I’m sure many of you have heard of the recent John Kerry fiasco. During a campaign rally speech at Pasadena City College on behalf of California Democratic gubernatorial candidate Phil Angelides, Kerry said, “You know, education, if you make the most of it, you study hard, you do your homework and you make an effort to be smart, you can do well. If you don’t, you get stuck in Iraq.” People from both parties were tiffed by his remark, and called on him to apologize.

Kerry refused to do so. According to Kerry it was a botched joke intended to take a jab at Bush, not the military. Kerry’s spokeswoman, Amy Brundage, said the prepared speech called for Kerry to say: “Do you know where you end up if you don’t study, if you aren’t smart, if you’re intellectually lazy? You end up getting us stuck in a war in Iraq. Just ask President Bush.” The critical omission was the word “us.”

Whether Kerry is lying about his intentions or made an honest slip of the tongue is not my concern. What I am interested in exploring is whether it is reasonable to demand that he apologize for his remarks. I think not. Assuming that Kerry meant what he said in the speech (which is what everyone had assumed, at least prior to his explanation)—meaning he truly believes that the military consists of uneducated men and women—what is there to apologize for?

People seem to misunderstand the nature of an apology these days. To apologize is to acknowledge a fault or wrongdoing. How can one do that for a belief that they think is true? If you believe abortion is immoral, and say so to the offense of those who have obtained abortions, could you honestly and sincerely apologize for your remarks (assuming they were made in good character)? No, because you believe that what you said is true.

The fact of the matter is that apologies pertain to actions, not beliefs. You apologize for bad behavior. An apology is justified when you call someone a pejorative name out of anger. Apologies are called for when you told someone you would do X, but then failed to do X. But one cannot apologize for their beliefs. The only conceivable way in which one could issue a genuine apology for a statement of belief is by changing their belief. But short of recognizing an intellectual error, and the damaging effects that error had on others, an apology for a statement of belief is meaningless.

That’s why it’s silly for people to call on those who believe something others find repugnant to apologize for their statements. Those who succumb to the public pressure to issue an apology for their statements (like John Kerry and John Mertha did) tend to issue a non-apology apology. You know the sort. It’s the “apology” that essentially says “I’m sorry you didn’t like what I said.” It usually takes the form of “I’m sorry what I said offended people” (apologizing for the effect rather than the cause). This sort of apology—because it is not genuine—never satisfies those who called for the apology. They see through it for what it is. Then they rail against the individual again for issuing a non-apology apology rather than a genuine apology.

I guess I should expect this kind of nonsense in a culture that thinks with its feelings. Demanding apologies for statements of belief most people find repugnant is just a way of emoting. Rather than engage the individual on their views and try to persuade them of their intellectual error, we demand that they apologize for beliefs we find distasteful. Is this understandable? Yes. Is it reasonable? No.