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How to deal with the past?

Danielle Celermajer

The sins of a nation, the ritual of apology, the work of repentance

National apologies are the ritual whereby we turn back to see ourselves through the eyes of the injured other, and from this place, step into a more ethical collective identity. The twentieth century was simultaneously saturated with genocides, gross violations of human rights and the assorted pathologies of colonialism, and punctuated by declarations of ‘never again’ and commitments to ethical global politics.

No doubt responding to this morbid symphony of violation and recommitment, during the last quarter of the century, scholars, policy makers and lawyers turned their minds to the question: how do we deal with pasts characterised by violation, disrespect for our fellow human beings and shattered societies so that we can lay the foundations for futures that will be peaceful and in which all peoples can enjoy their citizenship and human rights? Much of the effort has been devoted to punishing those at the apex of perpetrator responsibility — the Milosovics who ordered the massacres and Lubangas who recruited thousands of child soldiers.

What has most fascinated me, however, is not how to call to account the man at the top; nor even how to render responsible those in the middle — those who wielded the machetes or raped the women or stole Indigenous children from their families. Rather, how do we attend to the base, the foundation of this triangle of responsibility? How do illuminate the wrong that lies at the feet of all us who silently or implicitly consent to a world where particular acts of grave wrongdoing are rendered normal and even invisible?

While criminal lawyers have sharpened our understanding of the nature of individual responsibility, structural sociologists, social psychologists and philosophers have demonstrated how the actions of the individual are always embedded in broader social structures and cultural orientations.

The problem is, while there is a fairly direct line between the analyses of individual responsibility and a criminal trial, the implications of this more structural analysis of the aetiology of systematic violations are far from obvious. Indeed, as soon as we appreciate that systematic atrocities are not simply the outcome of the decisions and acts of the few, but are always the artefacts of entire systems of meaning and social relations, the question of ‘how to deal with the past’ becomes considerably more difficult.

How do we get our hands on this most amorphous and yet pervasive part of wrongdoing and setting things right? How do we design interventions that will both call the collective to account for its part in the aetiology of systematic violations and — if I might use therapeutic language — how do we ‘rehabilitate’ a cultural and social system?

Political apologies represent one attempt that we have seen made in the last few decades to attend to this broader sense of political responsibility. Best known to Australians is, of course, the apology for the forced removal of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children from their families. So let me say something about this case to illustrate the work that an apology might do.

The apology, guilt and shame

In thinking about the particular violation of removing Indigenous children, it is important first to locate this acute wrong against the colonial backdrop. Although the Australia in which people my age grew up was one narrated by a story of peaceful settlement and the inevitable — perhaps even natural — disappearance of the original inhabitants, the truth we now know is that from the time of colonisation Indigenous Australians were subject to a range of degrading, violent and genocidal violations, ranging from outright massacres, to systematic discrimination within the legal, social and political systems well into the twentieth century.

It is no stretch to say that the constitution of the modern Australian nation was founded on the dispossession of pre-existing sovereign indigenous nations and the foreclosure of that process. It was against this background of constituting a non-Indigenous nation that the policy of removal emerged.

Bringing them Home, the report of the National Inquiry into the Forced Removal of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children from their Families, brought to the nation's attention this previously hidden history, conveyed not only through analysis of the laws and policies, but importantly through the testimony of children and families who had been directly affected.

Among its 54 recommendations for how we should, as a nation, deal with this horrific aspect of our past, two specifically commended official apologies to Indigenous people. This provoked two waves on national sentiment: an unprecedented social movement advocating a national apology and a staunch anti-apology resistance.

The debate that transpired over the subsequent ten years is a rich resource for those who wish to understand what an apology means and how it operates as a social and political phenomenon.

At the heart of Prime Minister John Howard's objection was the conviction that the call for an apology was blaming the wrong people. How could we — that is, contemporary individual Australians — be asked to apologise for what other individuals did? This is, if you like, a case of mistaken identity. A second problem, however, was that the demand for an apology involved a case of mistaken standards. How could we judge the past according to the standards of the present?

