an unapologetic anti-apology view

Ian Hunter, Professor Emeritus in the Faculty of Law at Western University in London, Ont., has written a commentary over at The Catholic Register titled I’m sorry, this column is about the blame game. Hunter is critical of umbrella-style apologies given by churches and governments for sins of the past. He uses the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in Canada as an example. The Commission travels the country and provides opportunities for former Residential School students to tell their stories.  Hunter believes,

The interesting thing about this worldwide pandemic of apologizing is that its common feature is the debasement of truth and language. Such apologies debase truth because the person proffering the apology is seldom the one who has committed any historical harm, as indeed the recipient is seldom one who suffered it. Such apologies debase language because, for an apology to be meaningful, contrition must precede regret. In these politically correct exercises, the person apologizing seldom has reason to be contrite, while the recipient has his sense of victimhood officially confirmed.

The Residential School issue is filled with legal and ethical complexities. At the time, schools were built to provide education in remote areas where there was none. We know, now, the errors of colonialism by churches and governments. Taking children from their homes and way of life was wrong. Trying to replace their culture and heritage with that of white, western European society was wrong. Verbally, physically and sexually abusing those same children was not only wrong, it was unconscionably evil. How do we make it right? How do we begin to repair the damage that was done so justice can be served?

Not all religious and priests, lay women and men who taught in these schools were abusers. Not all children were abused. But recompense must be made. Sadly, this has left many dioceses and religious orders on the verge off, or in actual bankruptcy. As with all abuse scandals, many innocent women and men are tainted with the fall-out. The legal issues of justice for evils perpetrated so many years ago are complicated. Apologizing is not.

After a wrong has been acknowledged, apologizing is the first logical step in any reconciliation process. Yes, ideally, the apology should come from the perpetrator. But, when a person acts in the name of a larger body, then that body must apologize also. When John Paul II publicly apologized for the evils of the Inquisition, he was humbly admitting that the Church had erred. An apology will not bring back the dead or undo the suffering, but it tells the world that we know and acknowledge that evil was done in the name of the Church. And with acknowledgement there is contrition and a desire to not let history repeat itself.

Professor Hunter does make a point regarding empty apologies. There are lawyers who provide seminars to businesses on how to make apologies without admitting legal liability. We see frequent examples of empty apologies from politicians and media personalities. “I apologize for my hurtful words” is replaced with, “I apologize if my words hurt you.” This kind of apology takes the responsibility off the perpetrator and places it on the victim.

The weakness of Professor Hunter’s argument is highlighted near the conclusion of his essay,

Nor is our penchant for historical apologies unrelated to the feminization of our era. It is feelings, not thoughts, that are valued today. If I feel wronged, then I must have been wronged. If my life has not turned out as I had hoped, someone must be to blame and who better than the government?

Ah, so the feminization of our era is the problem. Worrying if someone was wronged and apologizing for that wrong is more a woman thing. Men need to stay focused on cerebral matters and leave the messiness of feelings to us.

I’m truly sorry that you think this way, Professor Hunter.

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