Cheap Remorse and Genuine Apology


The murder of George Floyd, the subsequent protests and the reaction of those in power in the States have really been playing on my mind.

With 246 years of institutionalised slavery followed by the shameful Jim Crow laws, the USA has a very complex history and I feel ill-equipped to express an opinion, let alone make any meaningful contribution to the discussion. But I do know how to negotiate, and I have been wondering how I would go about negotiating an end to the protests.

Even there I’m a bit stumped to be honest. The power imbalance is just too stark – how can the response to protests about police brutality and violence be more police brutality and violence? It’s absolutely confounding.

In a mediation, we often ask “what do you need to make this right?” and, very often, the details of the settlement take a backseat to the apology.

But here’s the thing, the apology needs to be genuine.

A close friend of mine is a brilliant barrister and I always enjoy her descriptions of cases she is working on. A few years ago, she was heavily involved in the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse. I recall her account of a witness describing “cheap remorse”, where a person or an institution makes a show of giving an apology to victims and then demands a pardon, without really demonstrating contrition.

Maybe this is at the heart of the emotionally charged conflict happening in the States right now. There have been apologies, of course, including the apologies made in the House of Representatives in 2008 and in the Senate in 2009 for slavery and the discriminatory Jim Crow laws. Even these apologies, however, did not lead to the passing of a joint bill.

Furthermore, these apologies came years after the official 1983 US apology for shielding a Nazi officer wanted for war crimes, the 1988 apology for the internment of Japanese citizens during WWII, and the 1993 apology for the overthrow of the Kingdom of Hawaii.

Too little too late, perhaps.

As I’ve seen in mediation and as my friend saw at the Royal Commission, a genuine apology isn’t cheap, and it often needs to be delivered time and again. A genuine apology leads to change.

The generational pain and discrimination we are witnessing in the States can’t be fixed with “domination” by the descendants of those who initiated the pain and discrimination. This type of pain needs to start with a genuine apology.

While I am still somewhat stumped, if I were tasked with negotiating an end to the protests, the first step would be finding an independent mediator who is respected by representatives of both sides. I’d follow this with education until the oppressors finally understand the oppression, and I’d do this relentlessly so that any resultant apology is genuine.

With a genuine apology, perhaps the future could hold physical and emotional safety and economic equality.

On a final note, I know that here in Australia we see racism, injustice, discrimination and generational pain too. While the Australian government delivered a heartfelt apology to the Stolen Generations in 2008, the work of reconciliation is far from over.

RIP George Floyd.