When we last looked in on writer Jonah Lehrer last summer, he had detonated his career and credibility with a series of incidents of serious professional misconduct that led to his ignominious firing from The New Yorker, where he once was regarded as a rising star. First he was caught plagiarizing himself, recycling a previously published work as an original essay for the magazine. That led to an investigation showing that this was not the first time he had taken such an unethical short-cut. Finally, it was discovered that he had fabricated Bob Dylan quotes in his best-selling book about, ironically enough, creativity. When confronted about this, Lehrer lied. Soon he was out of a job and condemned to the limbo reserved for writers who deceive their readers: Jason Blair, Stephen Glass, James Frey, Janet Cooke, and others. It is not a pleasant or profitable place to be.
Lehrer was recently invited to speak to a gathering at the Knight Foundation, and chose the forum to deliver an apology for his conduct. It would be difficult, I think, to deliver a better one. On the Ethics Alarms Apology Scale, the most ethical apology, at the top of the scale, is this one:
1. An apology motivated by the realization that one’s past conduct was unjust, unfair, and wrong, constituting an unequivocal admission of wrongdoing as well as regret, remorse and contrition, as part of a sincere effort to make amends and seek forgiveness.
That is exactly what Lehrer delivered to the Knight Foundation, and through his blog, the rest of us. He said…
“..I am the author of a book on creativity that contained several fabricated Bob Dylan quotes. I committed plagiarism on my blog, taking, without credit or citation, an entire paragraph from the blog of Christian Jarrett. I also plagiarized from myself. I lied to a journalist named Michael Moynihan to cover up the Dylan fabrications.
“My mistakes have caused deep pain to those I care about. I am constantly remembering all those people I’ve hurt and let down – friends, family, colleagues. My wife, my parents, my editors. I think about all the readers I’ve disappointed, people who paid good money for my book and now don’t want it on their shelves.I have broken their trust. For that, I am profoundly sorry. It is my hope that, someday, my transgressions might be forgiven.
“I could stop here. But I am convinced that unless I talk openly about what I’ve learned so far – unless I hold myself accountable in public – then the lessons will not last. I will lose the only consolation of my failure, which is the promise that I will not fail like this again. That I might, one day, find a way to fail better.
“The lessons have arrived in phases. The first phase involved a literal reconstruction of my mistakes. I wanted to have an accounting, in my head, of how I fabricated those Dylan quotes. I wanted to understand the mechanics of every lapse, to relive all those errors that led to my disgrace. I wanted to understand so that I could explain it to people, so that I could explain it in a talk like this. So that I could say that I found the broken part and that part has a name. My arrogance. My desire for attention. My willingness to take shortcuts, provided I don’t think anyone else will notice. My carelessness, matched with an ability to excuse my carelessness away. My tendency to believe my own excuses.
“But then, once I came up with this list of flaws, and once I began to understand how these flaws led to each of my mistakes, I realized that all of my explanations changed nothing. They cannot undo what I’ve done, not even a little. A confession is not a solution. It does not restore trust. Not the trust of others and not the trust of myself. What’s more, I came to see that my explanations were distracting me from the more important reality I need to deal with.
“Because my flaws – these flaws that led to my failure – they are a basic part of me. They are as fundamental to my self as those other parts I’m not ashamed of. This is the phase that comes next, the phase I’m in now. It is the slow realization that all the apologies and regrets are just the beginning. That my harshest words will not fix me, that I cannot quickly become the person I need to be. It is finally understanding how hard it is to change.
“Character, Joan Didion wrote, is the willingness to accept responsibility for one’s own life. For too long, I did not accept responsibility. And by not accepting responsibility – by pretending that all of my errors were accidents, that my carelessness was not a choice – I kept myself from getting better. I postponed the reckoning that was needed.
“There is no secret to good decision-making. There is only the obvious truth: We either confront our mistakes and gain a little wisdom, or we don’t and remain a fool.”
You can read the whole speech here.
This is how it is done. Lehrer, if he never speaks or writes another word of note, has made an important contribution to knowledge, collective wisdom and society by giving us such a superb template for the perfect apology. The tragic part of the story is this: none of us have any way to be certain that it is sincere. Lehrer is a talented writer, and he is a proven liar. A Level One apology is the right thing to do, and it also the smart thing to do, his best and only chance of raising his career out of the ashes of disgrace. These are the words of a person who wants to make amends and is genuinely remorseful; they are also the words of someone who knows how to make others think he wants to make amends and is genuinely remorseful. It could be either, and anyone who concludes with authority that it is one or the other is kidding himself. I’m sure there are people who know Lehrer well that have a good idea which is the case. I’m not one of them.
This is the fate of liars, once they are exposed—they never can completely regain their previous level of trust, except with the unusually kind, forgiving, and gullible. Yes, it is a magnificent apology, but if I had to choose, I would gravitate to distrust. I wish I didn’t feel that way.
That does not diminish my admiration of Lehrer’s apology, however. I hope it is read, studied and recited in school. It is truly the ethical way to say, “I’m sorry.”
Pointer: Fred Davison
Source: Jonah Lehrer