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The Arrogance of Apologies

Back when I was in high school, a teacher had arranged some small group sessions in which the students were to discuss certain assigned readings. When we assembled, it soon became apparent that most of the students had not done the assigned readings and thus were unable to discuss them. In frustration, the teacher cancelled the whole program. In order to rescue the situation, the students got together and decided to offer a formal apology. They asked me to be their spokesman and deliver the apology. I refused. It happened that in this case I had been one of the students who had done the assigned readings. (There were, of course, other occasions when I had not done some assigned work.) I did not think that I should be the one delivering the apology because I was not one of the ones who was at fault. I judged that in that case my apology would have been rightly deemed to be meaningless. Apologizing for someone else’s actions is not really an apology at all. It is merely a judgement from the sidelines that someone else’s actions were wrong.

I was reminded of this incident from my youth when, on November 7 of this year, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau issued a formal apology to the Jewish refugees on the ship MS St. Louis, who were not offered sanctuary in Canada in 1939. It led me to write an article, which has now been published in C2C Journal.

I have never been a fan of belated proxy apologies. I have long suspected that apologies such as this are primarily for the benefit of those who make the apologies. It is an opportunity for them to pat themselves on the back and display their moral superiority to those of a previous generation. It is a chance for them to proclaim, “I would not have done that. I would have done better.” As I pointed out in that article, it is too easy to judge the actions of someone else in an entirely different context. We cannot know that, if we had been in that person’s situation, we would not have done the same thing.

What is really inappropriate in such apologies is the arrogance of them. In spite of what we would like to believe, we are not morally superior to people in the past. We just commit different sins and injustices on different victims. The irony is that those who issue such belated apologies for other people’s sins do so because they seem to be unaware that they might have faults of their own. A little humility might help them to realize that a few generations from now someone may feel moved to apologize for some of their unjust actions.


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