Friday, September 29, 2006

Why is saying "I'm sorry" so hard?

After all the things that were done wrong in the Maher Arar case, it was refreshing to hear the commissioner of the RCMP give such a complete apology to Arar when he appeared before a Parliamentary committee on Thursday.
"Mr. Arar, I wish to take this opportunity to express publicly to you, to your wife and to your children how truly sorry I am," he told the House national security committee.

It's such a simple thing to say and it means so much. So why is it so hard for people in authority to say they're sorry?

For example, later in the day, we had the unseemly spectacle of Public Security Minister Stockwell Day refusing to apologize to Arar, on the grounds that the government was still negotiating with him over how he should be compensated. What a shameful way to behave.

Why do we equate saying "I'm sorry" with "I admit complete responsibility for what happened and therefore you can sue me to the ends of the earth and take whatever you want"?

You can be sorry for what happened without taking liability. And if we don't believe that the courts will see it that way, our laws should be changed to make sure that an authority figure expressing an apology is not held liable because of it.

There are plenty of examples of how powerful an apology can be and a growing body of evidence that in some cases, such as medical mistakes, an apology from a doctor can reduce the likelihood of a malpractice suit.

I don't know why but I've always been annoyed by how difficult it is for authorities to apologize. In fact, it's one of the main reasons I got out of the daily journalism business back in the mid-1990's.

Two incidents in particular stand out for their silliness. The first occurred when it became clear that David Milgaard, the Saskatchewan man who served 23 years in prison for a murder he didn't commit, was finally released from jail. I was part of a scrum of reporters chasing Saskatchewan's Minister of Justice, Bob Mitchell, for a reaction.

When we finally talked to him, he was asked whether he would apologize to Milgaard and he said no, because he didn't want to set a precedent. It seemed to me that setting a precedent that the government would apologize to every innocent person who served 23 years in prison for a murder they didn't commit would be a good idea.

The other incident that set my blood boiling (so to speak) involved the Saskatchewan government's refusal to extend compensation to people who had contracted Hepatitis C through tainted blood but were left out of the original compensation package worked out after the Krever Inquiry. (At the time, the commission report had not been received.)

Again, I was part of a scrum trying to get the Health Minister, Louise Simard to say why they weren't eligible and she steadfastly refused to say anything. Pressed to say whether she was sorry, she wouldn't. I'm not sure why her refusal to utter the words made me so angry but I was. And I still am.

In both cases, the authority figures felt that saying they were sorry would show weakness, or admit to liability, or something bad like that. But I would argue it would show they were human and sympathetic. And if the apology came up later in court, it would be to their advantage - not used against them.

Whether it comes from a government minister, a supervisor, a doctor or a personal friend, a sincere apology works wonders in helping someone through a difficult time. We should be far more willing to say "I'm sorry."

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Donna Papacosta said...

Very nice post, Dave. I can see why you got out of daily journalism. ;-)

I wonder if anyone knows the answer to your question. I think you're very close when you say that people equate saying "I'm sorry" with admitting total liability and opening themselves up to lawsuits. I think Stockwell Day was ridiculous in stating that he couldn't apologize on behalf of the government because they're still negoatiating a settlement with Maher Arar. That's just nuts.

Eric Eggertson said...

As thorough and (most likely) sincere as the apology was, it's certainly not enough to make up for the fact the RCMP chief had information that Arar wasn't connected to terrorism, but sat on it for a couple of years, when he could have come forward and helped repair the guy's reputation.

That gap will probably cost at least $1 million, on top of whatever compensation is negotiated for the actions that lead to Arar's torture.

Dave said...

Good point. Just as an apology does not have to imply liability, neither does it absolve someone of liability. They are (or can be) separate issues. That certainly appears to be the case here. That's why the government's attemp to link the apology to a final compensation deal is so despicable, in my view.