In its Greek root “apology” means a speech in self-defence. We sometimes still use “apologia” to mean this, with perhaps a nuance in the direction of self-explanation rather than self-defence. But today an apology is an admission of fault as well as a statement of regret and conciliation towards an offended party. Words change their meanings and acquire different freight as usage carries them along; in the past, a politician accused of some great crime—corruption in office, massive failure of duty in affairs of state, or (perhaps more so today) making amorous advances towards members of his or her staff—might have issued an apology in the form of a defence. To defend oneself now requires that one not apologise.
A major use of the concept of apology in Christianity’s early centuries was in defence of its claims against the dismissive scepticism of educated people. This was apologetics, the finding, invention, arrangement and insistence upon arguments and putative evidence in favour of the faith. The church’s acquisition of temporal power rendered this effort unnecessary; once it became a capital crime not to believe, the effort of persuading people by argument and evidence was obsolete. Wherever the temporal power of religion has diminished in our world it is now the sheer weight of history that does the work of apologetics. A Mormon once said, on being taxed with the profound improbabilities of his religion, that it would not seem improbable in a thousand years’ time. He here hit the nail on the head: neither apologetics nor apologies will then be required, if the world continues in its present path.
Politicians do not like to apologise for anything if they can help it, precisely because it involves admission of failure or guilt. Summon images of bowing Japanese prime ministers as they resign: figurative fallings on swords is there connoted. Another word that has acquired a negative cast in this domain is “responsible”: think of the difference between saying “he is a responsible man” and “he is the man responsible.” Being responsible for something means that one has a duty of care or obligation in regard to it; being responsible for something that has gone wrong means that one must apologise. And of course, politicians do not like admitting that things have gone wrong.
Apologies have become a kind of political money. Descendants of slaves demand apologies from today’s governments for the activities of…