The moral challenge of accepting an apology


'I bear no ill will. Dirty sort of talk is not going to bring her back to life. She was a great wee lassie.' –Gordon Wilson, after the death of his daughter, Remembrance Day, County Fermanagh, 1987

Societies approach apology and its execution by various means. The measure for what is apologised for inevitably lies in the gestures that accompany it. In the context of Australia's national Sorry Day, the urgency of this gesture never dies.

The traditional problems in the context of an apology for Australia's treatment of its Indigenous population surface annually. The wounds are truly, not so much skin deep, but sin deep. To atone for that sin is a permanent dilemma for both the victims and the perceived perpetrators.

Where, for instance, does such an apology rest in the context of the continuing National Territory Intervention?

In one sense, the Commonwealth action demonstrates a crude paternalism that undermines Indigenous autonomy and reduces the subject of rescue to the status of an invalid. ('We will save you, but you shall behave accordingly.') The rescued subject is, in a sense, idealised as weak.

But the same might be said about the entire modus operandi of social work: daily interventions are justified on the basis of 'helping' weak endangered subjects. Little thought is given to the intervener, whatever the mantra about empowerment might be on the day.

In another sense, doing nothing would have been equally disastrous, making any gesture of apology empty. Criticisms that the Intervention is merely land appropriation by Canberra's establishment are disingenuous. What is truly required, as the then Prime Minister Kevin Rudd explained on 13 February 2008, is the pressing need to address 'life expectancy, educational achievement and economic opportunity' among Australia's Indigenous population.

Paternalism, even if enacted out of guilt, can prove disastrous. Historically, we had such illustrations of this as the Aborigines Protection Act 1869, a Victorian statute that gave the Aborigines Protection Board vast powers to make laws for 'the care, custody and education of the children of Aborigines'.

The most controversial feature of the Act lay in its intrusive allowance for 'the removal of any Aboriginal child neglected by its parents or left unprotected'. The ghastly details were more than adequately tabled in the Bringing Them Home report from May 1997.

Where the victim is situated in the moral calculus tends to be the most neglected topic in reconciliation. Could it be ever feasible for Australia's Indigenous community to countenance unconditional forgiveness?

Often, the reconciliation debate is framed around matters of the perpetrator's reaction, rather than that of the victim, who holds a superior moral currency. But in the moral synergy of life, both sides have their respective powers to alter the balance, to undermine or strengthen their respective cases.

The Dutch priest Henri Nouwen describes this with some force: 'We need to forgive and be forgiven, every day, every hour — unceasingly. That is the great work of love among the fellowship of the weak that is the human family.'

The old tensions about reconciliation and autonomy in Australia remain, precisely because the sides have yet to work out how the 'fellowship of the weak that is the human family' should order their relations. Rudd's apology, which spoke of the infliction of 'profound grief, suffering and loss' on Australia's Indigenous population was a remarkable, if long overdue, step.

But Bringing Them Home itself highlighted the continuing problems with how the subject of forgiveness is identified. Its grotesque accounts of mistreatment risked creating an untouchable moral subject in the form of victimhood. In doing so, it ignored the enormous moral strength the victim can have to address inflicted injustices.

The policy of the National Sorry Day Committee has been admirable, at least in so far as it renamed Sorry Day a National Day of Healing for all Australians. This is not merely semantics. It suggests the role of solidarity required from all sides. As Senator Aden Ridgeway explained on 25 May 2005, 'The day will focus on the healing needed throughout Australian society if we are to achieve reconciliation.'

Forgiveness and reconciliation pose a dilemma in terms of inequality. The victim can show immense moral courage. Consider Gordon Wilson, who held the hand of his dying daughter Marie after the 1987 Enniskillen bombing in County Fermanagh. Without reservation, he forgave the IRA bombers who inflicted the atrocity. Such courage, as Field Marshal William J. Slim explained on examining the conduct of Japanese soldiery, is of a higher order, 'a rarer virtue than physical courage'.

Perpetrators and victims must reach a position where, paradoxically, they become equally human before each other. Forgiveness should be accompanied by true repentance. In a Kantian sense, both must become ends to each other, not means.

This may well be a noble dream. But an even more noble one would be unconditional forgiveness, granted from a vantage point of true compassion. Such sheer moral strength, however, is a rarity.

Binoy KampmarkBinoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne.

Topic tags: Binoy Kampmark, Gordon Wilson, Sorry Day, National Apology, Stolen Generations, indigenous, aboriginal



submit a comment

Existing comments

Good article.

judi goldsworthy | 26 May 2011  

In the continuing travail on the reconciliation issue, one item seems continuously to escape our attention. In the dilemma of two unequal sides, we of white Australia have consistently failed to acknowledge we have something precious to learn from our Aboriginal cousins. While we may appropriate and laud their art, the implications of their spiritual links with Nature fail to impact on the Oz psyche. Until such time as we are prepared to appreciate the opportunity offered by Aboriginal spirituality, we can never expect simply to be forgiven for the past.

Jim Bowler | 26 May 2011  

A very useful discussion on a most important issue that is probably one of the issues on which more Australians are united than any other .I would like to add two comments.

Firstly we all know what we did wrong in the past, what we are saying sorry for ,the problem is we dont know what is now the right thing to do.

The second is that " true forgiveness ' and so much of the other language that is used is just wasted space unless the metrics improve.Great.

Reconciliation that still has poor health , education ,no work and high levals of child sexual abuse is empty .The numbers , the metrics should be the primary focus of "Sorry day " not the word. For Christians, God's work can only be with the needy, not on the steps of Parliament in a press conference

john crew | 26 May 2011  

Thank you for reminding us of the words of Kevin Rudd on today Sorry Day. The article is excellent. Hopefully it will be read by many people.

Breda O'Reilly | 26 May 2011  

Agree wholeheartedly with Jim Bowler. We australians of european descent are blessed that the indigenous people's resilience allowed them to survive so that if we are humble (humus=the earth) we are able to draw on their wisdom.

Mary Long | 27 May 2011  

i agree with jim
i work with indigenous people and they are the warmest, most respectful group of people
they just want to be accepted for who they are and where they come from in life's big picture

rhonda | 01 June 2011  

Similar Articles

How Islamic law can protect Australian cows

  • Fatima Measham
  • 02 June 2011

On Monday evening, Four Corners viewers reeled at images of Australian cattle being slaughtered in Indonesia. Since Indonesians are predominantly Muslim, perhaps an appeal to change their inhumane practices can begin with an appeal to the concept of halal: that which is permissible under Islamic law.


Labor's poor political antennae

  • John Warhurst
  • 30 May 2011

The Government's free set-top box scheme is facing community and Opposition claims that it is wasteful and will tempt rorters and shysters. What should be a feel-good scheme has become a cavalcade of the disgruntled. This tells us a lot about politics and policy-making.



Subscribe for more stories like this.

Free sign-up