Yesterday, Great Britain’s Prime Minister David Cameron dealt with the frightening results of a report on the Bloody Sunday Killings in Northern Ireland by apologizing. As I read about crowds celebrating the release of the report and Cameron’s statement, strings of comments commending him for his sincerity, and two books about a different public figure, the Salem witch judge from my last post, I feel awe at the difference simple, honest apologies can make in history.
Now, my dad’s in the public relations business. For many years our lights were kept on by the tricky mechanisms by which companies and governments control their images. That’s why I’m taken aback at how candid, how easy, and how effective Cameron’s statement seemed yesterday. You very rarely hear anybody be as honest as to say “what happened should never, ever have happened”, but he did. He continued, “And for that, on behalf of the government — and indeed our country — I am deeply sorry.” You don’t hear it often because it’s really hard to do.
We live in a world of tough justice and rampant suing, all of which will probably happen now because of the report that British killings of 17 protesters in Derry were unjustified. But first Cameron’s apology allowed for a moment of rare emotional catharsis for Britain and I think that’s important. The results didn’t get buried in a behemoth of cover-ups and vague answers, which would have made the unbearable 12 years it took for the report to complete an even larger band aid to pull off. I am reminded of how difficult it is to begin processes of reconciliation, how very resistant people as well as governments are to admitting they were wrong after war, after genocide, after discrimination. When bad things happen in relationships, in families, when mistakes happen or feelings are deeply hurt, it can feel nearly impossible to apologize like you mean it.
Richard Francis, author of Judge Sewall’s Apology obviously became very close to his research about the man who confessed in Old South Church that the 20 executions in the Salem witch trials were simply wrong. He writes eloquently about the effect of Sewall’s apology in his introduction:
“For all of us, it’s difficult to say we’re sorry. An apology means repudiating an aspect of our past selves; in that way, it’s a little like suicide. And those in public life find it almost impossible ever to admit they have made mistakes and errors of judgment. They fear doing so will suggest weakness and unreliability, a poor capacity for decision making, ultimately a fatal crack in the facade of leadership…But there is another way of looking at it. Apology can be a creative act. It can liberate both an individual and his or her society. Apology frees you from the past and gives you access to the future.”
Judge Sewall’s Apology Richard Francis, HarperCollins 2005
I feel struck by Francis’s description of apology as “creative”, in the sense of it’s ability to give people, governments, or businesses the ability to create new bridges after others have been burned. Often times to say we’re sorry is the only thing will save us, or anybody else. But only if we act on it too.