Dr. David Cowan
Let’s get one thing straight. You cannot apologize for someone else. If I apologize to you for something I do then that’s okay. If I apologize to you for something my friend, spouse, sibling or child did then I am doing something else, usually strategic, rather than apologizing. I may try and make you feel better, or calm you down by “apologizing” on their behalf, but I cannot give you the satisfaction that the wrongdoer has the capacity to do.
An apology is essentially a three-step process. The first step is the acceptance one has wronged another. Second step, this is communicated as an acknowledgement. This taking of ownership is the means of taking a third step, which is the attempt towards reparation or reconciliation, which may or may not be accepted or achieved.
In looking at the wrongs of history, we did not wrong others. In looking at the past, we can acknowledge others have done what we consider wrong, but this takes us back to step one of who can accept reasonability. In looking at the past, we cannot repair the damage done because the people are long dead, again taking us back to step one. Many of the links between those who were wronged and today’s generations are somewhat tenuous, largely looming only in the frenzied ideological imagination of progressive cultural warriors.
Why say all this? Well, I’m fed up with all the apologizing that politicians and media pressure heap upon us. The last decades have seen regular feeding frenzies over some historic event or other that office-holders of today are called upon to apologize for. Most recently, and with great media success, there is growing pressure by students for all and sundry to apologize for slavery in the United States.
Slavery is clearly a wrong, and is a wrong that goes back to the earliest days of human organization. It is a mark of progress in the capitalist and democratic organization of society that it was gradually phased out. That said, it still goes on, and America was indeed later than many others to end the practice. This is creating all sorts of confusion and craziness. Tear down statues, rename buildings, get rid of emblems of this past, change the language, and so on, are the calls of change.
The problem, as communists found out, is that the past is very difficult to predict. It is unfortunately not possible to apologize for the past, we cannot airbrush past events out in this way. Today’s leaders cannot apologize, or take responsibility, for what their predecessors or other society leaders did, as that was then this is now, as the saying goes. What they can do is promote the learning of past events, and ensure they don’t repeat history, though all too sadly they do in different ways.
I should add it is not helpful to trivialize the matter, as Harvard Law School did when they decided to rid themselves of a crest because of its links to the family who funded the School. If we take this to its logical conclusion, the Law School should be closed altogether, which some people might think a good idea anyway. It is a meaningless gesture of faculty feelgood, because it is easier to change a symbol than it is to be logical, that’s the beauty of symbolism I guess.
Now I do not advocate the closing of the Law School, nor do I care what they do with their crest. However, what faculty and administrators need to do, and some are thankfully doing this, including at my alma mater Oxford, is resist this juvenile politics of apology.
The only thing we can do with the past is accept it happened, understand why it happened as far as we can know it, and learn from all this. We need to look at the past, to use a German term, through the sitz im leben, the situation and understanding of the time.
Then we can understand events, even if we have distaste for what people did. Then we can learn. Then we can do something about it, by recognizing the signs of things in our own time. However, I am uncomfortable with the posturing moral superiority of people today, especially since humanity today is capable of so many wrongs itself, and those who clamor for these changes are individuals, like all of us, who commit wrongs themselves as flawed human beings. However, I may be wasting my breath, because these calls for apologies are not really about apology or moral understanding.
What is really happening is a two-step process by progressive cultural warriors. First, they want to absolve their own sense of guilt, and show how they are the new secular puritans. This shows their strength and in their eyes weakens the established order. Second, they can then use the past strategically as a means to beat what they see as the establishment, the power and the Right. In other words, they want to put people in a weak position and then punish them, it’s a kind of ideological waterboarding we can well do without, so let’s stop apologizing in the first place.