Sunday, February 17, 2008

Why Say Sorry?

One of the typical arguments trotted out against official apologies for historical atrocities (slavery, genocide, apartheid, etc.) is that "we" (that is, the folks still alive) weren't the ones who did the wrong. Indeed, often times we're not even descended from the wrongdoers. So why should we say we're sorry?

In his discussion about Australia's upcoming apology for "the lost generation" (where Aboriginal children were forcibly taken from their families on the grounds that the Aborigines were going to die out soon anyway), John Quiggin flagged the best response to that argument I've heard yet, from Raimond Gaita's book A Common Humanity. Simply put, "any moral position allowing pride in the achievements of our forebears and our community necessarily entails shame in their failings."

So, if I express pride in America's fight for freedom in WWII, or the emancipation proclamation, or the development of democratic political theory as part of my identity as an "American", then I similarly as part of that identity must express shame for the genocide of Native Americans, the enslavement of Black Africans, and the other myriad failings of American society. They're part and parcel of the same commitment I have as a member of this community. But too many people want the sweet without any of the sour.


Anonymous said...

Brutal self/flaggelation is not required.

HOwever, my congratulations on your enlightenment.

PG said...

Gaita's point is not a particularly creative one.

I am proud of my family members' virtues and successes; should one of them become a criminal, I will be duly ashamed. It's tribal thinking.

In fairness, however, I'm sure there are some people who are wholly indifferent to the past. They neither are proud of America's accomplishments nor are ashamed of its failures, being focused wholly on their own deeds. This probably is the more rational view, but such rationality does not seem popular. For example, the answer from minority groups to the chest-beating pride in Caucasian accomplishments is not, "And what did my 1st grade teacher do to help create Beethoven's ouevre?" but instead calls to teach non-Caucasian accomplishments as well.

I don't mean that we shouldn't learn about the past; I'm just skeptical as to whether it makes sense to focus so much on the Who rather than the What. I'm more impressed by a kid who can explain in his own words *why* Beethoven's music is any good than by one who can recite Beethoven's biography. I think it's part of why I find military history very dull: it's long on Great Men and short on ideas.

However, if one is going to do the Great Man thing, certainly the warts-and-all version is required. It's one of the things that UVa and Monticello have gotten fairly good about with regard to Jefferson and the legacy of slavery. They do it intelligently; instead of a rote "And of course slavery was bad. Moving on..." they have specific tours that focus on the centrality of slave labor and creativity in building the university and the plantation.

Stentor said...

In the specific case of the Australian apology, to judge from the comments of the opposition leader, the "I am not personally responsible for that wrongdoing" excuse is just a smokescreen for people who don't believe that any serious wrong was actually done.

PG said...


Not seeing the treatment of native peoples as particularly wrongful is pretty typical of conservatives. See Mark's post that is linked to David's for another example of it. The rationale usually goes that
a) native peoples were violent toward one another, so there's nothing different about the violence Europeans committed toward them (cf. this similar rationale that whites enslaving blacks wasn't so bad because Africans captured each other -- I always find this sort of David Horowitz thing amusing because of the fantastic ignorance thus displayed of the attitude of the culturally Arab north toward the rest of Africa, and of the difference between slavery as practiced in the U.S. and as practiced in Africa);
b) you wouldn't want to be living in an uncivilized wilderness, would you? huh? would you? Well, then why are you complaining about the treatment of native peoples?