Apologising for something one does not think is wrong is not very nice. Apart from anything else, it is insincere. I have done it several times in my life, once publicly. The public apology was not a success for anyone concerned (me or those who disliked me), and I have long since retracted it.
Sometimes people get around this problem with a verbal slight of hand, although the trick only works in certain situations: they apologise for causing offence. I don’t like ‘I’m sorry for your offence’ apologies either, in large part because I don’t like the thought of pandering to the perpetually offended. If someone is offended, as a general rule, it is his problem, not mine. People who want a genuine apology for their hurt feelings sometimes use the neologism ‘notpology’ to describe the ‘I’m-sorry-for-your-offence’ verbal tic, and while I don’t agree with them, I can see why it irritates. Most people have an intuitive sense that tricks should be saved for parlour games and magic shows. If an apology is to have any meaning, it should at least be genuine.
Closely related to apologising for something one does not think is wrong or apologising for causing offence is apologising for something one did not do, which is why I have always thought apologies for slavery, or for Aboriginal child removal, or for mistreating servicemen, or whatever, are just so much hot air. It is even worse when they have to be couched in phrases padded with dull legalese in order to avoid admitting liability and thus enlivening the possibility of compensation claims.
In this last, it appears that I am definitively on the outer, at least in Australia. It is clear from his public statements that Tony Abbott agrees with Kevin Rudd’s apology, despite the rest of his comments contributing to much angst on Australia Day. As far as I’m aware, the only people who care about the misuse of the word ‘sorry’ are grammar nerds like me, and a certain sort of minority conservative or classical liberal. An aside: I was going to say ‘grammar Nazi’, but a friend of mine over here who also spent roughly 10 years learning Latin prefers ‘grammar ninja’, which does sound a bit less vicious while retaining a strong sense of linguistic feistiness. You have been warned.
That said, sometimes an incident comes along that illustrates the absurdity of apologising for something one did not do. Last week, that incident was the discovery that prominent atheist Richard Dawkins’s family fortune (what’s left of it; inheritance tax has taken its toll over the years) was obtained thanks to his ancestors’ participation in the slave trade, at least at the investment end:
One of his direct ancestors, Henry Dawkins, amassed such wealth that his family owned 1,013 slaves in Jamaica by the time of his death in 1744.
The Dawkins family estate, consisting of 400 acres near Chipping Norton, Oxfordshire, was bought at least in part with wealth amassed through sugar plantation and slave ownership.
Over Norton Park, inherited by Richard Dawkins’s father, remains in the family, with the campaigner as a shareholder and director of the associated business.
It goes on, at least allowing Dawkins to score a good Biblical hit on his interlocutor:
Professor Dawkins, the atheist evolutionary biologist and author of The Selfish Gene, claimed associating him with his slave-owning ancestors was “a smear tactic”.
“One of the most disagreeable verses of the Bible – amid strong competition – says the sins of the father shall be visited on the children until the third or fourth generation,” he said.
The family’s association with Jamaica began when William Dawkins, a direct ancestor of the former Oxford University professor, arrived on the island. He began relatively humbly, as an overseer, probably supervising slaves, before receiving 1,775 acres of land between 1669 and 1682.
His son Richard became a leading member of Jamaican society, serving as a colonel in the local militia.
One history records that when Richard died in 1701 he left “personal property valued at £6,659 in Jamaica currency, [including] 143 negroes ‘young and old’ valued at £2,784.”
Richard’s son Henry Dawkins (1698-1744) – another direct ancestor of the campaigner – married Elizabeth Pennant, thus forming an alliance with another one of Jamaica’s most powerful planter families.
In Richard Dawkins’ own account of his dealings with a very bad mannered journalist during a very ill-tempered interview (Dawkins was trying to prepare a lecture, and the scribe wouldn’t take no for an answer), this was suggested:
His next volley was the suggestion that I should make financial reparation for the sins of my ancestors.
