Opinion: The politics of apologies in the era of #sewergate

 

Isn't it funny how two of the smallest words can be the hardest to choke out?

Of course, I'm talking about the words 'I'm sorry.'

In light of recent events, I find myself wondering why it seems so monumentally difficult to just say those simple, albeit humbling, syllables.

This week, the City of Hamilton issued an apology over their handling of a spill that saw 24-billion litres of stormwater runoff and sewage leaked into our local waterways, and a subsequent coverup of the extent of the contamination and its impacts.

The apology was issued over a near-unanimous and sustained public outcry over their decision to keep details of the spill from the public. It took a marathon city council meeting where councillors were virtually pulling out their hair to get everyone on board with saying 'we're sorry,' to Hamiltonians.

Should it really be this hard? To say two simple words?

When the city's apology was finally issued, the tone of it reminded me of that episode of The Office where Dwight had to "formally apologize" for creating panic during a fire drill which then caused Stanley to have a heart attack.

"I state my regret," Dwight says hollowly in his apology to his coworkers. Slap a 'City of Hamilton' watermark on that and you got what Hamiltonians received this week.

As the legendary Elton John put it: "sorry seems to be the hardest word."

In an article in Psychology Today from several years ago, the author looks into why it seems so very hard for people to say they're sorry.

"Although we might perceive the reluctance of these non-apologists as simple defensiveness or pride, a far deeper psychological dynamic is often at play: Refusing to apologize often reflects efforts to protect a fragile sense of self," the article says.

"Apologies represent a major threat to their basic sense of identity and self-esteem."

The article also goes on to say that for non-apologists, saying 'I'm sorry' can lead to deeper feelings of shame and a fear of further accusations and conflict.

Isn't this exactly what we saw play out around the horseshoe at Hamilton City Hall the last few days?

"People think of leadership as a vision of strength," said Peter Graefe, an associate professor of Political Science at McMaster University. "Saying 'I'm sorry' is a sign of weakness. It affects peoples' image of power.

"Given the nature of politics, where there's often an aspect of conflict, admitting you're wrong can be pretty significant," he said.

It's true, some councillors were concerned about fines and litigation when they opted to keep things quiet. But had they been transparent from the get-go, wouldn't the blowback have been significantly reduced?

With a council like ours, though, where the majority of councillors have won and held their seats for years, it's harder to accept when they've erred.

"For a council like Hamilton where the councillors have been there a long time and they keep winning elections, they start to see themselves as 'winners,'” Graefe said. "They start to see themselves as people who never get it wrong."

Therefore, Graefe said, getting them to admit they've actually got it wrong is a near-impossible task.

This has certainly been the case in watching some of Hamilton's newest councillors going up against the city's old guard. I can attest, watching some of the meetings, it can be incredibly painful to watch.

When an apology is issued, Graefe said, the value of it can only be measured in the actions that come afterwards.

"If they do it (apologize) early enough, [they] can reap benefits," he said. "A delayed apology is the worst kind of apology."

You don't say?

I have yet to see anyone accept that half-hearted attempt at an apology, that was dragged from council virtually kicking and screaming. The measures they took to "regain the trust of Hamilton residents" is evidently not enough: the general tone of the public is 'too little, too late,' which I can't agree with more.

Look, I appreciate in some unfathomable way, members of council felt they were acting in the public's best interest, but if they had learned anything from the Red Hill fallout they'd know secrecy wasn't the answer. When will they learn?

What I'm seeing and hearing, though, is that the old guard is likely on their way out if not imminently, in the next election.

Hamilton has had enough of these in-camera sessions and explosive secrets. It's time for new era of leadership: one that doesn't hide behind closed doors when the going gets tough and one that can accept responsibility for their actions (or lack thereof) and move forward humbled and having learned enough to do so with confidence.

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