Nick Smith, Apologies as Remedies, Apologies as Weapons: Considerations for the Trudeau Administration [2017 C4eJ 7] (Public Lecture)

[☛ watch the video | read the rest of the symposium on The Ethics of Apology: Interdisciplinary & International Perspectives]

Nick Smith*

The political right in the United States has long been hostile to apologies, enforcing a taboo against unpatriotic blasphemy.[1] President George H.W. Bush repeatedly offered roughly ten different versions of his mantra: “I will never apologize for the United States—I don’t care what the facts are… I’m not an apologize-for-America kind of guy.”[2] The “kind of guy” remark captures a sense that this unapologetic attitude defines a person’s character, which helps explain why Mitt Romney titled his autobiography No Apologies.[3] Conservatives cast President Barack Obama as the “Apologizer in Chief” who went on various “Apology Tours” around the world “apologizing for America” and debasing our national pride and identity.[4] Whenever President Obama sought to address the root causes of terrorism, the right described him as apologizing for U.S. foreign policy. By framing nuanced analysis of complex historical situations as “apologizing,” the right cast Obama’s diplomacy as a form of emasculated groveling. As members of the alt-right like to say in the dark corners of the internet, “only cucks apologize.”

Enter Donald Trump and his campaign to Make America Great Again. It is difficult to imagine someone less inclined to apologize than President Trump. As a comparison, President Obama once drew considerable ire for comments regarding then California Attorney General and now Senator Kamala Harris. President Obama said of Harris: “She is brilliant and she is dedicated and she is tough, and she is exactly what you’d want in anybody who is administering the law, and making sure that everybody is getting a fair shake.” He continued: “She also happens to be, by far, the best looking attorney general in the country. It’s true! C’mon!”[5] President Obama called Harris the next day to apologize for the distraction caused by what many considered his sexist comments on the appearance of a colleague. I will not remind you of various things President Trump has said to and about women, but I think it is uncontroversial to say that they are far more offensive than President Obama calling Senator Harris brilliant, dedicated, tough, and also good looking. But we know not to expect an apology from President Trump, except when he was faced with the smoking gun of the Hollywood Access tape and, frankly, delivered a pretty effective apology that did just enough to mollify key operatives in the Republican political establishment while pivoting to attack their shared enemies: “Bill Clinton has actually abused women, and Hillary has bullied attacked shamed and intimidated his victims.”[6] He also now counterattacks by claiming that all sixteen women who have accused him of sexual assault are lying, walking back his more apologetic tone when the Hollywood Access tape significantly weakened his campaign.[7] President Trump channels John Wayne’s machismo code: “Never apologize. It’s a sign of weakness.”[8] His personal attitudes have become something of a national—and nationalist—ideology against apologizing.

This does not, however, mean that apologies do not interest President Trump. He demands apologies from others regularly, perhaps more than any other public figure. See, for example:

His call for Obama to apologize to him:


His call for Hillary Clinton to apologize to him:


His demand that the New York Times and the media generally apologize to him:


He expects an apology from ESPN:


And from the cast of Hamilton to Vice President Pence:


There are many more examples of President Trump not apologizing for things that seem to rather obviously warrant an apology, but then demanding apologies from others in a manner that seems below the prestige of his office. Like the contrast of President Obama’s willingness to apologize to Senator Harris, it is difficult to imagine Obama calling for the termination an ESPN reporter. President Obama was of course subject to a steady barrage of insults—including the “birther” campaign sustained by President Trump and for which Trump never apologized despite conceding that “President Obama was born in the United States. Period.”[9] But in the spirit of “when they go low, we go high,” Obama would not himself request apologies even as various proxies did so on his behalf.[10]

Analyzing these dynamics in detail is beyond the scope of this paper, but in short we can note that this has something to do with gender, race, class, privilege, power, nationalism, and the optics of outrage. For President Trump, demanding apologies polices ideology by publically shaming offenders and notifying potential transgressors—no matter how unknown and from all walks of life—that he might drag them into his punitive Twitter feed to throw them to his followers. Here we should remember the dark history of authority figures demanding apologies and confessions from subjects and enemies. Foucault graphically recounts state-sanctioned medieval torture practices, nominally carried out to produce confessions and penance but ultimately serving the end of consolidating power by contorting the bodies and spirits of populations. “Confession,” Foucault wrote, “has become one of the West’s most valued techniques for producing truth”:

One confesses—or is forced to confess. When it is not spontaneous or dictated by some internal imperative, the confession is wrung from a person by violence or threat; it is driven from its hiding place in the soul, or extracted from the body. Since the Middle Ages, torture has accompanied it like a shadow, and supported it when it could go no further: the dark twins.[11]

