i'm so sorry

analysis, bbc radio 4, 26 april 2007

KENAN MALIK I'm sorry. I'll say that again. I'm sorry. And again. And again. Apologies are in fashion. From Bill Clinton apologising for American policy in Rwanda and El Salvador to Pope John Paul II asking forgiveness for the Crusades, these days few politicians or religious leaders pass up an opportunity to express their sorrow for an historical injustice. When Tony Blair offered only 'regret' for Britain's role in the slave trade during the recent celebrations of its abolition, he faced considerable criticism. The Archbishop of Canterbury, on the other hand, won praise for a more fulsome apology on behalf of the Church of England.

But does all this contrition do any good?

DAVID CESARANI Atrocities in the past help to shape the way we see people in the present. So I think no matter how long ago, it is still important that those apologies are made.

ANTHONY GRAYLING I think sorry is one of the easiest things to say. It's sort of cheap, it comes easily. It's a short word. You can say it, and then you think that that's exculpated you or exonerated you and that's a mistake.

KENAN MALIK David Cesarani, Professor of Modern History, and Anthony Grayling, Professor of Philosophy, both at the University of London.

So, who's right? Is an apology, often given decades, perhaps centuries, after the initial wrong, the best way to deal with the horrors of the past? Who should do the apologising and to whom? Is it just that descendants of those responsible for historical crimes be called to account for wrongs they never committed? All questions that arose in the recent debate on whether Britain should apologise for the slave trade.

David Cesarani is not just an historian but also a leading member of Britain's Jewish community. He has spent much of his life exploring the relationship between victim and perpetrator and how to effect reconciliation.

DAVID CESARANI Until the perpetrators say sorry, the victims will always feel, I think, that they are regarded as a lesser breed. It means an enormous amount to Jews when states who acted against them in the name of their people make apology. It's enormously important when church leaders make apology, when political leaders make apology. It's terribly moving when, for example, a state railroad issues an apology because it transported Jews from their homes to ghettoes and to death camps. I think that many Jewish people think that talk of reconciliation is cheap without the acts that have to go with it. An apology and reparation is absolutely vital to that process.

KENAN MALIK So is there a clear-cut distinction between perpetrators and their descendants, on the one hand, and victims and their descendants on the other? During the recent commemorations of the abolition of the slave trade, Anthony Grayling chaired a major debate on slavery and reparations.

ANTHONY GRAYLING People think that descendants of people who've been injured in the past are just as likely to benefit from apologies, but to think that is to get the wrong kind of proportion into the subject. If you take the example of slavery yet again, all of us are descended from slaves or serfs or bonded people. All of us are. And many of us, if not indeed all of us again, are probably descended from people who owned slaves or who benefited from slavery. The whole world rests on historical foundations, many of which involve grave wrong. That's a fact. Now if one is exercised by that fact, then we could all go round saying to one another: 'Oh I'm frightfully sorry. Let me apologise to you and you apologise to me because we're all descended from or we all benefit from or we're all the historical latecomers after these terrible wrongs were committed.'

KENAN MALIK Sometimes it does feel as if we're are all going round apologising to each other. The Queen has apologised to the Maoris for dispossessing them of their lands and to the people of India for the Amritsar massacre. Tony Blair has apologised for the Irish potato famine. Pope John Paul II apologised on more than a hundred occasions. Though it has to be said that none of these has emulated the Holy Roman Emperor Henry IV who, in 1077, apologised to the Pope by standing barefoot in the snow for three days. Adam Kuper is Professor of Anthropology at Brunel University, who as both Jewish and a white South African has experienced the debate from both sides of the fence. Why does he think that political apologies have become so fashionable?

ADAM KUPER It's part of this therapeutic culture of confession - of talking things out, of admitting - so that if you've committed an offence, you have to go and make a full confession. It's part of standing up and saying I am an alcoholic, I am a sinner, I am this and that, I apologise to my family. That's the sort of cultural root of it. But of course the place in which it starts is German statesmen making apologies to the Jewish people for the Holocaust. Those were the initial statements. And I think that's the model for later kinds of apologies, for example slavery.