Reparation to whom? Should I make a pilgrimage to Jamaica and seek out the descendants of the slaves whom my ancestors wronged? But why the descendants of people who were oppressed by my ancestors 300 years ago rather than to people who are oppressed today? It’s that “sins of the fathers” fallacy all over again, taken a good couple of generations further than even Yahweh had in mind
Once the hit piece was published, there followed a journalistic pile-on, and across the political spectrum, too. First cab off the rank goes to the pornishly-named Camilla Long in The Times, who among other things spends time complaining about Richard Dawkins’s haircut. Then there’s the Daily Mail (with plenty of commentary on land values, too, as one would expect from that august publication), to be followed at last (not quite a late scratching) by a lefty in the Independent. There were some other bits and bobs along the way. In addition to the Telegraph journalist’s call for reparations, various of the anti-racist and black history groups that populate this Sceptred Isle have joined in the demand — admittedly, however, only after being contacted by muckracking journalists. I doubt they would have said anything of their own volition. A clear case of ‘being played for a sucker’, methinks.
Now I do not always agree with Dawkins’ approach and I thought his ‘arrest the pope’ idea a remarkably silly one, but in this case he has been grossly smeared. I expect this sort of pious apologism from lefties and a certain sort of wet liberal (UK version), so I am actually more enraged by the behaviour of Conservatives and classical liberals on point. These are people who have consistently (and often very lucidly) made exactly the same arguments I made above on the modern fashion for notpologies to ‘victim’ groups. Here is Charles Moore, former editor of the very newspaper responsible for serving Dawkins with a reparations demand:
Why does Tony Blair say that he feels “deep sorrow” about the slave trade before the 200th anniversary of its abolition falls next year?
This form of words is very characteristic of how modern politicians deal with tricky situations. There is no reason for Mr Blair to say sorry. He is not responsible for the slave trade in any way, and by half-suggesting that he is, he surrenders to unreason and creates difficulties for his successors.
Take a comparison. Anti-semites have claimed for hundreds of years that the Jews inherit the guilt for the death of Jesus. Suppose the Chief Rabbi were to proclaim his “deep sorrow” for the Crucifixion. Such sorrow is a reasonable feeling for anyone to have, but the effect of the Chief Rabbi saying it would be to give legitimacy to the blood libel.
But the Prime Minister will have been advised that, if he did not put the word “sorrow” in somewhere, headlines would have said, “I’m not sorry for slave trade, says Blair”. So he found a formula that involved a bit of a grovel, but nothing that would make him pay “reparations”, as some pressure groups demand. It is ignominious, but perhaps, the blame-game being what it is, understandable.
Moore’s piece is well worth a read, because it catches in its attention to historical detail the reasons why Kevin Rudd did not speak for me when he apologised to the Aborigines, and why I will have no truck with any other collective apologies that attempt to include me.
In the 19th century, my ancestors were scattered throughout Europe. Most of them, however, were in Ireland and Scotland. The Irish ones (and we have this documented in our family history) were going through this particular example of historical nastiness, while the Scottish ones were dealing with this (tangentially related) event. Do I get a gold star for winning (or at least placing) in the Oppression Olympics now? (That’s a joke, by the way, albeit a bitter one.) Charles Moore’s piece includes this lovely little detail from the uglier recesses of Scots law:
And people should not imagine that such things were solely the result of prejudice against blacks (though blacks had by far the worst experience). In Scotland, there was a special rule that allowed employers to own colliers and salters for life, so special that colliers and salters were explicitly excluded from the introduction of habeas corpus in Scotland in 1701, and did not get full freedom until 1799. I am surprised Arthur Scargill isn’t trying to get reparations for their descendants.
I can add to Moore’s account the information that Scotland, consistent with its Roman legal origins, retained the damnatio ad minam (condemnation to the mines) of Roman law until very late. This meant that black slaves were freed in Scotland some time before white colliers and salters, or persons condemned to those trades in Scottish courts. There are examples of the metal slave collars the colliers and salters wore preserved in the National Museum of Scotland. This in the country that — at the same time — was producing the best of the Enlightenment and laying the foundations for modern medicine.
Memo to Conservatives, especially religious conservatives: if you dislike Richard Dawkins because you dislike his ideas, then perhaps you had better start arguing against those ideas, rather than engaging in a personal smear campaign that would actually do credit to your political opponents. Many people — mainly lefties but some others too, like Tony Abbott — accept the validity of apologising for something one did not do. A smaller group accepts the validity of reparations for things like slavery. Thing is, if you do not accept arguments in favour of historical apologism or reparations, then demanding one or both from Richard Dawkins doesn’t make him look like a dick, not at all.
It makes you look like a dick; it really does.