Our attitude to ofﬁcial apologies is paradoxical. Despite widespread critique of most apologies issued by heads of state, government, and NGOs, public demand for such apologies continues to arise with predictable regularity — we demand even as we condemn. I argue that the role of apologies in securing public trust in a democratic contextcan explain this paradoxical attitude. By contrasting private and public apologies, I demonstrate that the latter have emerged as a performative (rather than legal or structural) model for accountability, and thus for reinspired public trust. I conclude by demonstrating significant democratic risks to this practice.
This apology means nothing. After what they’ve done, why would we trust a word out of their lying mouths? How can we move forward when they won’t even say they’re sorry?
An astute observer of public apologies will recognize the dissonance expressed in the two sentences above. Together, they demonstrate what we might call the paradox of public apology: namely, that even as we condemn (and outright mock) the public apologies issued by heads of states, politicians, as well as CEOs of corporations and other NGOs, public demand for such apologies continues to arise with predictable regularity each time a public figure or institution is found guilty of wrongdoing, negligence, or failure.
We seem to insist on this ritual even as we indict it as just that — mere ritual. Why is this? Why demand something that is increasingly devalued and dismissed? If official apologies are little more than political theater, why does the public appetite for this performance remain so insatiable? In this paper, I draw out a significant, shared element motivating both the dismissal and the appetite for contemporary public apology: trust. I propose that the significance of public trust goes a long way to explaining the paradox of apologies. While apologies have multiple functions, each function aims, in part, to restore conditions of warranted trust following wrongdoing (Koehn 2013). In typical cases of interpersonal apology, often taken to be the model for public apologies, the relationship be-tween apology and trust becomes a question of measuring trustworthiness; a successful apology persuades the recipient that the speaker is now more trustworthy than she once was, or is at least sincerely trying to become more trustworthy. A good apology gives the victim new reasons to trust the apologizer. In taking the expressive significance of apology seriously, we might even say that much of the merit of the apology stands in, as a kind of proxy, for the merit of the apologizer. Valuable apologies are trustworthy apologies, and trustworthy apologies reveal trustworthy apologizers.In the case of public apologies, the connection between expression and motive is murkier, for a host of reasons. It is harder to use an official apology as a reliable measure for the trustworthiness of the speaker or, indeed, of the institution that she rep-resents. Much of the blanket criticism aimed at public apologies emerges, I suspect,out of a sense of vulnerability and indignation — a suspicion that we are being asked and even expected to trust someone who has not yet earned it. Yet, if this is so, why does public appetite for apology remain insatiable? The answer, I believe, lies with the object of apology — the wrong which is being apologized for. Some state and institutional apologies are issued for historic wrongs: incidents and abuses in the distant (and not so distant) past for which acknowledgement have never been given and redress never made: examples range from the Irish Potato Famine (UK) to the Chinese Head Tax (Canada) and the Tuskegee syphilis experiment (US). Here, the demand for apology seems less surprising, since ongoing si-lence and lack of recognition are enduring, painful wrongs — spanning decades and even centuries. Official apologies alter distorted and oppressive histories. They “set the record straight” by correcting official accounts and acknowledging groups of citizens whose existence was denied or near-eradicated (Gibney and Roxstrom 2001;Nobles 2008; MacLachlan 2010). They represent and even enact important public moral change by asserting the wrongness of past norms and policies (for example,racist immigration practices or genocidal colonialism) that were once considered acceptable or even morally appropriate, and they announce and assert the very real harms these wrongful policies caused. Apology may not be all that victims of past wrongs and their descendants want, but it is less puzzling that apologies are often part of the reparation they demand (Torpey 2001; Walker 2013).
Instead, my interest lies with a subset of official apologies that are offered for recent wrongdoings. The paradox of public apology arises, I argue, in cases of public apology that more closely resemble personal apologies: cases where the wrong is both recent and an action already widely understood to be wrong, where the direct victim and wrongdoer are both alive — and where the trustworthiness of the wrong-doer is very much in question. We can identify these as contemporary public apologies. Contemporary public apologies concern wrongs and harms that damage broader forms of civic trust. This is true both in the case of apologies by democratic governments, and also in many instances of apologies by nongovernmental organizations. The wrongs in question damage our trust in specific institutions, and also shake our trust in government oversight and regulation of those institutions — pushed further, they undermine our trust in the authority and legitimacy of democratically determined legislation, and the civic society that it structures. What shakes our trust is not just a demonstrated lack of trustworthiness by the specific wrongdoer in question (indeed, in many cases, the official or institution in question was not trusted be-fore this particular harm) but also — more broadly and more subtly—public faith that systems of protection and regulation have been put in place by democratically determined legislation, that ruling persons and parties have the public’s interests at heart, and that we share a commitment to the norms and values that make up public culture. Apologies emerge as a performative (rather than legal or structural) model for accountability, and thus for reinspired public trust, in each of these targets.This, I argue, is where the ongoing demand for public apologies emerges. Whatever the vagaries of individual apologies, the practice of apologizing—as an official, publicly performed, speech act—reasserts norms and contributes to a culture of accountability, even when the accountability in question is imposed through public pressure or legal coercion and does not represent a spontaneous change of heart. Apologies give us reasons to trust the system, if not the speaker. The paradox dissolves when we recognize that even apologies by untrustworthy apologizers may nevertheless establish conditions for greater (though not necessarily warranted) civic trust.My argument takes the following form: first, I outline the characteristics of and success conditions for interpersonal apologies, contrasting these with public apologies in order to demonstrate the limits of the latter, when it comes to expressing and establishing trustworthiness. In the second half of the paper, I turn to the relationship between institutional wrongdoing and public trust. I discuss the significance of “default” civic trust for democracy, and propose three ways in which official apologies contribute to its renewal other than by establishing the trustworthiness of the offending institution and its representatives. I conclude by noting that this analysis reveals two significant risks associated with them: a moral risk that direct victims are over-looked in the desire to reassure the broader public, and a political risk that democratic models of accountability are being replaced by interpersonal ones, in contemporary political culture.