Authoritarian states have long coerced public statements of “rehabilitation” from resisters, in part because extracting confession and apology displays far greater power than executing the defiant. And, of course, coercive persuasion as a means to repentance arguably serves as the foundational principle of the prison system in the United States—they were called “penitentiaries” because they served as a refuge where the offender could be removed from the temptations of criminal life and shepherded back to her true conscience when left to study her Bible. All of this should caution us that apologies are more than progressive remedies that “restore justice” and mend wounds—they also have an underbelly of authoritarianism, social control, humiliation, and self-degradation at the foot of the gallows. With all that we cautiously watch in the United States in 2017, the culture of apologies is not the most urgent concern. But it is worrying.

Meanwhile, in Canada:


My Canadian colleagues might be accustomed to such images, but when I first saw this story I tried to imagine President Trump striking this pose.[12] Try it yourself. Prime Minister Trudeau seems to occupy the opposite end of the spectrum of contrition, so much so that comedian John Oliver has even parodied Trudeau’s seemingly excessive repeated apologies for jostling legislators on the floor of the House of Commons.[13] I learned—and I frankly feel inappropriate repeating what sounds to me like an unfounded or at least an imprecise stereotype—that Canadians apparently have a reputation for being overly-apologetic. Buzzfeed and its Canadian staff have run multiple stories reinforcing this perception, including stories of Canadians apologizing to walls for bumping into them and apologizing for excessively apologizing.[14] After discussing this folk knowledge with Canadians from various social circles, all confirmed this self-understanding and were surprised that I was unaware of this reputation. I actually felt a bit embarrassed, as if my unawareness was insulting because it questioned a point of national pride: how can an apology expert not know that Canadians are exceptionally apologetic? One Canadian even said, sounding a little apologetic: “maybe we’re not as famous as we thought.”

There is much to discuss about different “apology cultures,” and interested readers might review the applicable sections of I Was Wrong considering the diverse origins and expectations for apologies past and present.[15] After evaluating some of Prime Minister Trudeau’s apologies and learning that his administration is preparing several other public apologies, I would like to use the remainder of this essay to offer some considerations that might help in the process of creating and evaluating these gestures. We recently learned, for instance, that the Trudeau administration is “working on” an apology for refusing nine hundred Jewish refugees aboard the MS St. Louis in 1939 that resulted in approximately one quarter of these passengers dying in death camps.[16] The Trudeau administration has also been preparing an apology for the “LGBT Purge” in government and military service.[17]

I am a novice in Canadian politics and in the details of these cases, but perhaps my distance from the publicity might help us ask the basic philosophical questions. First: What exactly is an apology? This proves to be a massively complex issue, and also very big business.[18] What counts as an apology is the subject of many theories, but also of contested legislation in all fifty U.S. states with billions of dollars of litigation on the line while political parties fight to control the pen when defining the term. Findings of remorse—from attitudes during police stops to demeanor findings at probation hearings—are arguably one of the most important determinants in sentencing in the United States. Apologies can be the difference between life and death sentences. A great deal is at stake in this philosophical question, and I devoted much of I Was Wrong to the inexact science of identifying the distinct spheres of apologetic meaning. The book considers a wide variety of apologetic meanings and warns against thinking of apologies in binary “all or nothing” terms. Instead, we should be clear about what we seek in apologies, and evaluate them accordingly. The following benchmarks guide the standards for what I call “categorical apologies” and can serve as touchstones for our thinking about apologies. Categorical apologies, understood as a regulative ideal for acts of contrition, address the following concerns:

