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 “