Who’s sorry now? The politics of apology

Saturday 2 November, 14:0015:30, Garden RoomContemporary Controversies

In the 1990s, South Africa’s post-Apartheid ‘truth and reconciliation’ process set an unofficial template for dealing with the wrongs of the past. While there remains controversy about who should apologise for what in particular cases, the idea that the dual process of apology and forgiveness is an effective and necessary way to deal with historical wrongs and traumas has become established. From Apartheid to Argentina’s ‘dirty war’, from Australia’s treatment of the Aborigines to the killing of protesters by British paratroopers on Bloody Sunday, contrition has been seen as key to reconciliation.

At the heart of the process is the idea that just as an apology from someone who has wronged them gives individuals a sense of closure and allows both parties to move on free of guilt, anxiety, anger and the need for revenge, the same is true of peoples and nations who have suffered historic injustices. But is this true? Should we apologise for the wrongs of past generations? Should we accept such apologies?

The vexed question of reparations for slavery has re-emerged as an issue ahead of the 2020 US presidential elections, with advocates suggesting hard cash is required to make meaningful any contrition for centuries of racial injustice. But beyond the practical difficulties, would reparations even work? How much would it cost to remove the stain of guilt forever? Would they, and should they, put an end to the shame of America’s ‘original sin’?

Often it seems those who rail hardest against the injustices of the past have little interest in moving on or in forgiving anything. The individual cases of Kevin Hart, who was dropped from hosting the Oscars for having sent allegedly homophobic tweets years before, and Liam Neeson, who revealed he had thought of committing a racist murder decades before, suggest apologies are not enough. Both were contrite, but their critics were not satisfied. Then there is Shamima Begum, the British teenager who joined Islamic State and now wants to return home. Many argued that even if she did make a satisfactory apology, she had put herself beyond the pale.

Is there a limit to the power of the apology? Are some acts just unforgiveable? Do we no longer trust the people who apologise to be sincere, or are we exhausted from perpetually confronting the past? Do wrongdoers deserve to suffer? And can the ideal of apology and forgiveness ever be depoliticised so we can achieve genuine reconciliation?