In the wake of the sexual misconduct accusations against yet another man in power — this time, Sen. Al Franken — Elizabeth Sampat and a friend commiserated about how hard the last few months have been with the onslaught of revelations about sexual harassment and assault. As one man on Facebook tried to defend Franken’s actions, the two women found themselves commiserating over more than just the celebrity backlash. They were tired of how men in their lives reacted, too.
Sampat, a game designer and activist, asked herself how she would respond if someone she loved had humiliated an unconscious woman for a photo, as Franken did. How would she explain to them what they had done wrong, and how would she want them to react? Those questions led her to making “Am I Part Of The Problem?,” an interactive tool created with Twine designed specifically to help people apologize and make amends.
If the last few months have proven anything, it’s how many people — even those in power, but especially those at the top — grapple with how to apologize. Harvey Weinstein, the catalyst for wave after wave of sexual misconduct revelations, released a statement full of excuses and hollow promises. A declaration about setting out to conquer one’s demons, however, cannot undo decades of real, lasting damage to women. Actor Kevin Spacey delivered a mea culpa coupled with a coming-out statement that dangerously conflates homosexuality and pedophilia. Comedian Louis CK’s apology, while acknowledging that the accusations made are true, is still a bloated, self-aggrandizing, self-pitying missive. As one poor excuse for a “sorry” gives up its place to the next, it’s not just hard to swallow. It’s the sort of crazy-making pattern that incites both fury and exhaustion. Why is it so difficult to deliver a truly useful apology?
“You're here because someone felt hurt by your actions.”
The answer is a complex one, but Am I Part of the Problem? offers a step-by-step examination of intent and harm. “You're here because someone felt hurt by your actions, whether or not you intended to hurt that person,” its baby blue text reads. “Whether you intend to harm someone does not change whether that person was harmed. But: intent is still real, and it matters.” It encourages users to be open about whatever has brought them to the page, and whether they intended to harm someone or not.
Sampat has explored difficult topics like workplace harassment and depression before. She has what she calls an amateur obsession with psychology, and is quick to admit she’s no expert. Much of her work for Am I Part of the Problem? is drawn from a variety of professional resources. For information on making amends, she turned to the 12-step program often found in recovery programs like Alcoholic Anonymous. She points to the fifth step — admitting your wrongdoings to yourself and others — as particularly helpful.
“My mom ran a halfway house for alcoholic ex-convicts when I was little, so I actually can’t remember a time in my life where I was unfamiliar with the language of recovery,” she wrote to The Verge in an email. “Digging into how people approach the fifth step, making amends, was hugely useful.”
The tool offers users a chance to be honest without judgment. If someone says they meant to harm another person, for example, it provides an honest list of reasons why: I was angry. I was jealous. I was depressed. I was lonely, and so on. Whatever the reason, and no matter how relatable, the tool returns this information back to you plainly. “It's not an excuse, just a fact.”
From there, the tool walks users through the process of writing an apology and whether or not amends can or should be made. In the wrong situation, it warns, even a well-meaning apology could interrupt someone’s healing process. “There’s a lot of information out there about how to craft a good apology, but when it comes to serious transgressions, little of the information takes into account the needs or mental health of the victim,” says Sampat.
Am I Part of the Problem? has several scenarios to help users best work through their own problems, and each ends with additional reading or resources for users to consider. Sampat wanted to include quizzes to help users figure out if they’re an alcoholic, or articles about the link between anger and depression. “I know that it can be really overwhelming to realize that something in your life needs to change, and not know where to start,” she says. “I wanted to make sure that people using this tool at least had a place to begin.”
“We think apologies are about us.”
Sampat points to a general misunderstanding about why apologies are necessary in the first place. “We spend a lot of time thinking about ourselves and our own image,” she says. An apology can seem like an admission of guilt. Sometimes people feel obligated to apologize in order to return things to normal, or they expect their apology to be rewarded with forgiveness. For Sampat, the most valuable lessons in apologizing have come as a result of learning about social justice, listening to marginalized people, and having kids. “I know I'm incredibly out of my depth. I'm going to mess up, and apologizing and making amends is the only way through,” she says of making mistakes.
Am I Part of the Problem? is not a perfect answer, but rather a template that invites users to reflect and learn how to better themselves and the people they may have hurt. “We think apologies are about us, but for the victim,” Sampat says. “They're actually about the victim, and for our own personal growth. Whether or not we're forgiven, the point of an apology is to move forward as a person by acknowledging wrongdoing and taking concrete steps to not cause further harm.”