KENAN MALIK Damage. Trauma. Healing. The language of apology is certainly more akin to that of the psychiatrist's couch than of conventional political debate. And breast-beating over a guilty past fits neatly into our let-it-all-hang-out world of confessional celebrity culture. But, says John Torpey, Professor of Sociology at City University, New York, and author of Making Whole What Has been Smashed, there are also deeper political reasons driving the fashion for apologies.

JOHN TORPEY In a certain sense this is a matter of you know the progress of a human rights paradigm, and that is that states are increasingly held to account for the wrongs that they've committed in the past. As I began to research the book, I also came to the conclusion that some part of this had to do with the lack of a future- oriented vision, which I tend to associate with socialism in the past. That is to say until 1989 there was a kind of project that many people had around the world that was a vision of equality and overcoming injustice and that sort of thing.

KENAN MALIK So you're saying that people have no sense of how to move forward, so they simply look to the past?

JOHN TORPEY That's a lot of it; that there has been this sort of disorientation in the aftermath of the collapse of communism, but this is a particular kind of activism that people mobilise around memories of the past, the idea of wrongs that were done to their group in the past and seek to do politics with this. There used to be this phrase that would kick around the socialist and labour movements - 'Don't mourn, organise'. And now there's a certain way in which we kind of organise to mourn. I sometimes think what we're talking about here is a kind of politics of tears.

KENAN MALIK The politics of tears. It's a redolent phrase. But is that how those who demand apologies see their campaign? Esther Stanford is Vice-Chair of the Pan-African Operations Coalition in Europe.

ESTHER STANFORD An apology would actually give us recognition that our ancestors were enslaved, were brutalised, were dehumanised as the descendents of those original victims. We see it as a holocaust of enslavement, not a slave trade.

KENAN MALIK But the people of Britain bear no direct responsibility for slavery, nor does Tony Blair. So why should either apologise for something for which they bear no direct responsibility?

ESTHER STANFORD Well we do not agree that people in Britain today bear no direct responsibility. We're not just talking about chattel enslavement here; we're talking about colonial enslavement. So if we're talking about legacies, it's very recent - we're talking about one or two generations away. The mere fact that many African peoples risk their lives even today to get into boats to come to Europe because our homelands have been so ravaged. So, yes, modern-day generations do bear a direct responsibility because the crimes are continuing in the present. The apology that we're seeking is from the monarchy: Queen Elizabeth II as Head of State. How much longer can we wait? Does it have to come at each and every one of the doors of the white Britons to really hear what we are saying? And we believe in dialogue, but there are many people in our community who think talking is over. We have been victims of structural violence for centuries. It is recognised that communities such as ourselves, Africans and African descendents, are experiencing what?s called multi-generational trauma or oppression in that we have never had a chance to heal.

KENAN MALIK Isn't the claim that slavery still determines black people's lives a way of wallowing in victimhood?

ESTHER STANFORD You know there's nothing wrong with victimhood. Victimhood can be very emancipatory.

ADAM KUPER The revelling in victimhood, the desire for some kind of collective victim identity is something which is very much part of the new identity politics. It's something which puzzles me in the sense that I find it very difficult to understand it subjectively. I would hate to consider myself in any way a victim and so I find it difficult to appreciate what the appeal is, but I have to recognise that for many people there is something in this.

KENAN MALIK Adam Kuper. He's not alone in finding it difficult to understand the victim mentality. Yet nobody can deny that traumatic events such as slavery or the Holocaust can leave deep marks on both individuals and communities.

ADAM KUPER If you take any of these catastrophic events, then obviously they do affect the descendents of people who survive them. I lived for many years in the Netherlands just around the corner from a large mental hospital which had a special wing for victims of World War Two, and this was still going thirty years later because it was now dealing with the children of these victims. The shock of course of these incidents creates very unstable families, creates very emotionally distressed people who pass this on to their children. So I think there is a legacy which can last for several generations. But of course it would be a stretch to take people living today and argue that their personalities, their social institutions are still a legacy of slavery. I think we're getting a bit too far away from that.

