Jonah Lehrer Shows Us A Level One Apology: Remorse, Regret, Contrition. Sincerity? Who Knows…

The-Remorse-Of-OrestesWhen 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


22 thoughts on “Jonah Lehrer Shows Us A Level One Apology: Remorse, Regret, Contrition. Sincerity? Who Knows…

  1. Jack,

    Thanks for this. As you say, a truly exemplary template. Yet I think your own biggest contribution may be in what some may see as harsh – your continued distrust, even in the face of a magnificent template.

    I initially felt you were too hard, but you make a terrific point – “This is the fate of liars, once they are exposed—they never can completely regain their previous level of trust…” That’s a powerful point, and a poignant way of putting it. Thank you.

      • I agree this is an extremely articulate apology. I am so tired of people making excuses, blaming others and scurrying off to therapy when they get caught, rather than just accepting responsibility for their mistakes. Of course, I’m also sick of people referring to their heinous antisocial acts as “mistakes,” too. But I disagree with your gut reaction of disbelief in the case of Lehrer. Here’s why:

        We are ALL liars.

        Whether in small matters or large, there just isn’t one among us who hasn’t told a lie. Am I not worthy of anyone’s trust? Are you not worthy? I don’t think so. Anyone who is alive is a Work in Progress, and Lehrer obviously has a LOT of work to do in this area before he can move on.

        There is a natural tendency towards self-preservation when dealing with known liars, but that tendency could paralyze human relations if taken too far. Sometimes flowers do bloom in garbage dumps. So, perhaps that mended teacup isn’t the same as one that was never broken– but if it still holds tea, isn’t it good enough to drink from? (I know, “Enough with the hokey metaphors already!”)

        Anyhow, I think what makes me believe Lehrer is his admission that this was more than just a mistake. His realisation that he is fundamentally flawed, is spot on, not just for himself, but for all humanity. Some people live their whole lives and never reach that point of Wisdom.

        I wish him well.

        • 1. I wish him well too. I just wouldn’t hire him
          2. You could be right. You could be wrong. There is no way to tell, as I said. The odds and human experience predict, overwhelmingly, that you are wrong. See: the Scorpion and the Frog.
          3. We are all liars. But most of us are not liars on a grand scale, like Lehrer. When it comes to lying, size matters.
          4. Indeed, without trust, society is impossible. But the burden should be on those who betray trust, not those who have been betrayed.

          • When I choose to trust someone, it is not because I believe he is perfect, but because I WANT to believe it. I NEVER forget, though, that I am dealing with human beings– who come complete with their own agendas, their clunky histories, and especially their aspirations (which can lead to all kinds of trouble). Sometimes I am disappointed, but usually the one whom I trusted, and who lets me down, feels worse than I do.

            You say there is “no way to tell,” about Lehrer, but that is not so. Time will tell about him.

            Remember King David, St Paul and– well– St Peter! Sometimes someone who messes up really badly, in a really public way, with really horrible consequences, DOES succeed in making the necessary changes in his character to purge the infraction. Sometimes, someone who tells a really big lie, ends up with the Keys to the Kingdom!

            I agree that the burden is, and should be, on Lehrer. Still, I will watch him with interest. (And I think I would hire him.)

            • Of course. That impulse, wanting to believe and trust, is the wholly admirable human trait that scam artists, fraudsters, an demagogues have depended on an thrived on for centuries. It will ever be thus. You have been lucky—your contact with sociopaths has been limited. They never feel bad, and they seem the most trustworthy of all. Despite my comments, I too err on the side of trusting people rather than the opposite. I am also burned a lot. The alternative, not trusting anyone, is sad, lonely, and bleak.

              Of course time will tell. When I say there is no way to tell, I mean now.

              • It seems to me then, the situation is this: Lehrer has lied in the past. He has also spoken the truth in the past. Here, we have a letter – unprovoked, with no promise of reward – which you admit is the epitome of candor and regret. He is also a prolific, skilled, and admitted liar. He is more than capable of writing it either in sincerity or in fraudulance. Without looking into his head, we cannot know for sure which is true. So then, the ethical question we must find an answer to is: Assuming the evidence is balanced, inconclusive, or inaccessible, is it better to assume that he is lying or telling the truth?

                Pascal’s wager: If he is telling the truth, and we believe him, we strengthen the concepts of charity, reciprocity and forgiveness, and possibly regain the skills of a talented writer who has learned a valuable lesson, and come out a better man for it. If he is lying, and we believe him, then we have attempted to do all of the above, but are confounded by his perfidity – but the ethics violation there is his, not ours. If he is lying, and we do not believe him, we can congratulate ourselves on having cleverly avoiding the sting of an unscrupulous man. If he is telling the truth and we do not believe him, then he will have met with all the requirements ethics requires of him – remorse, humility, apology, sincerity – and we would deny him the chance to rebuild what he has torn down. A denial based largely in fear that he will again be untrustworthy, revenge for lying in the first place, or the smug superiority of seeing him debase himself – all profoundly unethical qualities.

                If we assume he is lying, we either gain nothing, or commit a grave unethical act ourselves. If we assume he is telling the truth, we either gain a great deal, or make an ethical choice, only to realize that he has not. Which is the path which best strengthens ethical behavior in ourselves and in society as a whole?

                • It is an ethical conflict: On one side, charity, kindness, forgiveness, empathy, The Golden Rule. On the other, responsibility, accountability and diligence. A banker who places someone with a history of embezzlement, for example, but the same exemplary level of apology in charge of client funds is, quite simply, taking a risk he has no right to take, and engaging in irresponsible conduct.

