I had an odd moment of passion (in the non-sexy sense) today.
On the way to work by bike, I was riding along one of the bike lanes with a guy in front of me that was pedaling at a rather leisurely pace. As we approached an intersection, where I would have more room to pass him, I started to approch him on his left. Just then, he slowed down, swung his bike idly to the right, then swung it back around to the left and started to make a left turn across me. I made a surprised sort of "Ep!" sound and slammed on my brakes, and he finally looked over his shoulder and saw me in time to stop as well. Our bikes slammed together as he pushed me against one of the metal poles that run along most sidewalks in Paris, but neither of us was hurt.
Eyes wide, he looked over his shoulder at me and said, "Excusez-moi" (Excuse me). I wasn't in the mood to make a big deal out of the incident, so I said, "C'est pas grave" (It's no big deal) and got back to pedaling across the intersection before the light could change. In the few seconds it took for me to cross the intersection, something must've clicked in his head, because he suddenly started yelling at my back, "Hey! Look people in the eye when they apologize to you! Don't just roll away like that!" and so on.
This was an odd thing to say for several reasons, not least of which the fact that eye contact in France is less often a gesture of forthrightness / sincerity and more often one of desire. Also, he made a left turn without looking over his shoulder and caused a collision that could've been a lot worse (especially considering that there were cars and trucks sharing the street with us); I could've yelled at him and made a big scene, so it was odd that he would decide—after a moment's pause—to get angry and yell at me for not doing enough to acknowledge his apology.
But, after some thought, I think it was precisely my lack of fury that sparked his. Most traffic-related incidents in Paris—however minor—involve shouting, cursing and hand gestures. I think that this guy expected me to yell at him, and then he would get to yell at me and we could both go on with our day, convinced that the other was an asshole. This is the transaction that he was prepared for as he looked over his shoulder at me, wide-eyed. His affect-systems were wound up in preparation for conflict, and when I dismissed the incident and left him behind with his enervation, his affect discharged along a different path; what should've been an argument over who was at fault for the collision became an attack over a lack of recognition. With all of this in mind, I think those few seconds of silence between "Excuse me" / "It's no big deal" and "Hey! Look at me when I apologize!" represent a confusion as to how to proceed, and the subsequent outburst reveals an anger at being rendered socially inarticulate.
Anyway, this whole episode reminds me of a line of thinking I had once been developing around apologies and coercion. Apologies (or rather the social norms we have for them) do not only express remorse but also place a demand on the wronged party. "Excuse me," "Pardon me," are both in the imperative mood in English (as they are in French). But even the phrase, "I'm sorry" carries with it an expectation that it will be answered with, "It's alright" or "I accept your apology."
Say, for example, that person A does something really shitty to person B. Person A apologizes, but person B is still hurt and angry and refuses to accept the apology. In response, person A criticizes person B for being unreasonable, petty, uncharitable or unforgiving. By the end of this story, person B has become both the victim and the villain.
Part of the problem, I think, is that the verbal formula of apology can be recited at any point after a damaging event, but the affective charge built up by the event takes its own time to dissipate (or harden). In other words, if you're still hurting from the impact of the event, you might not be in any mood to absolve the person responsible, and yet you feel social presure to do so.
As dramatic as this comparison will sound, it's worth considering the role of the apology in the archetypal abusive relationship. A beating one night is followed by apologies, flowers and tears the next morning. If you refused your abusive lover's apologies that morning, that would just become the excuse for another beating. It's hard to refuse the apology of one who can hurt you again.
At the larger levels of social justice / politics of greivance, an apology can delegitimize anger and pain in a way that is disempowering. Anger can be an important affect for political action, and an apology (espcially when it's not followed up with reparative action) can be seen as a strategy for robbing the aggrieved group of the moral right to anger and thus deflating their movement. A state may say, "Sorry about the genocide / colonization / slavery," and this leaves the addressees with the choice of giving up on their anger or being vilified as resentful and stubborn. "We said sorry, isn't that enough?" makes any ensuing oppression the fault of the faulted for not accepting those terms of conciliation.
Certainly, there's a lot to be said for ethical and religious arguments that encourage the release of anger (Buddhism is one example, but the Christian imperative to always forgive is similar), but anger can also be an engine for change—much like hunger, desperation and pain. Moreover, the coercive aspect of the apology that I'm outlining here is that it doesn't so much release anger (or pain) as force the aggrieved to relinquish and disavaow their anger.
I recall, several years ago when Zizek came to teach a seminar at UofC, he made a similar argument regarding the political importance of resentment. As he was passing through a tangent that touched on seemingly every war in recent European history, he suggested that sometimes the political expression of anger isn't a request for an apology, but rather a demand that injustice / harm be recognized as such. As he re-framed it, the political conversation went like this: "We feel guilty about what we did; accept our apology so that we can be unburdened" "Fuck that. We don't care about your burden."
So I doubt this gets us much closer to a path for resolving entrenched conflict or anything as grand as that, but maybe it helps explain why an apology sometimes makes things better, and sometimes worse. And it might also explain why that guy on that bike this morning found himself yelling at the person he nearly knocked over.