Don’t Apologize for History, Acknowledge It
I was driving my husband to work the other day and we were listening to an NPR discussion about the Pope’s visit to America. Somewhere in that deluge of religious fetishism there was a discussion about apologizing to indigenous peoples for wrongs done to them. This sparked an interesting discussion about how to effectively deal with past injustices.
At this moment I’d like to clarify that I’m talking about events in which no one, victim or oppressor, is left alive. And when I say victim I am not referring to the travesty’s legacy but the people who were actually done to. The question of how descendants are affected by the legacy of a conquest or genocide is another one entirely and one I will not deal with in this particular essay.
Personally, there seem to me to be myriad problems with creating a culture of apologies with regard to historical events. For one, in most cases the person issuing the apology has no real authority or even reason to do so. Secondly, in a perversely biblical way, the descendants of any given majority group are expected to bear the burden of guilt for all time. Lastly and most important of all, no one is the better for it.
One by one, I’d like to go through these contentions and detail why I think these sorts of apologies should be dispensed with and then what I believe would be a more effective way of addressing past travesties. Let us begin with what apologies are for.
When discussing this issue with my husband I asked if he didn’t see any value whatsoever in the attempt. He gave a definitive ‘no’. He went on to detail that there was no way that say, an ethnically European Pope or any person born a century after the event, could possibly comprehend or sympathize with a people whose culture had been utterly annihilated, much less actually feel contrite about it. How could they? They were neither victim nor victimizer. We might also ask the question, who are they apologizing for and how did they decide who is and is not culpable?
An apology in the usual sense is an admission of guilt. It is a way to verbalize one’s shame and admit regret for one’s actions. It can be a healing experience for the afflicted party when they sincerely believe that the apologizer acknowledges their actions as wrong. So if someone apologizes for a crime they didn’t commit, to a people who didn’t suffer as a result of it, then what is accomplished?
To summarize this initial point, apologies should be issued by the perpetrators, not by some Johnny-come-lately with a misguided guilt complex. Secondly, demanding that people take responsibility for crimes they couldn’t have committed, especially on the basis of heritage or similarity of appearance, is not only barbaric but laughably irrational.
If we were to take these apologies seriously though, believing that they were worth something and that descendants of various conquerors were just as guilty as their ancestors, what would the statute of limitations be on that, if any?
Do the Mongolians have to issue an apology to the Russians for their invasion in the 13th century? What about surviving members of the Aztec? By the end of the 15th century they had conquered and subjugated the vast majority of central Mexico, where is the shame? The Blackfeet Native Americans were notorious for their exceedingly violent raids on other tribes; so are they victims of Western expansion or did they just lose to an equally violent but bigger competitor? And what about the Arab slave trade which was still in force in the 20th century?
My point here is that human beings have been fucking each other over for a long time. More than that, it was and remains a very common practice. Many peoples who were violently subjugated or annihilated were equally vicious to their neighbors.
It should be said that when we depict victors as the one and only purveyor of conquest and cruelty, we infantilize their victims by portraying them as child-like innocents. The vast majority of human societies have been violent and insensitive to the well-being of their neighbors. Merely because one society dies under the foot of another does not mean the fallen party should be canonized.
I think the best way to make amends for travesties both long past and recent, is to tell the story like it is. While apologizing for these events may come to nothing, acknowledging their reality and doing so frankly and fully is important. It is imperative if we want to stop the train of human violence and disregard that has become such a familiar pattern among our species. History will always be important but it will only ever be helpful when it is recorded honestly, completely and free of politics.
Turkey’s refusal to acknowledge the Armenian genocide at the hands of the Ottoman Empire is a prime example of the importance of acknowledgement. Were an apology all that mattered, one could say it and move on. We are ‘off the hook’ when we have said the magic word, ‘sorry’. But when we are instead asked to acknowledge it, calling it what it is, there is no moving on. It is no longer just an admission of guilt or regret but a fact, and facts don’t go away.
Events like the American slave trade, the Armenian genocide and the annihilation of the Native Americans are not meant to be apologized for. It’s too late for that because there’s no one left to apologize to. They’re meant to be vividly remembered so that the next time around we can stop it before an apology becomes necessary.