The “S” word

The circus surrounding the word “sorry” in Australia is, I think, part of the fine legacy of John Howard’s very special brand of politics. By adamantly refusing to say it he only helped to entrench it as a symbol of what was missing from his worldview. The argument of course was that “we” weren’t responsible because it was previous generations who took Aboriginal kids away from their parents, creating the Stolen Generation. The argument appeals to conservatives here because (one gets the impression) they’d rather wash their hands of the whole thing, and attribute the current socioeconomic status of many Aborigines to some unspoken racial inferiority.

So Howard took a lot of time and energy explaining precisely why he didn’t have to say sorry. He expressed regret, of course, but you can’t interpret that to mean “sorry” if the person explicitly says it isn’t. He even managed to say that he apologised, while still arguing that this technically wasn’t the same thing as being “sorry”. At that point most people realised that the game was up, but Howard’s stubbornness had created momentum in the reconciliation movement. Now, in the first term of the Rudd government, the “S” word simply has to be said. There’s no way around it. I’m not one for symbols, generally speaking, and there are lots of practical things to be done to help achieve equality, but in Howard’s reign this one symbol has become so important in so many people’s eyes that it could easily drive a wedge into attempts at reconciliation.

Rudd, I assume, knows this. You’ll notice he hasn’t come out and just said “sorry”. No, he had to pick a date for it to be said (February 13, in case you missed it), as though it were an occult incantation that only works when certain astronomical bodies are properly aligned. He wants people to Know that the Word has been Said. It has to be stage managed. And he probably wouldn’t mind if his audience was mentally prepared to give him a standing ovation for it, which might not happen if it just popped out in a press conference.

At least by saying it the word itself should cease to be an issue, and we can perhaps endeavour to do something to improve Aboriginal health and education, for instance.

1 thought on “The “S” word

  1. You make it sound a bit like the “stage management” of Saying Sorry is a bad thing, a PR stunt and a manipulation of the public. But it is important that there is ceremony and pomp and circumstance around it. If they just popped it out in a press conference, it wouldn’t “count” – it would give the impression that it wasn’t important, it wasn’t significant, possibly even that they didn’t really mean it. By surrounding it with ceremony, they are effectively saying “we think this is important”. Sure, there’s an aspect of PR, etc to it, but that’s just because of how our media and political system work.

    But even if that was taken out of the equation, there would still need to be a ceremony of some sort, an ‘official’ acknowledgment to make it real, because ceremonies are how we /make/ things real. Ceremonies such as graduations, coronations, swearing-in of officials, even birthday parties – they’re all necessary to “make real” the change that they acknowledge. If you’re interested, there’s a really interesting article on “installation ceremonies” which discusses this:

    Fortes, M. “Of Installation Ceremonies”, Proceedings of the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland, No. 1967. (1967), pp. 5-20.

    JStor URL:

    But I agree that an apology needs to be followed up with some serious efforts to improve the lives of Aboriginal people. Hopefully the Rudd government will be smart enough to help them to help themselves, in consultation and partnership with Aboriginal people themselves, rather than imposing “solutions” from above.

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