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Political Apologies: Re-Covenanting the Nation

In the framework of the international workshop The Ritual of Public Apology, twenty senior and junior scholars analysed the growing phenomenon of public apology from a discourse, media and business communication angle and from a legal, political and theological perspective.

Danielle Celemajer, director of the Asia Pacific Masters of Human Rights and Democratisation of the University of Sydney, gave a public lecture for about 60 people. She was introduced to the audience by Daniël Cuypers, professor of law at the University of Antwerp and co-promotor of this initiative, who referred to her seminal work published in her recent book ‘Sins of the Nation and the Ritual of Apology’.

Danielle Celermajer started from the tension between individual and collective responsibility. Criminal law has sharpened our understanding of the nature of individual responsibility, while the interrogations of structural sociologists, social psychologists and philosophers question the contours of collective responsibility. Actions of individuals are embedded in broader social structures and cultural orientations. There is a link between particular acts of wrongdoing and the permissive context in which such wrongs take place. How do we rehabilitate a cultural and social system? How may political apologies constitute a strategy for addressing the collective dimension of violations?

Celemajer refers to the Australian case of forced removal of indigenous children from their families in a systematic attempt to assimilate them and the discussion in the nineties on how to deal with this past which separated the population in pro- and anti- apology camps. Objections made pertained to the risk of blaming the wrong people (contemporary Australians did not do it) and of judging the facts by inappropriate standards (one cannot judge the past according to standards of the present). Arguments in favour interpret apology as a statement we make now about our normative commitments today which stays relevant when social, cultural and political orientations that sustained the practice of removal are still present in contemporary society.

Referring to the philosophy of Karl Jaspers and the practice of collective repentence (teshuvah) in Judaism, Celermajer asks how we may recognize and institutionalize some form of collective responsibility without violating the integrity of individuals?

The collective repentence in Judaism signifies a re-commitment to uphold the Ten Commandments, which functioned as a constitution in our society nowadays. Our political community today is also in need of renewing its allegiance to the normative foundations on which it was conceived. When the people cease to uphold the norms that define their identity as member of the political community, those norms will cease to be experienced as binding on individuals within that community.

The individual is responsible for taking the wrongful action, but the normative judgment that allowed him/her to take this action did not exist in a vacuum. The community’s responsibility thus lies with its failure to take care of, or hold up its collective norms and it is this failure that reparative actions need to address. How apology performs this function becomes clearer if one looks at the Hebrew word inadequately translated as repentance. Teshuvah in fact comes from the root shuv, meaning to turn, to turn back or to return. Rabbinical commentary emphasizes that what we are doing during the practices of teshuvah is returning to the principles of correct relationship with God, with other people and with ourselves as ethical beings. In other words, the act of apology is the act of returning to the covenantal principles that have become loose; it is an act of recommitment such that those principles once again come into our lives as living and binding principles.

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