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Why is it so hard to say sorry?

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Ursula Stephens |  13 June 2007

Why is it so hard to say sorry?It is a sad, sad situation — indigenous peoples, marginalised since white settlement, living a substandard existence among non-Indigenous Australians who are among the healthiest, wealthiest and best-educated populations in the world.

It's now 10 years since the Bringing Them Home report exposed the horror of the stolen generations and 40 years since Aboriginal Australians won the right to vote in the historic 1967 referendum.

Linda Burney, in the 2007 Vincent Lingiari lecture gave a new generation’s voice to both the significance of the 1967 referendum and the continuing injustices that Indigenous people endure.

These anniversaries are reminders of the importance of 'sorry' in the reconciliation process.

Why is it so hard to admit that most human of qualities, fallibility? Regret, atonement and forgiveness lie very much at the core of spiritual values. John Howard's refusal to say sorry to Aboriginal Australians is a denial of an unsavoury truth in the face of irrefutable evidence, and as such demeans us as a nation. His intransigence has created an impasse in the Australian psyche, allowing no room for forgiveness, healing or hope.



What mother would teach her child that the right way to deal with a mistake is to sweep the facts under the carpet, ignore the evidence and hope with time no one will remember and all the evidence will have disappeared? Mistakes are made all the time which are neither necessarily intended or directly our fault. They happen in all kinds of relationships and circumstances: each of us can point to an experience when something was done that we wished undone.

Here in Australia, we have before us the possibility of a bright future for everyone, so long as we face the truth. Our young people — indigenous, migrant, and descendants of settlers over the generations — are all entitled to know the beauty and interest of a life that is open, not closed. A life where questions are valued more than acquiescence, where real difference is recognised as superior to superficial stereotypes, and where saying sorry for wrong actions, hard as it may be, is a necessary step righting the injustice and creating a better world.

What happened to the Stolen Generation was wrong. This has to be acknowledged and the regret articulated, so that as a nation we can face the truth. We owe it to our future Australians to do so with courage. They learn from us, and they in turn will make mistakes — and find themselves having to apologise for the mistakes they have inherited from us.

We can show them other cases where regret and atonement have created an environment where optimism and good will triumph over hopelessness and despair. In the new Northern Ireland Assembly the world rejoices in a situation that not so long ago would have been regarded as impossible. After centuries of sectarian violence and hatred, the Irish people have voted overwhelmingly to sit down together and acknowledge the futility of continuing the hurt. This momentous decision will change Ireland forever.

Why is it so hard to say sorry?Since the Mabo ruling in 1992, demands for reconciliation between indigenous and non-indigenous Australians have been increasing — both for the kind John Howard refers to as practical reconciliation, and for the more progressive substantive kind which will transform the living conditions and opportunities of indigenous peoples in contemporary Australia.

It is always hard to admit to any wrong, and of course much more so to admit to historical atrocities and systematic human rights violations … but outright denial is not an option, and sweeping the truth under the carpet leaves a nasty bump that will trip somebody up. The decent thing to do is to issue a formal apology to indigenous peoples for past sufferings and injustices. Let us hope that before his star fades from the political sky, Mr Howard finds it in his heart to do so.

Almost overshadowing these important anniversaries was the media coverage of Therese Rein’s underpayment of employees in a company she took over. This is another case of someone required to take responsibility for past wrongs she did not commit. The situation was "embarrassing", but Ms Rein faced the unsavoury truth with courage and candour, apologised and took steps to redress the wrong.

Sorry shouldn’t be the hardest word, should it?

 



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Well, come December when the dust has settled on the election, the votes are counted, and the politicians are on different sides of the house, Dr Stephens' leader, and the new Prime Minister, Mr Rudd can pull back the carpet and make right one of many mistakes made by what some consider the best politician of his generation. Unfortunately there are countless other errors in judgement made by Mr Howard that a simple sorry cannot fix.

Once again Dr Stephens has shown she has her finger on the pulse on a range of issues, and shows the willingness, candour and leadership that will see her gain a senior position in the next Government.

Australia needs more people like Ursula Stephens, in the general public, let alone politics.

Justin Wakefield 31 May 2007

Howard's refusal to say sorry seems less about a denial of what happened to Aboriginal people. He did, after all, say that he felt deep regret. This is not a refusal to acknowledge the existence of certain facts merely the refusal to take responsibility.

This is about a refusal to accept intergenerational responsibility and it's about more than John Howard being heartless. It goes against the foundations of liberalism to suggest that I am somehow culpable for the actions of previous generation. That I might be culpable for something I never did is the talk of collectivism.

