A song of sorries

The Parliament of Victoria recently voted an apology for laws that criminalised homosexuality. It followed a more substantive act – at least on paper – that had expunged (word rarely used and now given new life for this purpose), that expunged the criminal records of people convicted under these laws. This act, however, was not enough. A small group of activist gay men from labor and entertainment circles believed they deserved their apology too, after years of same-sex paedophiles being hauled over the coals and other apologies to children abused in care institutions and women who had their children taken from them. Homophobia was elevated to the status of a “thought crime.” The Parliament even chose to raise the rainbow flag in place of the state’s ensignia for the day. A small group of men gathered in the gallery to hear the Premier profess no knowledge at all of how many victims of these laws there were. A total of six men only have sought their criminal records being expunged. Perhaps every one of them was in the gallery.

The Premier claimed in his speech that it was unimaginable what could have led to these laws:

“I suppose it’s rare when you can’t even begin to conceive what was on the minds of our forebears in this Place. But I look back at those statutes and I am dumbfounded. I can’t possibly explain why we made these laws, and clung to them, and fought for them.”

And it is here that the true empathy and contrition of an authentic apology disappears. It is here that empathy fails, and the authenticity of the apology breaks. For a true apology is spoken with true responsibility for acts that are owned. The suffering of the victim is acknowledged without diminishing the wrong-doer’s human complexity. And this statement shows a complete absence of curiosity about why people of the past thought differently to now. It even shows a cultural blindness to the societies that still outlaw homosexuality. Those laws need not be praised or rationalised, but they were and are the products of people as frail and blinkered and serious as the singers of these callow laments. Stamping our feet and professing our own ignorance suggests a failure to enter imaginatively into the circumstances about which we are sorry.

We live in a time of a long song of sorries. The study of the circumstances of historical apology has become a minor academic speciality. The long record of human experience leaves a lot to be sorry for. But an apology on behalf of a remote and ignored past is not compelling. The most powerful apologies are those from people who were part of the events and who still need to fight within their hearts to overcome the enmity towards their victims. This latest guilt parade of sorries is full of stunts and poll-driven pathos; it does not have the weeping heart of the angel of history who sees the ruins of all past progress, and who knows every monument of civilisation is also an act of barbarism.