Guelph Mercury: Is Rob Ford the Socrates of our age?

(Originally published Jan 21, 2013)

What do Socrates and Toronto Mayor Rob Ford have in common? While one wore a toga, and the other wears a blue suit that’s perpetually open, both were taken to court for contravening rules of the state.

Both felt persecuted by people they believed were misguided. Socrates and Ford are also both known for apologies that really are not apologies.

Although Socrates’ self-defence against charges of corrupting youth and worshipping gods not authorized by the state is known as The Apology, he did not apologize. In fact, he told the judges that he was much smarter than them, and therefore he was free to criticize the state and do what he wanted. (Hmm, maybe Ford has been reading Socrates as he drives to work.)

Ford was charged with violating the City of Toronto’s conflict-of-interest rules because he voted on a matter regarding his fundraising efforts for the high school football team he coaches. Perhaps if Ford said he was going to court to overturn an unjust rule, it could be argued that he was a man of principle, like Socrates. But in finding him guilty, an Ontario Supreme Court justice said Ford chose to ignore Toronto council’s conflict rules with “wilful ignorance.”

Afterward, Ford attempted some damage control by tossing out this bone of contrition: “Looking back, maybe I could have expressed myself in a different way,” he said. “To everyone who believes I should have done this differently, I sincerely apologize.”

There are enough qualifiers in there to blow any sincerity to kingdom come. If he felt compelled to be fully transparent, he might have added: “But, hey, if you don’t believe I did anything wrong … Sweet! I’m off the hook.”

This is what’s called a non-apology apology. It’s a way to acknowledge that you were somehow caught in a screw-up, or that a screw-up had indeed occurred. But you do not take any responsibility. Indeed, you might even “deeply regret” something screwed up, but this is mainly an attempt to gain some sympathy.

It’s a favourite tactic among anyone in a tight spot, including the classic “mistakes were made,” which a public relations pro might whisper into the ear to the disgraced bank chair just before he faces a committee.

Ask most any married man who has tried the weasel-way defence with his partner — “hey, if you think I did something wrong, well, sorry” — and he’ll likely tell you things got pretty heated, then really chilly.

This is it: unless you take responsibility, the apology is worth zip.

A cynic might assume all politicians say whatever is necessary to be elected. Or that all philandering generals tell lies to keep their jobs. After all, accepting responsibility runs the risk of consequences. You could lose your job, partner, status, reputation and more.

But what about if, as a father, I tell my kids we’ll go to the mall on Friday. But then I realize Friday morning that I’ve got a deadline for a project due that afternoon and bail on them, saying, “I can’t go. I have an assignment due. I’m sorry if you’re disappointed. We’ll go next Friday. The mall will be busy today anyway.”

What I haven’t done is own up to them that I procrastinated about the project. And I likely haven’t admitted to myself that I made the initial commitment in haste to placate them for something else I didn’t do, and that this is a recurring pattern of behaviour.

But without taking responsibility, I will lose my children’s trust. Over time, my commitments to them will have little value. What I say about most anything will likely be doubted.

Ironically, if I do take responsibility, fully own that I screwed up, make a new commitment, and then follow through on that commitment, I can gain back their trust. If following through and admitting mistakes becomes the new pattern of behaviour, their trust in me will intensify.

Perhaps Rob Ford could give this a whirl. It wouldn’t be like drinking hemlock to own up.

Tim O’Connor is a writer and communications professional who lives in Rockwood. He can be reached

About Tim O'Connor

Tim O'Connor is a golf coach, an award-winning writer, and speaker. Tim takes a holistic approach, coaching golfers in the physical and mental aspects of golf. He co-hosts the Swing Thoughts podcast with Howard Glassman, and is the author of The Feeling of Greatness: The Moe Norman Story. He plays bass in CID—a Guelph punk band!