The sorry business of our growing apology culture
Anyone who has ever had an argument would attest that there can be value in offering an apology even though you don’t really think you are completely in the wrong, just to get things back on track. It might be a valid strategy in relationships but I am not sure if it should apply to the running of the country.
Australia took a long time coming around to the question of an apology to the stolen generation. It was a moment I supported as the practices covered by that apology were not just endorsed but in many cases devised by the Commonwealth and States, with the added insult of being perpetrated against people who had had their nation pinched off them. That apology had meaning and depth in my eyes.
Tony Abbott, hardly a bleeding heart, put a solid conservative argument in favour of its delivery, saying it could help Australia draw a line under a difficult part of its history, whatever the arguments about its extent or intent, and let us all get on with life.
The state-based apologies to the victims of forced adoption are in a similar boat. The laws which forced mothers to give up their kids were mandated by statutes across the country, and various State Parliaments have now formally recognised those practices as both illegal and unethical. Fair enough, I guess.
There was another apology this week which left me confused, and kind of annoyed. It could possibly signal a slide into full-blown sorry-mania, where the issuing of apologies is rendered meaningless as every aggrieved group, however legitimate its grievances may be, gets its very own sorry day from the nation’s Parliament.
The other troubling feature of this apology is that it involved practices which were not the result of government policies, such as those listed above, but were often in direct breach of the law, and carried out by people who just happened to be public servants.
Defence Minister Stephen Smith rose on Tuesday to apologise in obligatory hushed tones to the victims of sexual abuse within the Australian Defence Force. Smith is someone for whom I have a good deal of respect, as he has methodically and effectively taken on the deplorable little brass-buttoned boy’s club that covered up the abuse for decades. The victims of this bastardisation deserve nothing but sympathy. More importantly, they deserve justice.
But I really wonder whether this pro-forma parliamentary apology has any sound basis in logic, and whether it lets the people who should really be apologising off the hook.
Firstly, nothing that happened within the Australian Defence Force Academy was Stephen Smith’s fault. Secondly, none of it was your fault, nor was it my fault either. So why should the job fall to our elected representatives, people who had absolutely no say over the running of these abject military institutions, to be the ones who are saying sorry?
The DLA Piper report which examined the culture of abuse within the ADF found cases tracing back to the 1950s, and many recent cases including 24 allegations of rapes from the 1990s which were never brought to trial.
The report said in part: “It is possible that male cadets who raped female cadets at ADFA in the late 1990s, and other cadets who witnessed such rape and did not intervene, may now be in middle to senior management positions in the ADF.”
These are the people who should be apologising, ideally while giving evidence in a military court as they are about to get court-martialled.
A few journalists I know wrote about the ADF abuse scandal earlier this year, I did a couple of columns on it myself, and while there is normally nothing unwelcome or surprising about robust feedback from the readers, the nature of the responses on this from many military men was beyond degenerate.
I have still got emails I received from back in June from blokes describing the female soldier who was secretly filmed having sex as a dirty slut, saying it was her fault that her sexual encounter was beamed via Skype to other trainee soldiers. It is caveman stuff, and these cavemen were probably all having beers together in Canberra’s inner-northern defence suburbs on Friday night and laughing about Stephen Smith and his ponsy apology.
The other danger with apologies is that they can be seen as the end, when they should often be the beginning. An apology should not become a substitute for action. Look at George Pell at the moment.
Australia’s most senior Catholic clergymen feels deeply persecuted by the Royal Commission into child sexual abuse, and has argued that the Church has already apologised, as if that should be the end of the matter. Apologising is easy compared to the more important business his Church should attend to – which is coming to grips not just with the extent of the abuse, but the sinister infrastructure which exists within his organisation to keep it covered up.
As to the question of parliamentary apologies, I’d always assumed it was the job of Parliament to provide practical solutions to big problems. It should not be debased as some kind of venue for acts of confected national catharsis or feel-good posturing.
The most cringeworthy word in modern English is “closure”, an unwanted gift to us from the Californians, and if we are not careful our Parliament will look more like one of those excruciating Barbara Walters interviews, full of clichés about “moving forward” and lots of purposeful nodding as the victims du jour get their meaningless moment in the sun.
Earlier this year Independent MP Rob Oakeshott advocated a formal parliamentary apology to the Australian Olympic sprinter Peter Norman, the 200m silver medallist who was frozen out of future Games after supporting US medallists Tommie Smith and John Carlos as they famously gave the Black Power salute on the podium in Mexico City in 1968.
It was an inspirational moment, and Norman’s subsequent treatment was inexcusable, but I’m stuffed if I can see why it’s up to the Parliament to say sorry. At this rate by 2020 our MPs will end up saying sorry to those of us who haven’t received our apology yet.
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