ICYMI – Emma Teitel: Formal apologies may be most useful not for the oppressed, but for the clueless

Valid argument:

Since its release in 1970, many people (married ones especially) have taken issue with the signature line from the hit movie Love Story: “Love means never having to say you’re sorry.” But I imagine the person most constitutionally averse to this notion is Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, a man who says sorry more often than a Canadian tourist in a crowded airport.

Where his Prime Minister father, the late Pierre Trudeau, wasn’t a fan of state-issued apologies, our rueful leader appears quite comfortable doling them out.

The PM has made a series of official apologies addressing various historical wrongs since he took office in 2015. Two years ago, for example, he issued an apology for the 1914 Komagata Maru incident, in which hundreds of Sikh, Muslim and Hindu passengers were unjustly turned away at the Canadian border. Their Japanese steamship returned to India, where 19 passengers were shot and killed upon arrival and many others imprisoned.

Last year, the PM issued an apology to survivors of Canada’s residential schools. He also asked the Pope himself to apologize for the church’s role in operating the notoriously exploitative, abusive institutions. (Unfortunately, the pope declined).

And just this week the PM announced plans to formally apologize on behalf of the Canadian government, in the House of Commons, for the tragic incident of the MS St. Louis in 1939, when Canada refused asylum to the more than 900 Jewish German refugees on board. The MS St. Louis was forced to return to Europe, where 254 of its passengers were later murdered in the Holocaust.

“When Canada denied asylum to the 907 German Jews on board the MS St. Louis,” Trudeau said in a recent statement, “we failed not only those passengers, but also their descendants and community. It is our collective responsibility to acknowledge this difficult truth, learn from this story, and continue to fight against anti-Semitism every day, as we give meaning to the solemn vow: ‘Never again.’ I look forward to offering this apology on the floor of the House.”

Unfortunately, not everybody is looking forward to hearing it.

Many critics of the Prime Minister, some of them Jewish, are a little annoyed by the prospect of a staged mea culpa that will address a tragic event whose victims are, by and large, not around to receive it. Some of these formal apologies are, after all, rather bizarre, because the people saying “I’m sorry” are so rarely the wrongdoers and the people saying “I forgive you” are rarely the wronged. As a result, they can come off as cheap and hollow, even to the ears of the people you think might appreciate them most.

Here’s Sally Zerker, whose Jewish, Polish ancestors were denied visas to Canada in the 1930’s, writing about the prospect of a government apology for the MS. St. Louis tragedy in the Canadian Jewish News last year:

“It will not bring back my relatives, or offer me any solace. Instead, it will whitewash a government that did nothing to help the Jews who were fleeing the Nazis and ignored the type of anti-Semitism that was endemic in Canada until the 1970s. Ultimately, it is nothing but a shallow, empty, meaningless act. An apology can’t right this wrong.”

But it can publicize it. And this is where I disagree with Zerker and other critics of government apologies. We’re living in a world where the United States government appears allergic to facts and routinely winks at white supremacists. A world where the leaders of the women’s march, arguably the largest feminist movement on the continent, can pal around with horrendous anti-Semite Louis Farrakhan and retain their status as heroines of an intersectional movement.

A world where, according to the Anti Defamation League, anti-Semitic hate crimes — from violent assaults, to Jewish kids being harassed at school, to vandalism of synagogues — surged 57 per cent last year. Meanwhile, according to a survey released on Holocaust Remembrance Day (Jan. 27) this year, 22 per cent of American millennials haven’t heard of the Holocaust or are unsure of what it is, and two-thirds do not know what Auschwitz is.

All of this is to say that while I agree with Trudeau’s critics that formal apologies are sometimes silly and performative — and perhaps lacking in meaning for some victims and their families — they are also factual and newsworthy. They breathe new life into old wrongs and in doing so they bring awareness to those wrongs.

It’s for this reason that I find it difficult to object to a perfectly harmless government statement that might, even if it doesn’t heal any wounds, inspire an uninformed Canadian to Google “MS St. Louis.”

It’s a sorry thing to say, but formal apologies may be most useful not for the oppressed, but for the clueless.

Source: Emma Teitel: Formal apologies may be most useful not for the oppressed, but for the clueless

About Andrew
Andrew blogs and tweets public policy issues, particularly the relationship between the political and bureaucratic levels, citizenship and multiculturalism. His latest book, Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias, recounts his experience as a senior public servant in this area.

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