One response to this objection was to distinguish between guilt — which adheres only to those who have acted — and shame — which others can feel by virtue of their association with the wrongdoing. With our country's history embroidered with the marginalisation and violation of Indigenous peoples, as beneficiaries of the nation-building project, we were all implicated.

But there was another response that spoke more directly to the question of the apology's ‘temporality'. Far from being a statement directed towards condemning acts of those mostly long since dead, apology is a statement that we are making now about our normative commitments. The reason that a collective apology by contemporary Australians for a pattern of past wrongdoing was not only legitimate but also necessary was because the social, cultural and political orientations that undergirded the practice of removal were still present in contemporary Australian society. True enough, that particular explicit and heinous manifestation of the patterns of racial inequality occurred in years past, but the correlation between respect and skin colour still organised the social and political world of contemporary Australia.

Shame, and the expression of shame in the form of the apology, are then the means through which we take responsibility for recasting our political culture. It is precisely the transformation of the manner in which the past is received and interpreted in the present from denial or pride into shameful acknowledgment that makes possible a different future. Had the existing narrative remained unbroken, the angle of the line from present to future would be no different from the angle from past to present: one continuous line of unequal and abusive social relations; the artifice of an egalitarian nation masking the practice of radical inequality. Shame deflects that line and opens a new orientation to the future.

When confronted with the voice of the other who has been wronged, I see a reflection of myself that I too find abhorrent. I am moved to shame because I recognise myself as one who has failed to live up to a fundamental norm by which I claimed to abide. Shame is, to paraphrase Theodor Adorno, the shudder of recognition that passes through me as it dawns upon me that there is another full subjectivity on the other side of my action. And this, inevitably, shifts our being in the world.

To say ‘we are sorry,’ as the relational expression of shame, does not simply name an internal state. It is a performative mechanism for remapping identities precisely through the deflection of time's arrow. As a relational expression of shame, the apology would announce the active presence of a different political cultural context: one in which the wrongful actions cannot proceed with the people's stamp of legitimacy. It would be a political and sacramental act, transforming recognition into declaration.

According to this vision, through the apology the Australian nation would be reconstituting itself on the foundation of a normative framework where whiteness was no longer a condition for full citizenship — both in terms of membership and rights — and where substantive respect for the rights of Aboriginal people would be the normative default position.

So when contemporary Australians say that ‘we (taking in Australians of the past) were wrong,’ they are using the past as the story through which to examine and judge the frames of meaning which inform the nation across time and into the present. The judgments that an apology implies about the past are not directed to amending the (dead) past, but to reshaping the (living) present and future. As William Faulkner put it: ‘The past is never dead. It's not even past.’

Apologising for an event in the past, particularly one so stark as the forced removal of children, became the dramatic occasion for declaring one's colours. Indeed, apology's internal tension between assuming responsibility for the wrong, on the one hand, and condemning that wrong, on the other, is what makes it possible to use this speech act to literally shift identities, and move towards the other: a regrouping towards unity and support.

This is the paradox of the apology: the ones who apologise simultaneously acknowledge their identity as the ones who supported wrong and establish for themselves a new normative identity as the ones who condemn the wrong. Understood as performance, it is not relevant that the particular individuals alive today who make up the human dimension of the Australian nation did not remove children. It is neither a statement about those dead Australians, nor an expression of their remorse. It is a public constructive act by those who comprise the nation now, about and towards the nation from here on in.

Religious repentance and collective responsibility

The imperative to face up to the wrongs of child removal was, of course, not the first occasion on which human beings were moved to make sense of collective responsibility and the obligation of reparation.