  1. Corroborated Factual Record: A categorical apology will corroborate a detailed factual record of the events salient to the injury, reaching agreement among the victim, offender, and sometimes the community regarding what transpired. The parties will also agree regarding what amounts to such salient events, leading them to share an understanding of the relevant aspects of the context in which the injury occurs. Rather than providing general and vague descriptions of the events (“I acted badly”), the record will render transparent all facts material to judging the transgressions. Such a record will often include honest accounts of the mental states of the apologizer at the time of the offense when such information would prove relevant, for example by describing the offender’s intentions when committing the transgression.
  2. Acceptance of Blame: In accordance with prevailing notions of proximate causation, the offender accepts causal moral responsibility and blame for the harm at issue. We can distinguish this from expressing sympathy for the injury or describing the injury as accidental or unintentional. We can maintain a binocular view of wrongdoing that attributes individual blame while appreciating environmental and structural contributors to wrongdoing such as systemic inequality.
  3. Possession of Appropriate Standing: The categorical apologizer will possess the requisite standing to accept blame for the wrongdoing. The offender can and does accept proximate responsibility for the harm and she—rather than a proxy or other third party—undertakes the work of apologizing described herein.
  4. Identification of Each Harm: The offender will identify each harm, taking care not to conflate several harms into one general harm or to apologize for only a lesser offense or the “wrong wrong.” In her report to the Law Commission of Canada, Susan Alter recounts Bishop Hubert O’Connor’s response to sexual assault charges against him. Instead of apologizing for the sexual assaults, he apparently apologized for “breaking his vow of chastity.”[19]
  5. Identification of the Moral Principles Underlying Each Harm: The offender will identify the moral principles underlying these harms with an appropriate degree of specificity, thus making explicit the values at stake in the interaction.
  6. Shared Commitment to Moral Principles Underlying Each Harm: The offender will commit to the moral principles underlying these harms (again with an appropriate degree of specificity), vindicating the value at issue and finding the victim’s offense at the apologizer’s breach of this value justified. Here the phrase “I was wrong” will better convey this meaning than the traditionally favored “I am sorry,” as the former accepts personal blame for wrongdoing while the latter may provide no more than an expression of sympathy or a displeasure with a state of affairs.
  7. Recognition of Victim as Moral Interlocutor: Through this process the offender comes to recognize and treat the victim as a moral interlocutor. The offender treats the victim as a moral agent worthy of engaging in moral discourse and abandons the belief that she can disregard the victim’s dignity, humanity, or worth in pursuit of her own objectives.
  8. Categorical Regret: The offender categorically regrets the actions in question, meaning she believes that she has made a mistake that she wishes could be undone. We can distinguish this from continuing to endorse one’s decisions but expressing sympathy regarding what the offender perceives as the justifiable consequences of her actions.
  9. Performance of the Apology: The offender expresses the apology to the victim rather than keeping her thoughts of contrition to herself or sharing them only with a third party such as a judge or member of the clergy. She addresses the apology to the victim as a moral interlocutor. She expresses the content required of a categorical apology explicitly. The apology reaches the victim. The victim may exercise reasonable discretion regarding whether the offender must present the apology only to the victim or also to a broader community. We should generally defer to the victims’ reasonable discretion regarding whether the apology should be committed to writing.
  10. Reform: The apologizer will reform and forbear from reoffending over her lifetime and will repeatedly demonstrate this commitment by resisting opportunities and temptations to reoffend. Thus a categorical apology allows the victim to isolate the cause of her suffering, apportion blame for her injury, and take some security in the offender’s pledge never to repeat the offense.
  11. Redress: The apologizer takes practical responsibility for the harm she causes, providing commensurate remedies and other incommensurable forms of redress to the best of her ability. The offender provides a proportional amount of redress, but she need not meet excessive demands from victims with unreasonable or inappropriate expectations. I leave questions regarding what constitutes unreasonable or excessive demands to be determined in consideration of cultural practices, and I appreciate that such deliberations will often be contentious. The apologizer accepts legal sanctions for her wrongs, though she may protest these penalties to the extent that she finds them unjustifiable as disproportionate to her offense.
  12. Intentions for Apologizing: The categorical apology also requires certain mental states. Rather than promoting the apologizer’s purely self-serving objectives, the offender intends the apology to advance the victim’s well-being and to affirm the breached value. Benefits the offender receives from her apology—such as restored social standing or reduced punishment—arise as the byproduct rather than primary objective of the apology.
  13. Emotions: As a result of her wrongdoing, the apologizer experiences an appropriate degree and duration of sorrow and guilt as well as empathy and sympathy for the victim. I leave questions regarding the appropriate qualitative and quantitative emotional components of categorical apologies to be determined in consideration of cultural practices and individual expectations.

I defend each of these benchmarks at length in I Was Wrong. Conceived as such, categorical apologies are demanding acts that indicate a kind of moral transformation that resonates with thick conceptions of repentance within religious traditions. That book also considers how these meanings map onto collective apologies, which add layers of complexity to the discussion—contrast Prime Minister Trudeau’s apology for his own behavior in the House of Commons with his statements on behalf of his nation for offenses long before his birth. I will now isolate a few issues especially relevant to forthcoming collective apologies in Canada. If apologies present loose constellations of inter-related meanings, these are the questions I ask first when scanning the horizons of collective apologies. We stand a better chance of finding the meanings we seek from collective apologies with these issues guiding our attempts to navigate the disorienting social landscapes.

