It has become fashionable recently for political leaders to apologise – on behalf of their nation, or their party – for deeds done in past generations, now considered unjust in our more enlightened times. It is not simply cynicism which leads me to doubt the sincerity of the contrition and remorse of these apologies, but that I consider it is not justifiable to call the descendants of long dead people to account for their misdeeds.
It is just and fair, undeniably, to seek restitution if the descendants are still enjoying advantages gained by their ancestors, if they are continuing to disadvantage the living descendants of those originally wronged. For example: It is hard to advance any moral argument against the return of artworks and other property looted throughout Europe during the Second World War to the survivors who would have inherited them. The indigenous people of Australia and New Zealand, and of both North and South America – and of many other countries colonised still by others who took land by force – have the moral high ground in seeking either the return of the land which was theirs, or compensation, based on the principle that the descendant colonists still profit from the benefits of the misdeeds of their ancestors.
It is unlikely that the Government of the USA would – or could – return the land to the survivors of the Native Americans who formerly populated it, and, given that the population of Native Americans is now very much smaller than it might have been, had so many not been killed by the colonists whose descendants now own the wealth of the country, any award of compensation is likely to be an inadequate gesture in the light of genocide.
In the glitter of publicity accompanying the Oscar success of the movie; “Twelve Years a Slave”, the descendants of slaves are calling for compensation. Slavery continues in countries worldwide, but by the end of the nineteenth century, it had been abolished in most developed western countries.
It is possible that our great great grandfathers may have been connected by oppression to the extent that yours owned mine, or vice versa. Personally, I would not visit the sins of the father on the son, nor – if he was neither guilty nor complicit in the sin, the brother, sister, wife or mother. Moral precepts change. Benjamin Franklin, who became an abolitionist, was formerly a slave-owner. I would not doubt the remorse and contrition underlying an apology made by Franklin for having owned slaves. It’s likely that he used his wealth to benefit his former slaves, offering them education, employment, and – so far as he was able – social freedom.
If my brother, wife, mother, son or any other relative murders someone, I do not believe that I should suffer retribution for their crime, nor would I owe you an apology or compensation. This does not mean that I would not feel regret or compassion. If a driver killed my wife accidentally with his car, I do not believe that an apology would be of any use whatsoever to me or my family. Nor would any amount of money paid to us by his insurers compensate for our loss. There are circumstances in which compensation is of practical value – where someone is faced with extra costs and reduced potential in life due to such things as medical accidents or even incompetence, and in some cases of incompetence it is just to prevent future incidents by dismissing the person responsible. Apologies have little value. Even when grounded in genuine contrition and remorse.
If someone is culpable for a loss, then it is just that they restore that loss to the victim. Stolen property returned – or replaced. There is another fashion for arranging meetings between offenders and their victims. Apparently it reduces the incidence of re-offending, and victims ‘feel better’ through forgiving the offender. It is supposed to engender feelings of contrition and remorse in offenders. I’m not sure there is great benefit for victims who have lost something irreplaceable – the life of a family member; their family albums or items of sentimental value; a laptop, computer or even a smartphone with the only records of their work, or their treasured contacts. In many cases, the loss will lead to further – perhaps even greater – losses, especially where fraud has stolen a pension fund, or documents to enable identity theft.
A third fashion is the Compensation Culture, partially driven by the numerous calls and texts offering to win large sums ‘because you had an accident which was not your fault’ from which nobody with a telephone seems immune. The recession has spawned a growing number of people for whom the only hope of a brief escape from poverty is to win a TV ‘reality’ show, the lottery, or a bonanza compensation payout.
A friend who specialises in representing people with valid claims for compensation tells me that his waiting room is filled, every Monday morning, with people wishing to make claims against the local authorities for injuries which, they assert, they received due to tripping on uneven flagstones. He says that he turns away many, whose injuries bear strong evidence that they were caused by knuckles, some of them with the clear imprint of a signet-ring.
Advocacy on behalf of others is an interesting phenomenon. Lawyers earn by doing so, although they may also have a strong moral commitment to justice. Politicians do so as part of their role in representing particular constituencies. It would be ungenerous to suggest that they sometimes do this without conviction, other than the belief that it will secure their re-election.
But there are those great amateurs, who claim to be allies of groups of which they are not members, whose advocacy is done ‘for the public good’. They have a good store of righteous indignation, which exalts their moral superiority over anyone they identify as offenders or merely complacent with respect to their cause. With evangelical zeal they apportion culpability to those who have not seen the light. Sometimes they are a source of great irritation to those they claim to represent.
By and large, most people would prefer that misdeeds were prevented or avoided, rather than enjoy the spurious and often vacuous apologies (with or without genuine contrition or remorse) with which genuine attempts at compensation are fended off or mitigated. If something wrong can be ‘put right’, it should be so.
I would rather that the leaders would not apologise on my behalf for misdeeds in which I was not culpable, feel no contrition nor remorse, and for which I owe no-one compensation. They do it with the blithe arrogance of the people you can observe any day on our city streets. They hurry along, full of their own importance, bumping into other people ever few yards, and turning their heads to say, “sorry…” – some of them even say “sorry…” before they push others out of their way.
And, you and I know: they are not sorry.