Friday, February 15, 2008

Sorry is in the ear of the beholder

I changed my Facebook status update to ' sorry' on Wednesday. It was a tiny gesture - some would say tokenistic - but I felt good doing so. I meant what I said, it's how I've felt for years and I'm glad the Prime Minister of my country has finally said so on behalf of our government and parliament.

I'm still trying to get my head around what it is exactly about Kevin Rudd saying 'We are sorry' on Wednesday that appears to have some people so genuinely furious, saddened or both. I've narrowed the objections down to those I see most frequently occurring:

1. We should not be held personally accountable for the actions of previous generations.

And we're not. Refusing to establish a public compensation fund - not to mention all the State-level government apologies not resulting in dozens of civil lawsuits - reflect that the apology is more about acknowledgement and expression of regret than personal liability. Sure, there are a few indigenous activists, indeed a few white folk too, who believe an apology is moot without financial compensation, and may even accordingly bring actions citing this apology as an admission of guilt - but I strongly believe the overwhelming majority of indigenous Australians, and the (bare) majority of the rest of us are happy with 'Sorry' as a symbolic gesture of friendship and goodwill, a means of moving on from the past to address and attempt to rectify the many third-world level poverty issues facing way too many citizens of a first-world nation.

2. Sometimes forcibly removing indigenous children from their original homes was the best thing that could be done for them.

In some cases, probably true. Devine Ms M plays this card when citing an aboriginal woman who was 'personally glad I was taken because I don't know what would have happened. I was constantly being raped by my brother and he was raping my siblings'.

Here is precisely the significance of this entry's title: Sorry is in the ear of the beholder. If there are indigenous Australians who were forcibly removed from health or life-threatening conditions, and are consequently grateful that they had access to hitherto unknown opportunities and a functional family unit, then they don't need to hear the word 'sorry', so they won't.

Think about it: How many times have you had a friend/family member/lover/baker/whatever say 'sorry' to you for something, and you're genuinely caught off-guard as you weren't aware they had done anything for which to apologise? Do you wail, 'No, dammit, retract your apology now!' Or do you pause, say awkwardly, 'Umm, that's ok...' or 'You don't need to apologise, we're cool' and move on? In other words, an apology has two components - the giver and recipient. It's only complete if both parties are on the same page for it.

There are many indigenous Australians who did need to hear the word for their own healing - that's who the apology was for. And at no point did Rudd ever claim to apologise on behalf of every single Australian. It was on behalf of the elected government and parliament, all of whose members - bar a few heartless ratbags - supported the gesture.

3. They had good intentions.

So bleated Brendan Nelson in his lame follow-up to Rudd's inspiring speech. 'Many decent Australians are hurt by accusations of theft in relation to their good intentions.'

Remember the Simmos ep where Ned Flanders goes loopy loo after all the residents of Springfield crappily rebuild his hurricane-flattened house that eventually collapses again under its own shoddy craftspersonship? Marge wails how everybody meant well and worked really hard, to which crazy Ned spits: 'Well my family can't live in good intentions Marge!' That's one of the thoughts I had when hearing Nelson.

Another thought I had involved casting my mind back to the mid-20th century and the days of electro-shock aversion therapy being used to 'cure' homos. I wonder if there are any gay men still alive today who endured this 'therapy' against their will, and how they might respond when told, 'well hey, we meant well. We thought you were a filthy degenerate pervert and needed to cure you. Woop! Our bad. We know better now'.

Indigenous Australians (half-castes in particular) taken against their will from their families as part of a policy designed ultimately to wipe out the race probably don't give a right-royal fuck about hearing that some of the public servants and lawmakers at the time meant well doing so. Like most crimes, motive or intent is ultimately an extraneous factor - the atrocity occurs, and when the apology is delivered it needs to be without equivocation, or else it becomes diluted.

Nelson walked, and ultimately fell from a precarious tightrope trying to balance the sympathetic beliefs he once held with the obligations he now has to the NSW Lib hard-right bovvers who delivered him party leadership over Malcolm Turnbull. He should have just stopped at the bit about the Opposition supporting the apology. Trying to qualify that in some cases it was for the darkies' own good was patronising, paternalistic and offensive. I understand why people turned their back on him.

I'm hearing a lot of people say they feel proud to be Australian again after 13 February 2008. I'm not sure I had stopped being proud to be Australian altogether during the Howard years - pride was tested and stretched, certainly - but I certainly feel prouder this week. Rudd's off to a flying start.

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At 15/2/08 10:17 pm, Blogger Ann O'Dyne said...

Yep. All true.
Nevertheless, it was A Good Thing and a good day and our Labor government has more guts than the last lot.

At 16/2/08 8:52 am, Blogger Ken_L said...

I agree with your thoughts but they still don't explain the enormous irrational fury and hatred spewed out by the more extreme objectors to the apology. How exactly were their rights affected? The argument that the apology will somehow open the floodgates for compensation is mendacious crap.

As you say, why not just adopt an attitude of "hey I think it's all bullshit but if other people think differently then it's a positive step so do it" (which is pretty much my own view)?

I don't pretend to understand the psychology of these people, or rather their neuroses, but I suspect they are deeply insecure and subconsciously terrified of any development that threatens their insular, elitist world view.

At 16/2/08 3:37 pm, Blogger JahTeh said...

There are a lot who were glad to be taken away from rape and violence but in that case, you have to go back further to find out why the violence was there.
The critics are found of saying that there's no proof of genocide and there wouldn't be with the white English overlords sweeping it under 3 tonnes of bullshit.

Instead of sorry, I'll say I'm glad the electro shock aversion therapy didn't work for you Sam. We need all the gays we can get to annoy the Churches.


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