A sorry farce

2018-11-27 16:12
Yves Vanderharghen.

Yves Vanderharghen.

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Everyday someone is being dragooned into saying sorry for something or the other. Sometimes there’s a lot to be sorry for, and apologies would be in order, both for the healing power of the words “I’m sorry” and the maintenance of moral and social bounds. But they cannot be made to order. We mistake apologies for atonement.

Last week, one of the critics of Herzlia Middle School in Cape Town which disciplined two pupils for taking the knee during the playing of Hatikvah, the Israeli national anthem, said the school should not be allowed to get away with it “without any apology”.

Such an apology would presumably sort out Zionism, freedom of speech, conscience, belief and the freedom to protest.

The education director of the United Herzlia Schools group said the boys’ protest was “embarrassing”, “inappropriate” and had “brought the school into disrepute”, the punishment for which was that they may not wear their honours blazers or represent the school for six months, and, among other things, they have to write a letter of apology.

Neither apology would serve any purpose because of the conditions under which they are being extracted. The boys would be submitting to bullying by the school, which is behaving stupidly and should be giving the boys colours for independent thought and courage of conviction.

The school, if it were to apologise, would be submitting to public pressure whose inspiration is punitive in itself, whatever the merits of the case.

In the late nineties, the French philosopher Jacques Derrida, speaking on the local university campus, wrestled with this question in relation to demands that whites should apologise for apartheid. He was an opponent of apartheid, but nevertheless he was arguing against the notion of collective guilt as a logical impossibility and a moral violation. He supported his argument with what was perhaps more of a spiritual than a philosophical observation, that an apology can only be given, not commanded; if it is not freely given, it cannot have merit.

Monica Lewinsky has grasped this about Bill Clinton, no doubt as a result of being boiled in public bile for two decades and more.

Lewinsky, as a 22-year-old White House intern, had a brief affair with Clinton while he was president, about which he lied to the world and to a grand jury, leading to impeachment proceedings and almost the end of his presidency. The Clinton Affair is now the title of a series which launched on Sunday, for which Lewinsky was interviewed at length.

In an essay on the series written for Vanity Fair, she is frank about her role in the affair. “It’s not as if it didn’t register with me that he was the president. Obviously it did. But I think in one way, the moment we were actually in the back office for the first time, the truth is that I think it meant more to me that someone who other people desired, desired me. However wrong it was, however misguided, for who I was in that very moment at 22 years old, that was how it felt.”

She is also unambiguous about why she took heat in the subsequent fallout: “As it so often does, power throws a protective cape around the shoulders of the man, and he dictates the spin by denigrating the less powerful woman.”

She says, on the subject of apologies, that if she were to meet Hillary Clinton, “I know that I would summon up whatever force I needed to again acknowledge to her — sincerely — how very sorry I am.” She has before on television, but not in person.

Bill Clinton has never apologised, and said earlier this year he did not owe Lewinsky one.

She, on the other hand, does not insist that she is owed one, but writes that he “should want to apologise”.

“I’m less disappointed by him, and more disappointed for him. He would be a better man for it ... and we, in turn, a better society.”

Paradoxically, the more we demand it, the less we can trust it.

If Clinton were to apologise, now that the affair is under scrutiny again, who would believe him? Whatever is proffered would offer no solace, because to demand an apology and get a lie is to compound the grievance. How, in any case, does one measure contrition and remorse?

In the daily chronicle of sorries from murderers, rapists, paedophiles, racists and thieves when they get punished, they are all reading from the same unconvincing script.

The farce of all this sorry-saying is perfectly summed up by the North Yorkshire police in England being forced to apologise last week, after a public outcry, for describing a flasher as having a “small penis” in an appeal for information.

The original statement read: “The suspect … has very little chest or pubic hair, no obvious tattoos or scars, and he has what was described as a small penis.” For which they apologised “unreservedly” and snipped out the offending organ from the revised appeal. That probably qualifies as a fauxpology.

I’m sorry, but it’s time to stop this spectacle of abjection.

Read more on:    pietermaritzburg  |  opinion and analysis

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