A. Collective Apologies as Poor Substitutes

We should not discount the possibility of a collective providing a categorical apology. Although rare and most likely to occur in small groups bound by considerable solidarity, each member of the group could individually satisfy the elements of a categorical apology and perform the gesture communally. The group would speak and act from a consensus regarding all relevant elements, and it would clearly define the group’s membership. We can appreciate the full range of obstacles that prevent collective apologies from reaching the status of “categorical,” but I want to reiterate that such meaning is not only possible but also highly desirable in many cases.

B. Factual Record

Here we should watch for accounts from the Trudeau administration that gloss over the details. Beware of vague platitudes like “unacceptable things happened.” What exactly happened in both incidents? Both the MS St. Louis denial and the LGBT Purge resulted from the combined actions of many people—from the Prime Minister to rank and file—and they impacted many victims. Who are the wrongdoers, and what exactly did they do? To what extent did antisemitism and homophobia drive these decisions? Who are the victims, and what did they suffer? Some offenders will be long deceased, some will be elderly and infirm, and some might now occupy prestigious positions and much prefer not to be named. Compiling such accounts might require teams of historians, and collective apologies should often devote the resources necessary for undertaking the investigative work required to compile this information.

C. Blame

Collective apologies are often conspicuously imprecise in matters of moral causation. If we trace accountability to the intentional actions of moral agents within the collective, have these individuals offered suitable apologies for their roles in the offense?

Or do individuals who should apologize for their personal wrongdoings conceal their culpability in the collective and allow it to shoulder the blame that they should in fact personally bear? Do leaders and spokespersons invoke individualist conceptions of responsibility when accepting praise but shift to collective theories and speak in the passive voice when deflecting blame? In either the MS St. Louis tragedy or the LGBT Purge, will any living person accept blame? Will the apology identify who was at fault? Or will it diffuse blame into the winds of history?

We can also scrutinize collective apologies that attribute harms solely to structural features of institutions. If a representative blames a rule, policy, practice or tradition, we can inquire into the origins and maintenance of such features of the collective. More often than not, we can trace these structural characteristics to the choices of individual agents and assign blame accordingly. In general, our moral radar can become more sensitive and better equipped to track accountability into institutional depths. This increased precision should also help us to detect the range of smaller offences that compound to cause large-scale injuries. Bureaucratic structures may impede efforts to untangle causal chains or obscure our view of decision-making structures, but research or even legally compelled discovery proceedings may elucidate where blame should fall. Democratic principles favor transparency for these very reasons.

In many cases, we should understand collective acts of contrition as what I describe as value-declaring rather than categorical apologies. Instead of accepting blame for past wrong-doing, a value-declaring collective apology announces or renews its commitment to a policy. A group can endorse a principle in this sense without admitting wrongdoing or invoking thorny issues of collective causation and responsibility. It can also avoid attributing blame to individual members of the group. The group can use the gesture to denounce the acts of others or even as a means of parrying an accusation against it by insisting on its unwavering commitment to the principle—think here of President Trump’s demand that others apologize for fake news when many believe he is the primary purveyor of misinformation. When victims and communities worry less about apportioning blame for the past but instead primarily seek an assurance that a group will not commit an offense in the future, value-declaring apologies may suffice.[20] Consider the internet petition where Australians could ‘apologize’ for the government’s forcible removal of aboriginal people. The signatories were encouraged to think that this apology said: “This should not have happened; this should never happen again.” “It doesn’t,” they advise, “say ‘I was there and let it happen; I am guilty.’”[21] In other words, the apology states a position on the past actions of others and an opinion about the preferred direction of future policy. I could say “this should not have happened; this should never happen again” about any action I disagree with, including those from the distant past for which I obviously cannot be blamed. Such a statement drifts quite far from the typical conception of apologies as accepting blame, and will often feel accordingly hollow. We should be clear here why we even want to classify such statements as apologies. “I am Sorry” in politics risks becoming the analogue of “Not Guilty’ in criminal proceedings: it becomes just another move in the game, cynically leaching meaning from moral traditions.

If I need not accept blame, some will argue, then I need not take responsibility. Why should my tax dollars fund reparations for the sins of others? In response to such arguments, we can point out that even if I did not cause an injury and I do not deserve blame for that injury, I may still have a moral or professional duty to remedy it. It might be my job to fix a problem even if I did not cause the problem, and presumably this is an important aspect of politicians’ job descriptions: fixing problems that they did not cause. In various ways, we can inherit moral debts and obligations without being personally blameworthy.

D. Consensus

Consensus issues can cause various problems for collective apologies. Whatever members of the Trudeau administration say and promise in their apologies, how much of the population supports the sentiment? Does every member of the collective, a slight majority, or only a powerful minority sign on to the apology? The proportion of the group endorsing the gesture reflects the likelihood that the collective will keep its promise not to reoffend, but a declaration from a few with power to strictly enforce the commitment will also serve this end. Does the collective uniformly endorse the correct value or does it sermonize in general terms or expound on the “wrong wrong”? What, exactly, was the wrong in the LGBT Purge?

