Is Saying Sorry Enough?

An apology can be a very personal act but it also can take immense proportions as government's apologize for large-scale wrongs against ethnic communities. These apologies are usually scripted formal affairs with monetary reparations. In that spirit, the Canadian government has apologized for the Chinese Head Tax, the Japanese-Canadian internment and the Aboriginal Residential Schools.

These large-scale apologies or collective apologies have a dual purpose: healing within the wronged community and increased political support for the apologizer. To accurately fulfill both of these purposes requires some astute government decision making. The government must decide the form of the apology, the content, and the extent. Collective apologies are, therefore, not for the faint-hearted.

Typically, formal collective apologies are backed by monetary reparations. All three Canadian government apologies discussed in the first paragraph of this post are such examples. There are times, however, where the act of apology with some reparations is deemed inadequate as in the case of the Aboriginal residential schools. 

The residential schools were conceived and implemented through systemic discriminatory government policy and legislation over decades. Once taken from their families, many Aboriginal children were abused and taught self-loathing and hatred for their culture. This was a case where an apology was not enough and neither was the financial reparation offered by the government.

After years of protracted legal negotiations, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, presently hearing evidence in Halifax, was created to build an accurate and complete public account of the event, to determine the reason for it, and to recommend further appropriate commemorations of the event. The Commission has not been without its troubles: Justice LaForme resigned as a commissioner in 2008 over the proper emphasis on "truth" or "reconciliation." Nor has it been without controversy, as the University of Manitoba recently apologized at the commission for educating and mentoring the authority figures involved in the schools such as clergy, teachers, and politicians.

Despite the difficulties in taking collective responsibility and the struggles encountered in striking the right balance between apology and reparation, Canada's culture of redress is an international instruction on how to say "I am sorry" and we, collectively, should not be sorry for that.



It Never Hurts To Say You're Sorry

We live in a culture of apology. As young children, we are taught to apologize when we are wrong. This teaches us empathy (the apology) and compassion (the forgiveness). It also helps us shape an independent self-identity as we accept responsibility for our own actions. An apology can take us to the next level in life as it permits us to move forward, without the burden of the past. An apology is behaviour which is best learned by example. We all do it. Our biblical prophets also did it: Jacob apologized to Esau for taking his birthright. 

There are also literary apologies. While we apologize to acknowledge our misdeeds, for which we seek forgiveness, and as an expression of regret, the literary apology is for a much different purpose. Plato's Apology, which famously describes Socrates defence of his teachings during his trial for sedition, is a persuasive justification and not a true apology. The only regret shown by Socrates is over the tribunal's inability to understand.

Some apologies are constructed for a particular outcome. Political apologies are an attempt to resuscitate bad publicity. Sometimes those apologies work as in the instance of President Bill Clinton's apology over his sexual relations with Monica Lewinsky. Soon after his public apology, he was re-elected for a second term. John Edward's apology did not have the same effect. 

In law, apologies are crucial. Criminal law sentencing principles encourage, and essentially reward, apologies. A remorseful acceptance of responsibility by the accused is a mitigating factor in sentence. Further, an accused is given a statutory opportunity to apologize through s. 726 of the Criminal Code. The concept of restorative justice presupposes an apology. Even in the civil context, an apology can reduce damages and sometimes, even thwart a law suit as in the case of slander or defamation. Recent laws, such as the Ontario Apology Act, encourage apologies by restricting such an incriminatory admission from use in subsequent proceedings.

It seems, therefore, that it never hurts to say sorry as we encourage others to open up, take responsibility, and seek forgiveness. But sometimes, saying sorry is not enough or deemed not required. In tomorrow's post, I will explore this concept in the context of government apologies.