Professor Brewin: Learning to Apologize in the Age of the Internet

Mark Brewin, TU associate professor of media studies explores the need for apologies when the rest of the world is doubling-down on their position. This article was first published in the Tulsa World in October 2017: 

When I was a much younger man, my father and my uncle got into a serious argument that ended with both of them not talking to one another.

The fight was over something that I thought then, and frankly think now, to be relatively unimportant. No matter. This sort of thing was more or less a Brewin family tradition. My father and his brothers were upright, honest men, but they were also proud and more than a little prickly. They did not take slights to their honor well, even when — in fact especially when — the offending remarks came from the people they loved the most.

In fact, it got to the point where I would check periodically with my mother to keep up to date about who was currently speaking to whom, and who was not, so that I could more easily navigate family get-togethers.

I had some notion about how things would fall out in this case. Interpersonal relations between the two branches would stop for a time, since out of loyalty to my father my siblings and I would not be able to speak to the other side, even though we had no interest in the actual disagreement.

 

Eventually, perhaps in a year or so, the two men would say something to each other, at a Christmas party, say, and my mother would declare that things had been patched up.

Only they weren’t really. A bitterness would hang in the air, never fully expunged.

I assumed that this was just part being an adult: the accumulation of various grievances over time against family members and old friends.

But this time something different happened.

One Sunday afternoon my uncle drove over to my father’s farm to have a talk. My mother asked me to stop by. I think it was maybe to pull the two men apart if they got into an actual physical altercation. This was not an entirely unreasonable prospect, despite the fact that they were both now in their 60s. As I say, the Brewin brothers were proud men.

My uncle sat down in the living room with my father, and my mother, and my aunt, and me, and he told my Dad that he didn’t want to fight with him any more. He said that he was sorry that the argument, which also included his youngest son, had taken place. And he said that his relationship with his older brother was too important to him to let something like this harm it.

My father, somewhat grudgingly at first, allowed as how he had never wanted to get into it with anyone and that he was willing to let this all go if everyone else was.

I’m paraphrasing here. It was a long time ago and things were much more awkward, less clearly articulated, than I have presented them. Rural people like my father and my uncle are generally not all that comfortable with words, particularly when they carry strong emotions.

What I do remember was that by the end of the afternoon, the fight was over, and my respect for my uncle was greatly and permanently increased. I did not realize until then that a man could gain stature by making a peace offering instead of stubbornly standing his ground, or that genuine strength allowed someone to place pridefulness under threat. Gaining stature, of course, was not what my uncle had set out to do. He had simply wanted his brother to understand that his love for him was greater than his need to look strong.

Until then, I had always believed in that old quote from John Wayne: “Never apologize and never explain — it’s a sign of weakness.”

But my uncle had been wrestling ornery calves, shoveling grain out of bins, throwing hay bales onto the backs of trucks, since he was 8 years old. He knew how to fix a car transmission, build a fence, shoot a rifle, plow a field, ride a horse, and finish a fist fight if need be. He did not need lessons in masculinity from any Hollywood actor, not even the Duke.

Making an honest apology is one of the hardest things in the world to do. I know this because I’ve done it. Very rarely. It does not feel good at the time, and it is only with the passing of the years that you come to understand that you learned something from the act, which is that an apology is essentially a recognition that there is something in the world — a friendship, your relationship with your spouse, or maybe just an allegiance to the truth — at least as important as your own precious ego.

Unsurprisingly, we rarely encounter apologies on that constant celebration of modern inanity, the internet. Instead, what we see is the phenomenon of “doubling-down.” Did you make an unsupported, outlandish, or even incorrect statement? No matter. You can always claim that you didn’t actually say what you said (most people won’t bother to check), or that your opponent missed some important (often imagined) nuance in your original statement.

This throws the fault back onto your accusers. If only they weren’t so stupid, and could read, they would have understood what you meant: but then what can you expect from libtards, fascists, snowflakes?

It is too easy, however, to suppose that the internet itself is responsible for the doubling-down culture. Rather, it allows for the flourishing in public discourse of a more general trend: We constantly look to our technology to make our lives easier, including our emotional lives. And it lets us.

Eventually, the process seems so natural that we end up electing as our Commander in Chief a specialist in doubling-down, someone who apparently has never seen the need to ask forgiveness from anybody for anything. Not even his Creator.

Of course, we lose something important by taking the easy way out all the time. We always do. But by the time we realize it, things may have gone too far. Which is why an offer of peace, as difficult as it is to do, will be worth it in the end.

It’s something my uncle taught me, that Sunday afternoon, a long time ago.