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If You Were Wrong, You Need to Apologize

COVID, wokeness, Russiagate, Ukraine—it’s good to change your mind. It’s also OK for others to ask you to reckon with what your mistakes meant for them.

by
Liel Leibovitz
March 09, 2022
Tablet Magazine
Tablet Magazine
Tablet Magazine
Tablet Magazine

In our school parents’ WhatsApp group last month, a petition was making the rounds to do away with masking our children. Some of the supporters were parents who, just a few months ago, aggressively backed any and all precautions, no matter how senseless or strict—and who demonized those who questioned the regime.

Over drinks the other week, a friend who sported a Black Lives Matter pin last summer spoke sheepishly about the organization’s shady and troubling finances, siphoning millions of dollars into what increasingly appears to be a massive for-profit scam made possible by oodles of willful ignorance. Two martinis in, and the same well-intentioned person, whose Twitter timeline has long been an ongoing drumbeat of accusing anyone on the right of being one white sheet away from a Klan rally, confessed that the woke madness was completely out of hand, and that he felt like our colleges, newspapers, and entertainment industry are now just a giant propaganda machine.

And on a recent Zoom call, an acquaintance who works for a major media outlet stopped her discussion of Ukraine to admit that she had little faith in her own employer’s ability to report on the conflict. She was upset, she said, when she realized Russiagate, a story she had once believed was both seminal and true, turned out to be a dangerous hoax, but even more upset when her colleagues didn’t let the facts confuse them.

Everywhere you look these days, you see people making the turn, the gradual, baffling, painful, redeeming process of realizing that so much of what they thought about the world—about COVID and wokeness and Russia and the Democrats and the Republicans and everything and anything else—might’ve been misguided and must now change. It’s a great awakening, a mass movement consisting of individuals doing that thing that most strongly defines what it means to be human—namely the ability to examine reality, reconfigure our convictions, grow, and change. It’s a very promising sign that a real realignment is at hand, and that on the ashes of our scorched political earth something new and beautiful is being built.

But first, apologies are in order.

For the past two years—or eight or 10 (or even longer), depending on who you are—some of us have been making these exact same arguments, and were rewarded by heaps of abuse, sometimes delivered by anonymous trolls on digital platforms and sometimes in our living rooms and bedrooms by disdainful loved ones who seemed to not love us so much anymore. Before we can all move on and welcome each other into our ever-growing tent, it’s essential that we stop, reflect, and ponder whether there might be someone we’d maligned or marginalized, and then admit it and apologize. And not because of some touchy-feely or moralizing reason, but for the simplest and most practical one: Because if you don’t, the same mistakes will happen again.

This thorny dynamic is starting to play out all over, and it makes sense. How should you feel if you’ve spent the past two years being called a grandma killer, say, or a nutjob anti-vaxxer, or a racist? It’s not an easy question.

There are, in fact, two wrong answers to it. The first is to do to the other side what they did to you—to belittle them for not coming to their senses soon enough, or strongly enough, or on the correct political terms. Harassing those who want to join you in good faith because they supported a candidate you dislike, say, or because they have some political convictions that differ from yours, or because they took a bit longer than you to come to the same conclusions is an act of self-destructive zealotry, the sort of madness the wise old rabbis teach us led to the destruction of our ancient Temple in Jerusalem and to nearly two millennia of exile.

But the alternative being played out on the other end of the spectrum isn’t much better—a strategy these days articulated as “just take the W and move on.” Saying all’s forgiven and everyone’s welcome, no questions asked, may sound soulful, but it does nothing to facilitate necessary emotional processes on either side: The wronged party gets no recognition, and those who’ve done wrong get no platform for soul-searching and repentance. There’s a reason why Judaism’s holiest day, Yom Kippur, can’t begin before we ask each other—not God, but the folks around us—for forgiveness. Christ may have suffered his indignities with beatific patience, pardoning his persecutors with love and grace, but us mortals require a blunter and more communal process of saying we’re sorry. Embracing your offenders without asking for a measure of spiritual accounting is just as beastly as rejecting those who seek your company in good faith; both will make you feel righteous for a hot second, and then leave you lonely and drained.

