With apologies to Elton John and Bernie Taupin: sorry seems to be the easiest word. Not a week passes without some media-friendly act of contrition from a figure in authority.
A few days ago, the [UK] Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt apologised “on behalf of the Government and the NHS” for the string of medical blunders that had led to the death of a baby boy. Shortly before, it was the Army’s turn to “apologise for the failings” – ie, punitive extreme exercise during a heatwave – that had killed a young soldier. At the end of last year, the police commander whose errors helped to kill 96 football supporters at Hillsborough apologised to the families of victims. A coroner’s jury verdict in that case will come next month, just as the BBC reports into its complicity in Jimmy Savile’s crimes.
The corporation has already extended a “profound and heartfelt apology” to the women Savile abused on its premises. Its sackcloth service will soon open up again. In the summer, we can expect Sir John Chilcot’s report into the Iraq war.
So the latest apology season has already begun in earnest. Maybe we should heed Australia’s example. To atone for the removal of Aboriginal children from their families, the nation marks a National Sorry Day on 26 May. In contemporary Britain, every day feels like National Sorry Day.
Apology has lost its weight, its focus – and its potential grandeur. We need to get it back. When I first interviewed the great German writer WG Sebald, I asked that peerless explorer of guilt, connivance and oblivion about the gesture made by Willy Brandt in December 1970. On a visit to Poland, the anti‑Nazi resister who became West Germany’s Chancellor dropped to his knees, apparently spontaneously, in front of the monument to the Jews who had rebelled in the Warsaw Ghetto. No one had planned the so-called “Warschauer Kniefall”. His abasement before the victims of German genocidal hatred outraged Brandt’s more impenitent compatriots. Still, if any one moment guaranteed the post-war renewal of his nation, it was that simple deed.
Did Sebald, I wondered, endorse this spectacle of sorrow? “If I had been numbered among the victims,” he carefully replied, “I should probably have been inclined to accept the gesture.” Speaking in his second language, Sebald could even deploy English grammar as a vehicle of moral discrimination. As a non-Jew, a non-Pole, the homage was not his to bless. The forgiveness was not his to grant. It might have been valid. Neither he nor I should presume to judge.
Atonement, and absolution, are strictly non-transferable. No one can act as proxy for another’s guilt, or claim the forgiveness due to another. Day by day, embarrassed institutions scorn this principle. Yet, in a stroke of political (perhaps ethical) genius, Brandt – who had much less than many adult Germans to be sorry about – did not plead and did not confess. Instead, he acted.
Police chiefs, council leaders, broadcasting bosses, government ministers: all delude themselves if they imagine that a grovelling spoken apology for some gross dereliction on or before their watch makes them look brave and just. These leaders think, or assume the public does, that the buck stops at the top. Yes, but their arias of expiation tend to be staged long after the event. Key personnel will have changed, and the current post-holder can brandish a doorstopper report crammed with policy reforms into the camera lens. By pretending to shoulder the past guilt of some long-sacked underling, these suited penitents demand an absolution that cannot belong to them. What their PR spinners plot as proof of humility is, by contrast, a grotesque exercise in hubris.
Apologies, indeed, have begun to look a bit like sex. Acts that can be affecting and profound in private become, in the glare of arc lights, a manipulative and mercenary stunt. We live in the age of apology porn: at best, a corny and forgettable turn; at worst, a cynical exploitation of someone else’s pain.
In the Roman Catholic church, another tainted hierarchy has begun the business of public atonement. Pope Francis has on various occasions voiced sorrow and regret for the systematic abuse of children by priests. Those feelings do not always amount to an apology, for sound theological reasons. On his trip to America last autumn, the Pope said that he felt “overwhelmed with shame” for clerical crimes. Shame does not equal guilt. More specifically, he did say sorry “for the times when you or your family spoke out, to report the abuse, but you were not heard or believed”. This element of apology relates to his executive role as head of a church with an unbroken continuity of powers and duties. In that capacity, he does indeed have responsibility for its institutional failures. But he cannot “apologise” for another’s sins, nor seek forgiveness by proxy.
