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“So sorry!”. Reflections on the moral importance of an everyday word

“So sorry!”. Reflections on the moral importance of an everyday word.

Ingeborg Gabriel


This is a continuation of my last blog in which I voiced some concern about the eroding moral basis of our societies, not least because democratic politics depend on constructive and polite behaviour as the basis of dialogue and compromise.[1] This time I want to reflect about the gradual disappearance of the word “sorry”. My observations are based mainly on the Austrian context, so if any of you have different experiences, please bear with me and let me know – it would greatly cheer me up.

“Sorry” is a verbal reaction in everyday life that indicates that we recognize having wronged somebody, in small or bigger ways and that we want to set things right. We say sorry when we unintentionally bump into another person in the tram, when we forget to do some errands as promised or – more seriously – we also say sorry when we have really hurt a person we love. In all these otherwise rather different situations “sorry” is or was used habitually, often without giving it much  thought. It belonged to life as the sort of stuff that makes relations flourish, because it does justice to the other.

It is worth giving it some thought, therefore, that for some time, so it seems to me, the word has disappeared or is used much more rarely. People no longer say “sorry” when they bump into each other, do not do their jobs etc. Either they simply pass over the incident without comment or they accuse the other of wrongdoing, particularly if this person protests and demands an apology. This more or less aggressive failure to admit that one has done something wrong or impolite leaves a hollow feeling in the other. There was a time when it became fashionable to say that people who apologise too often have a guilt complex. This psychological wave, however, has passed. What remains is a void which seems a perfect example of how moral erosion works: When x no longer says sorry, others will continue to excuse themselves for a while. But the more often we meet non-excusers (and are perhaps told that we have a guilt complex) the more we will feel uncomfortable about the imbalance. After all: it is not always me who is wrong. Niche cultures can be kept alive in the family and with closer friends. But in professional environments it becomes difficult since apologising where others never do may ultimately hurt my reputation. So nolens volens one starts to conform and no longer says “sorry!” This, however, leads to what might be called a Kantian paradox: Though I think this to be the appropriate maxim for everybody, I do not want to bear the cost of a practice that becomes disadvantageous and out of tune. I can stick to it at my own expense but that will not achieve very much, if the other no longer catches the point.

This is most regrettable. Because behind the small word “sorry” stands a great and long-standing Christian culture for which asking and granting forgiveness was and hopefully still is a core element. “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us” is the only plea of the “Our Father” based on reciprocity. Everyday politeness and recognition of smaller and larger wrongdoing constitutes the little sister of the great plea for forgiveness. It is part of the great cultural project of creating “habits of the heart” that further reconciliation and harmony. If we give up on them, our lives become much less civilized. Politics these days demonstrates it. For Hannah Arendt it was, ultimately, the inner deserts that were responsible for the emergence of totalitarianism. Modern culture and its focus on freedom are a good experiment as long as they are accompanied by a culture of respect. The ability to self-critically acknowledge wrongdoing is one of its major virtues. We will never be perfect, but as long as we understand what’s wrong there is hope. More importantly, so as to stress this  major point, one could even add that apologies create a caesura (dt. Zäsur, i.e. a rupture in time…), giving rise to the watershed moment or creating the necessary turning point that brings about a change. The recognition of guilt and the readiness to forgive are what it needs to make a new beginning. This holds true for personal as well as for political life. Forgiveness, therefore, for Arendt is one of the great human abilities to be cultivated and a precondition for democratic politics: “The discoverer of the role of forgiveness in the realm of human affairs was Jesus of Nazareth. The fact that he made this discovery in a  religious context and articulated it in religious language is no reason to take it any less seriously in a strictly secular sense.”[2] – an insight that deserves all the attention, particularly today.

[1] Cf. Bagehot, ‟Get stuffed. British Politics has become dangerously bad-tempered” (The Economist July 22nd 2017, 28).

[2] Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition, University of Chicago, Chicago 1998, 238. www. (24th July 2017).