Wednesday 13 February 2008

The apology and the moral significance of guilt

A guest-post by Scott Stephens

Like many Australians, I watched today’s carefully staged media drama unfold. From the unprecedented “welcome to country” that marked the commencement of Parliament on Tuesday, to Kevin Rudd’s delivery of the “historic” apology, and his subsequent interaction with a number of invited guests – the whole ordeal reeked of kitsch, empty ceremony and pretence. Quite frankly, I thought it was an overblown PR exercise for the new Federal Government, and that it verged on pandering to latent racist feeling in this nation.

And so, while there are many leaders, elders, politicians, academics, journalists and clergy who have welcomed the events of today with fanfare and enthusiasm, I’m afraid I can’t join their number. Because, in the immortal words of The Princess Bride, I don’t think this apology means what they think it means.

Let me be clear. There is no denying the inherent rightness of apologising to those generations of Aboriginal families whose lives have been destroyed by the ignorance and bigotry of white Australia. There is no question that this apology will be received as a long-overdue official show of respect after the prolonged and disgraceful humiliation of “a proud people and a proud culture” (to use Rudd’s own language). And there is no alternative but to hope and pray that this “sorry” acts as a catalyst for the grieving and healing process – the beginning of the cathartic “sorry business” for which indigenous Australians have waited for so long.

Nevertheless, this apology (like so much of the moral tokenism we perform today, superficial acts of charity designed to make us feel better about ourselves) seems to me to have been internally corrupted by wanton self-interest and political expedience. In this instance, it is particularly important to remember Immanuel Kant’s assertion that the moral worth of an act lies not in its commission but in its intention.

So, what was the motivation behind the apology? Or, to put this question another way: for whom was this apology intended? Throughout the coverage of the apology, I couldn’t shake the sense that the indigenous Australians included in the televised spectacle – whether invited guests in Parliament House or the dozens of emotion-filled faces from around the country – were little more than props. Their role was to express and register the emotional content of the event. But the apology was not intended for them. The true recipients of the apology were those white Australians who watched and wanted to be made to feel as if they had taken part in something good. Rather than being left to listen and grieve and celebrate in private, these indigenous Australians were made to take part in a kind of emotional pornography for the benefit of thousands of white Australian viewers who wanted to feel, as Noel Pearson rightly put it, “the warm inner glow that will come from having said sorry.”

For me, this leads to an inescapable conclusion. The reason that Kevin Rudd had to reiterate that this apology “does not attribute guilt to the current generation of Australian people” is not because we don’t believe we are complicit in the misery of indigenous Australians, but because we know that we are and don’t want to have to admit as much. As a nation, we have a pathological aversion to guilt precisely because of the objective guilt we all share.

In his recent essay in The Australian, Noel Pearson made the stunning claim that “Aboriginal people’s lives were stolen by history.” It wasn’t simply that children were taken from their families, but the very capacity of Aboriginal people to “to pursue any form of sustainable and decent life” was taken from them “in the wake of European occupation and indigenous dispossession.” It is as if indigenous Australians are systemically excluded from the very cultural and economic way of life that was brought to this land with the occupation.

Pearson here points to a kind of objective guilt that goes far deeper than the bare acknowledgment of past injustices, however brutal. It is a guilt that we can neither admit nor address without acknowledging the unjustifiability of our very existence as a nation, as well as the inherent inequity of the global economy in which we participate and through which we prosper. It is not simply that crimes have been committed by our forebears; it is we ourselves, in our very Antipodean and capitalist existence, that are wrong.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer once said, “Success alone justifies injustice done. Guilt is scarred over, or cicatrized, by success.” Our prosperity as a nation, aided and abetted by tokenistic acts of penance – such as Rudd’s apology – have enabled us to repress and ultimately deny our guilt as white Australians. But there can be no turning of the page, no meaningful advance toward genuine reconciliation, without a willingness to tell the truth about ourselves, to lay bare and accept our guilt.

This sort of national repentance would demand language far closer to Paul Keating’s Redfern address, with its overtly collective language and devastating litany of white crimes (“we took the traditional lands and smashed the traditional way of life … we committed the murders … we practised discrimination and exclusion … it was our ignorance and our prejudice”), rather than Rudd’s languid prose.

And because our culpability is not simply past, but is now being repeated in the exclusionary logic of the Australian economy, such national repentance would have to include the provision of tax-payer funded compensation to indigenous Australians.

Kevin Rudd knew that if either of these measures – accepting our guilt and providing compensation – were adopted in the apology, the groundswell of popular support would evaporate. Perhaps this is the final proof that the apology was little more than a spectacle for white Australians and a vanity exercise for a fledgling Prime Minister who needs people to love him.


Ben Myers said...

