Proxy apologies

22 Nov

Stan Carey is blogging about that justly condemned act, the non-apology. In 2009, Geoff Pullum described Gordon Brown’s apology to Alan Turing as “a real apology for once”. I don’t think it’s quite as simple as that. Here are what Pullum calls the “operative words”:

on behalf of the British government, and all those who live freely thanks to Alan’s work I am very proud to say: we’re sorry, you deserved so much better.

In my opinion, you can’t be proud while making a personal apology. You can be proud afterwards, of having done the decent thing; but the act itself is a moment of humility, not pride. Congratulating oneself for one’s magnanimity would ipso facto negate that very magnanimity.

The reason Gordon Brown can state his pride is that it is an impersonal apology. He is not apologising for something done by him, or on his behalf, or even on his watch; he is apologising on behalf of a system which he is now a part of, for an act done by that system before he was a part of it. The expression of pride is actually a clever (cunning, even) way of distancing himself personally from the act. Brown’s apology was real, but it’s not a model for a celebrity who needs to tweet an apology for a previous offensive tweet. Brown’s was a proxy apology, whereas Kanye or Malky’s apology must be personal.

The 2009 apology seems like a win-win situation for Brown: he gets the kudos for apologising, without the guilt of having been wrong in the first place. So why don’t political leaders routinely apologise for all the mistakes made by their predecessors (at least those from a different political party)? One reason is that diminishing returns would soon set in. But in addition, an official apology might be evidence that would stand up in a court of law when deciding how much compensation to pay the wronged party. So even impersonal apologies can be non-apologies. “This government regrets that the actions taken in good faith by a previous government following the perceived best practice of the time have subsequently turned out to be a catastrophic failure.”

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