Friday, September 29, 2006

Making apologies

Interesting debate prompted by Ben MacIntyre's article about the modern propensity for politicians to apologies for historical actions - or failures to act - that they were not personally implicated in.

Norm doesn't agree with MacIntyre's dismissal of the whole idea:
"Not only individuals but also collectivities can bear responsibility for wrongs. And since collectivities - firms, universities, political parties, nations - are represented by persons, and it is only persons who can speak for them, it can happen that an individual who wasn't a member of the collectivity in question at the time the putative wrong was committed can - perfectly meaningfully and sincerely - be the one to apologize for it."
He goes on to argue that even if members of the collective responsible for wrongs committed are no longer alive, it does not follow that someone who represents said collective cannot meaningfully apologise.

David T disagrees to the extent that in as far as to apologise denotes an admission of personal responsibility, this is not a meaningful act since collectives are in reality heterogeneous and do not really have personalities of their own. He goes on:
"This is not to say that there is no point in an institution offering an apology for a wrong committed (or permitted) in the name of a "collectivity" a generation ago, by persons who are no longer associated with that institution. To do so is not entirely pointless. A political leader might "apologise" for slavery or genocide committed by a nation in the past, because it wants to make it clear that the society he leads it is no longer the sort that would tolerate or promote either of those two practices. The "apology" may be symbolic: but it won't be empty. The act of "apology" may be, in effect, a defining moment for the society. However, because collectivities are not persons, that "apology" can never be an admission of guilt."
It's a tricky one this. The first thing to get out of the way is that while MacIntyre has a point about the potential for cheap sentiment being doled out with this sort of thing, Norm's acceptance that this form of apologizing may be valid does not preclude this very possibility.

More problematic though is this notion of collectives having a personality of their own that stretches across generations. The notion of collective identity - and by extension, collective guilt - is a dodgy concept and there is no doubt that historically it has been misused, to say the least - having been extended beyond even the Old Testament limit of the third and fourth generations. In this sense I'm more inclined to agree with MacIntyre and David T.

However, only an ultra-individualistic approach would forbid people from identifying with their history in some sense and here some shadow of the notion of responsibility might be appropriate. It depends on the extent to which people identify with their history. It isn't, I don't think, realistic to imagine oneself as a completely pristine being in this world unencumbered by the past. On the other hand, notions of pride and guilt over the actions of one's forebears should be held lightly. Or let me put it another way: if you feel it is unjust to be held responsible for the misdeeds of your ancestors, then there must be a limit to the extent to which you can identify with their successes and their glories. And since the people we are talking about often self-consciously do just that, it is not perhaps inappropriate for them to share also a sense of guilt for the misdeeds of the institutions they represent. Not guilt in a personal sense, of course - just an awareness that things could have, and should have, been otherwise. For what is guilt except the understanding that there was a better alternative?

I think we often subconsciously recognise the failure to take this sort of balance as extremism. The jingoist chauvinist recognises only triumphs and glory in the past; the self-loathing 'internationalist' sees only crime and adopts an ultra-individualistic stance under the misconception that only they and their co-believers who are pure of faith have somehow miraculously live and move and have their being in this world untainted by the human stain. The reasonable person, I think, senses the balance between shame and pride but also between the past, the present and the future. The present should not be annihilated for some future that can't be known. Neither should it be suffocated with a sense of history worn like a cage. Because while awareness is good, a too vivid memory of past wrongs - whether by the children of victims or those who were perpetrators - ends up enslaving everyone. So if 'apologies' help to avoid this fate - are they not worth doing after all?

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