Could this be a new era of apology?
With the presidential field likely narrowed to Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, I worry about the personal attacks that Hillary will likely have to sustain without responding in a way she’ll come to regret. In fact, the long primary season has already brought us too many slurs and slanders — along with candidates’ refusals to apologize. The assumption seems to be that a strong presidential candidate must convey confidence and decisiveness, which means holding onto positions even after they might well create remorse and regret.
So I was surprised to read in National Apologies, a publication of the Center for Peace and Conflict Studies (www.centrepeaceconflictstudies.org) , that the past 20-some years have witnessed a new “age of apology.” As defined by the center, an apologetic statement is an admission by a national leader of wrong-doing, an expression of regret, and a commitment not to repeat the same conduct. Not included in the center’s scheme is restitution, often viewed as a necessary part of a genuine apology.
The center notes ongoing controversy about the logic and legality of apologizing for past actions for which the living members of a group or nation cannot assume true responsibility. Australia’s former Prime Minister John Howard, for example, refused to apologize to the indigenous Australians on the grounds that, “Australians of this generation should not be required to accept guilt and blame for past actions and policies over which they had no control.” But the government refusal prompted a spontaneous movement of “Sorry Books,” in which Australians could write their personal messages of regret to the Aborigines. This belatedly prompted a formal government apology in 2008, with the proviso that it did not imply guilt on the part of the current generation of Australians.
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In fact, apologies by national and religious leaders and other people of influence are far from new. An online list of official apologies by state and religious leaders compiled by a doctoral candidate at the University of Pennsylvania contains 251 entries between 1077 and 2013. Apologies by a range of national and religious leaders relate to the brutalities of World War II, including Nazi crimes, the treatment of partisans and Polish POWs and the internment of Japanese-Americans. The list also includes a number of apologies by American presidents, as well as a 2000 apology by the Hartford Courant for having printed advertisements for the sale of slaves in the 18th and 19th centuries.
Spurred on by a mix of circumstances and temperament, leaders do take responsibility for mistakes and transgressions that don’t necessarily occur under their watch. President Bill Clinton apologized for previous U.S. support of right-wing governments in Guatemala that killed tens of thousands of rebels and Mayan Indians and for the 48-year Tuskegee syphilis study by the U.S. Public Health Service that withheld medical treatment of the disease. (The victims had already received compensation.)
President Barack Obama’s willingness to reflect critically on our nation’s past has brought him at least as much derision as praise. (Past presidential candidate Mitt Romney mocked Obama’s “apology tours.”) Given his reflective personality, President Obama’s apologies have tended toward a more philosophical bent: abroad, he has expressed regret for “our own darker periods of history,” and for our national “arrogance,” and, speaking to the CIA, he has apologized for setting aside our principles “as luxuries that we could no longer afford.” Moreover, a top-secret cable published in 2011 by Wikileaks revealed that President Obama would have visited Hiroshima to apologize for the atomic bomb, had the Japanese government not vetoed the idea. Despite opposition in the United States, the president has again proposed to visit Hiroshima at the end of the G-7 summit later this month; if he does, he will be the first sitting U.S. president to personally visit the city we devastated by a nuclear attack 71 years ago.
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I know how painful it can be to apologize. Nevertheless, I have experienced the humbling and re-centering power of apologizing; it’s a chance to start fresh. I have also felt how receiving an apology opens a new chance for honesty, trust and warmth. For individuals as much as for institutions and nations, apologies enable our civilized human society to strengthen itself through the web of conversations, negotiations and compromises that put a brake on hostility.
May whoever is elected our next president bring themselves, and us, the needed benefits of our new era of apology.
Carol Ascher, who lives in Sharon, Conn., has published six books of fiction and nonfiction, as well as many essays and stories. What interests her these days are the complications of civil society in America.