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A sorry ritual

The public apology has become one of the great rituals of our time. Everybody it seems wants to apologise for some misdemeanour of the past, whether great or small, noticed or unnoticed.

World leaders have been the most prominent observants of the new ritual. The Vatican has apologised (not very successfully) for its failure to speak out against the Holocaust. It is rumoured that the Pope is also preparing apologies to women, Protestants and Muslims in the run-up to the millennium. Bill Clinton has apologised to America's blacks for slavery. While touring Africa in March, he apologised again for slavery, and for failing to stop the massacres in Rwanda in 1994.

Tony Blair has apologised to the Irish for the Famine of the 1840s, and looks set to apologise for the Bloody Sunday massacre in Derry in 1972. Blair's favourite think-tank, Demos, has suggested that the misfortunate Queen be sent around all the former colonies on a tour of apology.

Australia and New Zealand are in a state of almost perpetual repentance for the crimes they now acknowledge to have committed against their indigenous peoples. In an attempt to spread the blame (or 'reach out and hear as many voices as possible' to use the argot), the Australian government has declared a National Sorry Day for May. Modelled on the Diana condolence show, Sorry Books will be available to citizens who wish to express their own personal feelings on the aboriginal question. No doubt the messages will be accompanied by all the usual paraphernalia of the abject - teddy bears, children's drawings and doggerel.

Back in Europe, the French government last July apologised for the collaboration of the wartime Vichy regime in the Holocaust, while the French Catholic church apologised for its support for Vichy. The Spanish church followed suit and apologised for its support for the Franco regime. The Spanish government is rumoured to be preparing an apology for the actions of the Conquistadors in sixteenth-century Latin America.

In South Africa, the ANC government has instituted a permanent reign of apology in the form of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The TRC is a curious hotch-potch, reflecting the political past of its architects. Part showtrial, part therapy session, those arraigned can come, confess their crimes, apologise, cry a little with their victims and go home. The TRC is increasingly held up as a model for other countries trying to overcome the legacy of a bloody past.

In embracing the cult of apology, world leaders have adapted a form of popular entertainment for their own purposes. Apologising, confessing in public for some misdemeanour, blubbering in front of the cameras, all have become important motifs of our culture. Oprah Winfrey has made herself the fifth richest woman in the USA with this kind of squalid entertainment. Political and religious leaders are emulating the evident willingness of millions of ordinary people to put their emotions on display, something most memorably evident in the week which followed the death of Princess Diana.

Like all rituals, the public apology conforms to certain strict guidelines. There is a right way and a wrong way of doing it. The more closely an apology approximates to the TV-show formula, the greater the chances of success. The ideal is the full emotional surge. Under the influence of a surge, the subject appears to break down completely, recovering his composure only to splutter the word 'sorry'. The intensity of the performance should cathect the audience, leaving them truly wowed.

While this sort of behaviour comes naturally to an emotional derelict on a TV show, it is extremely difficult for a middle-aged politician to carry off convincingly, especially if what he is apologising for happened hundreds of years ago and he has known of it all his life. A good substitute is some variation on the immortal line 'I just wanna say sorry for all the hurt and pain I caused ye'. Any good apology will follow this kind of formula, because it will be obvious that there is little by way of a thinking process taking place. Body language is also very important. A catch in the voice, a quiver of the lip, the hint of a moist eye, or Blair's favourite, the brow knitted in concern - all these will compensate for a poor choice of words.

A qualified apology always runs the risk of backfiring. Qualification suggests an over-engaged mind and, mutatis mutandis, under-engaged emotions. Any apology which is tainted with rational enquiry will fail to satisfy. This is because where the apologetic spirit is concerned, the work of the mind can only act as a form of pollution in the warm currents of feeling.

The Vatican's recent inquiry into its role during the Holocaust is an example of a bad apology. The Curia was absurdly scrupulous in trying to establish who was and who was not to blame. While apologising for the failure of so many Christians to stop the annihilation of the Jews, the inquiry cleared the name of Pope Pius XII. Jewish groups protested at what they saw as a whitewash of the Vatican's wartime record. Perhaps they were right. However, the Vatican would not have run into the same trouble if officials had just pretended that the whole period of history upset them terribly and they wanted to say sorry for any part others felt the church might have played in the Holocaust. By shifting the apology away from the facts and on to feelings, both their own and others', the church could have spared itself a lot of trouble, appeared fully contrite, and no doubt, won praise for its 'courage in reaching out to build bridges'.

In contrast to the Vatican's Holocaust apology, Blair's apology for the Irish Famine was an unqualified success. For a start it was not actually an apology, in the sense that Blair did not accept that the policies of the British government of the time were responsible for the Famine. What he said was that the British government of the time 'failed the Irish people'. In this sense, the Japanese Mikado and the Russian Tsar also failed the Irish people by not sending any aid. As Blair might say himself, the government of Lord Russell was 'insufficiently proactive'. However it was the style rather than the substance which turned Blair's statement into an apology. In a format which rivalled Oprah herself, Blair delivered a speech full of heartfelt contrition by video link-up to a pop festival in county Cork.

