Committing a potentially punishable offence first and apologising later, rather than considering the moral and ethical dimensions of one’s actions, is symptomatic of omnipresent culture of impunity
The focus should be on shifting away from the over-emphasis of ‘sorry’ as a remedial gesture to illustrating what remorse can look like. Instead of merely saying sorry, show it. Representation pic
If there’s one thing that I have sworn never to do, it’s arm-twisting my toddler into saying sorry. If I had a nickel for each time I heard a parent command their child into apologising, I’d be able to afford full-time help. It is always a painful saga, especially when our child is meant to be on the receiving end of that apology. Usually, the parent who bears witness to their child’s aggression makes a big song and dance about it. They shame their child for their action and follow it up with those horrible two words, ‘Say Sorry’. You can see the look of shame on their kid’s face. The only thing they will eventually internalise from all this is that you can apologise for something without necessarily ‘feeling’ sorry, and that an apology is mainly a spoken act, a diplomatic gesture used to get off the hook after having committed a wrong. The whole scene is cringe-worthy.
There is another, more effective approach. Instead of compelling anyone to apologise, the parent who witnesses the aggressive act is encouraged to simply go towards the injured party and ask, ‘Are you okay?’. In doing so, the parent is presumably modelling reparative behaviour and sidestepping the shaming and guilt-tripping. This signals to the defaulter that there are consequences to their actions. The focus should be on shifting away from the over-emphasis of ‘sorry’ as a remedial gesture to illustrating what remorse can look like, thus distancing ‘sorry’ from defensive behaviour and moving towards the spirit of empathy and repair. Instead of ‘saying sorry’, you show it.
I’ve been thinking about this a lot these days because I find myself constantly trying to come to terms with what we refer to as the culture of impunity, a blanket term for forms of aggression that are intentionally inflicted by oppressors who have no fear of being reprimanded or punished. They see themselves as accountable to no one and usually derive their authority from existing cultural tendencies. This is similar to the underlying basis of rape culture—the knowledge that in most instances, the violation will not be reported, and when it is, the punishment will never befit the crime. Impunity is somewhere linked to this idea of committing a potentially punishable offence first, then saying sorry later, rather than considering the moral and ethical dimensions of one’s actions. This is also why state-motivated apologies for past atrocities feel hollow. There is this feigning of innocence, a projecting of the belief that the aggressor ‘did not know’ what they were doing or have only ‘belatedly’ understood its wrongness.
This is somewhere at the heart of present-day politics. I feel frequently horrified by how much of global politics is governed by ex-colonising powers whose wealth is most definitely the result of illegal accumulation over centuries. Meanwhile, the previously colonised are left distracted with all the internal conflicts and rifts that were only sharpened by colonisation. The subject of reparations is never approached. I find it shocking how German institutions, for example, are un-critically suppressing any criticism of the Israeli state’s ongoing genocide against the Palestinian people under the guise of antisemitism. In doing so, the German State is once again aligning itself on the wrong side of history. This is a country that is still contending with its own history of genocide in present-day Namibia—apparently one of the first genocides of the 20th century. I am beginning to see how colonisers only empathise with colonisers, and how deep white supremacy runs. I am also forced to contend with the hollowness of the discourse perpetuated by German and other European institutions who didn’t hesitate to denounce Russia for its actions against Ukraine or to accommodate Ukrainian refugees but think of Palestinian lives as expendable.
A feminist friend from Israel told me about the controversial Had Gadya—the concluding song of the Seder—sung by the pop singer from Israel, Chava Alberstein. Her version begins with the fanciful narration of a metabolic chain of consumption—one animal being eaten by another, with God reigning supreme. In her version (available online), the concluding verse is powerful because of how impactfully it depicts how senseless acts of aggression dehumanise both oppressor and oppressed. I will leave you with her words (do listen to the song yourself).
‘How long will the cycle of violence last? / The chased and the chaser / The beaten and the beater / When will all this madness end? / I used to be a kid and a peaceful sheep / Today I am a tiger and a ravenous wolf. / I used to be a dove and I used to be a deer, / Today I don’t know who I am anymore.’
Deliberating on the life and times of Everywoman, Rosalyn D’Mello is a reputable art critic and the author of A Handbook For My Lover. She tweets @RosaParx
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The views expressed in this column are the individual’s and don’t represent those of the paper.