On the necessity of an apology

Earlier this morning I asked:

Should we hold the actions of the past against the moral standard of today, especially if those actions were held to be just at the time?

I asked because it’s not at all clear to me that we ought to. In response by email, a good friend of mine argued that whatever the answer to my question, it simply isn’t relevant to the practicality of moving forward, because both the perpetrator (the government, not the necessarily the individuals that operated it at the time) and the victims are still around to face each other.

To quote the SMH in quoting Susan Butler, editor of the Macquarie Dictionary:

It is “something that every child knows”, says Susan Butler, editor of the Macquarie Dictionary and Australia’s unofficial keeper of the national vernacular.

“When you say you are sorry, life can go on. Your brother, sister, friend will drop the dispute, whatever it was, and enter into normal relations again. To withhold that ‘sorry’ utterance is to continue the war.”

Like “Good morning” and “How are you?”, she says, it is what linguists call a phatic expression; its meaning lies in its utterance, not necessarily in the content of its words.

In other words, when you have wronged someone, and refuse to say sorry, you are responsible for perpetuating the dispute. You all know that – how many times has each of you fumed over the absence of an apology rather than the original act?

The apology is about choosing not to act like dicks, something on which we’ve failed spectacularly so far.

It’s a really strong argument and I take his point. He missed a bit further down in the article, though:

A document handed by the Stolen Generations Alliance to Macklin last week, on behalf of victims and their families, said they overwhelmingly desired money to make the reparations process meaningful.

And Butler realises this, too. The nature of the gesture – its wording and what comes after – remains important.

Examining the seemingly simple five-letter word in a recent edition of the Walkley Magazine, she ended by saying that not saying sorry is as damaging as an insincere sorry.

“Phatic expressions may be about emotion rather than meaning but that is not to say they are not complex and powerful utterances. How you say, or don’t say, ‘Good Morning’ can encapsulate your attitude to life and reveal the state of your personal account in the bank of social capital.”

An insincere apology, given grudgingly and against the wishes of the person saying it, rarely achieves much and sometimes only serves to poison the future relationship. If the apology is needed to move forward, as my friend powerfully argues, it needs to be a real one. It can be embarrassed and awkward, but it needs conviction.

It also needs to be accepted. The government will easily be able to drum up a few indigenous Australians to forgive them on national television, but unless the vast majority of Australian Aboriginals do the same – and I’m not sure they will unless it comes with financial reparations – it won’t solve a thing.

Update:  Post #3 in this mini-series:  “Tyranny and the ethical removal of children

3 Responses to “On the necessity of an apology”

  • I would argue that the power of the apology is that by and large, it _was_ sincere.

    The stage was set with the release of the Bringing Them Home report in 1997 and the reconciliation march across the Harbour Bridge.

    There’s little doubt where the Left stands on reconciliation (at least across the wine glasses on the dinner table), and there was strong pressure inside the Howard government for JH to lead the full cabinet across the bridge. He refused, and by example (as with his enthusiastic embrance of One Nation policies) set the cultural tone of his epoch. But there remained a strong movement inside the Libs for an apology, and I believe that in the main the Opposition voted their conscience yesterday. Five of six living prime ministers enthusiastically lent their support in Canberra, while one more stayed in his tracksuit. I also believe the overwhelming groundswell of public opion (and the nearly universal opinion of the press) supports the apology in the context it was delivered – an apology from the nation and the government for past wrongs.

    I don’t believe there is a strong base of negative opinion about such an apology in the context delivered. I also believe that yesterday tapped a reservoir of desire amongst the Australian populace for symbolism, after a long drought during which negativity and opacity were dominant in the leadership of the country.

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