KENAN MALIK There is, in other words, a kind of statute of limitations on historical horrors. However traumatic an event, its effects do not endure for ever. Nor does it necessarily affect all members of a group. Humans are resilient beings, and the history of events such as slavery and the Holocaust is equally a history of people overcoming great trauma, not just to survive as individuals, but collectively to help create a more just world. Esther Stanford, however, makes no apology for demanding her dues.

ESTHER STANFORD Reparations is what we're seeking and that would mean restoration of title to our lands, it would include memorials, national memorial days. It would include you know apologies. Reparations would also include compensation, so damages in terms of the lost opportunities that we continue to have. The mere fact that we still experience racism which again negates our humanity and our essence as human beings, there are damages in terms of that. So this you know compensation will be for any forms of you know monetary damages that we can assess.

ANTHONY GRAYLING They recognise, these campaigners, that the minute that you've extracted an apology, you can then go on to say now what are you really going to do about it, where is the hard material proof of the fact that you really do feel deeply sorry for this? And that's what they're after. They're after something which in this particular instance, in the slavery case, I think is deeply unjustified in the present.

KENAN MALIK Anthony Grayling. Righting historical wrongs can certainly be an expensive business. Germany, for instance, has paid $70 billion to the state of Israel and a further $15 billion directly to Holocaust survivors and these payments are ongoing. One reason, perhaps, why politicians are more likely to apologise for events so distant as to make damages implausible. But the appeal of political apologies isn't just the hope of reparations. They also raise the possibility of reconciliation between perpetrator and victim. South Africa established its Truth and Reconciliation Commission, in part to allow victims of apartheid to tell their stories and perpetrators to confess and seek amnesty. Hence the slogan 'Revealing is healing'. Yet the process has also left many scars. The novelist Gillian Slovo is the daughter of ANC activists Joe Slovo and Ruth First. Her mother was assassinated by the apartheid regime in 1982.

GILLIAN SLOVO Actually, having gone through the Truth and Reconciliation Commission myself because the men who murdered my mother applied for amnesty from the Truth Commission and I think quite wrongly got it, were incredibly traumatic for me and my sisters. It's just terrible to have to share the same space as men who maliciously killed our mother and who don't really understand what they have done. It was very, very painful to see. The men that killed our mother made absolutely no apology for what they had done. In fact they continued to justify what they had done throughout the hearing. I think genuine apologies when you have committed such great harm are really, really difficult because the person who is apologising first has to face what they did - and in this case take human life in quite brutal ways - and after that they have to live with themselves. And I think that might be quite a difficult thing to do. Would I have wanted an apology? I would have wanted the men who killed my mother to understand what they had done.

KENAN MALIK Personal apologies can be painful to make, and often require considerable courage, because you have to face up to the consequences of your actions. That's what makes them meaningful. So how do we judge an apology from a public official for a crime for which he or she has no direct responsibility and on behalf of a population, many of whom probably do not wish to apologise anyway? John Torpey, of City University New York.

JOHN TORPEY The question of the sincerity of an apology for wrongdoing in the past from a you know public official, I think is a very problematic sort of matter. I mean we judge interpersonally when somebody apologises to us - you know how sincere is it, did they really mean it, did they really take responsibility for what they did, did they really mean that they won't do it again? But public officials, how shall we say, you know make all kinds of statements in the interests of you know how they see the politics of the moment and standing up and making an apology for the, I don't know, the potato famine, seems to me you know intrinsically open to being insincere. These things are done or not done as a result of pressures that are brought to bear and the perception on the part of the apologiser that this will be beneficial to his or her you know institution. But again I mean the sincerity of this is I think rather difficult to gage. It's much easier to say well we really feel bad about the potato famine, but you know I'm not going to stand here and apologise for my support of the war in Iraq.

