The Politics of Official Apologies
An Interview with Melissa Nobles
Melissa Nobles is Associate Professor of Political Science at MIT. She holds a BA in history from Brown University and an MA and PhD in political science from Yale University. Her research interests include retrospective justice and the comparative study of racial and ethnic politics. She is the author of Shades of Citizenship: Race and the Census in Modern Politics (Stanford University Press, 2000) and The Politics of Official Apologies (Cambridge University Press, 2008).
In this interview, conducted in her office at MIT on March 11, we discuss why and how governments apologize—or do not apologize—for crimes committed in their country in the past and what significance apology—or the absence of it—can have on the descendents of the victims and the perpetrators.
Khatchig Mouradian—How did you become interested in the politics of official apologies?
Melissa Nobles—I became interested when, in 1998, I read an article in the New York Times about the Canadian government’s apology to indigenous Canadians. I thought that was interesting and unusual, because governments don’t usually apologize. Then I became aware of the Turkish government’s refusal to apologize for the Armenian genocide. That also interested me. I knew that the U.S. government had apologized to Japanese-Americans for their internment during WWII, but also realized that the U.S. had not apologized to Native Americans or to African-Americans for their experiences. So my interest was both in cases where governments did apologize and where governments did not apologize.
K.M.—In the book, you make a distinction between apology offered by governments and ones offered by heads of state. Why is this distinction important?
M.N.—It is important because government apologies typically require more actors and tend to be the result of more deliberation. The parliament, commissions and historians are involved, so more people are weighing in and it’s more of a collective decision. Moreover, typically government apologies have been accompanied by reparations. Examples of such apologies and reparations are the German government’s apology and ongoing reparations to surviving Jews after WWII and the state of Israel, and U.S. President Ronald Reagan providing $20,000 to surviving Japanese-Americans affected by the internment.
Apologies that come from heads of state are important, of course, because the person giving them is either the executive or government official, but they are not necessarily the result of deliberation, so they are more unpredictable and don’t usually come with any kind of compensation. They tend to be more fleeting. I thought that’s the distinction that should be taken into account.
K.M.—Speaking of reparations, in the book you write, “For vulnerable and disadvantaged groups, moral appeals are often central to political argument and action. … But at the same time, group members also express skepticism about the ultimate worth of moral appeals because although they may be essential, they are infrequently followed by action.” Do you feel that action is necessary for apologies to have meaning?
M.N.—I do. Note that action can be broadly or narrowly defined. We might think about action as an apology that marks the beginnings of a government and citizenry talking more seriously about their own history. Action can be something not regulated by the state or there may be a commission that recommends compensation. But what is the least desirable is an apology that is just said and is followed by nothing—no discussion, or any kind of deliberation or compensation—because then, it falls flat. Action need not be synonymous with reparations as such, but it needs to be something more than a mere utterance, which, once said, dies.
K.M.—Have there been cases where an official apology has not been followed by any concrete steps—a sort of “I apologize, now let’s go home”? You mention in the book how some governments have refrained from apologizing mainly because of what might come next…
M.N.—In general, the “let’s go home” apologies have been given by heads of state. I haven’t found too many cases of governments giving apologies that haven’t been followed by something. An example would be what’s going on now in Australia, where there’s resistance at least to doing something that would be directly tied to the apology. At the same time they’re saying, We are going to change Aboriginal policy-making, we’re going to take action, but we’re not going to give money to the specific victims of this particular government policy [of forcibly removing Aboriginal children from their parent’s care].
Governments are reluctant to apologize precisely because of the concern that there are going to be demands for money. But governments have more power; they decide what they’re going to do. So while there is a tension, I don’t think it’s a tension that’s insurmountable. The issue is framed by political elites. They can decide to give nothing and they often times make this decision.
K.M.—Isn’t there also some dominance relation here? After all, it’s the dominant group that is deciding what to say and what to give.
M.N.—Absolutely. This is certainly an unequal dynamic. Much of the dissatisfaction with symbolic politics is that it points up the relative powerlessness of the groups that are asking for apologies.
If you’re in power and feel that you don’t need anything from the groups that have victimized you, you would not ask for apologies. It is the less powerful that do. The less powerful groups have fewer resources and rely upon moral appeals in order to get what they want. And there’s value, of course, in bringing morality to bear. That’s just the dynamic of the world in which we live.
But you’re absolutely right, there is asymmetry here. The powerful can do as little as they want and, many times, they do nothing. They ignore them. They won’t apologize. On the other hand, the group can continue to express their dissatisfaction, and continue to demand it. The demand—just the idea that they’re being asked for it—can be discomforting to the powerful. That may be all that the side demanding apology can do.
K.M.—I want to bring democracy into the discussion. It would be easy to argue that democracy should help countries face their past, but there are some very striking examples that show that this is not the case. For example, the United States has not apologized for slavery or the genocide of the Native Americans. What are your thoughts on this?
M.N.—Democracy is the rule of the majority and there are inherent disadvantages for minority groups within democracies. (Native Americans, in this example, are less than one percent of the American population; black Americans are 12 percent). And even though democracies allow for an expression of desires and preferences, it doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re going to get what you want. It typically means that minority groups have to get the majority on board. That’s why moral appeal is sometimes what’s needed.
The majority decides whether it will pay any attention to the minority. They can choose to ignore the minority, and, as I’ve said, they oftentimes do. So what minorities have to do is try to find a way to make the majority listen. And usually appeals to history, appeals to the conscience are the peaceful ways that are used. There are violent ways, of course, but those haven’t been the avenues chosen by Native Americans or African-Americans for obvious reasons.
