‘Sorry’ seems to be the easiest word

A new book on the politics of official apologies takes them too much at face value. These are not sincere attempts to amend past wrongs, but public performances of emotional literacy by our isolated leaders.

Tim Black

Tim Black

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Elton John once observed that ‘sorry seems to be the hardest word’. He clearly wasn’t thinking of politicians. Over the past 20 or so years, the well of official contrition has been positively overflowing.

As American president in the 1990s, Bill Clinton publicly apologised to America’s black communities for slavery. More recently, Tony Blair, a prime minister never averse to the emotional pose, felt that the time was right to apologise for Britain’s role in the slave trade. It seems there’s no historical wrong that statesmen cannot use in order to appear morally virtuous today.

In The Politics of Official Apologies, political scientist Melissa Nobles makes a scholarly but sympathetic attempt to chart and explain the emergence of the all-too-public ‘sorry’. Concentrating on Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the US, she narrows her study to the politics of apology in relation to each nation’s indigenous groups. Her theory is that political actors, both state officials and group activists, have been increasingly using official apologies to ‘reshape the meanings and terms of national membership’. Membership here entails not just rights and obligations, but, in terms of apologies, a sense that grievances affecting that membership, such as the Australian aborigines’ ‘stolen children’, are being addressed.

Take the Canadian government’s apology to Canada’s indigenous Indian population in 1998. In the wake of the Oka crisis in 1991, when the Mohawk and Quebec municipal, state and federal governments staged an armed stand-off over land, the Canadian government formed the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples (RCAP). Including aboriginal and non-aboriginal members, the commission produced a report that contained a 20-year plan, including the formation of an aboriginal branch of government to work alongside existing branches of government in the provision of services. In response to RCAP’s recommendations, the government published Gathering Strength: Canada’s Aboriginal Action Plan, which was accompanied by an official offer of ‘profound regret’ for the past actions of federal government, especially for the abuse of aboriginal children in the residential school system. ‘We are deeply sorry’, an official said in the 1998 public announcement.

For Nobles, this demonstrates how the ‘politics of apology’ works. Determined on the one side by indigenous demands for acknowledgement of past injustices, from expropriated land to infant maltreatment, and on the other side by an elite’s willingness to acknowledge historical wrongdoing, the apology fortifies ‘moral and historical justifications for changes’. In short, the apology publicly legitimised a change to Canada’s political arrangements.

In each case, be it America’s treatment of Native Americans, Australia’s vexed relationship with its aboriginal population, or New Zealand’s struggle to reach accord with the Maoris, Nobles attempts to grasp how the antagonisms between colonisers and indigenous groups are now playing themselves out through the politics of apology. At the very least, her book makes for a highly informative read.

Yet there’s a nagging sense that Nobles is not seeing the wood for the indigenous trees. Despite its obvious erudition, she seems to have taken the proliferation of official apologies at face value, an impression not helped by tremulous prose and cautious assertion. So where you might expect her to cut to the analytical quick, Nobles will offer something approaching a non-explanation: ‘The overriding determinants [of official apologies] are the desires and intentions of political elites to apologise, which are driven by ideology and the seeming imperatives of moral reflection.’ Yes, a willingness to do something will often presuppose an action. And, yes, that willingness will often be informed by ideas as to why or why not an official apology might represent a sensible course of action.

But is that really explaining anything? Why has the politics of apology become so dominant over the past half-century? Why do heads of state feel the need to apologise for historical actions now? Why now has officially sanctioned contrition towards indigenous populations eclipsed previous approaches? Nobles is unable – or perhaps unwilling – to answer these questions because, by and large, she feels that the emergence of official apologies is a good thing. After all, better reconciliation than animosity. With little or no critical distance, all Nobles can do is describe, not explain, the emergence of official apologies. The Politics of Official Apologies reads like the triumph of wisdom.

Little wonder that when mentioning Latin America, nations where apologies have ‘neither been demanded nor offered’ – an infinitely extendable category if ever there was one – she sees the politics of apology as a phenomenon yet to come. For Nobles, the struggles of indigenous peoples in Latin America, blunted by racial mixing and broader, non-indigenous, class-based peasant affiliations, have not reached multicultural maturity. They may currently be ‘active players in shaping national political institutions and public policies’, but the politics of apology, dependent on indigenous groups thinking of themselves as indigenous groups with group-specific demands, belongs to what Nobles considers a more advanced stage of political evolution.

Less indigenous forms of politics simply do not fit into Nobles’ multicultural schema. Where some might see the predominance of identity politics as history at a standstill – where historically determined differences, in lieu of universal conceptions of the good, have been transformed into the cultural equivalent of racial categories – Nobles simply sees progress. So former Australian prime minister John Howard’s refusal to apologise to aboriginal people on the basis of a notion of formal equality is seen tacitly as a failure. For Nobles, the weight of history ought to weigh like a nightmare upon the minds of the living.

This isn’t to say that there aren’t serious problems for any of the indigenous groups Nobles mentions. Unemployment, poor education and health problems present serious difficulties. But they require political, structural solutions, not group recognition of suffering. Indeed, the pursuit of public apologies by some indigenous groups does make sense in an ‘old-fashioned political’ way: seeking an apology frequently serves a practical purpose, as a means to gain economic and political benefits, more clout.

However, as Nobles herself notes, this does seem to turn neatly on ‘the dyad of victim and victimiser’. She just doesn’t consider this a problem. In fact, because indigenous groups often win a degree of cultural, even political, autonomy through the politics of apology, Nobles concludes that they are not victims at all. And in a sense she’s right. Many are simply playing the game.

However, as Nobles repeatedly emphasises, the crucial, determining factor in all of this is the elites’ willingness to apologise, to make good on past wrongs. So while getting a public apology may look like attenuated self-governance, it is still granted by, and in the interests of, the elite. Officially sanctioned apologies have far more to do with this type of elite posturing than they do with group demands. Unable to imagine a better future, unable, even, to make the case for the liberal polity, politicians prefer the spectacle of making good on historically irrevocable wrongs. To update the German critic Walter Benjamin, instead of giving people their rights, the government merely gives them a chance to express their victimhood.

Tim Black is senior writer at spiked.

The Politics of Official Apologies, by Melissa Nobles is published by Cambridge University Press. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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