Mea Culpa: The Rhetoric of Apology and Confession
Through my fault, my fault, my own grievous fault.
This summer a professor emailed to congratulate me on my acceptance into a PhD program. It opened with two paragraphs of explanation for its tardiness leading into “now that my mea culpa is out of the way…”
Mea Culpa. What a phrase. It comes from the Roman Rite of penance; it means “Through my fault.” Of course, I didn't mind at all. But I did laugh at the irony of my professor’s admission of guilt, followed quickly by a litany of reasons why it was not actually his fault. And now it is my response that is long overdue. It’s my fault for the tardiness,— except, of course, the first semester of my PhD has been crazy, all the international travel, and my apartment didn’t have internet for a while…
Mea culpa… kinda.
It is only natural to defend ourselves.
In social psychology they call it the Fundamental Attribution Error (FAE). I attribute my un-admirable moments to external factors, but I attribute yours to internal factors. When I’m late, I think it’s because of traffic, my overly talkative roommate, and that unreasonably slow barista. When you’re late, I assume it’s because you’re lazy and forgetful. I was late because I was a victim of cruel circumstances, you were late because you’re an entitled, avocado-toast-eating millennial.
Even if we feel a little bad about something we’ve done, we want to make sure people know it’s not who we *really* are. I’m not that bad. Not bad all the time. I didn’t realise it was bad. It was just once. If you just understood…
This happens with everything from petty to grave offences. In his work with murderers as a social worker in intercity London, Theodore Dalrymple notes that externalised defences even extended to murder, citing a man who said he hadn’t really meant to kill anyone, but “the knife went in.”
Mea culpa… kinda.
This happens in the public sphere as well.
Apologia is the rhetorical study of statements people of power make to apologise, explain, defend themselves after allegations of a reputation damaging event. The most popular example of this might be Bill Clinton. Although apologia sounds like “apology,” it means something more like “to give a defense”; think of apologetics.
According to B.L. Ware and W.A. Linkugel (1973), these statements usually have the following four things in common:
1. denial (directly or indirectly rejecting the substance, intent, or consequence of the questionable act)
2. bolstering (attempting to enhance the image of the individual under attack)
3. differentiation (distinguishing the questionable act from more serious or harmful actions)
4. transcendence (placing the act in a different context)
Does this sound familiar? Apologia is, for the most part, simply a publicising of the FAE. The stakes are higher, the reasons slightly different, but at the end of the day, it’s the same. It wasn’t that bad, I don’t do it all the time, I could have done something worse…
The last weeks have seen the news cycle awash in an oily flood of Apologias. Weinstein. Moore. Louis C.K. It’s enough to make you feel sick.
But if you have the stomach, I would suggest going and observing several of the apologias released. Notice how they externalise the offence— even Louis C.K., whom many praised for not excusing himself. He doesn’t deny the substance or the consequences of his actions, but at the most internal level (intent), he remains as spotless as a lamb. Yes, he acted inappropriately (substance) with numerous women, and he was sorry it impacted them negatively (consequence), but he did it without malice… innocently… perhaps even with a good heart.
(let us all pause here for a moment to scream into a pillow, nay out the window, at the sea, or in a public place)
Mea culpa… kinda.
Accepting full blame is like being able to lick your elbow: lots of people think they can, but in reality only a few people are able to.
The reflex to defend our ugly actions is visceral, innate, and overpowering. We all seem born with a sort of lust for justification. We can hardly help ourselves. Why do we do this? My hunch is that we never want to our faults to become a part of our identities.
We want to have been late, not be lazy.
We want to have lost our temper once, not be an angry person.
We want to have just gotten carried away, not be a sexual harasser.
So we externalise the offence.
Today in church, I prayed the confession.
I confess to almighty God
and to you, my brothers and sisters,
that I have greatly sinned,
in my thoughts and in my words,
in what I have done and in what I have failed to do,
through my fault, through my fault,
through my most grievous fault;
(mea culpa, mea culpa, mea máxima culpa)
As the words came out of my mouth, almost without my conscious consent, ingrained as they are by repetition, I was struck by how fundamentally different a confession is than an apologia.
In this prayer there is no denial— the substance (sin), intent (thought), and consequence (word and deed) is all owned and declared.
There is no bolstering. No reminder of the nicer things I’ve done. The moments I was kind. The times I donated to charity; that’s not what matters right now.
There is no differentiation. There’s no way out; no “at least I’m not as bad as Valerie…”
There is no transcendence. No making my offence smaller by placing it in the perspective of eternity. This is the moment of my offence.
The confession is an admittance of guilt with no qualifications.
To admit guilt, to God, my brothers and sisters, to the person I’ve wronged, is to put my guilt in the open, to not let it fester or grow inside of me, to not let it be the ruling principle of my life, hidden under the deception of self and others. And surely there is a relief in this. Have we not all felt the great weight lifted off our chests that comes from finally speaking the burden of guilt that we carry?
But to confess is also to put yourself at the mercy of those you have sinned against.
At the mercy of your victims.
At the mercy of God.
This is a frightening, violent thing. But this is what it takes to remove the rot of sin. But hope always resides in mercy.
If we externalise the offence, we will externalise the amendment of our actions. By doing this, I never have to deal with the internal ugliness that likely caused my transgression. If I apologise for being late because of the barista, roommate, and traffic, I’ll never deal with the real cause: I’m kinda forgetful and don’t always respect people’s time. If we allow men to say they took advantage of women because of culture, a power structure, or ignorance, we’ll never deal with the deep rot that causes people to see each other as something other than human. Or causes them not to care.
This is not to diminish the force of external factors. We should acknowledge the past hurts, traumas, and issues that make us prone to react in unhealthy ways. We should carefully leverage and check the kind of power that lets a powerful man prey on women; the system shouldn’t be the way it is. But this explains and not excuses bad decisions. And this is why confession is not just a personal, but a corporate act. Our errors and our virtues our tangled up in personal responsibility and communal forces. No man is an island, but each must give account for his actions.
It’s like my has mama often said to me: right is right, even if no-one is doing it. Wrong is wrong even if everyone is doing it.
If I externalise all my faults, I never have to say that there are parts of me that should be rooted out and burned— no matter how they got there, no matter what my reasons are for having them. Perhaps they are only petty habits, but some of them are cancerous. They will eat away at who I am. And they’ll harm others.
But to root out such an infection, I have to admit it’s there. This sickness is not because of the weather, or allergies, or my mood; it’s a cancer that needs to be operated on.
I have to admit: the problem is internal. No one made me do this.
This is my small suggestion: If change and healing are going to be possible on a personal or a societal level, we must learn to make Confessions not Apologias.
Because it is what the victims of grave injustice deserve.
Because it is how we can begin to heal.
Because it is right.
mea culpa, mea culpa,
mea máxima culpa.
MAY the Almighty and merciful Lord grant unto you pardon and remission of all your sins, time for true repentance, amendment of life, and the grace and comfort of the Holy Spirit. Amen.