The hope is that public discourse within democracies will force a discussion. There’s a need for a robust debate in the public arena, which makes freedom of speech, freedom of universities and other freedoms that democracy provides so important. Without those freedoms, change definitely wouldn’t happen.
K.M.—In the context of democracy and the minorities within that democracy, do you feel that as long as there has been no apology, the power asymmetry and the domination are still there?
M.N.—Yes, it’s kind of unavoidable. Look at the situation of the Native Americans. It’s disgraceful and makes one despair a great deal. It’s our country’s history. We don’t want to talk about it, or we barely talk about it. Even when we do talk, we certainly talk about it incompletely. And more than that, I think many Americans thing that the dispossession of the Native Americans was justified in some way. They think, we certainly are not going to give anything back, we love the U.S. now and the Native American circumstance is just the unfortunate result of history. I think that some dimension of domination will always be there and seems to be unavoidable. It is also, of course, not a thing that anyone who has a conscience would celebrate. It should cause us discomfort at the very least and I think there is no real discussion in the U.S. about Native Americans because of that discomfort and the implications of taking their situation seriously.
K.M.—You have written, “Feelings of ‘nonresponsibility’ are powerful constraints against state support for apologies. Feelings of national pride, derived from certain interpretations of national history, also play a role.” What is shocking is that in each and every case that I know of and that you mention in the book, the victimizers or their descendents—the dominant group—deal the exact same way with the victim group and its demands. This issue seems to cut across civilizations.
M.N.—It is shocking. There are lots of justifications for not feeling responsible. The most obvious is the argument that “I was not personally responsible.” But, of course, that’s a pretty easy one to challenge. People aren’t responsible for what goes well in their countries, but they claim it, right? So it’s kind of selective claiming: “I like the constitution but I hate slavery.” Being part of a country requires the good and bad, but it is human nature to want to bask in the glory and then ignore the bad. Once I decide that I’m not responsible for the act, why would I apologize for it?
Once this particular position takes hold, everything else follows and makes apology impossible. So the point is to always try to deal with that issue of responsibility by telling the person, “You are not individually responsible, we get that, but somehow you are a beneficiary of, or you benefited from, the historical circumstances in which you were born in such a way that you must now think about making amends.”
The challenge is to try and get people to see that they are somehow responsible. Not that they themselves are responsible, but that somehow they should accept responsibility, even if they were not personally involved.
One thing the research has shown is that feelings of guilt are determined by whether you think you are personally responsible or not. If you recognize that your group, the group with which you are associated, was responsible and you feel guilt about it, then you’re likely to apologize.
K.M.—How can the descendants of the victimizers argue for an apology?
M.N.—Politicians make it such that the descendents are able to say, “OK, this happened in the past, apologizing is the right thing to do.” It helps to talk about the past but think about the future. So they use the term acknowledgement without necessarily assigning guilt. That’s what Australia’s Prime Minister did. He apologized to Aboriginal Australians straightforwardly. He basically said, “We acknowledge what happened and we are sorry.” But then he said, “Now we’re moving forward. The reason we are apologizing is to make a better community for Australian Aboriginal peoples.” So one approach that politicians use is not to dwell upon the past; even as they acknowledge the past, they quickly move from it. That seems to be the tactic that works best. If you dwell too much on the past, if there’s too much discussion about the past, then it becomes fertile ground for those who oppose giving the apology. The idea is to always keep looking at the big picture, and one useful big picture is the future. I think that’s the way that successful apologies are done and politicians recognize that.
K.M.—Countless massacres and crimes against humanity have been committed in the last two centuries alone. At some point, one might argue that everyone has to say sorry to everyone else. Why are some apologies more “important” than others?
M.N.—The aggrieved groups themselves must ask for it and others have to see something in it for them. In fact, not everyone is asking for apologies because there’s a certain distrust of apology. Some people ask, “What’s that apology going to do?” They think, “They don’t mean it,” or “If I have to ask for it then it’s not worth getting,” or “They are morally bankrupt and don’t even know that they should apologize,” or “Whatever they could do for me wouldn’t be worth it.” So there are reasons why some people wouldn’t even think about asking for an apology, because they think it would be somehow tainted.
Are some apologies more important than others? I don’t think there are absolute measures. But at least in politics, it seems, the ones that are considered worthy are the ones where the people who are giving it stand to gain too.
K.M.—If a crime happened in the past but continues to have great implications today and cause great distress, do you think it’s more “worthy” of being addressed? I have in mind the Native Americans, African-Americans…
M.N.—I agree with the gist of your argument. But many would argue that what happened in the U.S. happened. That we have found other ways of dealing with African-American and Native American grievances, and apology is kind of beside the point. They would say that an apology would be so polarizing that it will do more harm than good.
In general, though, I think that if any party is going to do it, it’s the Democrats, although they haven’t endorsed an apology—not even Bill Clinton.
K.M.—What do you think about gestures by ordinary people who apologize despite their government’s reluctance to do so?
M.N.—Australia is a good example of that. When former Prime Minister John Howard refused to apologize, he ended up inadvertently fostering what is known as the people’s movement. Australians themselves were signing sorry books. Some critics judged it as political theatre, but I didn’t view it that way. The Australians were telling Aboriginal Australians, “Listening to you makes me think about what happened, makes me think about you as a neighbor that I care about. The government can’t change our attitudes. We’re citizens, and we can apologize.”
It seems to me that an official apology accompanied by real, serious engagement by the population—as we’ve seen in Canada, Australia and New Zealand, yet haven’t seen here in the U.S.—makes a big difference in the quality of life in those countries.
Khatchig Mouradian is a journalist, writer and translator, based in Boston. He is the editor of the Armenian Weekly. He can be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org.