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Life Arts    H4'ed 2/18/16

Philosophy of the Apology: Saying Sorry in a Patriarchal World

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Patriarchal Ceiling Mural, Supreme Court, 60 Centre Street, Lower Manhattan
Patriarchal Ceiling Mural, Supreme Court, 60 Centre Street, Lower Manhattan
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If a man ever has to say sorry to a woman with whom he is in a romantic relationship, or who, in a different life, has been his girlfriend, partner or wife, then several complexities come up.

If he has to show some humility to a woman he has wronged, for example by unfaithfulness, pornography usage, or abandonment, then it is imperative that he comes to apologize not with a spirit of entitlement, but with a heart of genuine openness to the thousand unknown possibilities of how his apology will be received.

He is also not entitled to any particular response. This is so whether the man views his words as an 'apology,' or whether, by contrast, he views his words as a kind of 'acknowledgement' of wrongdoing so serious that no apology seems possible.

One classical example is seduction. Of course, not all those who heartlessly abandon women are seducers of one night alone. But poetic as that might sound, there is no virtue in romanticizing breach of faith, as an epic theme of the 'fascinatingly dangerous' soul of Don Giovanni. If anything, artistic works about Don Giovanni 'ring true' so precisely because they are uncomfortable in their resemblance to life. 'Real life,' is a place where betrayal does happen, and it is real, and is not a fantasy of escapism. The artistic representation of male privilege, even if it has some minor, indirect effect in influencing the character of a person (positively, negatively or otherwise), is never a mere fantasy.

For, art may be justifiable as art, but it is not for this reason neutral in value. It is more 'ambivalent,' than merely amoral, aseptic, colorless.

Art is always justified, and art is never justified.

These twain are very much inseparable. The same wounding act of 'symbolic violence,' a violence not of the body but of language and of symbolism, inevitably tears a rent in the history of life and the life of history. This same healing act gestures new directions and pathways to the discerning person who reads, who writes, who listens, who observes.

" Who meditates.

But let me return to the apology. I have already hinted that a man's apology is not a gift of exchange, where reciprocation is expected: explicit or implicit acknowledgement of acceptance of the apology; or worst of all, a second apology.

Is the apology ahumanistic' matter, in the sense that it is about relationships between two abstract tokens of the type or category 'Humanity-in-General?' (sic).

No, it is not. Very few things, if any, are. So if a 'straight-vanilla-person-in-general' angle is inappropriate here, as elsewhere, then what are the key inequalities, in terms of actual specific identities?

There are many different angles here; not only the gendered angle. And I am afraid that my discussion above is centered somewhat on relationships between men and women, rather than to other relationships. Betrayal, followed by apology or acknowledgement, may be common to many kinds of relationship, but one also has to be aware of the special contextual factors where (for example) two people have got divorced after a gay marriage, the case being such that gay marriages are often stigmatized in a manner that straight marriages are not. Moreover, I also have not considered the cisgender/transgender distinction here.

Of course, I don't wish to say that all these other kinds of relationship are unimportant; but I believe they all deserve serious discussion in their own right. And not everyone is equally qualified to do so. I cannot speak for anyone but myself. All relationships are both particular in their grounding, and universal in their significance. And they are always, always, purely individual in their experience. For all common and shared live is in the first and last instance, individual life. Individual life is not the isolated 'Robinsonnade' Marx spoke of, but a single life amid many other lives.

Still, I apologize for the incompleteness of my discussion. Even if this may be a 'non-inclusion' in an ambivalent sense, I sincerely hope it is not an 'exclusion' in an explicitly negative sense. But this apology is not the kind of apology based on an avoidable wrongdoing; but on the necessary limitations of communication. If I cannot speak for anyone other predominantly cisgender man who has been in a relationship with women, how much less so a gay person or a transgender person? Some apologies are related to material necessity; someone has not done what they could have otherwise done. Other apologies are related to logical necessity; there is simply no right answer. Perhaps not even a less bad one.

But isn't this also relevant to the notion of apologies in love? A man must be prepared to apologize whether or not there were constraints upon him. Even if there was no 'right thing,' or 'less bad' thing for him to do, it is well enough known that women themselves are always considered in the wrong in one way or another. This being so, it is rather presumptuous for a man to disdain to show genuine contrition and humility. After all, he is not found within precisely the same gendered double binds that women are found within. Sometimes men are faced with heavily gendered expectations; but only as part of a patriarchal order that often hurts women more than it hurts men.

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Jonathan Ferguson is a socio-economic liberal with strong libertarian leanings in some key issues.

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