Toyin Agbetu, a human rights activist, held up a commemorative service marking the end of slavery 200 years ago earlier today. Toyin shouted that the Prime Minister should apologise, just a few metres away from the Queen. He was led out and then arrested. The Very Reverend Blair shook his head, with a pained expression etched across his face.
The issue of issuing apologies for crimes from previous generations is a difficult one, not least because prima facie, the logic of the apology is that it is the perpetrator and only the perpetrator who can apologise for any committed action. Of course, if the action is in recent history, then one can justify accepting an apology by a representative, specifically a representative delegated to do so by the perpetrator. However, when the perpetrators are long dead, it is not possible for any apology to issue forth in this way. More to the point, an apology from someone not directly responsible or delegated runs the risk of sounding trite - something said to quiesce, to stifle or to silence as a superficial gesture, rather than a genuine act of contrition.
The flipside of the argument is that the perpetrator remains one and the same entity: the Anglican Church, Parliament, the British Government and so on. In addition, one need not necessarily be delegated to apologise; apologising on behalf of someone is an act that may originate in the representative rather than the perpetrator, just as the family of a murderer may want to apologise to the bereaved. If one can apologise on behalf of someone else - even against their wishes - then why can one not apologise on behalf of previous generations?
It is precisely this ambivalence about the genuine significance of the apology, and which causal logic is valid (direct apology, representational apology, apologising on behalf of) that leads some to apologise for the slave trade (such as Ken Livingstone, on behalf of London's involvement), and others to fall short, with expressions of remorse and regret, as with Tony Blair.
Those who demand that Tony Blair and others should apologise (such as Toyin Agbetu) confuse the refusal to apologise with the notion that the issue is not being treated as seriously as it should. For them, expressions of remorse are a lesser act than a full blown apology. In fact, I find myself agreeing with Blair (yuch, weird feeling). An expression of remorse and deep sorrow can be seen as the equal of an apology, if one takes the line that it is only valid that direct and representational apologies can be genuine apologies.
Perhaps most importantly, the issue of whether expressions of remorse are a diluted form of apology should not cloud the more pressing issue: how to end modern day slavery, such as the trafficking of young Nigerian girls to work as sex workers in Italy, Spain and the UK.
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