False Apology Syndromeby Theodore Dalrymple
There is a fashion these days for apologies: not apologies for the things that one has actually done oneself (that kind of apology is as difficult to make and as unfashionable as ever), but for public apologies by politicians for the crimes and misdemeanours of their ancestors, or at least of their predecessors. I think it is reasonable to call this pattern of political breast-beating the False Apology Syndrome.
Mr. Blair, the then British prime minister, apologized to the Irish for the famine; one of the first public acts of Mr. Rudd, the Australian prime minister, was to apologize to the Aborigines for the dispossession of their continent; Pope John Paul II apologized to the Muslims for the Crusades. There are many other examples, and there are also demands for apologies by aggrieved, or supposedly aggrieved, groups.
What is this all about, and what does it signify? Does it mean that at long last the powerful are making a genuine effort to see things from the point of view of the weak, or is it, on the contrary, a form of moral exhibitionism that subverts genuine moral thought and conduct?
Let us examine briefly the apology for the Crusades as an example of the whole genre. It is not exactly a new discovery that the Crusaders often, perhaps usually or even always, behaved very badly. It is not in the nature of invading armies to behave well, even when discipline is strong, morale is high, and control of the foot soldiers is firm; it is no secret that these conditions did not exist during the Crusades, to put it rather mildly.
They were, however, rather a long time ago. The Crusades were an attempt to recover for Christendom what had been lost by force, with all the accompanying massacre, pillage, and oppression that the use of force in those days implied. No one, I think, expects an apology from present-day Arabs for the imperialism of their ancestors, either as a matter of moral duty or political likelihood. We are all born into the world as we find it, after all; we are not responsible for what went before us.
Of course, we may take pride in the culture and achievements of our biological or political ancestors — indeed such pride is necessary for the preservation and development of any civilization — in which case it is only right and proper that we should also face up squarely to the less glorious aspects of our heritage. But this is a matter for genuine historical scholarship and moral reflection of the kind that leads to a determination never to repeat the crimes, not for sound-bite sloganeering. The world would be a better place if academics in the Islamic world faced up to the fact (and were free to face up to the fact) that their religion does not have a peaceful historical record, just as the world has become a better place because the Germans have acknowledged the recent historical record of their country. If large numbers of Germans, including their leaders, started to say that Germany is what it has always been, namely a land of peace, the rest of the world would have good cause to tremble.
But official apologies for distant events, however important or pregnant with consequences those events may have been, are another matter entirely. They have bad effects on both those who give them and those who receive them.
The effect on the givers is the creation of a state of spiritual pride. Insofar as the person offering the apology is doing what no one has done before him, he is likely to consider himself the moral superior of his predecessors. He alone has had the moral insight and courage to apologize.
On the other hand, he knows full well that he has absolutely no personal moral responsibility for whatever it is that he is apologizing for. In other words, his apology brings him all kudos and no pain.
This inevitably leads to the false supposition that the moral life can be lived without the pain of self-examination. The locus of moral concern becomes what others do or have done, not what one does oneself. And a good deed in the form of an apology in public for some heinous wrong in the distant past gives the person who makes it a kind of moral capital, at least in his own estimation, against which he can offset his expenditure of vice.
The habit of public apology for things for which one bears no personal responsibility changes the whole concept of a virtuous person, from one who exercises the discipline of virtue to one who expresses correct sentiment. The most virtuous person of all is he who expresses it loudest and to most people. This is a debasement of morality, not a refinement of it. The end result is likely to be self-satisfaction and ruthlessness accompanied by unctuous moralizing, rather than a determination to behave well.The effect on some of the recipients of such apologies is likely to be very bad also, for similar though slightly different reasons. Let us take the demand for an apology for the Atlantic slave trade as an example.
I doubt whether anyone could be found nowadays who would mount a moral defense of that trade. That it was hideous and cruel beyond all description hardly needs saying, and what does not need saying should not be said, at least not often, for otherwise the lady doth protest too much.
The demand for an apology supposes that there is a clearly definable person, or group of persons, who can be held responsible for the trade, or at the very least to have been the beneficiaries of it. In other words, the world can be neatly divided into historical oppressed and oppressor, victim and perpetrator.
Most historical situations and their consequences are more complex and ambiguous than this simple schema would suggest, and the slave trade is no exception. For medical reasons having to do with relative immunity to malaria, if for no others, the supply of slaves depended crucially on the co-operation of African suppliers who captured slaves for sale. No apology from their descendents is required. The trade was abolished almost entirely through the efforts of white abolitionists. However discontented with their lot present-day American descendents of slaves may be, they are much better off than they would have been had their ancestors not been brought to America. Are they morally obliged, then, to offer up thanks to the slave traders who brought their ancestors to America?
Thus the demand for an apology for the Atlantic slave trade is a demand that people with no personal responsibility for it apologize to people who have suffered no personal wrong from it. From the point of view of morality, this is a very strange demand.
It isn’t very difficult to discern what lies behind it: money, and lots of it. Nor does it require extraordinary powers of prediction or foresight to know who would get the lion’s share of any such money that was forthcoming.
But even when money is not involved, there are deleterious effects on the recipients of what one might call class-action apologies. Just as those who give them become convinced of their own virtue, so do those who receive them. It is enough that they should be considered victims for them to conclude that they can do no wrong, or at any rate no wrong worth talking about. For what is a personal peccadillo to set beside a great historical wrong?
An apology of this kind, then, or even the supposition that such an apology ought to be forthcoming, exerts a liberating, that is to say loosening, effect upon personal morals. For what can I do wrong to compare with the wrongs that my ancestors suffered at the hands of your ancestors? How dare you even mention it, you hypocrite!
The neat division of populations into victims and perpetrators, oppressed and oppressors, sinners and saints, that public apologies for long-past wrongs both imply and strengthen means that all sense of human tragedy is lost. The situation of the Aborigines in Australia, however, was and is tragic, and would still be tragic even had the settlers behaved from the first in the best possible or morally ideal fashion. (It is not in human nature that they should have done so, least of all in a rough-and-ready and very young frontier society.)
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