In his powerful and deeply moving reflections on the crimes of Nazism, the German philosopher Karl Jaspers similarly tried to grapple with how to recognise and institutionalise some form of collective responsibility without violating the integrity of individuals. In response to this dilemma, Jaspers suggested four categories of guilt:

  • criminal guilt, the type generally assumed in liberal institutions of criminal justice, applies where there has been a violation of a positive law;

  • political guilt is a state of liability attaching to a political community, but arising from the actions of political leaders and fellow citizens;

  • moral guilt is the subjective sense of regret that one should feel when one does something that is wrong in an absolute or ideal sense, even if it escapes the purview of criminal guilt; and

  • metaphysical guilt is a guilt based on our common identity as human, and is strongest where the wrong occurred ‘in our presence or with our knowledge,’ but ... at base it arises through human solidarity.’

Within this schema, he suggested two situations in which collective attribution passed the muster of ethical individualism. First, and most obviously, a collective can be liable in the political sense, in so far as it is responsible for establishing the political leadership that then sanctions the wrongful acts. Beyond this, Jaspers also suggested that there was a type of political-moral guilt that collectives can bear by virtue of the fact that political conduct is not only the outcome of specific acts of authorisation, but are underpinned in a more pervasive way by a society's background morality.

Jaspers also considered how one might properly respond to each of these levels of guilt. Criminal guilt leads in a fairly straightforward way to punishment. Political guilt forms the basis for reparations. But what follows from moral guilt is penance and renewal, and from metaphysical guilt a transformation of human self-consciousness before God. In other words, when individuals or a community are guilty of ‘the convenient adaption of cheap vindication and the imperceptible promotion of wrong,’ they have a choice as to how they will move forward. They may bear the guilt for their part in the story of wrongdoing all their lives, and remain as they are; or they must undergo a transformation.

The fact that, in the midst of a piece of political theory, Jaspers reaches for a religious metaphor and process should not escape our attention. Indeed, we have a number of deeply held preconceptions about the sharp divide between the world of religion and the world of modern liberal politics that impede our even considering the places of resonance or continuity.

Particularly problematic in this context is our belief that, whereas we liberal secularists are committed to rationality, human autonomy and freedom, religions start with the belief that there is a God who exists in a different metaphysical realm and who can, in ways we cannot understand, control what happens to human being. The problem becomes still worse if we look at so-called pre-modern religious practices, which we believe go hand-in-hand with worldviews based on failures to understand, as we do, the true nature of causal relations, and fail to respect the moral autonomy of individuals. Case in point, we do not believe that one can rightly punish the sons for the sins of the fathers.

What relevance could purification of the soul or repentance have for us? If we can bracket our modernist and secularist preconceptions about the radical difference between the ontologies, metaphysics and institutions of religion and those of modern secular societies, we will find remarkable resonances between the contemporary practice of political apologies and forms of repentance in Judaism and certain strains of Christianity. Indeed, we find that — just like us, those who designed and practiced collective repentance in religious contexts were making sense of the link between systematic wrongdoing and collective responsibility.

When I started doing research on apologies, I had in my mind an image of religious repentance in which an individual, most likely in a darkened confessional, professed her or his sins to a priest, who sat imperceptibly on the other side. One of the remarkable discoveries of my research was that, quite to the contrary, in Jewish religious practice, and in Christianity right up to the Council of Trent in the sixteenth century, repentance by the community constituted the dominant form. Individual and privatised repentance came much later and never completely displaced the collective forms.

To illustrate, take most significant ritual of repentance in Judaism, which occurs on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. Repentance and, more specifically spoken apology, lies at the heart of the Yom Kippur ritual, when the entire community gathers and communally repents its wrongs. Here, I do not mean that the people gather as an aggregation of individuals each apologising for his or her own wrongs at the same time, but that they repent qua community, as the corporate body.

This corporate form is apparent in the penitential prayers, which are articulated in three basic ways: aloud by the rabbi on behalf of the community, privately and silently by each person, and aloud by all members of the congregation on behalf of all members of the congregation. In the latter case, each member of the congregation confesses a common list of sins individually, but in unison, using the first person plural: ‘we have sinned’ and ‘we are sorry.’ The experience is literally of a single sound as the voices of the pray-ers come together: each person singularly, but also as part of the common voice, speaks his or her responsibility and regret for every sin, whether or not he or she has individually committed it. One Yom Kippur prayer says, for example:

‘As on this day we examine our individual lives, so do we look at the life of the society around us ... as we would share in the rewards of righteousness, so must we confess a measure of responsibility for the world's evils.’

