The big news this week, besides the continuous suffering of people in Syria and the bombing of the Coptic Church in Egypt is the United Airline customer debacle where a paid customer was violently forced off the plane for no other reason than trying to get some space for miscalculated crew travel. The amazing thing about this whole event is the way Oscar Muñoz, the CEO of UA, apologized. He described the violence to the customer with a newly coined word “re-accommodate”. He wrote, “This is an upsetting event to all of us here at UA. I apologize for having to re-accommodate these customers. Our team is moving with a sense of urgency to work with the authorities and conduct our own detailed review of what happened. We are also reaching out to this customer to talk directly to him and further address and resolve the situation.” Yet, in a leaked internal memo to the employees, he stood firm behind the employees who go above and beyond to ensure that UA “fly right.” The memo has since been deleted.
It was only after UA lost 250 million USD market share in one day that Muñoz issued his second apology that started to sound a bit like a real apology. Over the years, I’ve experienced various kinds of apologies from Rick Warren’s non-apology (i.e. best summarized by “if you don’t like my racially charged jokes, don’t read my Facebook page”) that progressed to a semi-apology (i.e. best summarized by “I’m sorry if what I said offended anyone”) to apologies that is directed to anyone other than the victim. Whether it’s an apology for a tasteless Facebook meme or a false advertisement using someone’s name without permission or plagiarizing someone else’s work, the first apology (not the redacted and rectified one) shows the heart’s true priority.
When apologizing for the offense, I’ve seen two strategies that offenders use to cover up the seriousness of the offense itself. First, the offender can use vocabulary that lessens or even normalizes the seriousness of the offense even to the degree of inventing new words (i.e. “re-accommodate”). If the offense isn’t physical like the one with UA, some would even go as far as saying, “It’s a joke, people. Lighten up. Grow thicker skin.” This strategy shows the offender’s sole interest is to bolster one’s ego and blamelessness. The unfortunate thing is, the more one washes off the blood, the redder one’s hands will become. Integrity, in this case, is merely a tool for beautifying one’s own public image.
The second tactic offenders use is to apologize to all the immediate financial and social-political interests instead of to the real victim. For example, one can apologize to a publisher for plagiarism or to the readers for misleading them with false advertisement without apologizing to the one from whom one plagiarize or to the one from whom one has profited. This strategy shows that the offender only cares about his own financial or status gain and nothing else. This initial apology is there to make sure one’s financial affairs won’t be affected. Integrity, in this case, is merely a tool for financial gain. Integrity becomes a financial transaction rather than a character trait.
While the delete button can be the ultimate hand washing internet tool, that button will not help us advert true disasters. Deletion without proper apology is the ultimate act of a calloused coward whose spirit has been possessed by the demon of self aggrandizement and selfish gains. Embellished apology isn’t much better. However, as Christians, we have a better way, the biblical way of repentance in three steps. First, offenders must own their offense. Second, they have to rectify the loss that came from the offense by being on the victim’s side. Third, they have to determine in their hearts not to reoffend while turning their lives towards the opposite direction of the offending path. These are good and solid ways of living as an offender. We’re all humans. We are bound to offend in one way or another where real damage is done to real human beings. Our job is to ensure that our integrity is in tact even as we misstep. Hitting the delete button in social media without proper dealings with the victim only compounds the offense. Thus if we want to apologize with integrity, the first thing we should check shouldn’t be self-interest, but the interest of the victim. After all, your first apology exposes your heart. No matter what you do afterwards to “fix” the first apology, especially after your public opinion and stock prices have plummeted and your career has spiraled towards ruination, will not matter. The trust is already lost. It’s too late.
Muñoz and other cases of faux apologies or non-apologies teach us one thing: check your heart.