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APOLOGY / Vol. 87, No. 4 (Winter 2020)

Arien Mack, Editor

The evacuation and incarceration of some 100,000+ Americans of Japanese ancestry during World War II, and the subsequent repudiation of the policy in the 1980s, provides a case study of how a human rights abuse occurred in time of war, was challenged in later years, and led to formal apologies from the U.S. government and token reparations for the survivors. The current analysis provides a case study of how a particular agency, the U.S. Census Bureau, acknowledged its role, apologized, and restructured policies to prevent a recurrence of the abuse. It concludes with an evaluation of the effectiveness of those efforts, in the ongoing challenges for census data in the 21st century.

This article discusses the elements of a genuine apology. I conclude that the myriad apologies coming from all corners of society—individuals and institutions, including the US government’s apology for slavery—are woefully inadequate. What we are witnessing is not deep remorse but something less than that, such as perpetrators who are only sorry that they got caught, those who are only apologizing for show or who are only interested in scoring political points. Serious transgression and injury require a redemptive act to make the apology more than just rhetoric. Saying “I’m sorry” is often not enough.

In many circumstances apology and forgiveness are closely intertwined. To apologize often means to seek forgiveness and to accept apology often means to forgive. However, in the aftermath of grave wrongs it is sometimes appropriate for perpetrators to apologize even if it is impossible for survivors to forgive. Brudholm explores the meaning of apologizing without forgiveness after mass atrocities. Does it make sense to apologize without asking or even hoping for forgiveness? What can victims do when they cannot forgive? Grappling with these questions through a case study, Brudholm seeks to extend our concept of apology.

Apology is a small but significant part of justice offered to a victim. It is meant to generate some sort of reconciliation between the perpetrator and the victim, but also for the perpetrator with itself. However, for this to happen, the perpetrator has to be willing to take responsibility for the wrong/crime it has committed. The extent to which we live today in a culture that makes room for an ethics of apology is open to question.

The article argues that many apologies or demands for apologies of harms in the distant past are both metaphysically absurd and pernicious in their consequences. Such cases of overapologizing are contrasted with the more familiar cases of underapologizing.

The author examines the key components that make an apology credible and critically evaluates a series of apologies made by FW de Klerk, the last white president of apartheid South Africa. It is argued that to be taken seriously apology needs to be followed by reparation and restitution which is not evident in the case of de Klerk. The role of apology in relation to the Stolen Generation in Australia is also examined. The apology by Stephanus Coetsee, also in South Africa is held up as an example of genuine apology. The article is written against the backdrop of Covid 19 and Black Lives Matter and the murder of George Floyd which is also referenced.

"There can be no morally adequate apology for true evil.” This intuition is so widespread it remains largely unargued for; I unpack it, responding to five interpretations of the claim that to be evil is to be beyond apology. I conclude that what motivates the assumption evildoers can’t apologize well is not so much the absence of certain necessary conditions or even a broad assessment of apologetic quality, but deeper fears about the moral significance of allowing that someone ‘apologized well’ and what it means for our limited ability to hold serious perpetrators morally accountable. Yet we do better when we abandon our transformative aspirations and focus on adequacy in accountability.

Apology has emerged quite forcefully in the long-established democracies of Canada and Australia. In these countries, harms and human rights abuses began with colonial settlement and the displacement of Aboriginal people and continue up through the present day. Government apologies have helped to alter political landscapes by supporting and advancing political claims of Aboriginal groups. Apologies, once given, set in motion government and societal action that aim to instantiate their meanings. These political, economic, and social changes require explanation and defenses. Historical interpretations are frequently enlisted. There is a dynamic interplay between apologies and historical interpretation, which government apologies and their outcomes in Australia and Canada demonstrate.

Claire Potter is a professor of history in the schools of public engagement and the school for social research at The New School. She is also the executive editor of public seminar and is currently working on a forthcoming book called Click Bait Nation: the Origins of American iPolitics.

What might film’s contribution be to the work of acknowledgment, apology, and moral repair? James Baldwin's 1976 book on film, The Devil Finds Work, can be read as a reflection on the role that film might play in the extensive, multi-dimensional, public task of, as he puts it, putting ourselves in touch with reality, specifically the reality of American racism as an integral to American reality, its past and present. Developing Baldwin's thought, this paper outlines two broad types of cinematic pictures or conceptions of racism: (1) films can present racism as aspecial event, or (2) films can present racism as a pervasive, structural reality. The former is complicit in a racist ideology that pictures racism as exceptional, rare, and unusual; the latter functions to critique such an ideology by picturing racism, not as a departure from the norm, but as constitutive of it. I develop a formal account of these cinematic pictures or conceptions through close analysis of two films made three years apart: Norman Jewison’s 1967 In the Heat of the Night (which Baldwin also analyses) and Michael Roemer’s 1964 film Nothing But a Man.

In the modern era, the statements and actions of public figures are scrutinized with great care, and it often emerges that they have said or done things that many people consider objectionable, hurtful, offensive, or despicable. A persistent question is whether public figures should apologize for those statements or actions. Suppose that an apology has a purely strategic motivation: helping a politician to be elected or reelected, helping an executive to keep his job, helping a nominee to be confirmed by the U.S. Senate. Empirical work presented here suggests that an apology might well turn out to be futile or even counterproductive. One reason is Bayesian; an apology produces updating that can be unfavorable to the apologizer (by, for example, resolving doubts about whether the apologizer actually said or did the objectionable thing, and about whether what the apologizer did was actually objectionable). Another reason is behavioral; an apology triggers the public’s attention, makes the public figure’s wrongdoing more salient, and can help define him or her. But many open questions remain about the reasons why apologies by public figures fail, and about the circumstances in which they might turn out to be effective.

An apology is supposed to be given by a wrongdoer to those he or she wronged. When wrongs are historical, wrongdoers and victims are no longer in existence. How then is an apology possible? What meaning can it have? I defend the view that many apologies for historical injustices can, and should be, understood as an admission of guilt and expression of regret by a representative of the perpetrating agent to those collectives and their representatives who are victims of its wrongs, or to those who represent deceased individuals who were wronged by the injustice.

In tandem with the evident trend toward political apologies, there is also a trend toward political forgiveness, the political practice of encouraging, endorsing, or inducing interpersonal forgiveness for injuries in situations of political violence. It is not surprising that societies tasked with repair in the aftermath of conflict might see forgiveness of injury as a desirable goal. There are good reasons, however, to doubt whether encouragement of forgiveness in such contexts is morally benign. More problematic, in many cases, features uncontroversially basic to forgiveness in interpersonal contexts may be absent, aberrant, or elusive in the aftermath of political violence.


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