How can one make sense of this collective form of repentance? What is going on when the community, as a single voice, apologises for past wrongs?

First, let me name the obvious — but, I would argue, anachronistic — reading. The assumption here would be that these practices embody precisely the type of collectivist ontology and understanding of transpersonal responsibility in which moderns no longer believe and which we no longer tolerate. A more careful reading of the tradition suggests, however, that the collective responsibility articulated here is not on the same register as the individual responsibility. If one reads the interpretive texts of the traditions, one sees how they understand individual and collective responsibility not as some type of zero-sum game (either the individual or the collective is responsible), but as folding into each other.

To enter into this alternative scheme of responsibility, we might start with the critical link that Jewish thought and practice forges between individual wrongdoing, the foundational covenant and the role of the people in upholding the covenant. The language of the covenant may be a little confounding here, but what I am referring to is what we might think of, in secular terms, as the constitution that both establishes the people as a political entity with special rights and responsibilities to each other, and that spells out what some of those rights and responsibilities are. It is, if you like, a statement of ‘who we are’ — both in terms of demarcating the boundaries of the political community, of setting out its fundamental normative commitments.

In the case of the Jewish community, those commitments are set out at a basic level in the Ten Commandments, and more elaborately through several hundred norms and principles articulated through the sacred texts. Lest this religious scent put us off, that such covenants, otherwise known as constitutions, are not unique to religious communities, but exist at the core of any political community. Think of your own nation's foundational documents or agreements and the ways in which they set out normative precepts for the nation.

The implication is that it is logically impossible to think of an individual's obligations to laws entirely outside of a corporate body that collectively takes care of, and in this way retains, the legitimacy of the law. This requires that the community not only accept the covenant in the first instance, figuratively when the people accepted the Ten Commandments at Mount Sinai, or for us, when our forebears endorsed the Constitution. It further requires that the people constantly renew their commitment to those norms, that they constantly come back to what it means, for example, to uphold the norm of equality, or respect, or honesty.

When the people, qua people, cease to uphold the norms that define and underpin their identity of the political community, those norms will cease to be experienced as binding on individuals within that community.

Importantly, this does not mean that individuals are precluded from dissenting, or that we should not evaluate the justice of particular laws. What it means is that because law logically requires plurality, no single abstract person could or would abide by the laws outside the fact of the body of the community in which laws are held to be obligatory. The law qua law, as an authoritative organising system, logically precedes specific laws or adherence to laws. And at this level the law, like the grammatical structure of a language, or the notion of property, only exists if it is held up at a number of locations.

The implication is that if the people collectively lose respect for that foundational law or the basic norms, they will cease to function as meaningful and authoritative mechanisms for regulating social relations, and so will not prevent individuals from acting contrary to the law. Without this structural anchoring, only anarchy, not autonomy, is possible. The literary character of Sir Thomas More poignantly expressed this notion in the play, A Man for All Seasons:

‘And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned round on you, where would you hide ... the laws all being flat? This country's planted thick with laws from coast to coast ... and if you cut them down ... d'you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then?’

What the wisdom of this tradition is telling us is thus that when individuals fail to uphold the law, and most especially when their failures are not single aberrations but part of a systematic and recurring pattern, the community has failed to provide a sufficiently compelling normative context.

The individual is responsible for taking the wrongful action. There is no question here of a mega-agent. But, the normative judgment that allowed her to take this action did not exist in a vacuum. That judgment, that decision that it was alright to take a black child from her mother or to rape a Bosnian Muslim, was embedded in a normative framework for which everyone was co-responsible. It may have been an individual man who committed acts of violence against a particular woman, or a particular white person who treated a black person with contempt, but each did so within a world where the value of women and blacks was systematically and collectively diminished. The individual acted, but the collective provided the context in which he or she acted, and it is at this level that the collective is also responsible.