Do some members of the collective honor the principle selectively, or do all members uphold its promise without exceptions or excuses? How, exactly, will Canadians welcome refugees? Are Canadians of one mind about these issues?

What happens if a far-right anti-immigration and social conservative administration comes after Prime Minister Trudeau? Can they void the apology and the related policies? Various constituencies would want to be careful not to take these apologies to mean that they are forevermore safe to build their lives around promises made by the current leaders. The stronger the consensus, the more stable the apology.

E. Standing

Who holds the authority to commit the collective to the values endorsed? The United States also denied entry to the MS St. Louis, but I imagine Prime Minister Trudeau won’t be apologizing for them. But what are the standards for membership in the collective he represents? Does Prime Minister Trudeau speak for himself, members of his party, his nation, or “the entire international community” as President Bill Clinton once did?

Blame relates to standing: if I am not personally to blame, how exactly am I authorized to offer the apology? Prime Minister Trudeau appears to lack standing to apologize categorically for either the MS St. Louis denial or the LGBT Purge in two senses: 1) presumably he cannot accept blame for causing the harm; and 2) those who did cause the harm did not delegate the authority to apologize to him in any obvious respect. We might be tempted to say that his election as Prime Minister grants him standing to apologize for all of his predecessors, but this would be problematic. Imagine, by contrast, if President Trump apologized for “the disaster of Obamacare,” or for “Bill Clinton’s tarnishing of the Oval Office,” or even for “the wrong decision by the activist judges in Roe v. Wade.” We want to be careful here not to cherry pick our theories of moral causation to only fit our favored causes.

Two points related to standing merit emphasis here. First, certain kinds of apologetic meaning are only possible with clear claims to standing. When those who sent away the passengers of the MS St. Louis went to their graves unrepentant, the meaning of the apologies they never gave died with them. Gestures from contemporary Canadian officials would be meaningful in their own respects, but they are incommensurable with a survivor hearing the words “I was wrong” from those who once treated her as unworthy of entry. There are no shortcuts to this particular sort of meaning, regardless of how strongly we may desire it.

Second, notice that these apologies for the wrongs of others come rather easily because the apologizer does not need to admit that she has done anything wrong. Instead of suffering the anguish of admitting that they were personally wrong and confronting uncertain responses from their victims as well as personally being on the hook for redress, politicians who apologize for others enjoy a breezy walk on the moral high road while explaining how others failed. We should therefore be especially suspicious of groups apologizing for their predecessors as a cheap means of currying favor by sacrificing the already dead.[22]

F. Victims as Moral Interlocutors

Are the victims and their descendants viewed as equal participants in this painful process where we reveal our deepest values, our suffering, and our shame? Given the dehumanization inherent in these offenses, one should not underestimate the significance of engaging victims as peers and moral interlocutors. But notice some challenges: Must we engage every victim in such moral deliberation, or will a few representatives suffice? Can we and should we at least name all of the victims? What if they don’t want to be named or outed, which presents an especially important concern in the LGBT Purge? Can we describe the dead as interlocutors, or does this just pretend that the apologies achieve more meaning than they can? Again, apologies and reparations can only do so much.

If members of a collective believe that they have a deontological duty to honor a breached value, they might believe that someone is owed an apology of some kind even if insurmountable obstacles make a categorical apology impossible. We might think that the MS St. Louis passengers who died in death camps deserve an apology even though they are long dead. We might believe they deserve an apology—as they would deserve a proper burial—regardless of the instrumental value of such a gesture for modern discrimination policy. It can be important to publically recognize that some person or group is owed a categorical apology even though this debt can never be paid because the only people with the proper currency have defaulted in death. Sometimes it is better to mourn losses than to pretend to remedy them.

G. Reform

We should resist the temptation to want to definitely rule on the quality of the apologies from the Trudeau administration in the moments soon after they are delivered. Post-game apology analysis can create a false urgency to evaluate, when in fact much of the meaning and value will come from how leadership behaves going forward. Do they reoffend? Whatever is named as the breached value, do they consistently honor this value? Or do they waver when political winds change? In the case of the LGBT Purge, does an apology make good on the promise to eliminate policies that discriminate based on sexual orientation? In this respect, evaluating apologies takes time and we should not expect collective moral transformation to be completed in a news cycle. As Matt James and Jordan Stranger-Ross correctly argue, apologies are moments in a process and we understand them best when we avoid conceiving them as final, closed actions.[23]

H. Compensation

For many, the most important part of an apology is the financial or other redress provided. Indeed, even President Obama did not want congressional discussion of reparations for slavery in part because full economic compensation might be large enough to shift the balance of global power from the northern to the southern hemisphere.[24] So great are some debts that there might not be enough money in the world, and there certainly is not sufficient political will. But recall that Germany did pay billions in reparations for the Holocaust, and those funds played a significant role in Israel’s economic development.

