Fridays with Fred: Sorry, Not Sorry
Few readers will be unfamiliar with the idiom, ‘it’s better to ask for forgiveness than to ask for permission.’ Of course, only the criminally insane would apply this expression to, say, murder or some other vile act. But I know I’m not alone in admitting that I’ve plied this proverb on more than one occasion to quell my conscience and downplay wrongdoing or hurt I’ve inflicted. Reflecting on Friedrich Nietzsche’s Aphorisms on Love and Hate has made me realise that something more sinister may lie behind our preference for apologising over seeking permission: power. Previously we considered how power plagues friendships, as friendship requires love and vulnerability. Slightly differently, though still within the realm of relationships, in this post I will argue that our desire for power can lie behind an apology. Saying sorry after we have hurt someone may actually be nothing more than doubling up our domination over them.
The German iconoclast writes, “It is much more agreeable to offend and later ask for forgiveness than to be offended and grant forgiveness. The one who does the former demonstrates his power and then his goodness. The other, if he does not want to be thought inhuman, must forgive; because of this coercion, pleasure in the other’s humiliation is slight.” With brilliant brevity, Nietzsche reveals the reason many of us will act first and apologise second. It is an avenue for exercising power over others. Additionally, pursuing an apology reflects well on us. For it suggests that we regret what we did. As the philosopher says: offending and then apologising demonstrates both our power and goodness. That I am able to hurt or offend another points to my power over them—perhaps even my privilege by virtue of position or status. Admitting my wrong, while never acknowledging this abuse of power, indicates remorse. Apologies are a very affordable price for purchasing goodness. They do not even necessarily involve surrendering the power with which I hurt another.
We can take Nietzsche’s observation further, pointing out something he only implies. When we have wronged someone - enjoying our power over them - apologising does not merely make us out to be virtuous. It is a second power move—or a further step towards establishing power over those we hurt and mistreat. As Nietzsche notes, if the offended person does not want to be considered inhuman or churlish, they have to forgive. Therefore, in offending someone and later offering an apology we enjoy two expressions of power. First they are subject to my power and secondly they are coerced by my apology.
Maybe you have never thought of apologies as an exercise of power. There are certainly times when they are sincere, flowing from the genuine conviction that we have abused our power and privilege by hurting or offending someone. But returning to the idiom we started with - ‘it’s better to ask for forgiveness than to ask for permission’ - I think that deliberate wrongdoing undercuts the sincerity of any subsequent apologies. Worse still, as Nietzsche shows, to willingly do wrong and then apologise for it may be nothing more than exercising and enjoying our power.
Let us consider one final point, a searching question that Nietzsche asks later in Aphorisms on Love and Hate, “Will there be many people honest enough to admit that it is a pleasure to inflict pain? That not infrequently one amuses himself…by offending another…and by shooting pellets of petty malice at them? Most people are too dishonest, and a few men are too good, to know anything about this source of shame.” We might call this muted or subtle sadism, which I agree with Nietzsche few of us can deny dwells within us. How it is expressed will no doubt vary from person to person, in scale and severity. But honesty regarding this spiteful inclination will go a long way towards preventing us from abusing our power or aspiring to gain it over others—even through apologies. If you say ‘sorry,’ mean it. If you plan to apologise for action prior to doing it, stop abusing your power.