We need to turn toward one another to resolve differences and move forward

Why is apologizing so hard?
Over the years of writing local news, we have covered countless cases that have gone to court for lack of a simple, sincere apology.

One that has stuck with us for decades was the case brought by the parents of a 16-year-old high school student because her teacher wouldn’t offer a sincere apology for the hurt he had caused.

In a class discussion on the harm of name-calling, he asked the only Black student in the class, “Why not tell us what it feels like to be called a n----r?”

Later, as a 20-year-old college student, she wrote us, “It was like having a bleeding gun wound. He shot the gun and hit me. Yet he found it amazing that I was bleeding. He was sorry that I was hurt yet found nothing wrong with shooting the gun at me.”

At age 20, she wrote that, at 16, living in an “all-white community,” she had never been called a n----er. “If he made this association so quickly, did the rest of my teachers? Did the rest of my friends? And what about my peers, coaches, neighbors? They were all white. In a town that I had felt so secure in, I suddenly felt isolated and alone solely because I am Black, an irreversible characteristic.”

A quarter-century after that incident, we are in a much more polarized time — a time when divisiveness is rampant and name-calling is used even by elected officials in our highest offices.

At a local public hearing this week, a presenter of a solar project explained the company could not control factors outside the property — and she was cursed. 

Civil discourse has been replaced with purposeless vitriol. This is not the way to find common ground, to reach an understanding, or to move forward.

In times like these, we need more than ever to listen to views that may be different from our own with the intent to understand them.

A public hearing held by a legislative body is, of course, set up exactly for that purpose, so that, say, an elected town board can learn from its citizenry matters they may not have been aware of in drafting legislation.

The Berne Town Board held such a hearing in February on a bill that would have allowed all-terrain vehicles on town roads. The very first person to speak at the hearing was silenced as he made introductory remarks and was escorted from the hearing by sheriff’s deputies, as ordered by the supervisor.

No one on the town board protested the removal.

The speaker, Kevin Crosier, is a Democrat and former town supervisor who was ousted by the GOP red wave that swept the Hilltowns with Donald Trump’s election in 2016. The current supervisor, Dennis Palow, is a Republican with a GOP-backed board.

Crosier asked the Berne Town Board for an apology; if the board apologized, he said he would let the matter rest and move on.

The board did not apologize and so Crosier has notified the town that he is preparing to sue for at least $100,000, plus legal fees, over his dramatic, unjustified removal from the public hearing.

Our Hilltown reporter, Noah Zweifel, covered not just the forced expulsion but all that led up to it and what has since followed. We’ve also posted a video that makes it clear Crosier’s removal was not warranted.

So why has the town board been unwilling to apologize? Why should the residents of Berne have to bear legal fees to have the case heard in court and then, if the town loses its case, have to pay for the outcome?

This is on top of the $15,000 of taxpayers’ money the GOP-backed board had already spent fruitlessly investigating Democrats.

We may not be able to do anything about political polarization on the national level — we wrote earlier this month on the surgeon general’s report sounding the alarm on widespread loneliness that said  sentiments of enmity and disapproval between Democrats and Republicans more than doubled between 1994 and 2014 — but we certainly ought to be able to do something about it on the local level.

Like charity, civility begins at home.

Lisa Leopold, an expert on apologies at the Middlebury Institute, says, “Apologies are extremely high-stakes and very important in personal and business communication.” She notes preferences differ among cultures — Americans, for example, strongly prefer expressions of regret, whereas Russians show a strong preference for requests for forgiveness when apologizing.

She cites a survey showing 10 percent of people favor restitution — they want the transgressor to ask them what to do to correct this mistake — and 10 percent favor genuine repentance — they want to know the offender’s plan to correct a mistake.

But the vast majority, 77 percent, want to hear expressions of regret (40 percent) and acceptance of responsibility (37 percent) with words such as “I was wrong.”

Leopold cites a 1981 study that she says remains relevant today, which identified these strategies for an effective apology: acknowledgement of the blame, explanation for why the situation occurred, offer of repair, and promise of nonrecurrence.

Another researcher, Karina Schumann, in the psychology department at the University of Pittsburgh, has identified barriers to apologizing: lack of concern for the victim, a threat to self-image, and a perception that apologies are ineffective.

“Although high-quality apologies are extremely effective at promoting reconciliation, transgressors often choose to offer a perfunctory apology, withhold an apology, or respond defensively to the victim,” Schumann writes.

We regularly read of bad apologies from celebrities.

After The New York Times wrote of Harvey Weinstein’s decades of sexual abuse of women, Weinstein apologized by starting with an excuse — “I came of age in the 60’s and 70’s, when all the rules about behavior and workplaces were different. That was the culture then.”

He ended his so-called apology with a redirection of the narrative: “I am going to need a place to channel that anger so I’ve decided that I’m going to give the NRA my full attention.”

Or Mark Zuckerberg’s apology on Yom Kippur as Congress was scrutinizing ads on Facebook purchased by Russians to influence the 2016 election. “For the ways my work was used to divide people rather than bring us together, I ask forgiveness and I will work to do better,” posted Zuckerberg, distancing himself from responsibility as if his work exists without him. 

A sincere apology sets the stage for forgiveness. Forgiveness can relate to overall mental health, happiness, and physical well-being. Last month, Harvard University hosted a conference, “Forgiveness: Interdisciplinary Perspectives” as part of its Institute for Quantitative Social Science.

Decades of study have shown forgiveness can reduce depression and anxiety. Everett Worthington, a professor emeritus at Virginia Commonwealth University, conducted a study across five continents, giving participants a self-directed forgiveness workbook.

The study concluded, “A brief workbook intervention promoted forgiveness and reduced depression and anxiety symptoms. The promotion of forgiveness with such workbooks has the potential for widespread dissemination to improve global mental health.”

The workbook is available online, for free, in five different languages. It is modeled on the acronym REACH, which stands for:

— Recall the hurt: Face that you have been hurt, but make a decision to forgive and not pursue retaliation;

— Empathize with your partner: Work to understand why you may have been wronged, allowing you to heal from hurt and give forgiveness;

— Altruistic gift: Forgive unselfishly;

— Commit: Write a note to yourself about who you forgave to help the forgiveness last; and

— Hold onto your forgiveness.

Going through the exercises in the workbook, as we just did, takes about two hours. We think it is worth the time and effort.

In his workbook, Worthington explains that forgiveness does not mean forgetting, nor does it mean pretending that the hurt never happened.

“Forgiveness is just replacing ill-will towards the offender with good-will,” he writes.

He also stresses that forgiveness does not mean giving up justice. “Forgiving simply means desiring the ultimate good of the offender,” Worthington writes, “and this can be done without excusing the wrongful action and while still pursuing a just outcome.”

He also notes that, while forgiveness can be quick and dramatic, reversing the direction you have been traveling, it is more likely to change your direction.

“This change might be small, but it will be important. This change will take you to a different place than you might now be headed. Whether it is a transformation or a gradual change, forgiveness takes you on a journey to a better place.”

We don’t know if the Berne Town Board members are up for issuing a sincere apology or if Crosier would be ready to still accept one and forgive — but we are going to continue to try to REACH for a better, more empathetic approach to local discourse and urge you to join us.

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  • We hope we have clawed our way into an era, with brave survivors speaking out about the crimes that wrenched them as children, where we adults are more mindful of children’s safety and our duty to protect it.

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