I understand that the Trudeau administration did not provide financial compensation in the apology for the Komagata Maru incident, so it seems unlikely that an apology for the MS St. Louis will come with economic redress even though the incident had clear economic consequences for the victims.[25] The LGBT Purge also had undeniable and more recent negative financial impacts on victims, and many of them are still living. This includes not only being fired from gainful public employment, but all of the ways in which such injuries compound over time in the physical and financial health of victims and their families. The discriminatory injuries have continued to accrue moral and financial interest over time. Will Canada pay these debts, or just ignore them?

If the Trudeau administration considers only a few scholarships for the descendants of victims, we might find broad support for economic redress. But the higher the cost of reparations, the lower the likely political buy-in. Once people realize that collective responsibility will actually cost them, we should expect them to revert to more individualist conceptions of responsibility. Even a progressive taxpayer might support the nation in apologizing for historical injustice, but only if it does not cost her and her family anything substantial. After all, as the refrain goes, she did no wrong so why should it come out of her earnings and entitlements?

So, who will pay? And how much? And who will receive these benefits? Usually when someone apologizes, they personally undertake the work of redress. This is part of their hard treatment or penance and it cannot be outsourced. Will anyone in the Trudeau administration make personal sacrifices for these apologies, or do they instead initiate the ritual and pageantry of collective apologies primarily for political gain?

I. Intentions

Intentions matter, which is one of the reasons why we face so many challenges for apologies from corporations of the sort grappled with by Daryl Koehn and Nicola Lacetera: most assume that the primary objective of a corporate apology is to manipulate moral language for the sake of maximizing profits.[26] Political apologies suffer from a similar crisis of credibility as candidates and parties consult focus groups and pollsters to decide the extent to which various kinds of contrition confer strategic advantages. Although determining an individual or group’s intentions for apologizing often requires highly fallible inferences as we look for clues into offenders’ mental states, sometimes a smoking gun surfaces and explains precisely why an organization apologizes. Here we should heed the recent apology for the Chinese head tax—a fee levied against Chinese immigrants to Canada beginning in 1888. In 2013, a leaked memo from the office of British Columbia’s liberal party outlined a campaign strategy of using public funds to apologize to Chinese and Indian voters to secure “quick wins” with those ethnic groups.[27] Outrage ensued. The now transparent attempt to intentionally use expressions of contrition for historical injustice in order to gain political support—and to stage this cynical political theater on the taxpayer’s dime—led the president of the Union of British Columbia Chiefs to express “a deep sense of betrayal.” He explained that he found “it highly offensive that now the moves on the part of the B.C. provincial Liberals are tainted by this revelation, and it brings into question their efforts at reconciliation with respect to historical wrong doings.” Sid Chow Tan, president of the Head Tax Families Society of Canada, summarized his position: “Don’t pander to me by saying that ‘Hey we have a strategy. We are going to apologize.’ Well you know what? Take your apology and shove it where the sun don’t shine.”[28]

Others seemed less concerned about the political maneuvering and were more focused on securing meaningful redress for the thousands of families impacted. The executive director of the Chinese Canadian National Council equated a “genuine apology” with one that provided substantial financial compensation to victims. “If we wanted just an apology,” he explained, “we would have got it back in 2011 or 2012 or early 2013.”[29] For some, sufficient payments might be the most reliable measure of genuineness. Again, some victims may not care very much about the motivations for apologizing so long as they get what they seek. This a la carte aspect of my theory of the elements of categorical apologies can help all of us understand what is being served, which is often apology gravy without the meat of redress.[30]


Apologies can provide a powerful opportunity for reconciliation and social justice. Or they can distort our deepest spiritual traditions to compound the advantages of the privileged by disorienting and manipulating victims. A pattern—subject to many disclaimers regarding cultural specificity—becomes evident in both individual and collective harms. A victim suffers harm. She wants something like an apology. She may not have an exact sense of what a sufficient apology would entail, but something like a categorical apology motivates her. She wants to know what happened, she wants someone to admit wrongdoing, she doesn’t want to stand by while someone “gets away with” violating a moral principle she cares about, she wants to be respected and recognized as wronged, she wants the wrongdoer to feel badly, she wants to know this isn’t going to happen again to her or anyone else, and she wants the wrongdoer to take practical responsibility for redressing her injury.