Secular institutions too might learn to separate generalised sorrow from specific culpability. Apologise less, but apologise deeper – and reform faster. Recognise that repentance may work – should the target consent – as a precision missile, not as an area bombardment. And don’t confuse your fuzzy feelings of dismay, mourning and compassion with the accountability that puts you in the frame for either the curse of blame or the blessing of forgiveness.
Otherwise, the hyperinflation of apology may slip into a looking-glass world where everyone is guilty of everything – and nobody of anything. First witness: Tony Blair. The former premier will happily apologise for the Irish potato famine of the 1840s, but not for the war of choice on Iraq that, in office, he bilaterally planned with George W Bush.
How far back should the buck stretch? If you hold power in a stable, democratic state, quite a long way. Soon after coming into office in 2010, David Cameron apologised for the Bloody Sunday massacre of 1972 in Derry when the Saville Inquiry reported. As “the government is ultimately responsible for the conduct of the armed forces”, and nothing in that pattern of accountability had changed, he was within his rights to say: “On behalf of our country, I am deeply sorry.”
That statement made a difference. Within 10 months, the Queen had visited Dublin and herself offered “deep sympathy... to all those who have suffered as a consequence of our troubled past”. Not an apology, and rightly so. Cameron could legitimately own a recent injury – and seek pardon. The Queen could not.
Public regrets can help to turn a corner – or, perhaps, to smooth the steering around one that history would have turned in any case. Yet if beyond that corner lies a roadblock or dead end, they may come to sound hollow and treacherous. When South Africa launched its Truth and Reconciliation Commission after the end of the apartheid regime some 20 years ago, spectacular acts of atonement often hi-jacked the hearings.
Under the chairmanship of Archbishop Desmond Tutu, a mood of public contrition held sway. Apartheid-era killers and torturers pleaded for official amnesty and, in some cases, personal forgiveness. In fact, only 850 amnesties were granted and 5,400 refused. But a confession-and-absolution paradigm became the keynote of the TRC.
Two decades on, that theatre of repentance has not led to safer, richer lives for millions of black South Africans. Hence the country’s current cynicism about the spectacular apologetics of the TRC. Its carnival of contrition represented a job half done. It offered recognition without restitution.
A few of the worst perpetrators even turned abject humility into a smart career move. Eugene de Kock, the secret-police assassin who picked up the nickname “Prime Evil”, was sentenced to 212 years in prison. Last year, he won parole after embarking on a frenzy of high-profile atonement. More practically, he told victims’ relatives exactly what happened to their loved ones. The truth really has set him free.
Even more remarkably, De Kock’s boss Adriaan Vlok – a South African law-and-order minister in the final stages of apartheid – has returned the rituals of apology to a medieval model of performative penance. Quite literally, Vlok washes the feet of his department’s victims and their families: such as the mothers and widows of the “Mamelodi 10”, anti-apartheid protesters drugged and then burnt to death in a minivan. Vlok’s acts of self-abasement have given rise to intense outpourings of emotion. In some cases, so it seems, sorrow enacted, rather than sorrow expressed, can result in catharsis.
The sight of the police minister of a racist state crouching at the feet of those he wronged feels a long way from the cagey form of words crafted by lawyers to let some squirming executive or politician off the hook. More of the former scenes, and fewer of the latter, might help to upgrade our culture of contrition.
During the Middle Ages, apology had to be seen to be done. In 1174, four years after he had instigated the murder of Thomas Becket in Canterbury Cathedral, King Henry II not only knelt in penance at the Archbishop’s tomb. He donned sackcloth and ashes and had 80 monks thrash him with birch rods.
The Chilcot Inquiry [Iraq Inquiry] is expected to report in June or July. If you know a squad of 80 monks, tell them to start whittling those birch branches now.