Saying sorry

Politicians and celebrities have developed a very special mode of apology. Routinely they say “I’m sorry for any offence I might have caused”. This is pretty offensive in itself. It shifts the burden of regret from whatever was said or done to the reactions of the offended, and of course apologies are always easy when the words are so cheap.

Incidentally there’s a common Protestant misunderstanding of the Catholic act of penance, a misplaced assumption that all you have to do is say you’re sorry and your sin is washed away. I’m not much of a Catholic these days but really the belief here deserves a bit more respect. For absolution to be given Catholic doctrine demands not only true repentance, but also restitution if this is possible.

Critics, and some priests, like to emphasise the sin, the burden of guilt but more enlightened Catholic thinking demands a bit of self-compassion, a little more understanding and a little less judgement.

This I guess is a good thing to bear in mind as we’re forced to regard the moral turpitude of so many in our political classes, and those who prop them up. Then again, since they’ve placed themselves in the public eye and since their actions and words can have serious consequences for so many people there are plenty of occasions when we should be demanding blood.

Oliver Letwin is the latest offender, called out for some obnoxious remarks written in a private memo 30 years ago about the moral qualities of black people in North London. Letwin is now an advisor to David Cameron, as well as an MP, and has as usual apologised for the offence these remarks may have caused. Opponents are calling for his resignation.

Others have argued that you shouldn’t be judged on things you said 30 years ago, but that’s where the nature of the apology matters. If Letwin had said something like “I apologise unreservedly for the stupid things I wrote 30 years ago and their baleful influence on public policy – I am now working with the Prime Minister and others to reverse those consequences”, then I think we should forgive him, and judge him on the work of restitution.

Instead of course not only did he attempt to shift attention to the sensibilities of the offended, but even tried to excuse himself by saying his words had simply been badly chosen. This is patent hogwash: Letwin may be many things but he’s not inarticulate, and there’s no reason to accept that he meant anything other than all he wrote.

He should be sacked, as an important gesture of disavowal but he won’t be, because Cameron believes in the power of weasel words and despite some public posturing probably doesn’t care too much about a bit of casual racism. So the debasement of public life continues.


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