Tag Archive for 'Apology'

Tyranny and the ethical removal of children

I promise this’ll be my last post on the whole apology business for a while. 🙂 In response to my entry, “An apology for what?“, Cam Riley posted this comment:

Tyranny is tyranny – and removing children from their parents due to their skin colour is a tyrannous act. The goal of republican government is to remove all tyranny from the system. Consequently, past tyrannous acts need to be recognized as such.

I responded pretty quickly with:

I’m not denying that it was an act of tyranny (in the sense of oppression, not in the sense of a single ruler), only that the word “tyranny” is one with massive emotional and judgemental baggage in the same way as “genocide”. Its use may be justified in a literal sense, but it will rarely serve to improve the situation in a world of real politik. In any event, I accept the pragmatic necessity of an apology even if I do not fully accept the moral obligation to apologise today for something that was honestly believed to be just at the time.

I was thinking about this over dinner and it seems to me that there are three largely distinct issues at point here:

  1. The disenfranchisement of a people, meaning that any act of government concerning them was an act of tyranny
  2. The ethical question of when it is acceptable to remove a child from its family
  3. The question of whether the policy of forced removal “worked” in the sense of improving the livelihoods of those children

As I previously mentioned, I do not deny that the stolen generations represented an act of tyranny. That is a definitional consequence of Aboriginal disenfranchisement. But a tyrant may make a good decision that benefits people, just as a democracy may make a bad decision that harms them. There is no disputing the injustice of Aboriginal disenfranchisement in and of itself, but it was parallel to and, at worst, an enabler of the tragedy of the stolen generations, not the cause of it and therefore not the source of the moral wrong.

On the second point, society today still accepts that it is sometimes warranted to forcibly remove a child from its family. This is a terribly difficult decision, but as a society, we judge that it is ethical when that child is held to be in considerable danger. In the UK, for example,

A court can only make a care order if it is sure that:

  • the child is suffering, or is likely to suffer, significant harm
  • the harm is caused by the child’s parents
  • the harm would be caused because of insufficient care being given to the child by the parents in the future
  • the child is likely to suffer harm because they are beyond parental control

I accept as fact that the Australian government’s policy of removal was based, for the most part, on the ethnicity of the children taken and not their individual safety. That on its own was immoral and warrants reparation to balance the damage done. The problem is that, while the act was wrong, it was performed under the honest (but false) belief that it was the best thing to do. At the time, I have no doubt, it would have been widely believed that although the removal of children was regrettable, the ends justified the means.

Which brings us to the third point. I seriously wonder whether the stolen generation would be as much of an issue today if the policy had been a roaring success. What if the democracy, acting tyrannically over the disenfranchised, made a bad decision that nevertheless turned out to be beneficial to all involved, with Aboriginals today enjoying educational, health and income outcomes equal to non-indigenous Australians? It ought to still be as much of an issue, but I suspect that it wouldn’t be.

The difficulty in passing judgement on the drafters of the Aboriginal Protection Act (1869) is that while we have the benefit of perfect hindsight, they did not enjoy the benefit of perfect foresight. Does anyone seriously claim that they still would have gone ahead with it if they had they known – and comprehended – what the full consequences of their actions would be?

All of which means that I find myself (a) supporting calls for reparation and (b) opposing the apology on moral grounds, but supporting the necessity of it on pragmatic grounds.

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

An apology for what?

For any non-Australians in the audience, the new Australian government is doing what the previous lot refused to do: apologise on behalf of the parliament and government of Australia to the indigenous people of Australia for the forced removal of children from their families for approximately 100 years until 1969.

I want (as should be little surprise to anyone who knows me) to abstract away from the specifics of this a little. When is an apology for some past injustice warranted?

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? If the answer is ‘yes’, how far back in history is it acceptable to apply our outrage? We don’t judge the Romans for having sex with children or the Aztecs for their human sacrifices – we simply view them as having taken place in an environment of ignorance.

The Aztecs were not only a long time ago, but also from a different cultural heritage to us. The Romans were a long time ago and also our cultural ancestors, so we can’t simply say that we only judge our own.

So where (and why) do we draw a line in the sand?

If someone can explain that to me, then I can happily endorse the apology (I already accept it). People who argue that since we didn’t do it (after all – we weren’t around then) we shouldn’t apologise are missing an important point: The government and the parliament of Australia were around then and did play an active role. The difference between the (wo)man and the office is important here. The office of the government of Australia did the Bad Thing. If it is right to judge the past against the moral measures of the present, then it is also right for the office of the government of Australia to apologise. The particulars of who is occupying that office now is of little consequence.

The only way out, from my point of view, is if there were a significant change of constitution in the intervening period, so that it might be legitimately said that the government of today is not in any way the government that existed at the time. Is that why we let the Romans off the hook? We would judge them, only they don’t exist any more?

Back to the particulars: I don’t really mind whether we call it tyranny (although I think that choice of words is inflammatory) or whether Labor supporters want to poke fun at the Coalition (although I think that at least some of the Coalition’s concerns are legitimate). I think that the apology is a symbolic gesture that, on its own, will help not at all. I think that the Aboriginals of Australia have complaints (most but not all of them legitimate) far deeper and wider than the stolen generations and that the stolen generation issue simply became an emblematic focal point.

The apology is no skin off my nose and if it makes people feel better for a while, go nuts. But don’t try telling me that it’ll do a damned thing to improve the lives of Aboriginals in Oz. For that we need real policies of support from the government and real acknowledgement of the realities of the world from the Aboriginal community.

Update:  I got an excellent response from a good friend of mine.