On the crucial differences between private and public forgiveness

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(Stolen Generation apology, Adelaide, Australia, 13 February 2008)

In the aftermath of the Apartheid government in South Africa, a Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) was formed to help the country move forward at the same time as it acknowledged and attempted to redress the injustices of the past. Not everyone was onboard with the project, but it turned out to be a success in terms of helping to heal the nation. Of 7,000 individuals who applied to the commission for amnesty about 10% were granted it, and the commission proposed a wealth tax to help fund reparation programs. (The South African government, however, never followed through.)

This was not the first TRC, nor would it be the last. An earlier attempt was made by Bolivia in 1982, with its National Commission of Inquiry into Disappearances, which brought together a variety of sectors of society after the end of the military rule there. The very first TRC was the one established in Uganda in 1974. Argentina followed in 1983, Chile and Nepal in 1990, El Salvador and Germany in 1992, Guatemala in 1994, Canada in 2006, and so forth.

Priscilla Hayner in Unspeakable Truths: Transitional Justice and the Challenge of Truth Commissions (Routledge, 2002) defines a TRC in this manner:

“A truth commission (1) is focused on the past, rather than ongoing, events; (2) investigates a pattern of events that took place over a period of time; (3) engages directly and broadly with the affected population, gathering information on their experiences; (4) is a temporary body, with the aim of concluding with a final report; and (5) is officially authorized or empowered by the state under review.”

I’m telling you all this because of a brilliant talk I just heard at City College, entitled “The Broken Promise of Public Forgiveness,” delivered by University of Texas-Austin PhD candidate Simone Gubler. Simone took as her starting point the formal apology proffered by the Parliament of Australia to the indigenous people of that continent, back in 2008. The apology was delivered by Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, who also asked the indigenous people for forgiveness on behalf of the nation.

And here is where things, according to Simone, got problematic. You see, a good argument can be made that forgiveness is an essentially personal process, not one that makes sense at the level of public institutions. Setting aside the obvious observation that the current non-indigenous inhabitants of Australia did not perpetrate the original crimes against the indigenous ones (though, of course, they still take advantage of the aftermath), and setting further aside the fact that groups cannot forgive (only individual members of such groups can), there is an obviously imbalanced power dynamic at play here. Asking for forgiveness at that level in a real sense imposes an implied demand on the other side, along the lines of “hey, I’m being so nice to ask you, and you are going to refuse?”

Individuals are far less likely to feel that pressure. If my partner betrays me and she asks for forgiveness I may or may not grant it. It’s up to me, and it is not a given that I will grant it. But when we scale up from the individual to a social group the dynamics change dramatically, according to Simone, so that forgiveness is no longer about contrite individuals who have come to agree that what they did is wrong, but rather about a political (possibly, though not necessarily, cynical) move in the public arena, meant to elicit a very specific response.

I must admit that I was rather skeptical of Simone’s approach when she outlined what she was going to argue for at the beginning of her talk, but it didn’t take much to convince me that she is right. And then Q&A time came, and my colleague Kate Ritchie upped the ante. She suggested that what Simone said about forgiveness also goes for official apologies. They too, are something that makes sense at the individual level, but not so much at the social one. And apologies too can be given by the wrong person, on behalf of groups who may not agree, used as a power play, and delivered because of cynical calculations. Even when not cynical in nature, both Simone and Kate agreed, requests for forgiveness as well as apologies quickly become empty. Simone mentioned the institution of a national “Sorry Day” in Australia, which, while probably initially well intentioned, has soon turned into a rote empty gesture, particularly since little or nothing is being done in the meantime to actually improve the lives of indigenous people.

Once again, my initial thought was that surely Kate’s point is problematic. But nope, a few seconds of reflection revealed to me that she was right.

But hold on, then. I began this article by talking in positive terms of the notion of Truth and Reconciliation Commissions, and now I’m agreeing with our guest speaker (it was Philosophy Day, by the way) that officially asking for forgiveness, and even issuing public apologies, is problematic. Doesn’t reconciliation imply apologies and forgiveness?

Probably, again, at the individual level, but not the public one. Consider two contrasting situations. The first one is the case mentioned above of my partner cheating on me. Let’s say that she apologized and asked for forgiveness. While I’m not mandated to grant it, it would seem that if I agree to reconcile, to get back together and resume our life as a couple, I have at least implicitly accepted her apology and forgiven her. Without that, life as a couple would be re-established on very shaky foundations indeed.

The second scenario is that of the CEO of Exxon-Mobil apologizing to the public for yet another environmental catastrophe caused by the greedy practices of his corporation. Again setting aside the degree to which it makes sense for a single individual to apologize on behalf of a large anonymous entity which he certainly does not control beyond a limited extent, what I – as a member of the public – expect from Exxon-Mobil is three things and three things only: (i) an acknowledgement of the facts; (ii) some concrete suggestion on how the corporation can repair the damage; and (iii) reasonable assurances that whatever caused the problem will not happen again in the future. Both apologies and forgiveness are entirely beside the point.

The bottom line from all the above is that there is an important difference between the individual and social levels at which concepts like apologies and forgiveness operate. Simone (or yours truly) does not deny that it makes perfect sense for an individual to apologize to another for some wrongdoing. She also agrees (and so do I) that it makes sense for an individual to ask for forgiveness, so long as it is understood that this is not an imposition on the other party, who may or may not grant it. Yet, as we have seen above, both concepts are problematic when scaled up to the level of social groups. If this is true, why do we do it, and how could we do otherwise?

I believe one source of the particular kind of mistake we are talking about is Plato. In the Republic he famously set out to investigate what makes for a just person. His strategy was to scale things up and ask first what makes for a just state (the Republic of the title). The explicit assumption was that one can go back and forth between the two levels. The ideal Republic will be guided by reason (in the form of a ruling class of philosophers), who will direct the other two components (the soldiers-auxiliaries and the regular folks-producers). Likewise, the ideal human being has a tripartite soul, and is well advised to put her rational soul in control of the spirited and appetitive ones.

Yet, most of the ancients rejected this approach, making a clear distinction between individuals and society. Both the Stoics and Cicero talked of ethics (from the Greek êthos, a word related to our idea of character) as distinct from law. Ethics (and morality, from the Latin moralis, which is how Cicero translated the Greek êthos) pertains to the individual and her character; law pertains to how we regulate things in society. A just individual is not the same as a just state. At the individual level the Stoics considered justice a character trait, having to do with treating other people fairly and with respect, but not necessarily equally (e.g., I don’t treat my daughter in the same way as a stranger, even though I try to show respect for everyone); by contrast, at the societal level a just state is one based on just laws, where everyone is treated equally, regardless of personal status.

Simone’s suggestion, then, can be reframed as a call for going back to a meaningful distinction between ethics and law, the first one functioning at the individual, the second at the societal level. It is within this framework that it makes perfect sense to say that apologies and forgiveness have an important role to play in the intercourse between individuals, while at the same time maintaining that they are problematic between groups. So politicians and corporate officers can keep their apologies, and they will not get our forgiveness. What they need to do instead is to acknowledge wrongdoing and put in place workable procedures to redress injustices.