I’ve heard and read this word “apologise” what seems to be an exorbitant amount these past weeks. From penal system employees throwing up their hands as more indigenous people die in custody whilst simultaneously implementing expansion of prisons, from sexist, racist, sexually violent and amoral politicians trying to sorry their way out of a scandal, from our Prime Minister who chose to expose a sexual harassment claim without consent as a means of accusing a media outlet of hypocrisy, from Australia’s national defence force for unlawful, racist murders purposed to torture recruits into compliant states of mind, from nightlife venues who have permitted and profited from racist performances by drag entertainers, from drag entertainers themselves pleading ignorance and promising that any minute now they’ll do more and to begging that we continue to invest in their “growing and learning”, from swimming centres and saunas conducting transphobic crotch-searches and mob-mentality plebiscites on their patrons, from health professionals struggling and refusing to change my prefixes on forms, from judicial authorities who noted the release of a man pleading guilty to manslaughter for choking his trans lover to death was against legal statutes, from a school who conceded it was inappropriate to tar all boys with the brush of sexual harassment and forced them to ovate an apology to all women, from another school whose male students were alleged to have committed hundreds of sexually violent offences, some of which were referred to police, from police for using excessive force when attacking a man they had mistaken the ethnicity of after forcing entry into his home without announcing themselves or their reason to such a degree he is irrevocably disabled physically and psychologically. Seems like everyone is brimming with “unreserved apologies”.
It’s quite the laundry list, isn’t it? That’s just the things I personally heard about and felt personally impacted by, there is infinite amounts more that didn’t make the news, didn’t come to the attention of my sphere of awareness, or didn’t register among the cacophony of crap above I was already trying to manage emotional responses to and configure mobilising for. It’s unfathomable how many micro-aggressions masquerading as apologies are being peddled and bought between abusers and victims, bosses and employees, leaders and followers, people in power and people in service, haves and have-nots.
But here’s the thing about apologies. Irrespective of their intent, they are not, and never have been, wholly exchangeable for forgiveness. Think about that. The simple act of apologising is not equal to the complex act of forgiveness. Apologising is an act that requires the commitment of all parties to a path of moving forward. It is not something that one person submits and everyone else accepts with the mutual expectation of whatever offence being nullified, deoxidised, washed down the sink and summarily stricken from all mortal memory.
“Redemption? I know how redemption works in this century. Agree to be publicly humiliated, all is forgiven. All anybody has to do nowadays is shed some tears, say some words…repentance my ass. You think a man jack among them was well and truly sorry? Not a one. Sorry they got caught is all…nothing but a pack of snivelling hypocrites.” (American Horror Story)
Virtually none of the apologies listed above was accompanied by any of the following: clear, transparent action taken to connect with the hurt party or community, investment in the recovery or interests of the injured person or persons, description of a learning process voluntarily entered into as guided by those affected or leading representative bodies, volunteering for related grassroots causes or promotion of current campaigns of the offended, reparation of fiscal benefits or surrendering of financial privileges attained in the process of deliberately causing the harm for which they are now so reticent and regretful of, or provision of opportunity to those whose knowledge and compassion they openly wish to occupy. In other words, aside from saying sorry, these people have done next to nothing to actually change their behaviour or the behaviour they have exemplified for others. If there is no recognisable recourse for wrongdoing, then there can be no reason to expect that wrongdoing to cease.
You apologise with your actions and your sustained commitment to making right, not with your words and your assertion that those words should warrant you being pacified and made comfortable for the effort in speaking them. An apology is something you do, not just something you declare.
I’ve been guilty of this myself, of delivering faulty or half-baked apologies where I’ve felt defensive or like I got what I wanted and everyone else be damned. We’ve almost all of us been in that personal scenario. “I’m sorry you feel that way”, “I’m sorry if you interpreted it like that”, “I’m sorry if my intention wasn’t clear”, “I understand why you could be upset by that”, “I regret that it came across like that to you”. It’s easy to say sorry and not mean it, or half mean it. The statement “I’m sorry” should mean “I am willing to change my behaviour as I know my current way is wrong”, not “I feel bad about myself please forgive me so I feel better about myself”.
It’s infuriating, nauseating and downright disappointing to see these weak attempts at accountability made on global platforms, followed by an entitled anticipation that insodoing, the whole thing’s sorted. “I said sorry, what more do you want?”
I grew up with that sort of mentality. In Australia we have an entire day dedicated to an empty apology by a political leader to an entire race of people who have been brutally murdered, over-representatively incarcerated, culturally thieved, economically isolated, starved out and sickened for the entirety of British invasion of this country. Children were kidnapped, outright between 1910 and the 1970s, and still, but more surreptitiously, today all under the guise of child welfare without any long-term or co-organised effort to improve the Western-imposed problems causing the health issues that so disable the establishment of child safe environments (ie what white Australians interpret as child safety). You don’t have to be present at the scene of a crime or directly personally responsibly for its taking place to be accountable for it, to recognise that it was done in your name by your predecessors seeking to promote your future advantage over others, to feel empathy as a beneficiary of the harm it did, to feel compassion for fellow human beings clearly still facing the traumatic consequences seeing as it happened to them and their families and friends and connections in their lifetimes, to communicate a commitment to change and then fulfil your commitment.
No wonder we’re so rubbish at this whole apologising thing. Our culture is rooted in saying sorry for something cross-generationally, violently reprehensible and then doing next to nothing to resolve it.
It is up to people who do wrong to turn around and do better. It is also up to us to expect more, to teach people how to treat us, to not take sorry for an answer to the sufferances we endure. When someone tells us they’re sorry, we can respond with “Understood, prove it”, or “I’m glad, let’s discuss how to move forward”. We have such a habit of placating people who say sorry as though it’s such a vulnerable feat by saying “it’s OK” or “not to worry”. Sometimes people say sorry proactively and even pre-emptively, counting on the social convention of that admission of guilt lessening their repercussions. Happens in the courtroom, why not the home, the workplace, the parliament floor? It is also up to us to step in to defend those without the strength or opportunity to do that and intervene on their behalf with their consent. We don’t need to be the subject of offense to be offended, we don’t need to be directly bullied to stand up against bullying. If we have the energy, we have the responsibility to improve visibility, accessibility, and equity for whoever is having theirs compromised by someone who believes their words are worth more than someone else’s life and livelihood.
I don’t need to hear that you’re sorry, I need to hear that it’s being solved.