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How an Apology Works

Keith Doubt

Professor and Chair of Sociology Department, Wittenberg University
October 15, 2017

Drawing at the start upon G. W. F. Hegel’s writing on evil and forgiveness,  this essay considers the difference as well as the interrelation between apologies and confessions. While different, an apology and a confession are like sisters.

An apology is an expression of regret.  We say, “I am sorry.”  When we apologize, we act.  We address an audience. We act in the sense that the apology shows that we are conscious of the other, of the reality of the other, who is there before us. Because we see and identify the other who was wronged, we give an apology. An apology says that we now exist for another and no longer exclusively for ourselves.  An apology is not an attitude of abasement or humiliation before the other.  It is an act of identifying with the other who we wronged.

A confession is different. A confession is an admission of guilt.  A confession says that morality is no longer something external to ourselves, to which we are only abstractly connected. A confession reveals that morality is something from which we can no longer live apart.  The confession shows, perhaps only to ourselves and God,  that we need morality in order to be ourselves. A confession exemplifies an inner, dramatic change in ourselves; we renounce our  isolated, self-centered existence.

National Apologies and Confessions

To discern what justice truly is, Socrates said in Plato’s Republic that it would be easier to look at states rather than individuals. The object of inquiry is bigger making it easier to see what we are trying to understand. Thus, we now look at recent apologies given by states rather than individuals. By looking at examples of national apologies at a macro level, it may be easier to discern what we are looking at. It may also make the discussion more objective.

In 2010, the British Prime Minister David Cameron offered an apology before the House of Commons for the 1972 “Bloody Sunday” killings of 14 unarmed protesters in Northern Ireland. He said that the British paratroopers massacre of peacefully protesting Catholic protesters was “unjustified and unjustifiable.” On another occasion, however, Cameron chose not to give a British apology for the Amritsar massacre in India in 1919, in which at least 379 innocent people were killed. Cameron noted that Winston Churchill called the massacre a deeply shameful event when the massacre occurred. Churchill confesses to the shame of the Amritsar massacre. Since Churchill had made a public confession, Cameron did not feel obliged to follow up with an apology. Can they exist separate from each other? What is a confession without an apology?

If a confession had come, reparations would logically have followed.

During the Holocaust commemoration of the Jewish victims in the Warsaw ghetto in Poland in 1970, the Chancellor of West Germany, Willy Brandt, suddenly dropped to his knees. He did not utter a word. He said later that he did what people do when words fail them carrying the burden of the millions who were murdered. When Brandt fell to his knees, kniefall, he confessed. He was contrite. Brandt, though, did not say the words, “I am sorry” or utter an apology. It would be difficult to apologize for genocide, an unspeakable crime, a crime that stands outside of language itself. It would also be too hard for the victims of genocide to accept a verbal apology for what was inherently unspeakable. But what is a confession without an apology?

National Apologies and Confessions

In 2008, the United States Congress apologized to African Americans for the racial injustices during the eras of slavery and Jim Crow. At the same time, the United States Congress said its apology could not be used as a legal rationale for reparations. The United States Congress refused to take direct responsibility for the consequences of the social injustices for which it was apologizing. There was an apology but no confession. If a confession had come, reparations would logically have followed.

With the signing of the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, President Ronald Reagan apologized to Japanese Americans during World War II who had been given ten days to sell their homes and businesses and were forced into internment camps. Two years later, President George W. Bush paid $20,000 in reparations to all surviving victims of the internment camps. Here an apology and a confession come together; they work in tandem.

There are utilitarian and pragmatic reasons not to take responsibility for injustices that a state committed.

In 2007, Japan offered a formal apology to the 200,000 so-called “comfort women” in Korea that the Japanese Imperial Army forced into sexual slavery during World War II when Japan established a network of “comfort stations,” to which women were trafficked and used as sexual slaves. Japan pledged 1 billion yen ($8.3M) for the creation of a South Korean foundation to provide the surviving South Korean victims with support services. South Korea, in turn, pledged to drop its demand for reparation, end all criticism of Japan on the issue, and remove a memorial constructed by Korean “comfort women” survivors in 2011 in front of Japan’s embassy in Seoul. Japan, however, did not mention or apologize to the many women who were victims of Japanese “comfort stations” in China, the Philippines, Timor-Leste, and other Asian countries during World War II. Japan gave an apology, but it did not make a genuine confession. The apology was discriminatory toward the women outside of Korea who had suffered the same war crimes.

There are utilitarian and pragmatic reasons not to take responsibility for injustices that a state committed. There are political and instrumental reasons to limit the scope and character of an apology. Reparations may be costly and set a precedent. The dread of losing face and the shame of admitting to war crimes hinder the giving of an apology.

In 2011, Cameron Munter, the United States ambassador to Pakistan asked President Obama to apologize to Pakistan for the deaths of two dozen Pakistani soldiers killed in NATO airstrikes. An apology, the ambassador argued, would defuse the anger that the people in Pakistan felt toward the United States. Following the advice of the Defense Department and military leaders, President Obama declined to make an apology. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton instead offered expressions of remorse. President Obama reasoned that if he were to go against the advice of the Defense Department, it would have been fodder for his Republican opponents. When Secretary of State Clinton offered an expression of remorse, she was giving neither an apology nor a confession. There is no recognition of the other. There is no change in the self. Expressions of remorse are a face-saving gesture.

An apology without a confession and a confession without an apology both exemplify the problem of hypocrisy.

In 2012, the President of Serbia, Tomislav Nikolić apologised on behalf of Serbia for the 1995 massacre of 8,000 Muslims in the Bosnian town of Srebrenica. When Nikolić said, “I am down on my knees because of it. Here, I am down on my knees. And I am asking for a pardon for Serbia for the crime that was committed in Srebrenica. I apologise for the crimes committed by any individual on behalf of our state and our people,” he evokes the image of Brandt’s kniefall at the Holocaust commemoration in Poland without, however, having such an action observed in public. Nikolić, moreover, declined to characterize the killings as an act of genocide. The United Nations war crimes court had already ruled in 2004 that the 1995 Srebrenica massacre was genocide. When asked by a reporter to agree that all the evidence showed that the city had suffered a genocide, Nikolić said the charge remained to be proven. Nikolić refused to confess on Serbia’s behalf to genocide; nor did he apologize for genocide.

Breaking the Hard Heart

An apology without a confession and a confession without an apology both exemplify the problem of hypocrisy. However contrite Brandt’s confession is, without an apology it may seem unconvincing to the victims of genocide. However genuine the apology of the United States Congress to African Americans, without a confession the apology seems self-serving. Each is  one-sided. Each demonstrates a latent contempt for morality, playing on the conditionality of moral principle and offering only a dissemblance of moral principle. The hypocrisy maintains a desired freedom of opposing what is moral and continuing to heed one’s own inner law, a law of individuality and caprice, putting a non-moral consciousness before a moral consciousness. As long as the primacy of the non-moral consciousness is maintained, forgiveness as a reciprocal understanding is impossible. The other who is wronged is not genuinely recognized. The actor who committed injustice exemplifies no change in the self that committed the wrong.

The wounds of the spirit heal and leave no scars behind.

When a confession exemplifies the inner change of the self it affirms an essential relation to what is moral and when an apology genuinely recognizes the other and the other’s reality, forgiveness becomes real. Here is where individuals have an advantage over states. It is easier for individuals to confess and apologize, keeping the two together as sisters, after which forgiveness easily follows. As Hegel puts it: “Breaking the hard heart and raising it to the level of universality is the same process which was expressed in the case of the consciousness that openly made its confession. The wounds of the spirit heal and leave no scars behind.”

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