You might then reasonably say that he is selectively turned off by intergenerational considerations. He is, for example, at ease with celebration of the ANZAC myth and that draws on the cultural power of previous generations. But it doesn't really require responsibility be admitted, it's about drawing from culture and by association, benefiting from culture. If that culture is improperly acquired, or factually inaccurate, then perhaps then maybe there is a requirement that sorrow be expressed for profiting from it. But I take issue with Ursula’s assertion that we inhabit a symbolic impasse, which is unsolvable without Prime Ministerial assent.

I walked along the Harbour Bridge in Sydney on Sorry Day. It was a fantastic day, it was moving and it meant something. It said much more than Howard's refusal to say sorry. Each of the states have said sorry and they have been joined by local councils, corporations, TV personalities and judges among others.

The idea that we are incapable of moving forward in practical terms unless the Prime Minister says 'sorry' is absurd.

The willingness of the centre-left to elevate symbolism above practicality means that we have been distracted while practical measures to improves the lives of Aboriginal Australians have increasingly failed.

We are obsessed by the importance of symbolic assent: is the Prime Minister really a global warming denier? Might my Earth Hour or Global Warming Concert raise more 'consciousness'? What of the practical requirements?

The greatest danger of symbolic obsession is that justice be seen to be done, while the scope of demonstrable practical injustice grows, our perceptions are satisfied while justice continues to be left undone.

Luke 31 May 2007

Saying sorry means we 2007 Australians are responsible for the sins of our forebears which we are not. It is even doubtful if any 'sins' were committed. That was the world then, one of conquest and contain. Do tribal Aboriginals have to say sorry to other tirbes against whom they have waged 'war' ? Does the Catholic Cuurch say sorry for the sins against the Jewish financiers, in Catholic eyes usurers and thus able to have their property taken from them ? NO on both accounts.
So let the Aboriginal people who choose to live as 21st century humans get on with it and lift their aims and not rely on 'poor me'.

philip herringer 31 May 2007

It is important that the symbolic 'sorry' is said officially. In my workplace I have found Aboriginal people to be generous and forgiving and I have fond memories of working with them.I ponder on how my father who gave to everyone could have lived in a society where people were treated in this way. We do need to officially take responsibility, then get on with the job of supporting Aboriginal people as they regain their self respect. As a writer I am coming across more and more truly impressive young people and they deserve an apology for what has happened to their parents and grand parents.

Margaret McDonald 31 May 2007

At the end of the 1950s as a young lad of 9 I first met some people in Tennant Creek who were Aboriginal. I did not know then that they were counted as fauna by the Australian state, I did not know then that they were counted as unfit parents by the Australian state. I did learn that not all white Australians saw in these earliest Australians the same characteristics, the same mix of human nature that make this nation all that it is today. But even as a young child, I did see something of the incapacity of some who will never allow themselves to admit to having been deceived by prejudice.

What divides Black Australia from White Australia is deeply entrenched and requires all of us to first embrace the real worth of both Black and White.

There are those who assert that we have moved beyond the need for the word "sorry". I assert that John Howard's continued refusal to use the word "sorry" lies not in any reality that we have moved forward to reconciliation without any further need for "sorry"; it lies in the reality that John Howard knows only the tactic of division as the tool of choice in building political power.

To divide a community takes no more skill that that of the schoolyard thug, to unite takes the humility and the compassion of a genuine leader. John Howard will never say sorry because John Howard can see no political imperitive to do so.

David Grant 01 June 2007

This article is a perfect example of why the Indigenous peoples of Australia are doomed. 'Sorry' is a word and words don't make peoples lives better. With so much emphasis put on niggling metaphysical isssues is it any wonder no real practical gains have been made?

Knowing the nature of Australian politics anyone who issued an apology would then use it as an excuse to absolve themselves of all future responsibility.

The problems of the aboriginal people are deep rooted and have their origins far back in the past two hundred years.
No one living today is responsible for the beliefs of the original European Australia settlers. And no one can deny the ugliness and inhumanity of the state of the Indigenous people.

Sorry is a poor substitute for proper nutrition, proper education, proper healthcare and freedom from fear. Only when the practical measures have been taken to tangibly improve the lives of Aboriginal Australians can any sort of reconciliation begin.

Sara Scarlett 03 June 2007

Christianity is not about feeling a spurious sense of guilt and therefore having to make atonement for wrong done to someone. Christ on the cross did not make atonement for transgressions past, present and future. He identified with suffering humanity as victim. Jesus brought to us the God of empathy. Recall your own experience of victimization and you might achieve empathy with others who are victims. Violence is part and parcel of human nature, no matter what your enthnicity, Arab, Caucasian, Slavonic. Christ did not load guilt onto us. We are called to have empathy with victims, if we want to be Christlike.

