Friday, September 13, 2013

Random Musing Before Shabbat–Yom Kippur 5774–Blanket Apologies II

Nine years ago I wrote a Yom Kippur musing on the subject of blanket electronic apologies. In technology terms, that’s ancient history already.  If such sentiments were rampant nine years ago, considering all the technological and social media changes we’ve experienced in the last nine years, I imagine they are much more in evidence today.
To some degree that is the case. To some degree, it is not. More about that in a moment. Let’s go back to where I started in 5765:
"If I have in any way hurt or offended any of you, I offer my apologies and seek your forgiveness."
With the advent of e-mail, we see more of these types of pre-Yom Kippur messages than ever…
– and now, not just in email, but on Facebook, Google+, Twitter, Tumblr, Instagram, Vine, and more. Even though I am great advocate of the technology, there's has been a part of me that believes that such efforts seem impersonal, inadequate. Just a blanket just-in-case "I'm sorry."
Yet in our tradition, the ritual for Yom Kippur includes its own share of "blanket just-in-case" invocations, beginning with Kol Nidrei and including our ashamnus and al kheits and more. So are these posts, e-mails, images, videos, etc. all that different?
Consider that every time one of these apologetic messages is offered, the person sending the apology had to have put at least some thought and effort into the process. While I can imagine someone simply selecting every address in their address book, every friend, everyone in the circles, etc.  and sending out such a message to all of those people, it's more likely that people are choosing which people should receive their messages. I would suggest that sending individual messages probably requires a little more thought, but even group messages require the selection of intended recipients.
I've seen plenty of "forgive me" messages, posts, tweets, videos, cards, and more this year. And while some skeptics might pooh-pooh this approach, given the nature of electronic online communities, it's quite likely that some friend, some subscriber to a group or list took offense or was hurt by something that others might have written. I don't find them inappropriate at all. I think the sentiment is right on the mark.
Nine years ago I wrote:
The success of the musical "Avenue Q" has given new life to the German word "schadenfreude" which, loosely, means happiness at the misfortune of others. I bring this concept up for several reasons. First, I think most of us engage in forms of schadenfreude, and in so doing, we have done something for which we ought to consider seeking forgiveness. However, I also bring it up because I wonder how many times each of us, in the busy-ness of our lives and daily activities, has inadvertently caused some misfortune to befall others. So maybe a blanket "I'm sorry, forgive me" ought to be generated by each of us to society, to humankind at large. And to our planet. I'm assuming that we'll all do as much for G”d.
So the next time you see in an e-mail something like this:
I offer to each and every one of you my humble apologies for anything I might have done or said (or written) which may have hurt or offended you, and for any promises I may have made to you and not fulfilled. I seek and ask for your forgiveness.
don't be so quick to assign it to some arbitrary level of false sincerity or inadequate attempt to repent. The spirit in which such sentiments are offered ought not be something we question, lest we ourselves commit some hurt or sin in our process of assumption. For when we judge others, whether they know it or not, we must assume the responsibility of our judgments.
If you must judge, judge wisely. Pursue justice, but not at the expense of compassion. And, at this time of year, perhaps judging others is an activity in which we ought not to engage. This is a time for self-judgment. And remember to pursue justice, but be compassionate with yourself, for you are in the image of G”d.
That’s where I ended in 5765. Nine years later, these “I’m sorry” posts don’t seem so unusual or new anymore (though people are using all sorts of new and creative ways to share their messages.) The good folks at G-dcast even gave us a virtual azazel goat to allow us to offload some of our sins online.
However, and maybe it’s my imagination, but, considering the explosion of users online in the past 9 years, I’m not seeing that many more virtual online blanket apologies. Perhaps some of that is backlash, and indignity for what many see as the impersonal nature of these posts. I think my arguments still hold. While it may be easy to offer a blanket online apology, it still requires effort and intent, and we shouldn’t be so quick to dismiss them offhand.
Our attitudes are changing, too. As technology becomes more and more integrated into our lives, we begin to see it as an appropriate and often invaluable tool to enhance the things we choose to do and believe. That enhancement can and should extend into the social, emotional, behavioral, ethical, and theological spheres of our lives. Perhaps I’m seeing fewer blanket apologies (at least in comparison to the actual number of people now online) is because more people are using the technology for more direct and personal apologies.