Thanks for this, Scott. There was a lot of outcry over the subsequent speech by opposition leader Brendan Nelson. Dr Nelson's speech circled around the contradictory affirmations both that we are truly sorry and that we are nevertheless completely blameless (this was his main emphasis), since all Aussies are good people, and even those who removed indigenous children from their parents did so with the best intentions.

If your analysis here is correct, Scott, then perhaps Dr Nelson's speech should be regarded not as a painful betrayal of the Prime Minister's apology, but rather as a more explicit articulation of its real inner logic: we're apologising precisely because we're so upright, so magnanimous, so admirably noble and large-hearted. We're able to offer this apology because we're so blameless, because it costs us nothing.

Reminds me of a Presbyterian church I once heard of which, before baptising infants, presented them with a white rose as a symbol of their innocence.

Anonymous said...

Um I didn't watch anything except for about 20 minutes of the ABC after the apology/speeches (frightful) and read some press reports. Because I knew it would be a stage managed, yada yada.

Secondly I appreciated Pearson's essay because as he himself acknowledged, his own views were complex and contradictory. And he was spot on on many points. Not just the white man feel better but also the victimhood mindset etc.

Thirdly, while I take your point about objective guilt - and agree - I can't even say Keating got it right. I can't undo history. I can't apologise for history. I can't even say my forefathers practised discrimination etc not least because my parents are migrants. Can you?

Acknowledge history, yes.
Judge it? Yes (but how, by today's standards and understanding?)
Apologize -confess? - to what I-we-here-and-now have done and left undone, yes.

But then what history?
I thought this apology was for the "stolen generation" based on the very sorry report Bringing them Home (on the net) which was a rushed and barely documented enquiry, with some very very very tenuous interpretations and labels. Not for every crime and injustice committed towards every indigenous Australian who ever lived by non-indigenes (and why don't indigenous Aussies apologise for every hurt and injustice they have perpetrated towards their own?)

But then if you read the Stolen Generation report, you might understand where all that came from.

I am conflicted about this as much as Pearson but obviously for different reasons. I think this day's events were disgusting but for different reasons than you.


kim fabricius said...

Last March, to commemorate the bicentenary of the abolition of the slave trade in Great Britain, Prime Minister Tony Blair, on behalf of the nation, expressed "deep sorrow" at the "profoundly shameful" history of trafficking in human flesh - but he stopped short of an apology.

By contrast, Archbishop Rowan Williams, on behalf of the Church of England, did issue an apology, and not only with an eye to the past. He said:

"The body of Christ is not just a body that exists at any one time, it exists across history, and we therefore share the shame and the sinfulness of our predecessors; and part of what we can do, with them and for them in the body of Christ, is pray for the acknowledgement of the failure that is part of us, not just part of some distant them."

Is the nation too more than a body-politic that "exists at any one time"? Are contemporary citizens also "not just part of some distant them"? Though we must be careful about any pseudo-mystical Volk demagoguery, I think the answer to both questions is "Yes". Therefore I think that what Williams says about the church also applies to the state, and that Scott is right that an apology for the treatment of native Australians must be more than a reminiscence, even apart from the fact that non-native Australians presumably continue to profit from their ancestors' exploitation of the aboriginal population (not to mention the reality of racist oppression now). A fortiori, against those who say that only individuals can apologise - and ask for forgiveness - I believe that groups collectively can - and should -do the same.

There is also the issue of reparations: talk can be cheap as well as glib.

A question to you Aussies: Where is the church in all this public lamentation? Is it wearing sackcloth and ashes? I ask not least because some senior church figures in the C of E criticised Williams for going too far. And, of course, in the nation, there were those who said that we should all be congratulating ourselves for ending the slave trade, not acknowledging our complicity in it.

Kien said...

Scott Stephens' post seems ungracious and perhaps made too soon. There are many things that we regret and feel sorry for, and given our moral weakness, we find ourselves capable of expressing an apology for only a subset of those things that we regret. Perhaps Mr Stephens' comments and analysis would have found a better home in a journal article, or perhaps at a follow-up post at the first anniversary of the apology, where/when there has been a little more distance.

Bill Kerr said...

"It is a guilt that we can neither admit nor address without acknowledging the unjustifiability of our very existence as a nation, as well as the inherent inequity of the global economy in which we participate and through which we prosper. It is not simply that crimes have been committed by our forebears; it is we ourselves, in our very Antipodean and capitalist existence, that are wrong"

I think Pearson would part company with Scott Stephens here. It's not going to help indigenous Australians to wish away capitalism or the global economy. Pearson is quite clear that his people need to join the real economy and that practical measures to achieve this are more important than symbolic gestures. So, I wouldn't see the central issue as white guilt (which offers superior catharsis but can paralyse) but rather what practical measures can whites support to help indigenous Australians. From this perspective it seems clear that Pearson preferred Howard to Rudd.

