By Kevin R. Betts
In late November, I wrote about the effectiveness of apologies for reducing intergroup conflict. Based on research by Blatz and Philpot (2010), I suggested that when certain conditions are met, the power of a simple public apology for improving intergroup attitudes, restoring trust, and promoting forgiveness should not be underestimated. Examining reactions to a recent public apology made by Alabama Governor Robert Bentley to non-Christians in the state provides for a nice test of the ideas presented in this prior post.
Let’s start with a little background for those unacquainted with this story. Shortly after being sworn into office last Monday, Alabama’s governor met with supporters at a local church where he said bluntly, “Now I will have to say that, if we don’t have the same daddy, we’re not brothers and sisters. So anybody here today who has not accepted Jesus Christ as their savior, I’m telling you, you’re not my brother and you’re not my sister, and I want to be your brother.” Because not everyone residing in Alabama is Christian, many people wondered whether the new governor would treat all citizens fairly. Rabbi Jonathan Miller of Temple Emanu-El in Birmingham was among the many people who felt disenfranchised by Gov. Bentley’s words. In a letter to Gov. Bentley, Rabbi Miller wrote, “Our great nation, by law and tradition, provides us with religious freedom. And even though we do not believe exactly alike, we ought to see each other with brotherly affection, and as equals in conscience and human worth.” For a time following Gov. Bentley’s words, Rabbi Miller and other non-Christians were enraged.
Two days later, Gov. Bentley apologized to both community leaders and the public. He organized meetings on Wednesday with concerned community leaders (including Rabbi Miller) and the press. Among his words to the press, Gov. Bentley said, “The terminology that I used I believe seemed to disenfranchise other religions and it certainly was not meant to do that. And what I would like to do is apologize. Anyone who heard those words and felt disenfranchised I want to say that I’m sorry. If you’re not a person who can say that you’re sorry than you’re not a very good leader.”
What was the result of Gov. Bentley’s apology to non-Christians in the state? As predicted in my prior post, intergroup attitudes improved, intergroup trust was partially restored, and forgiveness was attained. Consider the words of Rabbi Miller about Gov. Bentley following the meeting. “He’s looking to fix the thing. He was apologetic. He’s clearly looking to reconcile himself. All of us have put out words we wish we could take back.” In later comments, Rabbi Miller went on to say about Gov. Bentley, “We certainly expect from his words and deeds today that he will not be a governor who will divide us over religious issues.”
Relative to other conflict resolution strategies that I have written about, intergroup apologies are simple and easy to implement. This does not mean that they are always effective; under many conditions, they will not be. Yet, the result of Gov. Bentley’s apology to non-Christians in Alabama points out that their value should not be underestimated. In certain cases, a simple apology may effectively resolve serious conflict between groups.
Blatz, C.W., & Philpot, C. (2010). On the outcomes of intergroup apologies. Social and Personality Psychology Compass, 4, 995-1007.