While learning how to practice personal forgiveness is difficult, it seems that communal or social forgiveness is next to impossible in our society. Sometimes the most important step for a group of people is to accept their role in past problems, asking for forgiveness so society can move on and deal with ongoing issues in a positive manner. We cannot accomplish effective change and work together until we acknowledge that we have been a part of a group that has harmed others in some way or form. This latter point is really important.
We might agree that our group (social class, ethnic group, professional organization or the like) has committed a significant indiscretion toward others. At the same time, we might argue that we as individuals did not do that, and that there should not be any guilt by association. I think, if we practice sincerity and humility, that we need to honestly investigate the past to see if indiscretions have occurred. If so, we should work toward promoting the apology of our group. While we as individuals did not necessarily contribute to the wrong doing, I think it is entirely appropriate to be a part of the reparative process. I don’t know why we should do any less. Certainly, the current turmoil due to the death of George Floyd highlighting generations of racism demand it.
Let me use a recent “group” apology as an example. One of my professional organizations, the American Medical Association, commissioned a panel of experts to review the history of race relations in medicine, especially with minority physicians. They concluded in 2008 that the “principles (of the AMA)…compel physicians to treat each other, as well as their patients, without prejudice. In this regard the AMA failed, across the span of a century, to live up to the high standards that define the noble profession of medicine.” So the AMA issued an apology and a call to action “ to keep moving forward on a path toward eradication of prejudice and its harmful effects and  to achieve equality in society as a whole but especially in health care and public health.”
While such actions can be seen as hollow promises, I would argue that group apologies are extremely important. Group apologies do the following:
- They formally acknowledge past wrong doings, which will open up the door to healing fractured relationships.
- By acknowledging past wrong doings, the group lays a path for tracking their actions now and in the future.
- Group apologies can help define a group’s “moral compass” going forward.
- Group apologies allow for current members of an organization (who likely bear little responsibility for past actions) to acknowledge that their group has been wrong in the past, and these current members would like to assist in the healing process going forward.
So the AMA acknowledged that by its actions and inactions in the past, it contributed to the racial divide and potential disparities in health status and health care. Similarly, Mitch Landrieu, former mayor of New Orleans, made the bold choice back in 2017 to remove Confederate Memorial statues that were not erected in an historical nature. They were erected to memorialize men who fought against our country, to memorialize men who supported the abomination known as slavery, and to protest the advancement of civil rights under the guise of honoring those that opposed it. They were erected in defiance of the advancement of the oppressed and for less-than-noble purposes and have lasted for less-than-noble purposes.
So a group (the AMA) and a politician with a deep understanding (Mitch Landrieu) were willing to face the reality of the past and make positive strides toward social equality in the present and future.
The Take Home Message
Group apologies are extremely important. Sometimes that is the only way we can move forward in our society as we analyze our individual actions and our social actions. When we are wrong, we should extend forgiveness to ourselves and ask forgiveness from the harmed parties. Only then can we move forward to improve the lives of our fellow citizens.