Asking the questions above and taking our orientation from elements of categorical apologies can empower victims to pursue the meanings they seek. Such questions inform a healthy skepticism with respect to collective apologies, but we should not lapse into a cynical disregard for collective acts of contrition. Collective apologies can provide distinctly meaningful and indispensable supplements to individual apologies, especially in their ability to mobilize structural reform. If I have appeared overzealous in finding faults with collective apologies, I attribute this to frustration with occasions where institutions squander opportunities to enrich public discourse with thoughtful apologies. Far more than writings in ethics journals, public apologies provide a battleground where we express, contest, and honor our deepest values. Clarifying the meanings of apologies is urgent work, perhaps now more than ever, and for this reason I very much appreciate this opportunity to discuss these complexities with fellow contributors to this volume.

* J.D./Ph.D.; Professor and Chairperson, University of New Hampshire Department of Philosophy; I would like to express thanks to Markus Dubber for organizing this timely and innovative conference and for inviting me to participate in these conversations with such exceptionally thoughtful participants.

[1] This essay expands upon, synthesizes, and applies arguments from I Was Wrong: The Meanings of Apologies (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008). For a more thorough defense of the arguments suggested here, please see Part II of I Was Wrong on Collective Apologies. See also related arguments in “Political Apologies and Categorical Apologies,” On the Uses and Abuses of Political Apologies, ed. Mihaela Mihai and Mathias Thaler (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013): 29-43 (reprinted in Transitional Justice, ed. Christine Bell (New York: Ashgate, 2015); “An Overview of Challenges Facing Collective Apologies,” Public Apologies Between Ritual and Regret, eds. Daniel Cuypers, Daniel Janssen, Jacques Haers, and Barbara Segaert (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2013). This article also revisits material from Justice through Apologies: Remorse, Reform, and Punishment (New York : Cambridge University Press, 2014).

[2] Michael Kinsley, “Rally Round the Flag, Boys,” Time Magazine, September 12, 1988.

[3] Mitt Romney, No Apologies: The Case for American Greatness (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2010).

[4] See, for example, the Heritage Foundation’s essay by Nile Gardener and Morgan Lorraine Roach, “Barack Obama’s Top 10 Apologies: How the President Has Humiliated a Superpower,” June 2, 2009, available via (accessed October 31, 2017). See also Edward Isaac Dovere, “Obama’s Apology Complex,” Politico, May 23, 2016, available via (accessed October 31, 2017).

[5] Elspeth Reve, “Obama Apologized to Kamala Harris for Saying She’s Hot,” The Atlantic, April 5, 2013. Available via (accessed October 31, 2017).

[6] Jenna Johnson, “Trump Apologizes for ‘foolish’ Comments about Women, then Attacks Clintons,” The Washington Post, October 8, 2016. Available via (accessed October 31, 2017).

[7] John Wagner, “All of the Women who have Accused Trump of Sexual Harassment are Lying, White House Says,” The Chicago Tribune, October 27, 2017. Available via–20171027-story.html (accessed October 31, 2017).

[8] She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, directed by John Ford, 1949.

[9] Domenico Montenaro, “Without Apology, Trump Now Says ‘Obama Was Born In’ The U.S.,” National Public Radio, September 16, 2016. Available via (accessed October 31, 2017).

[10] Robin Abcarian, “Michelle Obama’s Stunning Convention Speech: When they go low, we go high,” The Los Angeles Times, July 25, 2016. Available via (accessed October 31, 2017).

[11] Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality: An Introduction, Volume I, trans. Robert Hurley (New York: Vintage Books, 1978), 58-59.

[12] “PM to Apologize for Rejection of Komagata Maru Ship Carrying Refugees in 1914,” Associated Press, April 11, 2016. Available via Daily Sabah (accessed October 31, 2017).

[13] The John Oliver skit is available via (accessed October 31, 2017).

[14] “19 Things Canadians Have Actually Apologized For,” Buzzfeed, June 2, 2015. Available via (accessed October 31, 2017).

[15] See, for example, I Was Wrong, 114-26.

[16] Stephanie Levitz, “Liberals Working on Apology for 1939 Decision to Refuse Ship of Jewish Refugees,” CBC News, September 27, 2017. Available via (accessed October 31, 2017).

[17] Jessica Murphy, “Canada to Apologize for ‘LGBT Purge’ in Government,” BBC News, June 25, 2017. Available via (accessed October 31, 2017).

