Why Saying Sorry Seems to be Bad
for the Human Race

Written by Thembi Mutch. Posted in Culture, Opinion, Politics

Published on June 07, 2009 with 2 Comments

Thembi Mutch

By Thembi Mutch

June 7, 2009

At the moment in the UK there’s all kinds of political meltdowns; MP’s using public money to do ridiculous things like clean their moats, pay the window cleaner, or pay non-existent mortgages. The British people are outraged; we have been conned, and in addition to the rather incredible failure of financial systems, and of the liberal market economy, there is a profound sense of worry and dis-ease.

What fascinates me is how we will get out of this mess. Literally, mechanisms will no doubt unfurl to make our elected representatives and banking moguls more accountable. In the mean time, what about the business of saying sorry?

Last week I camped deep in the bush in Tanzania; all around me were animals that could potentially eat us: lions, cheetahs, bull elephants. Around the fire, above us vast tracts of sky, it prompted a whole discussion about survival; essentially when is it appropriate to roll over, belly up, and say sorry, I give up? How much does fighting back really help? Why do we pour so much scorn on saying sorry? Is it a biological imperative?

We are all taught some level of emotional management, consciously or not. To bolt down and ignore, to explode with roars. Some of us, when threatened, find it really easy to fight. Both the game rangers I camped with have regularly killed many animals- for humanitarian reasons I hasten to add- and as Dirk said, “the key is scruples; if you have no scruples you can kill very fast. Not only do I know I can kill a person without a second thought, but technically I know how to do it quickly and efficiently”.

He is not, in any way a psycho, he’s a practical man who often rescues animals from poachers, and if necessary puts them out of their misery. I suspect, based on my performance with a dying squirrel I was forced to kill, I would find killing someone else really hard.… none of it is particularly genetic, though that may be the starting point for what we have a disposition towards.

So thousands of influences; our role models, our levels of exposure, conscious and unconscious beliefs about what the inevitable outcomes of certain behavior will be, condition us… most of it I think is unacknowledged. We believe we have a certain personality, or ‘are’ a certain type of person. This is fallacious. I think it’s a question of what we are habituated into, and what we continually endorse and edify, until we identify rather vague notions as ‘traits’ or the ‘way we are.’ We learn what behavior works, or rather we learn to do certain patterns and repeat our actions, and then believe it works.

Unless you’re in therapy or a practicing therapist, or living a life in the bush, or in the poorer areas of England where your personal survival is foremost, it’s highly unlikely you’ll step back long enough to look at this. Our cultures don’t encourage us to think like this; it’s a bit messy. “Can you kill a person?” None of it is especially thought through, or properly examined. So we fall back on easy explanations: this sort of situation makes me uncomfortable, this kind of person makes me think too hard, or not think hard enough… this one makes me laugh. We don’t make the second leap, which is to ask the question, “How much does this person/animal threaten my very existence? Do I need to dispose of them before they dispose of me?”

Faced with these difficulties, we have two fundamental choices; blame or examine our reactions. The former is not necessarily away of finding immediate solutions, but it is a way of coping; righteous anger, indignation is a much more comfortable option- relatively -than sitting squarely facing a level of deep terror, sadness, betrayal and rejection. Whether it’s a loss of trust in politicians, or finding out your partner is cheating, or watching a bull elephant bear down upon you. Also, blame is a way of sidestepping an honest sense of responsibility. It doesn’t really require us to change, or modify.

I wonder why there’s a cultural resistance to change; it is after all, what we are hardwired to do. We’ve been changing for thousands of years; making wheels, fire, standing upright, killing. There’s an element of evolution in this as well; we are all quietly asserting our ability to survive, quite literally, and admitting failure and weakness, in large doses, suggests faulty strategies, rather than ability to change and adapt.  Which is a paradox really! After all, it is our very ability to remain flexible that does ensure survival – there is no final result, no endgame, it is one big bending exercise, until death.

Maybe admitting failure is not enough of a decision to change, which is why we don’t accept it; I am thinking of various financial and political cock ups; what would the outcomes be, if, instead of sheepishly admitting to failure, financiers were encouraged to look at their mistakes, and supported when they gave decent explanations. It seems to me that it is not a question of the the quality of apology or content of the display of regret that MP’s are displaying, but the mere fact that they are doing it at all. We don’t culturally, like ‘sorry’ as an option, we think it’s a cop out. Effectively, the underlying assumption is ‘get it right’ or don’t do it at all.

Swahili/Tanzanian culture is big on sorry; a good ‘sorry’ goes a long way here. Sorry is used a lot; to express empathy if you slip or stumble, if you sneeze, as well as the bigger stuff: “I am sorry I completely screwed up your day”. In my more prosaic moments, I like to imagine that the reason people say sorry a lot more here is because the threat of death is much more immediate here than in Europe. It is a total truism, but death is much easier and more common here; consequently there is a levity and ease to life that is totally missing in Europe. And a lot more saying sorry.

Thembi Mutch is a freelance journalist focusing on human rights issues. She is currently writing a thriller about international foreign aid and is working on her PhD thesis on the subject of women’s political marginalization in Tanzania and Zanzibar.

Thembi Mutch

BIO Thembi Mutch is a freelance journalist focusing on human rights issues. After graduating from the London School of Economics with a BSc in Political Science and Anthropology, Thembi launched Shocking Pink, an alternative anarcho-feminist 'zine in the late 80s. In addition to her radio and television reportage, Thembi has been widely published, including in the London Observer, British Journalism Review, the Financial Times, the New Scientist and with the BBC. She is currently writing a thriller about international foreign aid and is working on her PhD thesis on the subject of women's political marginalization in Tanzania and Zanzibar. Thembi is a lazy gardener who likes growing her own food, and currently lives in Hastings, England.

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Comments for Why Saying Sorry Seems to be Bad
for the Human Race
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  1. One more thought–

    Saying “sorry” is good for the human race.

    Peterson and Wrangham suggest so– and suggest also that female communication and peacemaking is an important component of solving our tendency to senseless violence.

    I am especially rather sick of the demonization of Muslims in our society– and our failure to learn the real lesson of WWII: that all societies of people, despite the richness of their past and heights of culture, have a capacity to become utterly debased, demonic and manipulated.

    The human capacity to violence as natural and mysterious as the need for six to nine hours of sleep– thankfully, so also is our attraction to love others with no expectation of reward.

    We need to pay attention to the message of our real peacemakers, Cindy Sheehan comes naturally to mind. We need to become a new species, a higher species. That will not happen easily. But I like to think it is possible.

  2. Our politicians when disgraced, hit the lecture circuit. No matter how dicey the product they have to sell, there seems always to be a market for it somewhere.

    Thembi asks some good questions. Could it be that absolute power is so absolutely corruptible because it thinks itself immortal?

    I wonder if she has read the book by Peterson and Wrangham: Demonic Males: Apes and the Origins of Human Violence?

    Their research led them to concluding Homo Sapiens are a mix of evolution and culture, and that, yes, we males in particular are likely hardwired to be killers.

    In our species, contempt is the greatest sin; being “dissed” the greatest prelude to mayhem of all sorts, small and large.