The difference between fake and genuine apologies

Jul 1, 2021

These days there are frequent apologies, non-apologies, refusals to apologise and extended qualifications of apologies with weasel phrases such as “this is not who we are” – despite the behaviour of the organisation uttering the words obviously being exactly who and what they are.

It’s instructive to view these faux and sincere variations of apologies within the context of the work of two Canadian-American sociologists, the late Nicholas Tavuchis and the late Erving Goffman.

Tavuchis, of the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg, in his book Mea Culpa A Sociology of Apology and Reconciliation, said: “to apologise is to declare voluntarily that one has no excuse, defence, justification, or explanation for an action (or inaction) that has ‘insulted, failed, injured or wronged another.'”

Goffman developed the dramaturgical approach to human interaction in which actions assist  individuals to understand the actions’ significance and meaning  and ensure both individuals see that significance in the same way.

Most apologies by companies and politicians fail to pass the Tavuchis and Goffman tests. And as for those who never apologise – from Trump to Boris to Scott Morrison and all his Ministers – however clearly caught out- significant and meaningful public contrition are the last things on their mind.

As the historian Tom Bentley said most political apologies “function less of a platform of self-flagellation than one of self-congratulation.”

In the Weekend Financial Times (5/6 June 2021)  Kim Wagner, Queen Mary University of London Professor of Global and Imperial History, canvassed a variety of apologies including Biden’s on the centenary of the Tulsa massacre of African Americans; The German recognition of the 1904-07 genocide of Herero and Nama people in what is now Namibia; British apologies for slavery, the Irish potato famine, the Mau Mau suppression and the Amritsar massacre (they have a lot to apologise for after all); and, the French’s sort of apology over the Rwandan genocide.

He points out that the British tend to express regret rather than apologise and that the Germans are silent on other genocides in German East Africa. The Belgian King Phillip expressed ‘deepest regrets’ for Leopold II actions in the Congo. In that situation ‘regrets’ seems a bit weak in this context when one considers that if Leopold had had to face the equivalent of the Nuremberg Trials he would have been condemned to death. On reflection other colonial leaders might have met the same fate.

There is also a bit of a push-back from conservative politicians who pay lip service to the past and argue that ‘we’ in the contemporary sense are not responsible and that we should get on with our lives. The Kevin Rudd apology was a very notable exception to this practice.

Churches have reluctantly been dragged into apologies after Royal Commissions, investigatory journalism, graphic survivor tales and political and financial pressure have forced them to act.

In Australia the Roman Catholic Church tried to nickel and dime victims and tie them up in legal tangles. George Pell’s church and the Lutherans were expert in this. In the US dioceses prudently declared bankruptcies to evade compensation.

In a 1994 paper, Forgiveness and Reconciliation in situations of sexual assault,  for the Uniting Church in Australia Commission on Women and Men, Dr Peter Horsfield, then a pastor and academic, analysed the pre-conditions of apologies and repentance by perpetrators and argued that “thinking about what human forgiveness means has become confused, amoral and urgently needs clarification.”

“Christian forgiveness in situations of sexual assault requires a number of essential prerequisites: protection and restoration. Of the dignity and integrity of those who have been violated; effective structures for ensuring the safety and protection of the vulnerable; a clear affirmation of the ethical expectations for fair relations between people of inequitable power; and the enforcement of legal and moral standards. Without these things being present forgiveness degenerates into a simple condoning of evil and perpetuates the violence,” he wrote.

Horsfield stressed the need for truth-telling; that forgiveness is not an end in itself but the beginning of a recovery process; and, that it can only follow the clear confession and repentance of the one who has perpetrated the violence.

Ironically, when the Uniting Church and other churches and institutions were deeply involved in scandals and vain attempts to deal with the issues in secret, while also facing the challenge of the emerging impact of social media, the Uniting Church chose to remove from their ministerial education college the one person in Australia who had a PhD in media and religion – Dr Peter Horsfield.

Meanwhile in current-day Australia the fundamentalist Christians in the Morrison Cabinet and Government, along with those fundamentalists stacking branches around the country in a bid to take over the party, Christian charity and forgiveness are not top of mind. What is top of mind is that strand of long historical religious tradition – controlling, punishing and silencing those with whom they disagree.

Fortunately for us in the West actual auto da fes are no longer possible. But metaphorical ones – often with the aid of the Murdoch media – are still frequent events. Just ask Yassmin-Abdel -Magied’s. After her Lest we forget post she apologised to veterans but that was not enough to save her from being driven out of the country.

If she had stuck to her guns and refused to apologise she would have had at least one of the major qualifications for Liberal-National Party pre-selection and rapid promotion to the Ministry.

NB: Dr Peter Horsfield is a friend and former colleague of the author.

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