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Two Views of Apology

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Obama critics (e.g., Gingrich, O'Reilly, Hannity, Rove) call his oversea forays "apology tours." For these men, and others, to concede errors is the height of national and personal weakness.

As a psychologist in the addiction field, I developed a communications curriculum. Addicts frequently are mired in, along with their drug habits, destructive interactions with spouses, parents, children, lovers. The two destructive patterns feed into one another to create the self-defeating cycles in addicts' lives.

In this learning exercise, we work on allowing others to tell us their needs, while we communicate ours to them. To escape escalating negativity, each side must concede points, and grant esteem to the other. An effort at offering criticism will reach its target only if the person first feels secure in the regard the critic has for them, and if the critic also acknowledges his or her contributions to an embroil.

These concessions are so important in breaking a negative cycle that they must begin any effort at feedback. Without them, people interpret critical comments as personal attacks. It's as though apologies and offers of respect unlock the door to people's brains, to allow thoughts and suggestions to enter.

Sound familiar? This is the Obama approach to salving international conflicts and to begin their resolution. But it drives conservatives wild. On "Fox & Friends," following Obama's speech at Cairo University, hosts and commentators bemoaned Obama's blaming American actions for inspiring hatred in Iran, among other mea culpas.

Where do these differences in attitudes spring from? As "mea culpa" suggests, Christianity emphasize humility and self-critique. But, obviously, both Obama supporters and opponents claim to be Christians. As my description of my work with addicts suggests, psychological communications theory likewise appreciates generous acknowledgments of one's own flaws.

On the other side, John Wayne never (well, hardly ever) apologized. Men need to be strong, and don't acknowledge they are wrong. But Wayne's most memorable movie, The Searchers (directed by the equally monumental John Ford), recognized there are moments where letting down one's guard to accept where others are coming from is crucial. In that film, Wayne hates Indians with a passion, including -- it seems -- his brother's kidnapped daughter (played by Natalie Wood), even as he pursued her around the West. It isn't until the next-to-the-last scene that Wayne finally reveals that he will welcome his niece back to the white world.

Ironically, in the film's last scene, Wayne himself is shut out from the happy family resolution. His single-mindedness simply doesn't work in a family context. But the film credits Wayne with bringing Wood home safely. Only the fictional Wayne character had the strength to preserve his family against the dangers of the West, including Native Americans.

I teach that the inability to apologize and see the other side is a psychological weakness. True blue Wayne fans -- perhaps including Ronald Reagan -- believe that leading with strength is the only chance the United States has to protect our interests. But Obama has a higher -- call it Christian -- calling, one which foresees the lion sleeping with the lamb.

An impossible dream? A practical approach to mending fences? A sign of weakness? A religious declaration? An offense to American sensibilities? A generosity borne of strength?

It depends where you are coming from - and what you think "strength" means.

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