During his visit to Athens in 2001, Pope John Paul II apologized for the sacking of Constantinople in 1204, during the Fourth Crusade. On that occasion, papal soldiers slaughtered many Eastern Christians, wrecked many churches and stole anything that looked valuable. In the Orthodox world this remains ugly history, but why did John Paul II think it necessary to exhibit contrition eight centuries later? Why did he claim that this memory fills today's Catholics with "deep regret"? It seems likelier that most living Catholics haven't heard of it.
But his retroactive admission of collective guilt expressed the spirit of this period. We live in the first great age of contrition. Public institutional atonement has become a habit, and is considered a good thing even when it's largely meaningless.
Of course, grave violations of human rights in the present make apologies essential, even for the most powerful leader in the world: George W. Bush was right to acknowledge the vile behaviour of some U.S. prison guards in Iraq while insisting it did not represent American values or policy.
In business, on the other hand, it's become conventional wisdom that a good, sincere apology improves the corporate image. "As an institution, we failed ... For that I apologize." The publisher of USA Today issued those words in March while revealing that one of the paper's star reporters had invented many of his best stories. But the phrasing could have come from anywhere, for any misdemeanour. It's now common parlance, uttered with few variations by prime ministers and CEOs.
Two years ago, McDonald's humbly asked forgiveness for its fries and hash browns. Following a class action suit, the corporation declared: "McDonald's sincerely apologizes to Hindus, vegetarians and others for failing to provide the kind of information they needed to make informed dietary decisions at our U.S. restaurants." The company had been caught using small amounts of beef flavouring in oil used to cook potatoes that it described as vegetarian. "We ... sincerely apologize for any hardship that these miscommunications have caused." McDonald's also paid US$10-million to appropriate charities.
In 2001 Mayor Mel Lastman gave what must have been a world-record remorse performance. Having joked that he was fearful about his trip to Kenya to promote Toronto's Olympic bid ("I just see myself in a pot of boiling water with all these natives dancing around me."), he later managed to say he was sorry no fewer than 22 times during a brief press conference -- "I am truly sorry ... I am very sorry ... I did the wrong thing." He turned his contrition into another embarrassment.
The Web has now given everyone a way to make amends in the purest sense, a kind of apology-for-apology's-sake, with neither the writer nor the writer's presumed victim identified. Www.forgivenessweb.com runs many heartfelt words of anonymous repentance ("Dear Mom, I'm so sorry to have thought those awful things about you"). It obviously satisfies something in the writers even though they're unlikely to reach the people they offended. "Dear young black woman," writes someone who says she was about 19, a white, bald, angry lesbian feminist when she met a black Christian on the University of Toronto campus ("It was around 1993-4") and insulted her faith. The writer, now a Christian herself, worries constantly that she undermined the faith of another, and now expresses herself through the digital equivalent of tucking a message into a bottle and throwing it into the sea.
This week, The New York Times solidified its position as the most enthusiastic self-flagellant among corporations. The editors feel bad because they ran pre-war stories on Iraq that accepted too readily the opinions of the CIA, the White House and Iraqi dissidents. Just about every other media outlet in the world carried those stories, but they weren't The Times. At The Times, a serious mea culpa was called for. So on Wednesday it ran a 1,165-word "From the Editors" piece under the title The Times and Iraq (notice which word came first).
"Over the last year this newspaper has shone the bright light of hindsight on decisions that led the United States into Iraq," the editors declared. "It is past time we turned the same light on ourselves." You can almost hear the cheering in the newsroom.
Editors reviewed hundreds of articles and found (no surprise) much journalism that made them proud -- but also some places where The Times should have shown more skepticism or followed up on articles that were dubious in the first place. Reading this laborious self-analysis, it was hard to resist the notion that it was less a confession than an assertion of the importance of The Times, a new claim of gravitas.
About two decades ago pickup basketball players in New York invented a term of guilt-admission, used after a mistake or an infraction of the rules -- "my bad." It spread into the larger world, assisted by the movie Clueless in 1995, and then started appearing in dictionaries. Today it's beginning to look like the slogan to identify an entire era.