[18] See my “How the Public Apology Became a Tool of Power and Privilege,” Aeon, October 15, 2014. Available via (accessed October 31, 2017).

[19] See M. McLean, “Circle Sentencing,” Jurisfemme 18 (1998): 4.

[20] Compare Jana Thompson, “The Apology Paradox,” Philosophical Quarterly 55-201 (2000): 470–75 (describing political apologies as “forward- rather than backward-looking). See also Peter Digeser’s argument for a forward-looking account of political forgiveness. Political Forgiveness (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2001).

[21] “Apology Australia,” Archived at the National Library of Australia’s web archive at

[22] See Alexander Chancellor, “Guide to Age,” Guardian, October 16, 2004: “Such breast-beating over complex historical episodes for which subsequent generations can bear no responsibility has been widely ridiculed, but it is precisely because they are clearly blameless that governments find it so easy to say sorry for ancient injustices. And they hope thereby to curry favour with the descendants of the victims at no cost to themselves.”

[23] See Matt James and Jordan Stanger-Ross, “Impermanent Apologies: On the Dynamics of Timing and Public Knowledge in Political Apology,” available in this C4eJ volume [video].

[24] For a discussion of apologies and reparation for slavery in the United States, see my “Apologies, Reparations, and Shattering the Founding Myths of the United States,” The Critique, October 2016. Available via (accessed October 31, 2017).

[25] See Ishann Tharoor, “Canada’s Trudeau Makes Apology for Racist Komagata Maru Incident,” The Washington Post, May 18, 2016. Available via (accessed October 31, 2017).

[26] See the thoughtful piece by Daryl Koehn, “Preliminary Thoughts on Types of Apologies: Interpersonal, Corporate and Collective,” 2017 C4eJ 2; see also Nicola Lacetera, “Business Apologies and the Ethics and Narrative of Trust,” 2017 C4eJ 3.

[27] “First Nations and Cultural Groups Reject Political Apologies: Leaders Reject B.C. Liberal’s Plan for ‘Easy Wins’ with Ethnic Groups,” CBC News, March 7, 2013. Available via (accessed October 31, 2017).

[28] Ibid.

[29] “Head Tax Apology Advocates Tell B.C. Premier Not to Delay,” The Canadian Press, March 10, 2013.

[30] The notion that collectives as such can intend anything—as opposed to aggregation of the mental states of members—adds another layer of complexity that I will not consider here other than to note questions regarding consensus. One member of an organization might apologize from the purest and most self-sacrificing of intentions. Others in the same organization might support the apology for cynical and purely self-interested instrumental reasons. A consensus of membership apologizing for the sake of the victims provides the ideal motivation, but this will be a difficult standard to meet for large organizations with diverse memberships.


Abcarian, Robin. “Michelle Obama’s Stunning Convention Speech: When they go low, we go high,” The Los Angeles Times, July 25, 2016. Available via (accessed October 31, 2017).

“Apology Australia,” Archived at the National Library of Australia’s web archive at

The Canadian Press. “Head Tax Apology Advocates Tell B.C. Premier Not to Delay,” The Canadian Press, March 10, 2013.

CBC News. “First Nations and Cultural Groups Reject Political Apologies: Leaders Reject B.C. Liberal’s Plan for ‘Easy Wins’ with Ethnic Groups,” CBC News, March 7, 2013. Available via (accessed October 31, 2017).

Johnson, Jenna. “Trump Apologizes for ‘foolish’ Comments about Women, then Attacks Clintons,” The Washington Post, October 8, 2016. Available via (accessed October 31, 2017).

Kinsley, Michael. “Rally Round the Flag, Boys,” Time Magazine, September 12, 1988.

Levitz, Stephanie. “Liberals Working on Apology for 1939 Decision to Refuse Ship of Jewish Refugees,” CBC News, September 27, 2017. Available via (accessed October 31, 2017).

Montenaro, Domenico. “Without Apology, Trump Now Says ‘Obama Was Born In’ The U.S.,” National Public Radio, September 16, 2016. Available via (accessed October 31, 2017).

Murphy, Jessica. “Canada to Apologize for ‘LGBT Purge’ in Government,” BBC News, June 25, 2017. Available via (accessed October 31, 2017).

Reve, Elspeth. “Obama Apologized to Kamala Harris for Saying She’s Hot,” The Atlantic, April 5, 2013. Available via (accessed October 31, 2017).

Romney, Mitt. No Apologies: The Case for American Greatness (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2010).

Wagner, John. “All of the Women who have Accused Trump of Sexual Harassment are Lying, White House Says,” The Chicago Tribune, October 27, 2017. Available via–20171027-story.html (accessed October 31, 2017).