The other key to a successful apology is that it should be volunteered, not extracted. An extracted apology is worse than useless, because it is quite obvious that the remorse is not truly felt. When Winnie Mandela appeared before the TRC late last year, one of the persistent demands from TRC chair Bishop Desmond Tutu was that she should show remorse and say sorry (even though she was denying the allegations levelled against her!). When she did finally cave in to the demands, the universal response was one of disappointment that the apology had to be forced out of her. A similar response greets the perennial apologies from the Japanese government for its wartime behaviour.

The ideal is to apologise before anybody has even thought you should do so. This shows the world that not only do you feel bad about some particular misdemeanour, but that you are in an apologetic, abject state of mind. One of the most successful apologies was the ceasefire statement of Northern Ireland's loyalist groups in October 1994. In contrast to the IRA ceasefire statement six weeks earlier, loyalist leaders offered 'the loved ones of all innocent victims over the last 25 years abject and true remorse'. In the months leading up to the statement loyalist groups had excelled themselves in butchery, committing some of the worst atrocities of the Troubles. Since then it has seemed at times as if the loyalist ceasefire was not worth the paper it was written on. But because the apology was so much in excess of what was expected, these irredeemably sordid people were transfigured into apostles of reconciliation.

It would be easy to see the craze for apology as an extension of the compensation culture which has become such a feature of life on both sides of the Atlantic in recent years. It is true that demands for apology often come with a price tag. Many American blacks are demanding reparations from their government for the effects of slavery. While in opposition Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern demanded that the British government compensate Ireland for the Famine. However, compensation culture is only part of the picture. The fact is that the urge to apologise seems greater than the demand for it.

The apology today is a declaration of 'emotional literacy'. It is a type of initiation rite into the New Caring Order. An apology is a demonstration of compassionate power. If you can empathise and reach out even to those whom you were trying to kill only yesterday, that is proof that you want to explore more fully your own emotional universe. And if you have this soft caring side, then, by extension, you too can be vulnerable.

Which gives pause for thought. If it has become so easy to apologise for barbarous actions, then those actions themselves must lose much of their meaning. To give an example: in March it was revealed that US troops massacred over 1000 Somali men, women and children in one single operation in Mogadishu, while on the UN Operation Restore Hope in 1993. Now that the massacre is public knowledge, it does not seem too fanciful to imagine that this or a future American government will apologise for this atrocity. What would such an apology mean?

An apology for the massacre in Mogadishu would be an assurance to the world that, despite its occasional lapses into savagery, the USA remains committed to an emotionally interactive foreign policy, that behind the steel and lead lies a heart of the softest compassion. But it would also be a way of saying that the US armed forces should not be held responsible for their actions. They may have committed an atrocity, but that is not really what they are like, because now they feel so bad about it.

In these circumstances, the more archaic meaning of the word apology comes through - as a vindication or defence, put forward by apologists. It becomes possible to defend the indefensible by distancing your emotional self from your actions. One of the paradoxes of the craze for apology is that while it appears as a new-found sense of contrition and willingness to face up to an unsavoury past, it is more often in reality a clever means of avoiding blame in the present.

When former South African president PW Botha refused to appear before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and go through the ritual of apology he was attacked from all sides and threatened with imprisonment. PW Botha may have been one of the most brutal leaders of the apartheid regime, yet there was something courageous and honourable in his refusal to grovel before the TRC. Unlike the assassins and torturers who have apologised for their crimes, wept with their victims, then strolled back to their police stations, Botha insisted that he stood by his actions as president. It would have been easy for him to partake in the sickly lie that he too, like everybody else who has appeared before the TRC, is a man of multiple identities; that yesterday he was Butcher Botha, but that today he is Squidgy Botha. Instead he affirmed that he was the one, indivisible PW Botha, who is prepared to live with the consequences of his actions until the day he dies.

In his refusal to apologise, there was an echo of Martin Luther, 'Here I stand, I can do no other'. Against this rugged stoicism we have the weasel words of the apologetic changeling, 'I know I did bad yesterday, but I feel differently today'. Which can only leave you with the uneasy question, 'and how will you feel tomorrow?'

Apologies can always mean two different things. Used reluctantly, they can indicate genuine resolve not to repeat an action. Used lavishly, they indicate the opposite. A society at ease with apology is a society that will happily lie to itself.

World leaders now make emotional public apologies more often than guests on Oprah. Mark Ryan makes no apologies for asking why?
Reproduced from LM issue 110, May 1998

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