KENAN MALIK Indeed. It seems to be an iron law of political apologies that you will be reluctant to be held to account for your own actions, but are happy to shoulder the blame for someone else's deeds, especially if they are way back in history. Doesn't this detachment of apology from responsibility turn the whole process into a charade? Not at all, says David Cesarani, we just need a wider notion of responsibility.

DAVID CESARANI I think that in the modern era when states mobilise entire populations in the pursuit of certain policies, particularly war, and when states then go on to commit atrocities in the name of the people, that devolves responsibility onto populations, onto individuals. Individuals vote for governments or they acquiesce in what they do. They serve in armed forces. Therefore it is appropriate for states to apologise not only for the conduct of state policy by governments, but for the carrying out of that policy by populations.

KENAN MALIK Do you believe then in the notion of collective guilt?

DAVID CESARANI Well I don't believe in the notion of collective guilt in the traditional sense, certainly not in the religious sense, but I do believe in the notion of collective responsibility. There was a very interesting debate in Germany immediately after the Second World War that involved Karl Jaspers, a philosopher, who in 1946 published a very important pamphlet called A Question of German Guilt. And Jaspers distinguished between the criminal guilt of the regime and a kind of metaphysical guilt, a kind of moral responsibility of the German people. I think that Karl Jaspers was wrong. He enabled the German people who had been complicit to feel that in some way they were not guilty in the way that the regime was. It was deeply unsatisfactory because it gave an escape route to Germans, a way of not taking full responsibility for what they had done.

KENAN MALIK But isn't the danger of what you're arguing that you might be suggesting that people are guilty or responsible not because of the actions they took but because of the particular national, religious, ethnic, racial group to which they belong?

DAVID CESARANI No-one is automatically guilty because of the ethnic group they belong to or because of their religion, but unless you can clearly show you distanced yourself, you opposed that policy, I'm afraid you are in some degree complicit and therefore you have a responsibility and you should to some extent make apology and you should certainly want your state to apologise for the things that it did in your name and the things that you did not actively attempt to stop.

KENAN MALIK The idea that you should be held responsible not for things you did, but for things you did not do may seem morally shaky. But the notion of collective responsibility that underlies the demand for apologies is shakier still. When Germany apologised for the Holocaust, it was not simply in the name of those responsible for the persecution and mass murder of Jews, nor even of those who failed to fight the Nazis but in the name of all Germans. Similarly campaigners like Esther Stanford hold all Britons responsible for the slave trade, even though no one alive today could possibly have turned a blind eye to the trade, let alone participated in it. Professor Anthony Grayling.

ANTHONY GRAYLING I think the notion of collective guilt is a deeply unhelpful one. Now it's perfectly true that a people, a nation, a state can be regarded as in one way complicit with the kind of government, the kind of tyranny, the kind of actions, their participation, their willing support for what happens; but to treat the whole nation as a single individual and therefore to think that every actual individual in that nation is equally culpable with every other is to make the sort of logical and moral error that underlies all sorts of ills in a society like, for example, racism and sexism and so on.

KENAN MALIK Some people make a distinction between collective guilt and collective responsibility. Do you think that's a useful distinction?

ANTHONY GRAYLING I think it's a distinction so fine as almost in fact to be non-existent. If the person didn't himself or herself or a generation didn?t themselves do harm, they can't be held responsible for it. If one were to put forward the idea that there is a separate kind of responsibility which is moral responsibility and which is somehow heritable, I think I would resist that idea as well.

KENAN MALIK The notion of collective guilt, or collective responsibility, is the modern, secular version of the old Biblical belief that the sins of the fathers are visited on their sons. It's a notion that carries with it the implication that moral worth travels down the generations - the children of Nazis, or all white Britons, as somehow morally sullied, the descendants of Holocaust survivors and of black slaves as possessing greater moral authority. It is ironic that the attempt to come to terms with the terrible racist consequences of slavery and the Holocaust should itself generate an idea with which all racists would be comfortable - the biological inheritance of virtue and vice, of guilt and victimhood. Yet if the notion of group-based guilt is morally troublesome, it is nevertheless also a psychological reality. Anja Zimmermann, a German social psychologist based at the Universities of Kent and Amsterdam.

