In the age of apology, does forgiveness mean anything?

Public mea culpas are becoming more and more common. But that doesn’t mean real accountability—or reconciliation

April 10, 2024
Illustration by Prospect
Illustration by Prospect

Another day, another apology. MP William Wragg apologised this week for giving colleagues’ personal phone numbers to a honeytrap blackmailer.

A scandal in the Tory party, which increasingly resembles less a functioning government than an omnishambolic soap opera, is hardly unusual—see also Paul Scully, Frank Hester and Rachel Maclean. But the Wragg affair is noteworthy as the latest symptom of an accelerating culture of apology in public life. We are living in the age of apology.

The Trevelyans and the Gladstones are among the many British families who have publicly apologised for their ancestors’ involvement in the slave trade. A 2022 academic study of 329 apologies offered by 74 countries for historic wrongdoing shows nation states have been saying sorry with increasing frequency since the turn of the millennium. The Alliance of Historical Dialogue and Accountability was formed in 2012 at Columbia University and houses the Political Apologies Archive

At the same time, the apology has been trivialised thanks to its constant, formulaic and insincere deployment in public life, diluting its power as a tool for resolution. Corporate apologies, for instance, are now 10 a penny. England’s water companies apologised for deliberately polluting our rivers, beaches and seas. Does anyone believe them? The former boss of Wilko claimed she was “sorry that we are not there supporting these people anymore”, after the 93-year-old high street chain went into administration, having cut 100,000 jobs since 2020. No mention, though, of the £77m Wilko paid in dividends or the £50m hole in the company’s pension scheme. What are sorries like these—or Wragg’s or Hester’s—really worth? 

Does any of this signal a cultural shift towards more accountability, contrition and humility—or has the public apology become just another aspect of PR and branding? “Apology saturation may well mean the public are becoming inured to their full impact, or indeed treat them cynically,” says Jack Myers, a crisis consultant at Alder, a UK-based public relations firm specialising in reputation management. “That’s understandable. Normally, apologies are an intimate, private or personal correspondence, and a public apology can be prone to accusations of grandstanding or crass self-flagellation.”

In the last decade, we have certainly become all too used to the lurid tragicomedy of the disgraced public figure: the initial, floundering denial of wrongdoing, the hastily drafted, self-abasing Twitter recantation, the belated, still-defensive resignation that screams jump before you’re pushed. There are fresh apologies from politicians almost daily. But the apotheosis of the genre is surely the former prime minister Boris Johnson’s delivery of perhaps the greatest “I’m sorry I was caught” apology in history for attending a party at 10 Downing Street during the first Covid-19 lockdown.

The demand to apologise has invaded all areas of culture. Footballers are routinely compelled to post ludicrous apologies on their social media accounts for missing penalties, being sent off or—to take a particularly absurd recent example involving Lionel Messi—committing the cardinal sin of getting injured. Philip Schofield, the former This Morning presenter, filmed a humiliating apology, vape in hand, saying he would “die sorry” for having an affair at work. “Reality” television “star” Gemma Collins “issued” (why always “issued”?) an apology for letting her dog eat off a plate in a restaurant. Marjorie Ingall and Susan McCarthy, authors of Sorry, Sorry, Sorry: The Case for Good Apologies (2023) and creators of the website SorryWatch, have been tracking the good, the bad, the ugly and the farcical in public statements of recantation, retraction and regret.

New forms, rhetorics and theatres of secularised public penitence have emerged: the hangdog, rueful appearance at a wobbling lectern, the claustrophobic press conference or the anodyne Instagram post with ill-advised typeface and colour scheme. The well-worn tropes of the contemporary apologia are now instantly recognisable: the mea culpa, the stage-managed contrition, the commitment to “stepping back and taking time to learn”, followed by a donation to some worthy foundation, perhaps, or a rapid retreat from the public eye.

However—and leaving aside the more trivial spectacles of faux-compunction—all this begs the question: in our age of apology, is forgiveness still possible? Whether you denounce the so-called “cancel culture” of public figures or celebrate the new logic of accountability, it seems that the contemporary public sphere offers precious few paths to redemption, despite the abundance of performative remorse. 

Public apologies are nothing new, of course. Indeed, there is a fascinating and deeply ambiguous history of political forgiveness and attempts at reconciliation, demonstrating a range of spiritual, legal, political, economic and diplomatic approaches. 

