Was British wealth built on slavery? Do modern-day British people only enjoy a pleasant lifestyle because of the exploitation of the British Empire’s subject peoples? Are our institutions rotten because the people who created and maintained them were part of an unjust economic system?
I’m not trying to answer these questions. But there is a thorny question that lurks behind a lot of our current antagonisms, surrounding the nature and extent of corporate responsibility. Is it right for people who represent institutions or organisations or countries to take responsibility and apologise for wrongs done by other representatives of those bodies?
David Cameron does not bear direct moral culpability for a massacre that occurred when he was five years old. – Niall Gooch
In 2010, David Cameron (rightly) issued an official apology on behalf of the British government for the events of Bloody Sunday, 38 years after soldiers of the Parachute Regiment killed fourteen unarmed protesters at a civil rights march in Derry in January 1972. He said “the government is ultimately responsible for the conduct of the armed forces and for that, on behalf of the government, indeed, on behalf of our country, I am deeply sorry”.
At the time, some critics suggested that such apologies were meaningless. This has always struck me as a curious position for anyone who is not a dogmatic individualist. David Cameron does not bear direct moral culpability for a massacre that occurred when he was five years old. But as the head of the British government in 2010, he was the senior representative of the British state. The same state for which other representatives – the Heath government and the Army officers in command in Derry – were responsible for the events in January 1972.
Generally speaking, a meaningful apology will be closely tied to a specific action and the person apologising will have a clear connection to, or responsibility for, the actions. – Niall Gooch
We are all involved in, and represent, institutions greater than ourselves – families, schools, churches, companies, clubs, and so on. I am a member of my parish; I belong to the Old Boy’s society of my secondary school and the alumni society of my university. I follow Tottenham Hotspur Football Club. These entities are not simply polite fictions. They have a genuine existence of their own.
Generally speaking, a meaningful apology will be closely tied to a specific action or series of actions and the person apologising will have some kind of clear connection to, or responsibility for, the actions. By contrast, very often, what is trailed as an apology or contrition is mere grandstanding. Consider, for example, the phenomenon of politicians, celebrities, police officers and members of the public “taking the knee”. In the context of the Black Lives Matter campaign, this pose has its origins in the refusal of the American football player Colin Kaepernick to stand for the US national anthem before games, as a protest against police brutality. It has since become closely associated with the movement, and is now often demanded of public figures as a sign of their support for BLM.
I am uneasy about this because for most of those authority figures “taking the knee” is not a direct apology for some particular injustice against black people for which they, or the organisation which they represent, is responsible. Rather, it seems to me like staking a claim to public virtue and to signal obeisance and deference before a particular political movement, whose aims and tactics are controversial. Typically – in Britain at least – the person taking the knee has no kind of conceivable connection to, or responsibility for, the injustices which have provoked the BLM campaignins. Keir Starmer, the leader of Britain’s Labour Party, is not remotely responsible for police brutality in urban America. Nor is Alan Pughsley, the head of Kent Police. And yet both have publicly “taken the knee” in recent weeks, Starmer in his office and Pughsley at a BLM event in Gravesend.
Typically, the person taking the knee has no kind of conceivable connection to, or responsibility for, the injustices which have provoked the BLM campaigns. – Niall Gooch
As a Catholic and as a Christian, I am in favour of repentance and apology. There is no inherent problem with collective repentance. Jesus himself taught us to ask forgiveness for “our trespasses”, and at Mass we ask God to “look not on our sins”. But we need to be clear what an apology is, and what it is not. Unless handled with great care, an apology made for sins that we did not ourselves commit can be used to make ourselves look good, or to polish our own reputation as a person of sensitivity and wisdom. Let us not seek cheap grace.
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