Edward. N. Olsen 03 June 2007

One of the recent developments in social theory over the last two decades has been an attempt to come to an understanding of human subjectivity as an agential force within historical 'structures'. On this sort of account, Howard's inability to apologize needs to be understood not in terms of any instrumental logic, such as his claim that current and future generations of Australians need to be protected from legal claims by Aborigines for redress of the psychological and emotional damage of past social policies. rather, Howard's emotional incompetence on this matter needs to be seen in terms of his own emotional structures.

The short version of this theory is that Howard's denial of the hurt occasioned by these genocidal policies against Aboriginal people is a self protective mechanism designed to buttress his own denial of his own hurt (whatever that is).

It is a commonplace observation among trauma specialists that the traumatised act out their own trauma by either repeating their victim status or by becoming the traumatiser themselves.

Howard clearly falls into the latter category. He is not a well man.

Anthony Nolan

anthony nolan 04 June 2007

One of the recent developments in social theory over the last two decades has been an attempt to come to an understanding of human subjectivity as an agential force within historical 'structures'. On this sort of account, Howard's inability to apologize needs to be understood not in terms of any instrumental logic, such as his claim that current and future generations of Australians need to be protected from legal claims by Aborigines for redress of the psychological and emotional damage of past social policies. rather, Howard's emotional incompetence on this matter needs to be seen in terms of his own emotional structures.

The short version of this theory is that Howard's denial of the hurt occasioned by these genocidal policies against Aboriginal people is a self protective mechanism designed to buttress his own denial of his own hurt (whatever that is).

It is a commonplace observation among trauma specialists that the traumatised act out their own trauma by either repeating their victim status or by becoming the traumatiser themselves.

Howard clearly falls into the latter category. He is not a well man.

Anthony Nolan

anthony nolan 04 June 2007

There are times when we should go bacl to the concept of "Corporate memory" held by Judaism and the early church . We should remember the past good and bad , but interpret the memory with study, consultation and concensus in order to meet the needs of a changing world

john ozanne 04 June 2007

GOOD ON YOU URSULA...WE NEED WOMEN LIKE YOU TO LEAD THIS COUNTRY. NO ONE CAN STEP FORWARD AFTER SUCH INJUSTICE WITHOUT ACKNOWLEDGING THE PAIN INFLICTED.SAYING SORRY WILL PROVIDE THE GRACE NECESSARY TO HEAL THOSE WOUNDS.URSULA HERSELF HAS SHOWN US THAT GRACE

FR FRANK JONES..ECUADOR 05 June 2007

Luke,

While I take your point about collectivism, it is worth noting that Howard, as leader of the nation, has been known to endorse such an approach himself. Despite his somewhat ill-thought-through answer to the question of whether the Vietnam War was a mistake:

'I supported our involvement at the time and I don't intend to recant that. I believe that in public life you are accountable for the decisions that you take. I mean, I didn't hold any position of authority then, but I supported the reasons for Australia's involvement and nothing has altered my view that – at the time, on the assessments that were made then – I took that view properly. I don't intend to indulge this preoccupation that many have in recanting everything they supported when they were in positions of authority.'

Contrast this to Howard's speech commemorating the fortieth anniversary (yes, another one) of the Battle of Long Tan in August last year. Howard said:

'The sad fact is that those who served in Vietnam were not welcomed back as they should have been. Whatever our views may have been—and I include those who supported the war as well as those who opposed it—the nation collectively failed those men. They are owed our apologies and our regrets for that failure. The very least that we can do on this 40th anniversary is to acknowledge that fact, to acknowledge the difficulties that so many of them have had in coping with the postwar trauma and to acknowledge the magnificent contribution that they have continued to make to our nation.'

I find it difficult to see how the nation owes the stolen generation any less.

Nick

(First quote from David Marr, Quarterly Essay #26, June 2007; second quote from Hansard Proceedings, House of Reps, 17.8.06, p.41)

Nick Tapper 06 June 2007

Why on earth should I say sorry for something I never even did. If it was something I did, then sure I am liable but there is no valid reason for ANY Australian to say sorry for what someone else did.

Roly 03 February 2008

oh that's sad

natter 04 May 2009

hi my name is tiahni and i go to sunshine primary school and i have a question about aboriginal people and the government. ok here it is: why did it take so long for the government to apologise to the aboriginal people? if you want to know why im asking this its because my inquiry topic is about aboriginals. THANK YOU!

tiahni barker 12 May 2010

Well, isnt this interesting, indeed so, indeed

Justin Willis 27 October 2014

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