The Power of Words #2: The Public Apology

“I’m sorry but this constant demand for public apologies really offends me” so says comedian David Mitchell. I think he’s right. The demand for and dishing out of public apologies for everything everywhere for misdemeanours committed by whomever from the dawn of recorded history to the present day has become a fetish in public life and I have to wonder where it will all stop.

Seemingly begun by Pope John Paul II who toward the end of his life felt the need to apologise for all of the sins of the church against the Jews, Muslims, Orthodox Christians, Pagans, native South Americans, victims of child abuse and countless other groups. His constant need to apologise to the peoples he visited before his death was described as an embarrassment. There are two issues for me here. Firstly, that he personally had nothing to apologise for and secondly, the apologies achieved nothing. The corruptions of the Catholic Church are still present. Children are still being abused, paedophile priests are still being given sanctuary, the Vatican bank is still conducting itself illegally, no reparations have been made, no change of policy enacted. A far greater apology would have been actions: to surrender those accused of child abuse to national authorities, to return stolen properties, to ensure that these things will never happen again.

In 2006, Tony Blair “expressed regret” at Britain’s role in the slave trade. It was a meaningless apology for similar reasons to those above and because it was an apology that need never be spoken. Tony Blair did not own any slaves. He was neither instrumental in its initiation nor in its abolition. Even if it were to be discovered that his lineage had profited from slavery and had enslaved the ancestors (for example) of Lenny Henry, so what? In that case it would be Blair’s ancestors that wronged Henry’s ancestors. Tony Blair would owe Lenny Henry nothing.

What I am trying to ask here is whether such public apologies – and the demands for them – could ever truly mean anything? An apology is (or should be) an admittance of personal wrongdoing. A person who betrays their spouse might apologise for any number of reasons but if the apology is requested or demanded before being offered, it would probably be meaningless (such as in the example Mitchell gave of the parent-child argument).

And to finally come to the point of the post, one of the greatest tragedies in fiction surrounded an intended public apology. In Babylon 5, the Emperor of the Centauri travelled to the station to deliver an important address. Unknown to everyone, he was also going to make a formal apology on behalf of thd Centauri to the Narn. In amongst all of this, Ambassador G’Kar was intending to kill him for those very same atrocities. The whole tragedy of this is that due to poor health he doesn’t get to deliver the apology that was supposed to begin an era of peace between two people united in hatred. When Emperor Turhan passes away, damning the pair in the process, Refa and Londo use the opportunity to seize power.

In contrast, Captain Sheridan is compelled to deliver an apology to appease the Centauri after firing on one of their battleships later in the same season. He did it because he’d given sanctuary to a Narn battleship asking for asylum and the Centauri ship had fired on the Narn ship. His feelings on this are clear as the video below demonstrates.

Apologies can be powerful when the words are intended to lead to actions to change things because it is only through those actions that the words will be perceived as more than hollow.

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