Which is why the real work here is to be done by the people actually making the turn.

Look, it’s perfectly fine to change your mind, especially in the midst of an unprecedented global pandemic involving a novel virus or destabilizing political turmoil. Maybe you wanted the vaccines to be a magical panacea so badly that you didn’t bother asking why you should put too much trust in an industry that only very recently promised to heal all pain with opioids, unleashing a major catastrophe and killing tens of thousands, or why government officials were repeating Big Pharma talking points without having any access to raw data. And maybe you mocked those who took the time to ask these questions as conspiracy theorists or, worse, smeared them as nutcases to their neighbors or friends or Facebook group members.

Maybe you felt Trump was so terrible that each and any of his detractors deserved our applause, even if they turned out to be convicted fraudsters, say, or embroiled in peccadilloes with Chinese spies, or dipping into drugs while securing lucrative deals with corrupt foreign entities. And maybe you chafed when anyone raised any objections, shouting that anything that falls short of an unequivocal repudiation of the 45th president is akin to heiling Hitler. Whatever you might’ve felt and said and done, it’s OK, just as long as you can do three simple things: Give yourself an honest accounting of what you got wrong and why; apologize to anyone who got it right and whom you might’ve mocked or dismissed; and cultivate the humility to avoid spiraling into the same pattern of ignorance and contempt next time you hear a patently ridiculous slogan like “two weeks to flatten the curve.”

Admitting you were wrong and apologizing to those you sidelined as crazy is the right thing to do. But even more importantly, the reckoning is hygienic: It ensures, or at least tries to ensure, that the same people who rejected reason yesterday won’t repeat the same moblike mistakes tomorrow. There is no universe in which Leanna Wen should ever again be making public health pronouncements that government bodies or citizens take seriously. There is no universe in which you should ever again read Glenn Kessler, The Washington Post’s “fact checker,” who first supported the official team Biden account that the then-vice president never joined his errant son Hunter for dinner with a powerful Ukrainian oil executive, and then, when the facts could no longer be denied, declared haughtily and counterfactually that there’s “less to the story than one might imagine.”

These are not just people who made an honest mistake or two, operating on the best intelligence available at the time, fumbling, as all of us entrusted with telling rapidly developing stories in real time sometimes do. These are hacks, disingenuous operatives who trade on their reputation and repeat party lines and accuse anyone who calls them out on their bullshit as being unfair or, worse, unhinged. These people haven’t apologized and never will, because their goal isn’t actually to be right; it’s to be famous. Any health polity should want to build up experts who get things right (and early), and marginalize those who are intent on getting things wrong—so we can feel confident that we’ll be led well next time around. Fail to discard these serial bumblers and craven propagandists, and we’ll end up right back where we started.

Apologies aren’t easy. I say this as someone who has gotten a lot wrong in his day, and who makes a habit of regularly apologizing to those involved, publicly and privately, not for their sake but for mine, because humility is a great way to keep from falling into the same rusty traps. It helps you, as Walter Kirn pointed out in a public conversation we shared earlier this year, get in the habit of looking at the track record, not the ideology, which is an essential habit if you want to stay sane and safe.

“As much as I’d like to get into the niceties of why the left and the right aren’t the greatest ways to classify ourselves in the first place,” Walter said, “I’ll be plainspoken and simply say: You who didn’t consider yourself to be to the right, who might have thought that they were the enemy, you maybe want to show a little humility, given their track record predicting and protecting and warning about things that have come to pass.”

It’s a wondrous thing that so many of us these days are engaged in awkward and difficult and absolutely necessary conversations, and God bless anyone with enough decency and courage to look back and admit missteps. But to do real teshuvah, real return—not only to normal life, but to something better, kinder, and more promising, we have no choice but to learn to apologize properly and properly accept apologies. No political, social, or spiritual project is more urgent than the one that begins with three small words: I’m so sorry.

Liel Leibovitz is editor at large for Tablet Magazine and a host of its weekly culture podcast Unorthodox and daily Talmud podcast Take One.

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