The point? We ALL have these little pockets of heedlessness; of thoughtlessness; of default phrases based upon racist assumptions that we accumulated in our vocabulary over the dinner table with our first representatives of the adult world - for better and worse - our parents.

Larry Bodine's reference to the Nazi doctor was clearly and undeniably offensive. It appears to have taken him awhile to realize that fact. If we wish to judge the sincerity of his apology, we might first ask ourselves what motivates us to do so, remembering that behind every accusation is a plea for help. For surely none of us is free of the unconscious moment, the public faux pas, the attempt to justify our behavior when we are suddenly exposed as something less than perfect, and our eventual recognition that what we have said or done is hurtful to another. Our decision to apologize.

There is no requirement, as I've set forth in my comments here, for injured parties to forgive others their trespasses or to give the other guy the benefit of the doubt. But it is good to remember that we are all in this together and that someday we will stumble ourselves and hope to be pardoned when we finally have the courage to admit our "sin" and apologize for our human frailty.

It is, after all, our human frailty that joins us most deeply to one another.

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