Shameful Apology Proves Sorry Shame

Talk about giving with one hand and taking with the other! There, in Parliament House, with members of the Stolen Generations looking on and thousands more bearing witness via video link on the adjacent lawns. One man, representing the nation, validating the painful experiences of Aboriginal Australians and by so doing, reminding us of what we as Australians have the potential to be. The other – his literal shadow – excusing, justifying, insisting on his version of the truth and in so doing, painfully reminding us why progress on race relations in this country have been stalled for so long.

The trick of oppression is to dehumanise the victim. When a dehumanised group is made “other,” using, abusing or even killing its members doesn’t seem so wrong. The Nazis described Jews as rats and, when discussing the numbers on trains heading for Auschwitz, as rags. Even today, Blacks still suffer the occasional insult – commonplace in years gone by – of being likened to animals.

Dehumanisation, argues Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela, a former member of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, is one of the main causes of the trauma suffered by the oppressed.

She illustrates this claim with the story of a black South African man whose wife was killed by the Pan Africanist Congress while they sat side-by-side in church. “My wife was wearing a long blue coat,” the man sobbed when finally coming face to face with the killers during South Africa’s truth and reconciliation process. “Please tell me, do you remember shooting my wife?”

The reality, of course, was that in a church of one thousand people, there was little chance that the killers remembered any one of their victims. But for this man, for all victims, it was precisely the invisibility and interchangeability of their loved one in the eyes of the perpetrator that hurt so much. Forgiving, and the healing that can come after, requires the wrong-doers – or those representing them – to allow their victim a face.

How is this done? Firstly, victims must be allowed to tell their stories. This allows the trauma to be integrated into the victim’s life narrative and prevents her blaming herself or imagining she made the whole thing up. But listening is not enough. The victim must truly be heard and trusted. I hear you, I believe you, I acknowledge your pain, I am so sorry what was done by me, or in my name. Each of these steps, taken when wrong-doers or those who represent them listen to their victims and reply only with “I’m sorry” give victims back their humanity, replacing trauma and the cross-generational trail of substance abuse and social disfunction that flows in its wake with the forgiveness that is the first step to healing.

It was this that the Prime Minister stood on Wednesday on the floor of the House to offer Aboriginal Australians: recognition of their full humanity. And it was this humanity that his shadow – representing an opposition that still finds it too much skin off their nose to simply shut up and listen and still insists that their conceptualisation of the causes of other people’s pain merits centre stage – challenged once more.

It is to the credit of Indigenous Australians that they refused to let the Opposition’s emotional tighfistedness and smallness of spirit diminish or distract from their day. But morally speaking, what Nelson said and did, was a shame.

A sorry, sorry shame.

Publication history

Moral Maze: Shameful Apology Proves Sorry Shame   Sun-Herald (Sydney)