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Posted by on Feb 25, 2013 in Culture, Debate | 9 comments

Norm Geras (and me) on apologies

I was psyched up to disagree with Geras here, but having read his post I think he’s right. The question is whether you can ever (coherently) apologise for something for which you are not culpable. The answer is, Yes. If you are the leader of a country, then apologising solemnly for something done by your country, even a very long time ago, is a fairly well-understood public act. It’s no use pretending otherwise, especially when such acts can be healing ones.

Just how these acts get to be meaningful would be a more complicated question. Related issues include the vicarious pride that people can take in the achievements of their nations or countries and the vicarious shame that we can feel about dark periods in our countries’ histories. Perhaps all these are irrational at some deep level (or perhaps not), but they are familiar enough, and it would be an odd pretence if they were not expressed in public and political discourse. Again, expressions of vicarious shame, perhaps worded as apologies, can be healing – I’m thinking in particular of the cultural war that raged in Australia, not that long ago, as to whether a formal apology should be made to the Stolen Generations and other Aboriginal victims of forced adoption policies. (I expressed public support for that idea at the time.)

No doubt the central meaning of the institution of apologising is to express regret for something that you yourself have done, and for which you feel some kind of guilt or shame – and particularly the belief that your action unjustifiably harmed somebody (or at least produced some lesser unfortunate result than harm in any narrow sense, for example if you contributed to confusion). This is a kind of self-humbling, and a kind of pro tanto vindication of the person who has been harmed. So it would be incoherent for me, personally, to make an apology to the Stolen Generations. No familiar extension of the idea could make such an apology meaningful (though I could still express, in some other way, my vicarious shame for that period in Australia’s history). Furthermore, as Geras points out, it is incoherent to expect an individual to apologise for something that he or she still believes was the morally correct action. What you can coherently ask for is that they apologise for actions that they already recognise as wrong, or that they come to understand that an action was wrong and harmful (and perhaps then apologise).

I should add by way of qualification that I often find myself apologising for things that I don’t feel especially ashamed of or guilty about. One extension of the central idea of apologising is into areas where we have somehow contributed to confusion or hurt by getting something wrong. This may not always be our fault – sometimes we might misinterpret something, not as a result of paying insufficient attention, or being biased in how we approach it, or anything else that is even mildly culpable. The reason might be ambiguity in what was said by the other person, or other poor expression by that person. Still, harmonious social interaction is assisted if we waive these possible defences in a lot of cases and give at least a light apology: “Oops, sorry – I see what you mean now.” Or whatever. And of course with this kind of case there are all sorts of grey areas about who might not have expressed themselves perfectly and who might not have paid all reasonably possible care in interpreting their words. Light apologies from one side or both are familiar in these circumstances, and they are beneficial. They help us all get along, despite our various distractions and limitations.

The problem that sometimes arises is when one side insists on these sorts of apologies, or even on more grave and self-humbling apologies. It really is very much a matter of discretion when and how you give this kind of apology where you don’t really feel (at least seriously) culpable. It’s also, to some extent, a reciprocal thing. E.g. if someone gives such an apology to me, I’m likely to acknowledge, in reply, that I could have expressed myself better (we can almost always express ourselves better, after all). All this is really more a matter of etiquette and getting along than anything else, and when it’s ramped up to a higher level, with one person insisting on their moral superiority to the other, the whole point is missed. Furthermore, the discourse can become destructive rather than healing – something none of us should want.