Over on, there’s an “ask the expert” (link removed for security reasons) article on apologizing which states that making blanket apologies via mass email or Facebook is halakhically acceptable. The article ends by making the always appropriate thought that, while it’s nice to ask forgiveness around Yom Kippur, it would be better if it were something we did every day, like flossing our teeth, but often don’t.
Now, if you know me, you know that I don’t particularly care if the halakha says apologizing through mass emails or a Facebook post is okay, though you’ll also know that I do care about knowing what the halakha says, thinking about it, grappling with it, wrestling with it. I may disagree with the rabbis a lot, but their opinions and thought processes still matter to me.
After all, is an electronic apology all that different from swinging a chicken over your head, casting breadcrumbs into flowing water, or any of the other rituals we might use to seek forgiveness for our wrongs?
Like any apology, blanket or not, the proof of sincerity is difficult to determine, and usually can only be ascertained if and when similar circumstances arise and the person who did wrong acts in a different way. I’ll extend my personal definition a little wider, as sometimes, exact or similar conditions may never again arise, in which case I do believe that effort to change and improve sinful behavior of any kind counts. Sort of like early parole or release for good behavior. (Yes, some offenders game the system, pretending to a sincere religious conversion – yet again let us not be so quick to judge. I think we all “game the system” at times. In a way, a blanket apology is an attempt to game the system. Its away recognized and approved of by our tradition. We can and do ask for forgiveness of sins of which we may not be aware, even as we are required to seek forgiveness for the sins of which we are aware.
No blanket apology can take the place of a person-to-person, I-You in the Buberian sense, apology and seeking of forgiveness. Whether or not an email, text message, private tweet or post, or even phone call is sufficient for a direct, personal apology is not something I can decide for anyone. I do know that I have offered and received, and have had accepted and have accepted from others, very direct, specific, and personal apologies for offenses, made in electronic formats. I’ve shared before my belief that the electronic aether really can carry more than bits and bytes – that it is not always as impersonal as it is often accused of being. (When Skype or a Google+ Hangout or Apple FaceTime is used, that often does eliminate the “lacking body language” critique of electronic communication.)
Consider this – if anything, the ability to make direct apologies via electronic forms may actually be a boon – allowing people to make direct apologies to people who are far away in a direct and timely manner. Now, we have fewer excuses to not apologize. (By the same token, because of email, social media, etc. we probably have more things for which to apologize…)
I am also reminded that seeking forgiveness and getting it are different parts of the ritual. There is a sometimes intricate dance in seeking and receiving forgiveness. That initial, public, blanket apology may yet give rise to further interaction and interchange between two human beings. It may be a tool of discovery, leading to the need for more direct, personal seeking of forgiveness. Making a public., blanket apology may just be a way for us to learn of sins we committed of which we may not have awareness.
Just as we can ask if it is appropriate to seek forgiveness electronically, we can ask if it is appropriate to offer forgiveness the same way. What makes an exchange meaningful, whether real time face to face, or via electronic means, is the agreement of both parties that the exchange is meaningful. Society’s stamp of approval is not required. So if an electronic apology and electronic forgiveness are acceptable between two people, who are we to judge? We should rejoice in the reconciliation.
The ease with which one could apologize or offer forgiveness through technological means of communication is a boon, but also a danger. It could lead us to be more casual in guarding our speech and behavior, knowing that apology and forgiveness can be had almost instantaneously. It may lead to an extension of the “it’s easier to seek forgiveness later than to ask permission now” ethic that, on the one hand, can lead to exciting new things, but can also lead to hurt feelings and potential disasters.
So like anything else, our technology can be both blessing and curse. Choose to make it a blessing, of course. It’s all in how you use it.
Gmar chatimah tovah, tzom qal, & Shabbat Shalom,
Adrian ©2013 (portions ©2004) by Adrian A. Durlester
Other musings on this topic:
Yom Kippur 5772 - Al Khet Shekhetanu

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