Image: Woman pointing angrily at man; man in defensive posture. (eurobanks/Shutterstock)
We’re in a time of change, when norms are shifting and emotions are high. Things that did not get much reaction from the public at large five years ago have become serious debates: racism, sexism, homophobia. This is actually progress, but it sure isn’t comfortable.
Every time someone is revealed to have done something racist or sexist or homophobic we seem to have to go through the same little dance:
- “News Flash! John Doe (JD) has been accused of a racist act or words.
- Talking heads talk. Much wagging of tongues and fingers.
- JD insists, “My heart is in a good place! I’m a good guy!”
- Other talking heads: “… young and stupid. Give him a break.” or
- Other talking heads: “OK he did it but he’s not a RACIST.”
- JD hires PR firm specializing in crisis management.
- JD says, “If I offended anyone, I apologize…”
- Item is crowded out of news cycle by the next outrage fest.
- Rinse and repeat.
In the end, nobody seems to learn much of anything, and everyone is even angrier than before.
Jewish tradition offers us another way. It’s called teshuvah. That word is sometimes translated “repentance” but it’s more than “I’m sorry” and it is a lot more productive than the meaningless apology-lite in step #7 above.
Good teshuvah can sometimes take a big mess and turn it into a net win for everyone, because it involves sincerity and actual change. Here’s how it looks:
- “News Flash! John Doe has been accused of [insert racist item here.]
- Talking heads do their thing.
- JD meets with advisors, discovers why everyone is mad at him.
- JD issues a statement. “Yes, it was offensive. There is no excuse.”
- JD says, “I am very sorry that my words/actions hurt people.”
- JD says, “I am going to learn about this and do better.”
- JD says, “Here is my action plan for making sure that I never do this again, and maybe fewer other people will do it in future, too.”
- JD executes action plan.
- JD says, “I accept the consequences of my actions.”
Notice that the person doing most of the talking is John Doe, not the talking heads and not a crisis-management PR specialist.
Here is an important fact about human nature: we all mess up. We hurt people’s feelings. We do stupid things. We may do or say something racist or sexist or otherwise offensive. We are fallible. The important thing, Jewish tradition teaches, is that we own our behavior and we make sure that whatever it was doesn’t happen again. Most of all, WE do the work, not the people who suffered from our mess-up.
You don’t have to be a public figure to mess up. And good news: teshuvah can work for us low-profile types too. It isn’t anyone’s idea of fun, but I can tell you from personal experience that it works.
Teshuvah: Yes, it’s a Jewish thing, but anyone who wants can give it a try.