Saying sorry for something somebody else did

An apology has been offered for the Spanish Inquisition.

Can you actually apologise for the actions of others? It is debatable, but to a degree perhaps yes, for example some corporate representative says or does something inappropriate, then later when discovered, a career is terminated, and another representative for the same organisation steps in to grovel, apologise, and explain that such behaviour is not part of their culture. Ah, but what happens when somebody starts to apologies for actions that took place centuries ago?

The latest example of this is reported in today’s telegraph, “Jews receive apology over Spanish Inquisition execution“. It reads …

Francesc Antich, the regional president of the Balearic Islands, issued an official condemnation of the killings in what was heralded by Jewish groups as the first of its kind in Spain.

“We have dared to gather here to recognise the grave injustice committed against those Majorcans who were accused, persecuted, charged and condemned to death for their faith and their beliefs,” Mr Antich said at a memorial service held in Palma de Majorca.

At the end of the 15th century King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella set up the Spanish Inquisition to root out remnants of Islam and Judaism after the reconquest of Spain. Over the following two centuries thousands of so-called heretics were burned at the stake.

That article is here.

So that’s all right then, an apology has been offered and all has been forgiven … seriously!!

First  of all, that’s not an apology, instead it is simply an expression of regret about some historical event. To be truly picky about this, you can only really apologise for something you yourself did, nobody is responsible for the actions of others, especially the actions of folks whom you never knew and are long dead.

Now this is not new, the real trendsetter for public apologies was the previous Pope, John Paul II. He did this no fewer than 94 times throughout the 1980s and 1990s – for the Crusades,  the Inquisition, their scientific obscurantism over Galileo, its oppression of women, the Holocaust, etc…

Others liked the concept and soon joined in. F W de Klerk apologised to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission for the “unacceptable things that occurred during the government of the National Party”. Jacques Chirac apologised for the help the Vichy government gave the Nazis in deporting  Jews to death camps. The Japanese Prime Minister apologised for the whole of the Second World War. And Boris Yeltsin apologised for the mistakes of the Bolshevik Revolution on its 80th anniversary in 1997.

So why would they do this? Well, obviously it has nothing to do with what actually happened, but is instead a deliberate political / psychological strategy, and is motivated by the speaker’s attempt to change how others perceive them … in other words, all we have here are examples of politicians doing what they do best – crafting a positive public image for themselves.

But lets turn back to the question we started with, can anybody really say sorry for something some ancestor did historically? – No.

Applying our morals within a historical context is meaningless; both our ethics and our understanding has evolved since then, we need to look to our own actions, not those of others.

Sadly it is often true that those who offer public apologies for others are at the same time quite unwilling to acknowledge their own crimes. The classic example of that is well-known, the  Vatican may be quite happy to apologise about historical actions, but is not at all willing to face up to modern crimes, pedophiles are still being hidden and protected, and Ratzinger refuses to acknowledge his own guilt in personally orchestrating the cover-up with his directive in 2000 to all Catholic Bishops telling them that any sharing of abuse evidence with legal authorities or the press was utterly forbidden. Charges were to be investigated “in the most secretive way … restrained by a perpetual silence … and everyone … is to observe the strictest secret which is commonly regarded as a secret of the Holy Office … under the penalty of excommunication.” In other words, if they wish to dish out apologies in a credible manner, then taking responsibility for their own individual actions would be a great place to start.

When we blame ourselves, we feel that no one else has the right to blame us.” – Oscar Wilde

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