Bell II: Sorry is the Hardest Word
Something caught my eye when I was reading East Meets West. “Lo” — who presumably is the stand in for Daniel Bell’s views — makes a claim that if America wants to shore up its moral authority in the international arena, especially when it comes to the attempt to export its own political and moral values, she will have to learn to say “I’m sorry.” This struck me on a number of levels, not the least of which was my sheer inability to conceive of the American government ever apologizing for anything whatsoever. As Elton John put it, “sorry seems to be the hardest word.” But why is it so important in the East/West context? And why is it so hard to say “I’m sorry”?
Bell’s point occurs on page 62-63, where he suggests that to regain moral authority in the Asian world, America would need to apologize for the Vietnam War. My impression of this suggestion was not unlike Demo’s: “yeah, right!” I could not conceive of any American leader apologizing for Vietnam, or for pretty much anything for that matter. Hell, look at George Bush — it’s his signature style not to ever admit an error, much less apologize for one.
This discussion of Bell’s made me pause and think about a few things that I don’t know the answer to. Like:
1. Do Easterners and Westerners think differently about the nature of the apology? Particularly, I thought here of the Confucian way of thinking about power. As far as I read it, real power includes the capacity to point out one’s own weaknesses, and to be appropriately self-critical (interestingly enough, I think someone on the polar opposite side of things, such as Nietzsche, might say the same thing). But in the West you get the opposite approach — real power is signified by not making mistakes, or at least not portraying yourself as a person who does make mistakes.
2. Why is apology so important to moral authority in the East-West international context? Why is it so important, for a real substantive debate or conversation to proceed, that America apologize for Vietnam (or anything)? Or, on a more micro-level, why is apology so important to the health of a relationship? Does this carry over to the international arena?
3. Why are Americans so adverse to their leaders apologizing to what they perceive to be “out group” individuals? Republicans might apologize to other Republicans, but never to Democrats. Americans might apologize to each other, but never to other countries.
4. Can you conceive of a situation in which America would apologize to an out-group for anything?
5. Does China ever apologize for anything? If the PRC (say) thinks that America’s moral standing is harmed by its failure to apologize, has the PRC set the correct example itself? Has it apologized in appropriate situations? Or is it just as stubborn about “out-group” apologies as the West (America)?