Contrition Chic and the Politics of Public Apology

The descendants of both victims and perpetrators must realise a public apology is neither restitutive nor reparative. But by embodying the promise of future action, it can be transformative.

Passengers aboard the SS Komagata Maru in 1914. Credit: James Luke Quiney fonds/City of Vancouver Archives/AM

Passengers aboard the SS Komagata Maru in 1914. Credit: James Luke Quiney fonds/City of Vancouver Archives/AM

Which atrocities from the incurable past do we think we are obliged to remember?
Susan Sontag, Regarding the Pain of Others

Justin Trudeau, the Canadian prime minister, has expressed his intentions to apologise for the 1915 Komagata Maru incident, setting off a debate about the function of public and national apologies. Trudeau, however, is only one of a long line, for the last decades of the 20th century inaugurated what is called “the age of apology”.

Those years were marked by a series of public apologies by presidents, statesmen and leaders for historical wrongs. US President Bill Clinton apologised to the Hawaiians in 1993, Ugandans in 1998, and Guatemalans in 1999. In 1986, Canadian churches apologised to the native people for ‘‘past wrongs’’. In 1994 the Hungarian Church apologized for the involvement of its members in the Holocaust. The Catholic Church apologised for 2000 years of sin in 2000. Tony Blair offered an apology in 1997 for the Irish potato famine; Argentina apologised in 2000 for giving shelter to Nazi war criminals and European states apologised in 2001 for slavery. Queen Elizabeth apologised in 1997 for the 1919 massacre in India. Australia’s Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd apologised to the Stolen Generation of Aboriginal people in 2008. In 2015, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, at a session of the United States Congress, stated “deep repentance” for Japan’s actions during World War II. Demands for such public apologies – Gujarat 2002, Delhi 1984, or from Britain for colonial rule – have been voiced in India as well.

“Apology” actually is a speech of self-justification and defence of one’s actions, in its etymological origins. It is also an expression of regret at one’s actions. So the term offers an interesting medley of meanings – from explanatory/explicatory justification through defence to repentance, a medley that should arrest us when a nation, or its legitimate representative, offers a “public apology” for past wrongs.

Revelation and recognition, therefore, are clearly the first stages in the offering of a public apology, as David Boyd has proposed. What is revealed, however, is what is already part of the historical record. But it is the admission of wrong-doing or culpability that characterises this particular revelation within the framework of the public apology. The country recognises its culpability in the act/event. However, we also recognise that such an admission must be read only as an admission of regret and not as either justification or defence. The public apology cannot, then, ever be offered in the sense of justifications or defence: it is assumed that a nation apologises because its actions which may have been justified or defensible then, are not so now. This is an interesting conundrum because a nation’s actions, which might be necessary or justified at their historical moment in that nation’s political views, may have to be apologised for at some point in the future. The public apology is therefore a communicative act that stretches from past to the future.

Trans-generational guilt

The public apology also has an interesting temporal dimension in another sense: a nation owns up responsibility for what its ancients did. This trans-generational nature of apology is the continuity of responsibility, from perpetrators to descendants, where the latter continue to labour under the shame and guilt of their ancestors.

Trudeau, surely, was not one of the Vancouver police or statesmen who prevented the Indian passengers on board the Komagata Maru from disembarking and laid siege to the ship. Yet he feels compelled to offer an apology on behalf of his unknown ancestors. Germany’s legacy, haunted forever by the Holocaust, is a case in point too. A public apology then begs the question about the endurance of the guilt and shame for the perpetrator’s future descendants, just as trans-generational trauma haunts the victims of the Holocaust, genocides, slavery and colonialism. Is a public apology a restatement of unending trauma?

