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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.

  • Glad to see you returning to this one, Russell. As I said on the other topic, I think there’s a danger of apologies – like promises – becoming a devalued currency if they are thrown around with too much casual abandon. Sometimes it just is more appropriate to express regret for an unwelcome outcome, without accepting culpability for it, however fashionable it may have become to mock such forms of words.

    I agree with you that it’s coherent, sometimes even appropriate, for the leader of a country (or the CEO of a company, or whatever) to apologise for the actions of his predecessors. But that’s because s/he is the accepted voice for an entity that is deemed to have some continuous existence, independent of the personnel who are running it. The leader isn’t apologising in a personal capacity, but on behalf of the entity for which s/he has accepted responsibility. Maintaining the distinction between personal and ‘corporate’ responsibility is pivotal here. We may regard it as appropriate were the current Prime Minister of Japan to apologise, on behalf of his country, for certain events during the Second World War. But we wouldn’t, for example, regard it as appropriate to try him for war crimes. More controversially, perhaps, I would see no point whatever in a young or middle-aged Japanese citizen apologising for those crimes. There again, I have little time for vicarious pride on the basis of nationality either.

    I think your other distinction is important and well expressed. It also relates to earlier discussions about principles of charity. If I have misrepresented my views on something, I’m likely to apologise for so doing, even if it was inadvertent – especially so if I caused offence in the process. I do try to communicate clearly, but I don’t always succeed, and am happy to take at least some responsibility when I fail. But I think it’s incumbent on readers/listeners to afford the benefit of the doubt if I seek to clarify or correct my words, at least where they have no reason to suspect disingenuousness or bad faith. Too many online discussions degenerate into obsessive dissection of a phrase that the author has subsequently tried to correct, but finds him/herself having to wear like an albatross around his/her neck.

  • Well, yes and no. If you are the leader of a country, you can indeed issue an apology on the behalf of the nation that you lead. You cannot issue a personal apology for something that you’ yourself did not do. There is a difference.

  • RussellBlackford

    Sounds right.

  • An Ardent Skeptic

    But I think it’s incumbent on readers/listeners to afford the benefit of the doubt if I seek to clarify or correct my words, at least where they have no reason to suspect disingenuousness or bad faith. Too many online discussions degenerate into obsessive dissection of a phrase that the author has subsequently tried to correct, but finds him/herself having to wear like an albatross around his/her neck.

    Advocating forgiveness, too! After reading countless blogposts and comments which criticize apologies for being non-pologies or criticize the acceptance of apologies as unacceptable, I was under the impression that in internetland forgiveness is unforgivable. 😉

  • It might be worth noting that “I’m sorry” is not always an apology. It can also express sympathy and regret without culpability. When the leader of a nation says they are sorry for their nation’s past, I take it this way, and not as an apology.

    I read an article once that suggested men are more likely to see “I’m sorry” as an apology (and thus a sign of weakness) whereas women are more likely to see it the other way. I don’t know how strong the evidence is for this, however.

  • I’ll also throw in my two cents on this issue: a President can speak on behalf of a nation, but only the living members of that nation. A President cannot retroactively apologize for what happened one or two hundred years ago, but they can express the living nation’s regret. I guess I’m just reluctant to grant nations agency.

  • RussellBlackford

    I think this is also partly regional idiom. For example, I often hear Americans say, “I’m sorry” or “I’m so sorry” (not “I’m sorry to hear that”) when told that something bad has happened that they had no responsibility for or even any causal connection with. E.g.:

    Person A: “I’ve just heard that my brother has been killed!”
    Person B: “Oh, I’m so sorry.”

    To my ears, this sounds very strange (assuming Person B had nothing to do with the brother’s death). I’ve never heard this idiom used in Australia – which is not to say it is never used here, just that it hasn’t been common enough in my milieu for me ever to have heard it here. It would more likely go something like.

    Person A: “I’ve just heard that my brother has been killed!”
    Person B: “Oh, I’m sorry to hear that.” (Even more likely would be “Oh, that’s terrible.”)

    The word “sorry” is used, but as part of a separate idiom that could not be mistaken, out of context, for an apology.

  • RussellBlackford

    Well, yes, there are issues about the fundamental rationality of all this. But we do tend to grant fictional agency to nations, corporations, and so on. Perhaps it can’t be rationally justified in the end, but if we’re going to do it at all this area of apologising would seem like an arbitrary exception to make. Certainly unpacking this aspect is where the hard philosophical work would have to be done.

  • I wouldn’t argue for making any exceptions here. I’m consistently reluctant to grant agency to nations (and corporations, as well). But now I’m leaning in a different direction on the issue of apologies.

    A nation can be in debt based on past actions, even if none of the originally responsible parties are still alive. For example, a nation’s economic debts don’t die with the people who accrued the debt. In non-economic cases, the same can apply: e.g., America might still have a debt to the descendants of slaves. If the living can be responsible for the deeds of the dead, then why can’t they also apologize for them? Might an apology count as part of paying a debt? I think an argument could be made for this without requiring that we grant agency to nations.