There's an old story that I've heard often enough that it may be true -- it concerns a law student who had to bring her 8 year-old son to contracts class one morning. The subject was non-performance and the socratic inquiry involved what you do when the agreement calls for delivery of two-hundred yellow widgets -- and you sent blue. As the Kingsfieldian professor peered out over the class, most of whom avoided eye contact, he saw the kid's hand in the air -- "First, I'd say 'I'm sorry,'" was his answer.
Out of the mouths of babes! There IS power in apology; indeed, there is good evidence to the effect that an occasional mistake, promptly rectified and including an appropriate expression of regret, actually forges a stronger commercial relationship than one in which performance is perfect, though untested. There are, of course, limits in such situations, but something in human nature is quite willing to forgive -- perhaps in the hope of compiling positive karma points. Apology, sincerely rendered, can also clear away emotional rubble from the path to resolution of a dispute. I'm not certain its value can be quantified, or that it extends to every situation, but it Can be a critical-path item that sets contentious matters on a constructive course.
Which brings us to this week's Incident: in which the presumed sexual mores of another law student were called into basest ridicule by the unquestioned king of political talk radio. In case you've been out of the galaxy, one Mr. Limbaugh labeled a heretofore unknown thirty-year-old Georgetown law student a 'slut' and a 'prostitute,' and invited her to post her sexual exploits on the web for his entertainment. She earned those scarlet letters by testifying before Congress about her desire...that the health plan she, her university and the insurer pay-for include coverage for contraception.
The ensuing firestorm included predictable expressions of outrage, advertiser defections, and the wholly inadequate "you're one, too" defense -- to the effect that lefty Bill Maher had described public figure Sarah Palin in anatomical terms. That meager claim, if true, is thoroughly distinguishable -- to call someone a body part is to signal a disagreement, albeit disagreeably -- to call her a 'round-heel' is an attempt to fundamentally degrade her, conjuring the misogynism of the Salem colony. That it came from an oft-married man who famously flies solo with Viagra in his luggage adds a nicely hypocritical touch. In general, I grow weary of right-wing media's crying foul and claiming equivalency between their constant barrage of scornful invective and the occasional poor imitation from the left.
There may have been further method in Mr. Limbaugh's madness. Almost lost in the hubbub was his reinforcement of the false claim that the taxpayers are subsidizing the health plan in question, which they distinctly are not. It's part of the disinformation drumbeat to miss-characterize the Affordable Care Act as socialized/ist medicine. And in this case his sort-of apology was way too little, came way too late, sounded completely disingenuous, and omitted the taxpayers.
It was also interesting to note the muted reactions of the GOP presidential aspirants. Frontrunners Romney and Santorum limited their rebuke to "poor choice of words" and "entertainer's statements," respectively. It was clear that they wanted no part of crossing their kingmaker on the eve of Super Tuesday. A man's got to have his priorities, and these spoke volumes. Voters who happen to be women might take note.
Finally, I was impressed by the stance of (Jesuit) Georgetown University's President, John DeGioia. In an open letter to the school, he defended his student, as follows:
"She provided a model of civil discourse. This expression of conscience was in the tradition of the deepest values we share as a people. One need not agree with her substantive position to support her right to respectful free expression."
No apologies required.