Lots of people are commenting on the various apologies offered up by variously Rudd and Brown. (you can google your own—I'm lazy. And I'm not going to apologise for it)
The inestimable Mr Eugenides makes a very good fist of the arguments, but somehow I'm left feeling slightly unsatisfied:
Modern political apologies may often be pointless or self-interested, and this latest example would certainly appear to be both, however worthy the cause. But that doesn't mean that they are so by definition. The evil that men do lives after them, and there are times when we need to acknowledge that as a nation. In the absence of the possibility of apology from those responsible for the original "crime", I would say that the office of the Prime Minister is an appropriate vehicle through which to say, this was wrong, it should not have been done, and we are sorry.
That's true up until the last four words.
Given my solemn duty to educate and correct, I feel it is incumbent upon me to expand.
Here, therefore, is the Pedant-General's handy cut-out-and-keep guide for politicians wishing to apologise for something.
You simply cannot apologise—actually apologise—for something for which you were not responsible or accountable.
You just can't. I tend to think that political apologies are essentially attempts to grab cost-free boy points—it's a blatant attempt to look good—and are therefore almost always to be condemned.
An apology requires contrition and if there is no true contrition, then it's not an apology.
It may in fact make matters worse. If the apology appears insincere or simply for show, then it appears to be an attempt to weasel out. Not good.
Further, if you have—to take a purely hypothetical example—make a complete cock up of everything you've ever touched and brought a powerful nation to the very brink of bankruptcy and then steadfastly refuse to recognise your part in this disaster, then any apology you make on any other topic is going to be met with more than just a side-portion of scepticism. Remove the beam from thine own eye and all that. Especially if it's in your only good one.
On that note, if the "apology" intones anything along the lines of "I feel your pain", then it ALWAYS makes matters worse. Of course your political apologiser doesn't feel your pain. He may imagine that he does, but that's going to be a pale imitation of the real thing and it displays a risible lack of awareness to fail to appreciate this.
Besides, you end up thinking "Politician feeling pain? What a cracking idea!" and make a mental note to go and find your thumb-screws.
It's not real contrition unless there is a commitment to make good the error.
If someone has been treated manifestly unjustly and has suffered loss as a result, then an apology on its own is insufficient. It may in fact make matters worse—see above.
In order for a wrong to be put right, it has actually to be put right. Saying "Sorry" often appears to be cost-free in more than one way.
P-G Rule of thumb: Political apologies should be regarded by default as shameless attempts to look good and should be treated as devious and/or immoral unless there is OVERWHELMING evidence to the contrary and such evidence needs to be in form of ACTIONS not words.
So what are you—assuming you are a Prime Minister—to do?
Well, you can recognise that something done by predecessors was wrong/immoral, spell out precisely why, recognise that you understand this and to make a commitment that you will
- correct any harm to individuals as result of your predecessors actions
- ensure that we are all able to remember that this bad thing happened and why it is a bad thing—and probably also why it occurred—in order that we do not make the same or similar mistakes in the future
- use the good offices of your position to root out similar instances of injustice wherever they may be occurring outside your juridiction in whatever manner that may be possible.
You don't need to have a cry with the victims, but you do need to show grit, determination and an understanding of what happened and why. None of this requires the utterance of the word "sorry" and any such statement will be all the more powerful for its absence.
Just one thing though: there's a quid pro quo. All of the above refers to individuals and, implicitly, living individuals. So if you're thinking of extorting an apology from someone, here is a handy guide for you too. Never let it be said that your free-to-air Pedant-General is not comprehensive in coverage.
Groups have no rights, only individuals.
So don't go claiming that I need to stump up my hard earned cash just because someone a bit like you was hard done by.
Nail the people or organisations responsible
In that order: only go for the organisation if the relevant people are no longer around.
Further, just as it's generally distasteful for someone to apologise for something for which they were not responsible, it's a bit off to go around trying to extort concessions from people (or organisations) who weren't responsible.
Claims are timebound
Those bastard Normans stole my great-great-great-great..........grandparents' sheep. Aye right.
We can argue about where the time limit may lie, but that such a limit exists is not up for debate. I would argue (and I'm sure that I will be comprehensively eviscerated in the comments—for which I will need apologies for my hurt feelings, mark you) that the limit may be different in different cases:
- Actually expropriated physical property still exists and can be claimed for. You've got a good case, maybe for several generations.
- Physical harm really relates only to individuals so the claim passes to the other side with them, and possibly before that point.
- Hurt feelings: you can f*ck off now.
In two forms.
Firstly and generally, shit happens. Get over it.
Secondly but more specifically, if shit has happened, but those responsible (or their heirs and successors) have already made extensive efforts to clear it up and there are considerable safeguards against it happening again, then you're not seeking an apology or restitution: you're seeking rent.
There. That's cleared the air.