15 March 2010

On apologies...

Will you apologise? A question fairly regularly flung at politicians. Sometimes, the sin alleged is their own, a private peccadillo become damagingly public. Regularly, perhaps even more regularly, politicians are invited to express contrition for things they have no control over whatsoever. Things they’ve been theoretically proximate to, for the changes they’ve neglected to make to regimes of habit, the sins of the state at their arms’ length. The brute fact that they have the most willow-the-wisp, abstract capacity to direct basic functions rarely stands in the way of our theorising about responsibility. Much of this engages with a human, all too human superstition about the nature of leadership and the culpability triangle, culminating in the dictatorial peak of the centre. Reality’s raggedness, its mess, its complexity is an exculpatory counter argument which generally gets put aside, when it suits the accuser.

There are stresses and strains, however, on the idea of impersonal responsibility based on one’s office and the institutional and cultural continuities which explain its history. Consider the phenomenon of the post-hoc state apology to victimised communities or peoples who suffered while both the political incumbents and the current generation of ‘victims’ were still loose atoms in the cosmos, yet to spring from their mother’s loins. In this context, dissent is familiar, and the idea that responsibility is personal re-emerges to refute the alleged sins of continuity and proximity. The philosopher, Raimond Gaita, suggests that anyone who wishes to have pride in the achievements and attainments of their community cannot discharge its heavy darknesses, its gloomy corners and missteps. Aptly enough, Liam Fox MP, crouching Scot, has recently been generating rhetoric appealing to this contrary position:

“I’m really fed up with these liberal revisionist historians who want us to feel bad about everything that our country has ever done. Believing in ourselves and trusting in ourselves is a pretty good start in a country that wanted to make a better go of its future.


Labour has suffered from such a strong case of colonial guilt that they cannot see the strength we have as a country in being able to form strong relations with different parts of the globe. If you go to a lot of countries, you can see where there is a strong affection for the United Kingdom that we could tap into.


We have in the last 13 years not leveraged these relationships in any way or shape or form to anything like the level that we could have. Rather than to apologise for everything in our history, we should take a bit of pride in our own history and our own conventions and our own convictions and start to look at the positive aspects which give us clout in the world and which give us respect and utilise them properly.”

Although I would not necessarily go along on Liam Fox’ military adventure – we ought to pause, and consider what the good is of inducing our politicians to accept blame for something they could not have prevented and cannot now change. Indeed, there is a strong case to be made that falling for fake ideologies of the State and of politics is to lie, very fundamentally, to the public. Although triangular dreams of responsibility may be a reassuring delusion – they simply don’t reflect the lived reality of government. Consider this astute sociological observation Thomas Paine made in his Rights of Man’s about the French Bourbon monarchy:

“When despotism has established itself for ages in a country, as in France, it is not in the person of the king only that it resides. It has the appearance of being so in show, and in nominal authority; but it is not so in practice and in fact. It has its standard everywhere. Every office and department has its despotism, founded upon custom and usage. Every place has its Bastille, and every Bastille its despot. The original hereditary despotism resident in the person of the king, divides and sub-divides itself into a thousand shapes and forms, till at last the whole of it is acted by deputation. This was the case in France; and against this species of despotism, proceeding on through an endless labyrinth of office till the source of it is scarcely perceptible, there is no mode of redress. It strengthens itself by assuming the appearance of duty, and tyrannises under the pretence of obeying.”

Although a politician may apologise to you for something which they have no power to alter – we shouldn’t presume that this is an innocent self-declaration of blame. To keep with the consistent 18th Century theme, in his cynical way, Voltaire once remarked that “Appreciation is a wonderful thing: It makes what is excellent in others belong to us as well.” What the laughing philosophe is getting at here is the way that praise invariably makes whatever is praised subject to my judgement, my ascent over it. A common example of this from ordinary life manifests in anxious encounters between people who perceive themselves as socially unequal. A teacher and a student. Master and servant. The point is not that the ‘lower’ status person will find themselves unable to praise the higher status interlocutor – merely that such warm words can be socially risky if not deftly and cravenly handled. We’ve all seen footage of the fan who approaches a Holywood actor and praises their artistry – the responding condescension from the actor is exquisite and the fan’s judgement totally written off as a ‘counting’ view on how they go about performing their role. It is hard to imagine the putative actor looking up from his filet mignon and exclaiming “Really, do you think so? I was wondering about my enunciation in the scene where…” That is a conversation to be had between equals.

It is sometimes overlooked that it isn’t just the critic’s voice raised in praise which elevates the speaker. The same thing can be effected by an apology and by contrition. While on one level, they seem to invite damaging conclusions about the competence of the contrite, both actually have the capacity to elevate the apologiser over their deed, to reassert and revindicate the importance of their role and person. Taking up a heavy load, although it might pinch about the shoulders and slowly crush the carrier, nevertheless dignifies him as a struggler, who owns his suffering rock and is in some sense equal to it, ultimately its superior. I'd argue that when Nicola apologised for her judgement in the question of Abdul Rauf and her letter on his account, she assumed just this sort of Sisyphean dignity.

By contrast, as spectators, we are hoodwinked when the stratagem of apology is used to blame the guiltless, aping the brave woman who shoulders her burden. We are damagingly mislead about the potentialities of politics and where the powers of change really lie, at most, perhaps comforted by dud admissions of responsibility. I don't much fancy someone taking away my responsibility for being a personal bastard, I don't think Salmond should do so visa vie the resurgent cybernat story involving Alan Clayton either. Personal responsibility is something too valuable to toss away on a gormless, delusional politics. And none of us benefit from dishonest apologetics.

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