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CULTURE

The Modern Notion of a Public Apology

March 19, 2000|Nicolaus Mills | Nicolaus Mills, a professor of American studies at Sarah Lawrence College, is the author of "The Triumph of Meanness: America's War Against Its Better Self."

NEW YORK — It has been exactly a week since Pope John Paul II, declaring "we humbly ask forgiveness," surprised the world with a Lenten sermon in which he apologized for the sins committed by the Roman Catholic Church against Jews, fellow Christians, women and various indigenous people over the last 2,000 years. This was not the first time John Paul II had apologized for the failings of the church. In his 1998 document "We Remember: A Reflection on the Shoah," he addressed the failure of many Catholics to help Jews during the Holocaust. But nothing John Paul II or earlier popes have done constituted an apology on the magnitude of last week's.

In his plea for a "purification of memory," the pope has done more than move the church into new territory. Rather, his actions have brought into focus the degree to which the public apology has become part of contemporary culture.

In the United States, what has helped to pave the way for this development is the surge in popularity of the talk show and tell-all memoir. These entertainments have made the most humiliating personal revelations commonplace and, in turn, made the public apology seem far less jarring than it was for earlier generations.

But just as important--for America and the world at large--is the combined impact of two historical developments. The first is the Holocaust and the principle established at the Nuremberg Trials of 1945-46 that leaders are accountable for the actions of their governments and cannot avoid moral responsibility by saying they were taking orders. The second is the rise of multiculturalism and the wide-spread acceptance by both blacks and whites of how pervasive racism has been in the West, especially in the United States. As a consequence, the public apology has gone from an action no government leader or politician would think of taking to an action that seems consistent with contemporary reality.

The significance of this change cannot be overestimated. In our private lives we take apologies for granted. We make them for breaking a promise or arriving late for a dinner party. But public apologies are a different matter. Historically, they have been few and far between. It is as if over the years we had come to accept at face value the Greek proverb, "From the time they invented 'I'm sorry,' honor was lost."

Generals traditionally made it a habit never to apologize for killing enemy soldiers, or even civilians. Neither Julius Caesar in his commentaries on the Gallic Wars nor Napoleon Bonaparte in his memoirs ever apologizes for his bloody deeds. Even in the U.S. Civil War, where the dead on both sides were Americans, apologies are conspicuously absent in the celebrated memoirs of such leading military figures as Ulysses S. Grant and William T. Sherman.

Apologies are also absent in the great confessional literature of the past. From St. Augustine to Jean-Jacques Rousseau, any number of writers acknowledged the awful deeds they had done and, in the process, begged forgiveness from God. But these same writers did not make it a practice to apologize directly to those they hurt. Instead, they contented themselves with apologias--explanations quite different from apologies--for their bad behavior. We don't find in these public confessions the kind of direct apology to a wronged individual that occurs in a novel such as "Huckleberry Finn," for example, when Huck, after playing a mean trick on the slave Jim, makes the decision to "humble" himself and say he is sorry.

Despite the fact that we have no shared, historic code on what constitutes a genuine public apology, we still believe we can tell one when we see it. Particularly over the last decade, we have come to regard a public apology as authentic when it has the following qualities: First, the apology is not self-serving. It does not come when the apologist is under such pressure to acknowledge his faults that an apology leaves him better off. Second, the apology is directed at whomever has been damaged and does not allow the apologist to save face by a generalized admission of wrongdoing or confession to a higher power that substitutes for a personal apology. Third, the apology is accompanied by reparations or, if they are not possible, by an implicit promise to halt the conduct that made the apology necessary.

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