What does it mean when politicians apologise?by AC Grayling / February 20, 2014 / Leave a comment
Published in February 2014 issue of Prospect Magazine
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 two or more centuries ago. (They fail to recognise that every individual on the planet is descended from slaves and slaveowners: who apologises to whom, if we chase history back far enough?) But in one sense at least they have a point. The psychology of the demand for an apology is that when one is wronged, one desires recognition of the fact as it applies to oneself, and acknowledgment by the perpetrator of the wrong done and the harm caused. There are good practical reasons for lancing the boils of resentment in this way, thereby teaching ourselves how to do better in future. In quotidian domestic life the giving and taking of apologies is a key regulator of affairs, like a thermostat or homeostatic device. Our readiness to apologise to others for bumping into them in the supermarket or not seeing them about to enter the door behind us, is a marker of how right such philosophers as Mencius and David Hume were—despite large differences otherwise— in viewing human nature as more rather than less benevolent. For most people most of the time, the default attitude is an instinctive readiness to get on with whomever they encounter in the daily round. Because in our crowded warrens we have to navigate a dance of personal spaces and mutual adjustments, the reflex “Sorry!” is a commonplace. (It seems that only behind the wheel of a car does this attitude change to something far different.) But politics is not a Tube station or a supermarket. The rules of engagement are very different out there on the thin ice of political life. Occasionally a politician will apologise—the more easily if it is for something that happened centuries ago; he or she might get credit for taking the rap for distant predecessors—but generally it is political suicide, or the next best thing, to do it in relation to a current matter. A game results: the less inclined a politician is to apologise, the more hounding by the press follows. The only invariable result is that sooner rather than later it distracts attention from other things which might be, and (given what the press tends to hound politicians for) often are, considerably more important. When the press get it provably wrong, they print an apology. How easy that is: a little paragraph tucked away, sniffily implying the opposite of what it says, rejecting while claiming to accept corporate blame. There is something very unsatisfying about corporate apologies. The bigger the corporation, the less satisfying its apologies (for oil spills and the like) tend to be. This is why, I suppose, those who seek admission of responsibility from corporate miscreants prefer to have any resulting apologies in the form of hard cash.