We all heard it as children: “Tell your brother (or sister) you’re sorry.” Those words typically elicited a grudging and grumpy “I’m sorry” — only to be followed by plans for later revenge against the tattletale who got us in trouble in the first place. I can’t remember even one incident as a child where the ordered “I’m sorry” changed anything.
On the other hand, the words that have stuck with me all my life are what my mom said to me once, when I quickly apologized for something and was unhappy when the magic words didn’t work as I’d planned. My mom said, “I’m sorry means that you won’t do it again.” Oh, well, that’s a little harder.
I’ve been thinking a lot this week about apologies and forgiveness, about actions and consequences, about what it means to be accountable for one’s behavior. The suspension of Ray Rice indefinitely from the NFL, as well as the reduction in the sanctions leveled against Penn State in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky scandal, should prompt all of us to consider how that plays out in the lives of perpetrators and of victims.
What does it mean to be accountable? Certainly, the first step is an empathetic understanding of the hurt one has caused others and remorse, that deep regret or guilt for a wrong committed. Being sorry for your actions, however, is easily confused with being sorry that you’ve been caught. Even when remorse is genuine, feelings often are fleeting and fade quickly. Although remorse is unpleasant, it really isn’t until the next step in the accountability process that the work begins.
And make no mistake, accountability is hard work. It requires first doing whatever possible to make things right with and for the injured party — the victim — and second, working to change the circumstances that allowed for the injury in the first place. Restoration of the victim to some semblance of wholeness is a critical part of the process. Sometimes that includes monetary compensation because being a victim of a crime of violence has very real negative financial implications in people’s lives. But hopefully, restoration also includes justice being done, perpetrators being punished and someone saying, “I believe you, and I’m sorry this happened to you.”
The second part of accountability — working to change the circumstances — is even harder. For the individual perpetrator of violence, it may mean unlearning the lessons of a lifetime, giving up power and control over others, staying away from the one you have injured. It will always mean accepting the consequences of your behavior and not shifting the responsibility to anyone or anything else — not the victim, not the system, not your upbringing. None of that is easy and all of it takes a long time.
But the community has a part to play in accountability as well. Community accountability means creating systems that send clear messages to perpetrators that violence will not be tolerated and that there will be consequences for those who use violence. It means teaching all those in the community, whether it be the university or the wider community, how to appropriately recognize and respond to problematic or suspicious behavior. And it means putting policies, practices and procedures in place that will protect victims, rather than perpetrators.
Again, none of this is easy, and just like with individuals, in communities it takes a commitment over time. For both individuals and communities, “I’m sorry means you won’t do it again.” It sounds so easy, but making it real in healthy relationships demands much of all of us.