Sorry: the conclusion

Marina Warner
1 November 2002

In which apology comes to play a necessary part in our modern world, contributing to the revisioning of national history and the shaping of group identities. But do we fully understand what we have done?

After a lengthy investigation whether Belgium should "accept moral responsibility" for Lumumba's assassination, Foreign Minister Louis Michel publicly gave an apology for the African's murder.
"The government feels it should extend to the family of Patrice Lumumba and to the Congolese people, its profound and sincere regrets and apologies for the pain inflicted upon them."

The current swell in apologies draws up into its energies many causes and griefs. When I started to write this I noted offers of – and demands for – apologies everywhere. The Belgian government apologised for the murder of Patrice Lumumba (though it was carefully phrased not to admit direct guilt). A father whose premature baby’s body was found in a hospital laundry refused the hospital’s apology. The New Statesman apologises to the Jewish community for a cover.

Like lovers on Valentine’s Day, apologies are also now more conspicuous than ever by their absence. As apology becomes a familiar instrument of recognition, refusal to give one withholds that recognition with new sharpness. In Australia, the Prime Minister, who has refused to apologise to the Aborigines, found himself facing a hall in which the audience turned their backs to him and stood like that throughout his speech to return the deep insult he had inflicted. This fresh stimulus to anger has sharpened awareness of the potentially placatory use of apology. It can be seen as an empty gesture; it’s not enough to say you’re sorry. However, as Elazar Barkan, author of The Guilt of Nations, says, the debate around the issue can be applied to finding a way forward: ‘Lack of apologies, demands for apologies, and the refusal to give them are pre-steps…testimony to the wish and the need of both sides to reach the negotiating stage.’

Apology has come to seem a necessary addition to the ground in which new values can take root and grow into social and human rights for groups that identify themselves as wronged. It’s a form of communication, in which the subjective self is implicated. When this is made in public, with its stress the display of humility and the loss of authority of the apologist, it adopts a language of passionate and personal sincerity identified with degraded, weak suppliants, with victims like Io, with sinners like Augustine. In this way, its expressions of empathy help redeem the perpetrator of the wrong by association with the object of the apology. It adapts a feminine form of self-presentation to exculpate acts undertaken by socially recognised authority. Kings and bishops, prime ministers and popes now love to assume its inflections.

Belgium Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt's public apology to Rwandans:
"I confirm that the international community as a whole carries a huge and heavy responsibility in the genocide...Here before you I assume the responsibility of my country, the Belgian political and military authorities."

Apologising represents a bid for virtue and can even imply an excuse not to do anything more about the injustice in question. Encurled inside it may well be the earlier meaning of vindication. So it can offer hypocrites a main chance. It can also, as in the case of the priestly self-fashioning of some political leaders, make a claim on their own behalf for some sacred, legitimate authority.

Apologies consent to the story told by the wronged victim or victims in question, and contribute, today, to the revisioning of national history and the shaping of group identities. But whereas writers struggle with the complexity of meanings, these ‘agreed fables’ often exacerbate grudge and grievance.

In a strong critique of the 2001 Durban Conference on Racism, John Torpey argued at the time in openDemocracy that the ‘pursuit of the future, the homeland of progressives throughout the modern era, has been overwhelmed by a tidal wave of attention to “memory”, “reparations”, and “coming to terms with the past”…In the absence of a plausible vision of a more humane future society, the presence of the past becomes magnified; righting past wrongs supplants and replaces the search for a vision of a better tomorrow, or even of today.’

Too many crimes have been committed in the name of the future, for us to see the rise of the call for apology as simply a self-indulgent retreat in the face of defeat. The need to insist on the experience of wrongdoing, and the restorative capacity of honest justice that brings those involved together in non-juridical circumstances, is surely essential if we are to keep the humanity in human rights.

When sought by such an aggrieved community, an apology can restore dignity and spread forgiveness, by recognising, as in ubuntu, the dignity and presence of the oppressed. It seems that the dignity restored by the apology can make the wronged feel eased. In this way the fully compacted apology works as a spell, a verbal formula that effects change. The redemption lies not with the one who apologises but in the mercy shown by the one who accepts.

But again this fails to redress the trouble, to institute reforms. It represents retrospective avenging rather than prospective action. At its harshest, it might even maintain the parties in their disequilibrium; the Count still getting away with it, the Countess, still wronged. In South Africa, the circumstances were exceptional, and the TRC offered an exceptional remedy; but its religious and ritual confessional and expiatory processes should not be followed, in my view, in other contexts, for example the Balkans. Of course, Slobodan Milosevic would be no more likely to make a clean breast of things in return for amnesty at a truth commission than he is going to collaborate with the court in The Hague. But is it thinkable that an apology could ever be acceptable in such a case?

wall of reconciliation
Wall of Reconciliation
Built in 1910 to signify reconciliation between local Maori tribes in Otaki, New Zealand. See here

More difficult, in my view, is the question of whether restitution and reparation require apology – the admission of wrongdoing – before they can begin? Should they? Again this surely represents a failure of the law, which should be able to institute human rights on first principles, not only in response to a personal story. Apart from the almost intractable inequities in tracing lineal descendants of collective crimes, such as slavery, justice through economic compensation threatens to privatise what must be shared. I am entirely with Paul Gilroy, author of The Black Atlantic when he commented on the campaign for slavery compensation in the US, ‘This is what consumer culture does, makes financial transactions and commodities out of injustices. It’ll be, “There’s your money, now shut up.”’

It seems to me that the closer the two parties are to the events at issue, the more genuine, and even effective, an apology can be – provided it is followed by reform of the circumstances in which the act took place. It was entirely proper for the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police in London to apologise to the Lawrence family for the conduct of his men and women after Stephen Lawrence was murdered by known racists, who were not successfully prosecuted. Because he also gave an undertaking that his force would change its ways – which, of course, still has a very long way to go.

But the farther the apologist and apologee stand from the events in question, the more symbolic, religious, diversionary and obstructive and even false the exchange seems to me to be. Writers indeed have their work cut out in the quest for justice, the theme Aeschylus so intensely explored.

We must still say, with Io,

…do not out of pity comfort me
With lies. I count false words the foulest plague of all.

This article was drawn from Marina Warner's Amnesty Lecture on Human Rights delivered on 14 February 2002.
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