Why do some apologies for historical wrongs backfire?

By Amir Mollaee Mozaffari

Staff writer


More than ever, the governments of the 21st century are feeling morally and politically obligated to issue official apologies on behalf of their predecessors for their wrongdoings and injustices such as developing slavery, imperialism, and internment camps. However, it is not uncommon for members of the victim group to feel and subsequently voice their feelings that a simple verbal apology is not enough and should be followed with some other measures, namely monetary compensation. In such cases, it seems to be individually decided that another combination of reparatory measures will finally close the case in their collective minds, but will it really?

Indeed, the Reactive Devaluation theory of Lee Ross and Andrew Ward (1995) shows that if one side in an apology — or any other kind of negotiation for that matter — “offers X but withholds Y, the other side will devalue X and show an increased appreciation of Y.” As such, if a verbal apology is offered but financial compensation is withheld, or vice versa, the offered element is going to be devalued, especially if the victim group had asked for that element.

I worry that by not getting the expected apology the first time around, the victim group falls into a downward spiral where their resurfaced historical anger cannot understandably be soothed anymore. The second apology — if it is ever offered, which is not always guaranteed — has an uphill battle to address the question of sincerity: “If you could have said these things and/or taken these reparatory measures, why haven’t you done so in the first place?”

So, I think it’s high time we ask the question: “How should the victim groups receive apologies for historical wrongdoings or injustices?”

Now, certainly, I’m in no position to tell anybody how they should feel or act, less so to insensitively tell a victim group how to “get over” its trauma. If anything, I’ve been feeling for their pain and wishing that no insult will be added to their injury.

Of course, the problem of imperfect and agitating apologies has been rather extensively addressed, but the same can’t be said about how the victim group can deal with its unfulfilled expectations, which is usually aggravated by the public backlash from their politicians and media pundits.

On the surface, it may look like that I’m telling the victims of historical injustices or their families to be satisfied with the first apology, however insufficient and heavy-handed it may be. That is not at all the case.

My thesis is quite to the contrary and rather unusual. I say let’s not forgive and let’s not forget. I say hold people responsible only for the things that they themselves have done. It is the only course of action that is meaningful. If living contemporaries are upholding long-established systematic injustices in place, hold them responsible for their complicity and fight to correct the existing injustice.

Within this philosophical mindset, an apology for the wrongs of the long-gone would not be asked for and would not be needed. After all, it is rather meaningless to apologize for something someone else has done, but the injustices of the present are another matter to be dealt with. Of course, a person in a position of authority can indeed verbally apologize in his official capacity for the injustices committed by their predecessors. It is admirable, reportedly healing, and personally encouraged, but it is insufficient and disingenuous if it lets those injustices continue to exist.

To paint a picture, within this framework, it is meaningful for the average descendants of a slave to ask for an apology and compensation for two major reasons. For one thing, the slave and/or their family were forcibly displaced, beaten, and separated from their own culture and hometown where they had not been disadvantaged to live. For another thing, they may still be at a disadvantage because of the systematic injustices and racism, which rob them of a dignified life and prosperity.

My proposed attitude also stops the victim group from falling into that downward spiral of not being satisfied with the first apology and questioning the sincerity of subsequent attempts at offering apologies. An apology should not be considered a one-off, top-down event but rather, it should be considered the first step in a collaborative process of rectifying injustices.

As Kevin Hancock said, “Apologies aren’t meant to change the past, they are meant to change the future.” And changing the future requires empathy, dialogue, and teamwork.

Then, it doesn’t matter that some feelings and concerns were not addressed in the first apology. There would still be time to convey to the apologizer how important those feelings and concerns are.

It essentially turns the apology into a negotiation wherein several drafts are going to be produced and nothing is left to speculation or insensitive articulation.

Indigenous audience members react angrily as Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau speaks during a town hall Q&A at Thompson Rivers University in Kamloops, Canada, on Jan. 9, 2019.  Credit: KIM ANDERSON/THE CANADIAN PRESS


If monetary compensation, for instance, is felt needed by the victim group, they can make sure that their need is heard by the apologizer and not withheld without communicated reason. Now, they may or may not get the compensation or some compromise may be reached, but nonetheless, a conversation has started wherein everyone should ideally have tried their best at developing the best or second-best arrangement.

Anyone who has apologized for major wrongdoing in their relationships knows that the point is not to get the apology completely right the first time. The point is to start the conversation by the way of showing remorse and to ask what is expected and what can be changed in the future. So, why do we expect apologies for historical wrongs to wipe the slate clean the first time around?