                  You underestimate the consequences of trusting him and being betrayed. That result increases cynicism throughout the culture, as well as reducing trust in your judgment—conventionalism, true, but that is how people think. It does real harm.

                  “If we assume he is lying, we either gain nothing, or commit a grave unethical act ourselves.” Wrong. We don’t have to assume he’s lying; all we have to do is judge that it is more likely that he is lying than that he is not. That is a reasonable judgment, and the responsible conduct following that judgement is not to trust him when a betrayal could do real harm.

                  What’s the endpoint of that analysis? Why if he lies again, and makes just as convincing an apology? Twice more? A what point is it not unethical to conclude that he is a bad risk?

                  In the end, it is less an ethical call than a pragmatic one, based on risk assessment.

                  • I think this may be my favorite Scenario to date. It is a lot to consider, largely because of the unknowable quantity which is the strength of Lehrer’s resolve to make amends. Thus, the “Time” element required to discern his purpose of amendment.

                    I’m also not sure of how “dangerous” fake reporters can actually be these days. They aren’t brain surgeons, construction engineers, or cruise ship captains– but I’m willing to concede that an innocent person can still find his life in tatters when one of these clowns gets ahold of him.

                    Of course, Lehrer’s behavior is not the only behavior at issue here: What about fact-checking on the part of editors, other reporters and reviewers? Lehrer certainly will have a higher standard to answer to from now on– everyone will be watching him. I therefore think that he will be more likely to be honest going forward, not less.

                    “Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me.” Trust, but verify.

                • This isn’t Pascal’s wager. Pascal’s wager was a cost benefit analysis based on the idea that infinite good and bad results will override any unlikelihood in their occurrence.

                  It was also fatally flawed. If you still think your statement is a parallel to Pascal’s wager, then the answer must be the negative.

                  • I am aware of the original nature of Pascal’s wager – also of the arguments against it. It’s still a useful matrix for comparing results – and in my view, since the matrix is similar, the topic is similar, and the cost/rewards outcomes are similar – yes, I say it is akin to the wager, even if it is not perfectly identical.

                    • Pascal’s wager does not mean “a matrix for comparing results.”

                      You just did a basic cost-benefit analysis. Calling it Pascal’s wager is inappropriate.

                  • Why? This argument assumes the same infinitely positive outcome as Pascal’s Wager. Only if we asssume that Lehrer is doomed to repeat his past behavior must the outcome be negative. Or am I missing something?

                    • This argument assumes the same infinitely positive outcome as Pascal’s Wager.

                      Where do you see infinites in Aaron’s analysis? There is a finite good if we trust Lehrer and Lehrer does good and a finite bad if we fail to trust Lehrer and it turns out he would have been good.

  2. Just because Lehrer is eloquent doesn’t mean he’s sincere. (We’ve seen THAT too many times). Just because he admits to many flaws, doesn’t mean he truly wants to correct them. I believe in redemption, too, but one speech does not redemption make. Only time will tell.

  3. In this situation, I see the finite good referring to Lehrer himself, and to me if I choose to hire him, and it works out. The sense of infinite good would cover the effect his rehabilitation might have upon the greater Society, such as others who would hear of it and be inspired to change; the concepts of Humanity, Righteousness, Charity, etc. being cultivated more deeply within the Society because of him. In other words, the conversion of one person could be of infinite benefit to all the rest, and for all time. This makes Pascal’s Wager a fairly good comparison in my mind.

    I know this is carrying the question at hand a bit far, but it’s the argument– which seems sound to me– that I’m wondering about.

    • You still haven’t said anything that’s infinite, or that even COULD be infinite. The concepts of Humanity, righteousness, and charity have FINITE limits. You seem to be mistaking “infinite” for “wide spread” or “unknown”.

      In our world, it’s impossible to have an infinite benefit. That’s just the nature of the beast.

      • Presuming no connection between this world and the next. . . . But if you assume the connection, there is a possibility of infinite value. Correct? I believe that is what is at the heart of Pascal’s Wager.

        • At this point you’ve cast off Aaron’s argument in favor of the actual Pascal’s wager. You’re done on the point.

          On your new point, There are multiple issues. First, you get Pascal’s wager wrong. The infinite benefits were a definite if God existed, not a possibility.

          Pascal’s wager was a payoff game for belief in God. No matter how slim the chance God exists, the infinite benefits of belief (and infinite punishment of disbelief) outweigh the finite worldly losses of belief (and finite worldly gains of unbelief). Infinite times finite is always greater than finite times finite.

          Pascal’s wager was an attempt to avoid any need for evidence of God. In the game, it’s always better to believe. The problem with the wager is that it begs the question. To work, the wager has to assume there’s a specific set of beliefs that match with God, but any set of beliefs could possibly be what God wants. We would need evidence for which beliefs to back, which takes us back to the general evidence for God.

          Now, if you actually tried to use Pascal’s wager to justify trusting Lehrer, you’d have to assume that God wants us to trust Lehrer and that there is either infinite benefit for trusting him or infinite punishment for not trusting him. Once you do that, your argument is just an appeal to religion. It’s “We should trust Lehrer because I’m either an idiot or ignorant.”

  4. What concerns me is the connections between Lehrer, whatever his faults, Malcolm Gladwell (a lackey and apologist for Philip Morris, and Lehrer fan) and Paul Tough (How Children Succeed, Lehrer blurbed). I see a pattern. They are all young wonky well-educated white guys who “interpret” science for us lay-people, meanwhile raking in some serious compensation from ultra-conservative foundations. When I have read these guys closely, I put down the book thinking, “He really didn’t make a convincing argument.” M

    …how dangerous are fake reporters…? …how much foundation support do they have…?

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