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Sorry apologies


THE ART OF REMORSE: From the wording of the apology to the ceremony, everything matters. Cameron at the Jallianwala Bagh memorial site

Regret doesn't mean you're taking responsibility for your actions, says Canadian academic who has a database of apologies from around the world. Sorry seems to be the hardest word - David Cameron did not apologise for the Jallianwala Bagh massacre, nor did Sushilkumar Shinde (for his controversial 'Hindu terror' remarks). But how much do apologies really matter and till when are we responsible for past mistakes? Rhoda E Howard-Hassmann, Canada Research Chair in International Human Rights at Wilfrid Laurier University, Waterloo, Canada, has co-edited 'The Age of Apology: Facing up to the Past' and maintains a website on political apologies and reparations from around the world. She speaks to TOI-Crest on why mistakes are difficult to own up to

Why are the words "I am sorry" or "I apologise" so important?. Cameron called the 1919 massacre "deeply shameful" but did not say the magic words. Why does expressing regret not convey the point?

"I apologise" means that you acknowledge that you (or the institution your represent, such as the British government ) did something wrong, you regret that you committed the wrong, and you promise not to do the same thing again. It can also connote a willingness to make reparations of either a symbolic or material kind. Expressing regret does not mean that you take responsibility for what happened. You can regret many things that you had nothing to do with yourself.

What exactly constitutes an apology? Does all of it have to do with the balance of power?

In a proper apology, the person offering the apology acknowledges the wrong, expresses sorrow and remorse, takes responsibility for it, and promises non-repetition. Remorse is very important: I can feel sorrow for a wrong I had nothing to do with, but I can only feel remorse if I know I was responsible and could have chosen not to commit the wrong. Indeed, I might feel remorse even if the harm was by accident and I could not have avoided it.
Sometimes the balance of power affects the likelihood of apology. For example, the US has not apologised for its many harmful policies of the past century, such as overthrowing governments in various places, supporting military rule, etc. President Clinton did apologise for US actions supporting military rule in Guatemala. He also expressed regret for lack of action during the Rwanda genocide, but it was not a formal apology. The Japanese go back and forth between apologising for colonizing Korea and for various wrongs committed during WWII, and then reneging on their apologies: this seems to have to do with internal Japanese politics, though.

In the age of social media and sound bytes, people seem to be constantly apologising for something or the other. Are we more prone to be offended now? Does so much apologising blunt its efficacy as you can just say sorry and move on?

I think that - at least in Canada, where I live - we are more prone to be offended now. Many people seem to think that they have a human right to be offended, and that this alleged human right takes precedence over freedom of speech. In Canadian university classrooms, this has sometimes become a problem, for example, if one disagrees with multiculturalism (an official Canadian government policy) or with certain aspects of women's rights. Sometimes people make a fuss and accuse those who criticize multiculturalism of being racist or sexist, but generally speaking, professors can deal with these accusations without their going any farther. I agree with laws prohibiting hate speech, but I think that hate speech should be narrowly construed to apply to situations that might result in real material or bodily harm.
I think the assumption that you can just apologise and then "move on" is facile and harmful. In North America at least, the term "move on" has become a cliche. It implies that people should just "get over" very serious problems, and that there is something wrong with them if they can't.

How far can an apology really go especially with sins/crimes that could be called unforgivable? Does it let the perpetrator off the hook?

There may be cases where an apology alone is sufficient : for example, some church leaders in Britain have apologised for their church's past role in, or support of, the slave trade. In this case, the church acknowledges its own past imperfections. In other cases, the apology does not let the apologiser off the hook: it intensifies the demand and need for other types of reparations.
I do not believe that the recipients of apologies should be obliged to forgive. The person or institution offering the apology should not expect or demand forgiveness. There is some evidence that Bishop Tutu (perhaps inadvertently) pressured individual victims of crimes of apartheid to forgive after perpetrators apologized at South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission. I do not think these victims should have been pressured to forgive. I believe that forgiveness is a personal, psychological or religious matter, certainly not a necessary aspect of an official apology.

A lot can also go wrong with an apology - for instance, who you apologise to or who apologises, where you apologise from, what exactly do you apologise for?

This is why it is important to negotiate the wording of official apologies ahead of time. For example, if David Cameron had intended to actually apologise for the Amritsar massacre, he would have had to negotiate the wording ahead of time. Also, the occasion would have had to be more ceremonial, with representatives of the victims present and acknowledged, perhaps representatives of the Sikh religion there, as well as government representatives.

Should there be a statute of limitations on apologies ? If justice delayed is justice denied, should it apply to apologies too?

An apology is a symbolic act, so there can't be a statute of limitations on it. If someone wants to apologise for the actions of his personal or institutional ancestors, as in the example of church apologies for participation in the slave trade, no one can stop him. There seems to be an implicit agreement however that material reparations should be paid only to the actual victims, if they are still alive, or to their direct heirs, their children, if the victims were killed. This is the case in Holocaust reparations, with the exception of looted property;in some cases return of looted property extends to grandchildren, great-grandchildren, great nephews, etc. The Herero people of Namibia, however, are demanding collective reparations for their genocide by the Germans in 1904-08. The government of Namibia does not support this demand for reparations. If the Germans did pay reparations to the Herero, this might set a precedent for future cases, such as the descendants of Armenian victims of genocide in Turkey in 1915.

Reader's opinion (1)

Mohd Maqbool AhmedMar 7th, 2013 at 17:44 PM

Governments, institutions and persons should extend apologies,regrets and sorrow at the wrong doing that took place and pledge not to repeat in a dignified way to assuage the hard feelings that exists.

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