Sorry seems to be the easiest word

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The Independent Culture
HEY, LOOK, you know, sorry, okay? I am just so sorry. About everything. And I would like you to accept this apology, which is made from the very depths of my - what is this word here? "heart", is it? - heart, with deep and abiding sorrow and a sense of the yadda yadda, blah blah blah. Insert grievances, imagined or otherwise, to taste, and then shut up.

The cult of the apology continues to grow. Thumb through the "newspapers" of the last couple of weeks, and you will see what I mean. There's Emperor Nintendo in his silly top hat, having us believe he and the missus can't sleep at night for fretting about what the Japanese did to British prisoners-of-war. There's the Government of New South Wales, instituting "Australian Sorry Day" and planning to rename Botany Bay because Cook was a hateful white person-of-testicles who buggered up the Aborigines. The Roman Catholic church has announced a season of apologies in - guess what? Yes! - the run-up to the millennium, beginning with pontifical worm-eating for being horrible to the Jews. And, on the whole, it's nonsense.

It's nonsense because it's mere empty words. Quite possibly, these and other apologies are or will be sincerely meant, accompanied by all those outward signs of modern statesmanship like lumps in the throat, catches in the voice, public displays of carefully spin-doctored emotion, and the peeled onion concealed in the hankie. But sincerity is of no interest to us as a primary characteristic. It is as easy to be sincerely bad as sincerely good; sincerely wrong as sincerely right; easier, often, because being right usually involves a scrupulous refusal to fool oneself and a rejection of wishful think- ing. Nobody says, for example, that Richard Feynman really, really, sincerely believed that beta-neutron decay involved a vector/axial interaction rather than a scalar/tensor process, because he was right about it. When we talk about sincerity, it's usually as a sort of salve or putty which, laid on thick enough, can cover the cracks in even the dodgiest proposition.

So whence this apology cult? Feelgood politics, if you ask me; manipulative pandering to the soggy, New Age, media-led orthodoxy that if everyone felt good about themselves there would be no more wars or nastiness or horrid insects or bad smells ever again, and everyone could scamper around being happy and self- actuated. What we need is a simple test of the legitimacy of an apology, and I am remind- ed of Captain Harris, who was Boss of Noisy Instruments. Hardened by years of blowing his heart out in Her Majesty's service. Harris was vigilant and warlike and regarded me as a dangerous nellie subversive. One day he sacked me from the band for offences against discipline - can't remember what, precisely, although the timpani were involved - and after a few weeks I thought I had better make my peace with him or risk having to play beastly sports instead of band practice. So I went into his office, stood to attention, and said: "Come to grovel, Sir."

Captain Harris gave me one of those military looks which can rip the buttons off your overcoat. "White men don't grovel, laddie," he said, "not ever. White men apologise."

Well, he's quite right of course, and it does make me wonder whether all this apologis- ing isn't yet another example of subtle racio- cultural imperialism, but that's not the point. The point I think he was making is that an apology is designed to amend the behaviour of the one who is apologising, not to appease or flat- ter or neutralise the one to whom the apology is being made.

Which makes nonsense of Emperor Nintendo's apology, of Australian Sorry Day, of the Vatican's proposed grovelfest, of all the rest of it. To recognise, acknowledge and amend the error of our ways is difficult and courageous. To curry favour by denouncing our forebears and predecessors is cheap, facile and sentimental; and thus thoroughly in tune with the times.

But sometimes it can be enchanting, too. Until 1948, women could not take their degrees at Cambridge, although they could read for the Tripos and sit the examinations. Last month, the University decided to write to women who had sat finals before 1948 and invite them, if they wanted, to come and collect their degrees at a special congregation to be held this month. As I write this, a thousand women - the youngest of whom must be around 70 - have replied to say yes. I picture them processing slowly from their old colleges to the Senate House in their BA gowns; some will fall away briefly, venturing into The Anchor for a refreshing sherry; some will come over faint, and have to be revived. There will be arthritic knees and dodgy hips and bad feet, and the summer air will be alive with their voices, and in the evening they will get a little plastered and remember their youth. There will be special plays and a brass band - and there shouldn't be, because this will be a tiny, tiny palliative to an ignoble injustice done to half the human race over a period of in- consolable millennia. The redressing of great wrongs is no cause for celebration.

Yet why should this be more valid than the others? Perhaps because it is not an apology, but an acknowledgement; perhaps because it is being conducted by a body possessed of a sort of corporate continuity far removed from the short-term expediencies of individual emperors and politicians; perhaps because it is addressed to the very people harmed, not their descendants; perhaps because they have just done it, without publicity or the desire for popularity and votes.

It moves me. And it makes me envious, and cross. I want an apology, too. I want an apology from the heirs, successors and assigns of every individual, government and corporation to have ever done anything to reduce my quality of life or that of my ancestors. Greeks, Romans, French; the Royal Family; the Vatican; the Government; everyone. And I want it now. Not in great detail; a simple "Sorry" will do, as long as it's sincere. I'm not a hard man; hell, I'll even provide the onion.