Rory Shiner said...

Reminds me of a Presbyterian church I once heard of which, before baptising infants, presented them with a white rose as a symbol of their innocence.
That's brilliant!

Anonymous said...

It does seem rather telling that we offer an apology rather than asking for forgiveness. I note also that there is rarely any hint that the suffering of indigenous Australians can teach non-indigenous Australians anything about the importance of place, language and tribe for a sense of identity and the nature of culture. Instead we expect them to adopt middle-class notions of housing, litigation-safe modes of expression and market driven concepts of fashion.

Joanna said...

I share your belief that this apology should recognise our culpability, Scott - but I still think it is an enormous achievement. Any public acknowledgment of the reality of the past injustices which occurred in this nation is a huge victory. I sincerely hope that from now on the debate will no longer be over whether those injustices occurred, but over what our ongoing response is to be. After the travesty of the 'history wars', this is not to be taken for granted.

Anonymous said...


By your and William's reasoning then, it's the Brits who should be doing some heavy duty apologising not just to indigenes but also to the convicts who were transported here for the pettiest of crimes etc. And hey why didn't the black African slave traders apologize along with Williams for their complicity? And why not go further?

And was it an apology or just a statement of empathy? It was lawyered to the hilt. And judging by the reaction today in the media, blogs and elswhere, Noel Pearson was right on quite a number of points and then some.

Symbolic gestures are fine. But only if they signify some reality.


Anonymous said...

Ha! Minutes after I type that comment I find this:
Brits refuse to say sorry.

Quick someone SMS Rowan Williams

Anonymous said...

P.S. Tell Rowan we want apologies from every one of his overlapping identities.

--s D@B

kim fabricius said...

Hi Anonymous,

With a name like Anonymous, it sounds to me like you've got some overlapping identity issues yourself. Should the Archbishop direct his apologies to the bitter you, the anti-Pom you, or simply address them "To whom it may concern"?

Anonymous said...

Thanks for your comments, Jobloggs. But I'd like to run an idea past you. Just say that a similarly 'symbolic gesture' were made on the floor of Congress to those generations of African Americans forcibly removed from their villages and enslaved to wealthy landowners in, say, 1962. Would that acknowledge have done ANYTHING to substantially alter race relations during that turbulent period? It was only when the situation had reached a point of absolute intolerability (and when all those chic radicals had no more outlets for their liberal angst) that things could change.

Now, let me advance something really touchy. Of course, I support the giving of an apology (although I loved the comments earlier, that asking for forgiveness would have been a truly radical gesture!) and of course I know how significant this is for indigenous Australians. My question is: has this pseudo-apology prematurely let off a little social steam just as the whole matter was reaching crisis point? Have we prematurely diffused a bomb that really ought to go off? At least the 'culture wars' kept the issue emotive in the hearts and minds of many, and generated some remarkable and productive responses/debates from indigenous leaders.

In the end, of course I want there to be an apology, and appropriate statement of national repentance - I just don't think we've had one yet!

Anonymous said...

I thought his apology, however inadequate, was a relief. An election promise delivered, a symbol of a new beginning. Isn't there a commission being set up to start building new relationships, providing compensation, social networks, hearing land claim grievances and the rest? Isn't the "apology" setting the ball rolling? All the cynicism and negative reaction looks almost tall poppyish. I don't believe it was an empty apology with no future plan.

Bruce Yabsley said...

Scott (in the interests of full disclosure): your post is one of two articles on the apology which I discuss in uncomplimentary terms in a post to my blog. I thought I should let you know in fairness.

Anonymous said...

I was unexpectedly taken off guard when I read your blog post on The apology and the moral significance of guilt. I thought that I was going to be lead through a discussion about how in theology, one's guilt usually leads them to repentance and is then forgiven and acquitted of all wrong doings and never to be brought up again. Thus, I was left opened with a non-assuming role as a reader to hear what you had to say about Kevin Rudd's national apology.

I enjoyed your frankness about the intent of Rudd's apology and learned that no matter what status, creed, or age one is who gives an apology, that not all ears will receive it in the way that you intended it. I do agree with Immanuel Kant's assertion that the moral worth of an act lies not in its commission but in its intention but, however, are even capable at deciphering responses and other people's actions, let alone our own speeches? Jeremiah 17:9-10 affirms, "The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it? "I the LORD search the heart and examine the mind, to reward a man according to his conduct, according to what his deeds deserve." Therefore, I am assume that your take on the apology weighs more on the issue at hand but I implore you to consider at what point do we forgive and never bring up one's past deeds or to cast off one's apology on the accusation of ulterior motives embedded into the intentions/heart of the action.

Furthermore, what would be an apology or how would an apology be read to your standards and would you actually accept it or would you still remember the injustices of that particular race of people?

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