A major innovation of Christianity was to replace the Lex Talionis—the law of “an eye for an eye”—with the pacifist mantra of “turning the other cheek”. Jesus’s crucifixion, we might remember, was a physical incarnation of cosmic forgiveness. Medieval Christianity, with its soteriology based on a booming market of sin, repentance and redemption, fuelled by the purgatory and indulgence industry and the theology of merit, made a never-ending cycle of apologies and forgiveness central to salvation.

After the civil wars in England, Scotland, and Ireland, the “Act of Free and Generall Pardon Indempnity and Oblivion” (1660) attempted a top-down imposition of national forgiveness by threatening financial penalties for “Persons, within Three Years, using any words tending to revive the Memory of the late Differences”. 

Modern attempts at political apology and forgiveness have left an ambivalent legacy. In Spain, the Pacto del Olvido (Pact of Forgetting) was struck by right- and left-wing parties, who agreed to suppress memories of the Spanish Civil War and the animosities and atrocities of the Franco regime (although this was challenged in 2007 with the passing of the Historical Memory Law). 

Germany did the opposite. Vergangenheitsbewältigung (“the work of coping with the past” of Nazism) resulted in a highly visible culture of postwar repentance, including nationwide public monuments and reminders of the Holocaust, remembrance hardwired into school curricula and, most recently, the German government’s zealous support for Israel’s bombardment of Gaza. Japan has issued dozens of apologies for its atrocities during the Second World War, as well as financial compensation, most prominently relating to the hundreds of thousands of women forced into sexual slavery (known as “comfort women”). But continuing arguments about the wording, formality and contexts of these apologies have prevented differences being buried.

After the end of apartheid, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was established in South Africa in 1996. It was designed to administer restorative justice, but with an emphasis on amnesty, forgiveness and reparations, rather than punishment. It was regarded as a success at the time—but its chair, Desmond Tutu, later said the work of the Commission remained “scandalously unfinished”.

Now, though, forgiveness seems impossible in an increasingly polarised world. Perhaps the seeming failure of reconciliation today is due to the impossibility of forgetting: everything is recorded for posterity, historic transgressions are ever-present, polluting sins never expiated, grudges never dropped. Israel’s genocidal vengeance in retribution for the Hamas attacks—amid promises to “never forgive” on both sides—has made compromise and peace in the Middle East effective impossibilities, perhaps indefinitely.

Dmitry Muratov, the Russian Nobel Peace laureate, said in September 2022: “Ukraine will never forgive Russia. You may want to forgive everything, but you click in the search engine: Mariupol, Irpin or Bucha. And you can’t forgive a goddamn thing anymore.” He added: “Every step of this war, every crime and every shot… will now remain forever.”

These are only the most high-profile examples of how political animosities and personal vendettas plague public life: raked up on social media, brandished in the headlines, old and new grievances irresponsibly aggravated by grifting politicians. Division and enmity, not debate, shape the course of public opinion. The algorithmically manipulated hysteria of social media and our bilious tabloid press fuel endless rancour, and the general abandonment of nuance in public discourse—Jesus’s dictum “He that is not with me is against me” (Matthew 12:30) writ large–precludes the compromise essential to genuine reconciliation.

In fact, in our age of apology, a lack of forgiveness has itself become a political tool, and a factor in electoral arithmetic that might end up deciding the future of the UK. In the absence of any clarity on its policies, the Labour party appears to have bet the house on the electorate refusing to forgive or forget the Conservatives’ mismanagement of the Covid-19 pandemic or the disastrous Truss-Kwarteng budget. At the same time, it remains to be seen whether the public and longstanding Labour voters can forgive Keir Starmer’s broken promises, policy U-turns and equivocations on Israel’s bombardment of Gaza, which could derail the Labour leader’s ostensible procession to Downing Street.

In Forgiveness: An Alternative Account (2022) Matthew Ichihashi Potts, a professor at Harvard Divinity School, says public confession and contrition should not be merely transactional, a “punishing price paid for absolution”, but should “serve as the introduction to a better remembering” and, in turn, accountability. The war-torn 20th century left a trail of imperfect apologies, reconciliations, redemptions and resentments in its wake. If we can learn anything from it in our own age of apology, it is that we should stop cheapening the power of apologies—but also remember the possibility of forgiveness.