Public apologies are forms of public history and collective/cultural memory. A nation’s apology reformats, or ought to, our perceptions of that nation. Cultural memories are, as Marita Sturken writes, a “field of contested meanings in which [people] interact with cultural elements to produce concepts of the nation, particularly in events of trauma, where both the structures and the fractures of a culture are exposed.” Within such claims and counter-claims of memories, ideas of the nation can be rethought. A public apology serves as a carrier of public/cultural memory because it shifts the onus of remembering on to the descendants of perpetrators as well (and not just the memory of victims). This is a “pluralisation of processes of remembrances in society”, in Martin Zeirold’s terms. Taking ownership of such memories by former perpetrator nations/communities, and not just by victims, is an act of responsibility as well. To revisit cultural memories is to reinscribe them for present and future purposes, and this is what a public apology initiates.

If a public apology remains at the level of the speech act, a rhetorical flourish, then what exactly is altered for the victim? There are of course few direct victims of such events any more, but does an admission of guilt need to be accompanied by material reparation and restitution? Clearly, the children of the Stolen Generation cannot be restored to their childhood, so what does the public apology by Kevin Rudd serve? It serves, one can assume, a minimal return to a certain form of civic engagement between former perpetrators and victims, or descendants of both. It opens up a space where the speech act works as a bridge between the two.

This civic space for more productive and less antagonistic engagement of the two sides is opened up because the admission of historical guilt or shame serves as a mode of re-establishing public trust, as Zohar Kampf notes: that a nation owns up its misdeeds, even if these were acceptable in the then historical moment. The restoration of public trust is not about the past, but about the present and the future where descendants of the two (perpetrators and victims) can stop seeing each other only in those terms, and in terms of their (antagonistic) historical relations. As in personal apologies, the public apology by a nation is an attempt at social reintegration, to return to a more dialogic civic relation. Further, since public trust is integral to the functioning of the comity of nations, global trade, geopolitical concerns like refugee or disaster relief, the public apology goes some way in the restoration of a space of possibles, where the two sides are not pre-determined in their role as victims and perpetrators.

Apology as promise of future action

The public apology also instils a measure of trust because it reveals the nation (formerly a perpetrator in some form) as having undergone a period of honest self-examination and introspection. For trust to be restored, this is a crucial factor, for public trust is possible only when the workings of any authority are visible. Thus, when a nation apologises it reveals, in language, its internal workings. Trust, as one of the foundational conditions of a working social order, is generated when we are shown something as abstract as a nation’s “conscience” embodied in its communicable responsiveness to a historical wrong. The public apology is thus an orientation of the nation toward the world, toward former victims and directed at a future where the renewed social relations might be built on greater trust in its ability to undergo self-examination.

Whether a public apology without reparation and restitution repairs social injuries is a moot point, as Marina Warner has queried. Is it an empty speech act working within what she has called “contrition chic”, or is there more to the public apology? Warner’s is a valid moral and ethical question, in order to address which, we can locate the public apology at an awkward intersection: an irreparable past crime/wrong and a possible future. A public apology can be seen as a promise to be worked towards – a promise, by definition, ceases to be a promise if it is fulfilled, and so can only be worked towards – in the future. The public apology is not only about the past, but can, or must, serve as a program of action for the future. An acknowledgement of a historical wrong in the form of the public apology should also, at once, be an assurance – most poignantly captured in the slogan “never again”.

A public apology is neither restitutive nor reparative, but transformative. It is a communicative act that transforms contemporary social relations and civic interactions and is directed at a different future. It does not return us to a pre-historical wrong stage, nor can it offer adequate recompense for lives lost or ruined in the past. All it can do is to restore public trust when the nation promises the victims and their descendants, in the very form of the public apology, that such things will not happen hereafter.

A public apology, then, is a justification not of a past action but a future plan of action. The demand for public apologies that we see mushrooming everywhere today, some of which are accompanied by demands for material reparation, should therefore be treated as a demand for greater responsibility and responsiveness of nations, communities, organizations and groups to the future and not to the past. The demand is for a wholly different way of thinking social relations that retains as public memory the relations of the past, but expects to set a different course of action for those relations.

Pramod K Nayar teaches at the University of Hyderabad