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What's So Hard About Saying You're Sorry?

The arrest of Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates by the Cambridge police has turned into a much bigger story than I expected.  Even President Obama weighed in.  I think that was ill-advised as he almost certainly did not have all the facts in this case.

I'm very sympathetic to minorities being targeted by police.  I'm sure it happens, and we shouldn't tolerate it.  But, just because it does happen doesn't mean that it happened in this case.  We need to have an open mind.  It would be great if both participants in the case did, too.

There's an interview with the Cambridge police sargeant on Boston's WEEI this morning.  The interviewers are very sympathetic to Sgt. Crowley, and he does most of the talking.  He certainly sounds like a reasonable guy.  But, he refuses to apologize as he thinks he did nothing wrong.

Professor Gates undoubtedly feels vindicated as charges against him were dropped.  He certainly won't apologize for anything he did that day, either.  And, for me, the lack of apology from both of them is an indicator of a problem in our society right now.

From everything I have read and heard about this, my sense is that both people were at fault at some level.  That's almost always the case in these types of situations.  Professor Gates probably jumped to conclusions about the motives of Sgt. Crowley.  He may have not been as composed and cooperative as he could have been.  And, it's likely that Sgt. Crowley should have shown even more restraint before arresting Professor Gates for disorderly conduct.  Once Sgt. Crowley determined that a crime was not occurring and that Prof. Gates wasn't going to cooperate, he could just turn his back and walk away, despite any verbal harrassment he may have been receiving. 

We should all treat police officers with respect, but, unfortunately, they have to have very thick skin to deal with those of us who don't.  However, given Professor Gates's age and physical condition, he probably didn't represent anything other than a verbal nuisance to Sgt. Crowley.  It must have been clear pretty quickly that a crime was not occurring.  If, as Sgt. Crowley says, he was also concerned that Professor Gates may encounter a criminal in the house, he could have told that to Professor Gates.  Who would refuse help from a police officer in that situation?  But, if he does, then Sgt. Crowley could just leave.

What disappoints me most is that one of these men should approach the other and say "let's both agree that this situation got out of control and that we both share at least some of the blame.  Why don't we shake hands and mutually apologize.  Getting this incident behind us is in everyone's interest and actually sends a stronger message of tolerance than any hardened position that either of us would take."

Instead, neither one wants to back down.  They are 'right' and so the other person has to be 'wrong'.  And, you'd never apologize if you thought you were right.  I don't buy that.  The better person is willing to put their ego in their pocket and look for higher ground.  How powerful would it be in calming race relations to have a press conference where they mutually apologize and shake hands?  Both can admit some level of fault, without having to argue about whether it was 50/50 or 99/1.

Things have become very polarized in our world.  Obama gets attacked when he says he's willing to talk to some of our enemies (even attacked by his now Secretary of State Clinton).  Politicians view every issue as a winner-take-all moment.  Admitting some level of fault, even 1%, is perceived as a sign of weakness.  But, this type of intransigence makes it almost impossible to resolve issues.  Whether it is a personnel issue, a business dispute, a civil matter, or a diplomatic issue, there is much to be gained by taking the high ground.  Suprisingly, we usually admire those who have the courage to do so.  We call them leaders.


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