Apologizing is one of the first things we learn to do as children. When we mess up, we’re told to say we’re sorry and do what we can to rectify the situation.
In recent months, politicians and celebrities alike have forgotten the importance of this particular moral value and have refused to make things right after doing something that is clearly offensive to another public figure.
Republican Rep. Joe Wilson’s interruption of President Obama’s congressional address concerning his health care plan last week was an unceremonious and very public mistake. To tell the president that he is lying when he is mid-speech is a rude and counterproductive gesture.
However, the true problem is not with this incident, as bad as the comment was. The problem is with the congressman’s refusal to apologize publicly for his actions and for his improper conduct as an American political figure.
People can get caught up in the heat of the moment and say things they shouldn’t. We’ve all been there. But according to common practice in our society, when we put our feet in our mouths, we are supposed to take responsibility for our actions and apologize.
Wilson is no exception, and since he is a public figure who made what has become a very public mistake, he should have made a very public apology. A private phone call to the White House does not suffice, nor will it help to remedy the damage he has caused to his political reputation.
There are some public figures who have gotten it right recently. Obama himself worked to fix a mistake he made in berating Sgt. James Crowley for arresting Harvard scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr. when Gates broke into his own home. Gates was combative from the moment Crowley arrived at his house, prompting Crowley to arrest him.
Obama’s initial comments that Crowley had “acted stupidly” were unfounded, as Obama did not know about the aggressive nature of the confrontation. To make amends, the president invited both Crowley and Gates to the White House for a couple of beers and to talk about the situation.
Wilson would do well to follow this example of reciprocity. Even though they are public figures, they still have the same responsibility to other people and to society that the rest of us do. Perhaps they should take their cues from Obama—or from the core values of human decency that we are taught when we are young.