ANJA ZIMMERMANN Do we feel guilty for something that we haven't done ourselves? Yes, we do. You feel something what people have done that you feel associated with, so that you share the same group with and groups can range from family members, club members or you can share nationality with other people. This brings people together and this is basically also where group- based guilt and other emotions like anger or shame or pride originate from. Scientifically in psychology, it has been shown that group-based guilt is associated with increased support for compensation, increased support for political apology, but still obviously group-based guilt is also really easy to avoid. There are many things to deny what has happened in the past. For example in Germany, the people say, 'Well it's sixty years ago, we have nothing to do with it any more', so that's also really common.

KENAN MALIK Isn't it possible to say 'I'm not guilty for my nation's crimes', but also accept that your nation has committed crimes in the past?

ANJA ZIMMERMANN Yeah, sure it is. I fully agree. We have a difference here between I am guilty and I feel guilty. I am German and I might feel bad about what my group has done because I feel associated with them. So I do think - and it's crucial for me - that people should definitely accept moral responsibility. This is promoted (quite intensively so) by German politicians.

KENAN MALIK I'm Asian. Why should I feel any kind of guilt for something that Asians have done? It seems to me that that's a very strange way of looking at moral

ANJA ZIMMERMANN Well importantly you shouldn't. We are not talking about whether you should or not. We are talking about whether you do or not. So that's really important.

KENAN MALIK It's debatable whether group-based guilt is ever positive. After all, the kinds of group loyalties that lead people to feel guilty for crimes not their own is not so different from the kinds of group loyalties that lead people to acquiesce to those crimes in the first place. Certainly, we all have a moral responsibility to right injustices. But surely we do not have a greater responsibility just because those injustices were committed by others of our race or our nation.

While some people feel guilty for actions they haven't committed, others expect forgiveness from the victims. That was the part of the reconciliation process in South Africa that Gillian Slovo found hardest to accept.

GILLIAN SLOVO It seems to me that the Truth and Reconciliation Commission asked an enormous amount of victims. It asked that they see the killer of people that they had loved or the torturer or often both, go free and give up their right to any kind of legal justice. But to ask people to forgive seems to me to be a step further because to forgive somebody who doesn't really know what they did, hasn't faced what they did and doesn't know to say sorry and doesn't have the understanding and the empathy to be able to truly apologise, I think is asking too much of the victims. And I don't necessarily think it should be part of the process. And there were several occasions in the Truth Commission where I felt that victims were kind of morally blackmailed to make the move towards the people who had done them such harm and it hurt me to see that happening.

KENAN MALIK Perhaps it's not surprising that victims sometimes feel they're being blackmailed into providing forgiveness. For it seems to me that the process of political apology is as much about the apologiser trying to score moral brownie points as it is about assuaging the hurt felt by victims. Real moral responsibility, Anthony Grayling suggests, requires us to look to the future, not just the past.

ANTHONY GRAYLING The real work of being sorry for things that happened in the past, being disturbed or moved by things that happened in the past is to try to ensure that they don't continue happening in the present and in the future. So you know it's a case of handsome is as handsome does in this and not making what is in the end a spurious and rather hollow gesture of saying I'm sorry for it. If you're really serious about your attitude to these things, then you should put them to work now.

KENAN MALIK By detaching action from responsibility, political apologies can make it more difficult to take the steps necessary to enforce real change. Saying sorry for slavery does not address the causes of the problems facing black communities today. Indeed it might make it more difficult to address those problems by encouraging people to view themselves as victims of their history rather than as creators of their future.

The demand for political apology turns history into a series of sins to be atoned for rather than events to be learned from. The acknowledgement of past wrong-doing is certainly important. But the remembrance of yesterday's wrongs should not supplant the search for a more just tomorrow.