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12 June 2024

Rishi Sunak’s D-Day apology reveals the limits of saying sorry

It isn’t always the hardest word. It’s often the easiest. It can trip off the tongue far too readily.

By Stephen Cherry

Rishi Sunak rightly apologised for deserting his post standing alongside presidents Biden, Macron and Zelensky at the D-Day commemorations in France to record a TV interview. But his references to his own apology in subsequent interviews turn a searchlight on the question of what an apology can achieve.

Maybe it’s worth listing a few of the things that apology can’t do. It can’t turn the clock back, for instance, or erase a memory. Nor does an apology reduce the egregiousness of the act that prompted it. An apology does not achieve justice for the harmed or the insulted. Rather, it subtly puts pressure on them without actually meeting their needs.

Apologies are often desperate and inadequate words from those who know they are in the wrong but can’t get out of it. This can lead to the worst of apologies: those that contain the word “if”: “I’m sorry if I caused offence…” The word “but” doesn’t help either, often turning an apparent apology into an excuse or self-vindication, or an act of self-forgiveness performed in the face of the still rightly indignant victim: “I’m sorry that I let you down, but I had just been let down by someone else.”

There can be good apologies, of course. A modest yet sincere pre-emptive apology from someone who has inconvenienced or angered you is welcome because it relieves you of the burden of having to raise the matter, explain its wrongness and outline why it leaves you aggrieved. There’s a lot of cognitive and emotional work in all that, and genuine gratitude in being spared it.

People often look for contrition in apology. Why? It is thought perhaps that wronged people need to see remorse to know an apology is sincere. But you can fake remorse as easily as you can fake anything else, so that can’t be it. Is it that “sorry” is such a difficult word to say that our retributive needs are satisfied when we hear it?

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There’s a time and a place for sorrow, but it is a slippery emotion and not the necessary ingredient in a genuine apology. It is just too hard to distinguish between “I’m sorry I did it” and “I’m sorry I was found out”. Sorry isn’t always the hardest word. It’s often the easiest. It can trip off the tongue far too readily.

The protein of an apology, if I can put it that way, isn’t to be found in the degree of remorse, or in any verbal formula, or even in tone of voice or demeanour. Yes, the apologiser can get one of these wrong and undermine their efforts, but getting them right doesn’t make an apology real.

The protein of an apology lies in the acknowledgment of responsibility for actions that have hurt, harmed, risked, insulted or undermined others. The genuine apologiser puts up their hand and throws themself on the kindness of those who now witness their social and ethical vulnerability.

The best apology, as the philosopher Oliver Hallich has argued, is one that doesn’t want to be received. It is precisely not a request for forgiveness. He goes on to suggest that it is those who do not offer apologies who are taking their guilt seriously. I almost agree. But I can still imagine a genuine and worthwhile apology – one that is an act of honest self-condemnation, not a performative downpayment on an expected forgiveness.

But while acknowledgement is more important than remorse, and an apologiser cannot expect to determine anyone’s response to their guilt, there is another vital distinction. It’s the matter of making amends. To apologise without seeking to make amends is almost always to perpetuate the original offence. When I’ve had my bike stolen I want it back, please, not a remorseful apology.

In some cases, amends may not be possible. That is perhaps where remorse might be real: the heart-wrenching feeling that what I have done is un-put-rightable, and that it is others who suffer as a result. In such a case, it is not good enough to shruggingly say, “All I can do is apologise,” but it might be OK to say: “No apology can make up for what I have inflicted. I am eternally in your moral debt.”

Sunak’s D-Day mistake revealed a lack of judgement, and mistaken priorities. Self-referencing his own apology does not undo the damage; it compounds it.

What is he to do then? What are any of us to do when our actions cannot be righted by apology? The adrenal responses are flight or fight. Often the fight is to contest the guilt, or to argue that the harmed are exaggerating what they have suffered. But there can also be a fight to have one’s apology accepted. The irony is that such a fight can’t be engaged in without undermining the apology itself, because it perpetuates the disrespectful attitude that was integral to the offence.

People apologise either because they want the victim to “get over it” or they want to go into the future with their integrity intact. In the first case the apologiser retains their disposition (and position) and controls the narrative. In the second the apologiser embraces their inability to put things right and lets the victim control the narrative. The first version is the abuse of power. The second is genuine, powerful and potentially transformative. And very rare.

[See also: The cathedrals courting controversy]

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This article appears in the 12 Jun 2024 issue of the New Statesman, The hard-right insurgency