The community's responsibility thus lies with its failure to take care of, or hold up its collective norms; and it is this failure that reparative actions need to address.

How apology performs this function becomes clearer if one looks at the Hebrew word inadequately translated as repentance. Teshuvah in fact comes from the root shuv, meaning to turn, to turn back or to return. The metaphor of turning comes through strongly throughout its usage in text and practice. Rabbinical commentary emphasises that what we are doing during the practices of teshuvah is returning to the principles of correct relationship with God, with other people, and with ourselves as ethical beings.

In other words, the act of apology is the act of returning to the covenantal principles that have become loose; it is an act of recommitment such that those principles once again come into our lives as living and binding principles.

Thus, when the collective repents on Yom Kippur, what it is doing is performatively acknowledging its failure as a community to uphold the norms that individuals violated with sufficient strength to prevent individual wrongdoing. And, it is recommitting to those principles. Again, this is the paradoxical movement of apology — it simultaneously acknowledges our failure to abide by certain principles, and our recommitment to those principles. It is, for the collective, the way in which it renews the Covenant. Apology is, if you like, the act of ‘recovenanting the nation.’

One might well raise the objection at this point that returning to norms that lie at the foundation of a nation will not address violations that are in fact affirmed by those very norms. For, as we know, political communities are often founded on laws, or interpretations of laws, that are themselves problematic and themselves need correction. This was certainly the case in relation to the way in which Indigenous Australians were held in the foundational covenant of the Australian nation, and indeed is true for the relationship between the dominant community and minorities in most nations of the world.

The ‘return’ in question thus needs to be understood not as a simple regression, but as a movement forward. The texts of Judaism insist that the movement of teshuvah is not backwards towards to a place that already existed, but forward towards a yet to be fulfilled principle.

Indeed, this is where we come to understand that it is only through the lived experience of human beings through history that the perfection of principles that putatively ‘lie at the beginning’ is possible. Thus, general principles such as equality or respect may be affirmed in the original covenant, but our understanding and acceptance of the full meaning of that principle only occurs through history.

Perhaps, ironically, this movement forward can only occur when the other calls out to me in her pain and insists that, while I thought I believed in equality, that equality did not include the person of colour or the woman or the person with a disability. It is only when the ‘shudder of recognition’ passes through me and I recognise, with shame, that I have excluded her from the register of dignified human beings, that this register of equality can be expanded.

It is here that we see that the work of apology, the work of repentance, is not simply the way in which we return to principles that we already held, but have allowed to lie fallow; it is the mechanism through which we correct those principles. Apology thus becomes the ritual whereby we reconstitute ourselves and our fundamental principles; it is the ritual whereby we turn back to see ourselves through the eyes of the injured other, and from this place, step into a more ethical collective identity.

Apology and political transformation

It would be overreaching to claim that the political apology, as currently practiced, offers a fully effective mechanism whereby we can, as modern political communities, fundamentally shift our identities and our collective norms or ethical principles. Nevertheless, what I think we can begin to sketch out through an analysis of the logic of the apologetic ritual, are the contours of such a movement.

Those who fail to see the point of revisiting the past also fail to see that, while the line between the past events and the present is immutable, the way in which we ethically position ourselves in relation to the past and the judgments we make about it are not. Nor are these judgments about the past irrelevant to the orientations for the future.

Far from being passive, recollection and remembering are highly active and productive processes. It is this creative flexibility at the level of ethical evaluation of the past that can alter the trajectory of the future. This is particularly true when it comes to the normative expectations that are inherited from the past but which continue to shape relationships between people and identities. Nor is the act of brutally facing the accusations of those whom we have injured an empty masochistic exercise. For their accusations are, I would suggest, the condition of possibility for our movement beyond current parochial interpretations of who we are and who we ought to be.

It is only our willingness to recognise that we have indeed fallen short of what we might be, or of the ideal we held out to ourselves, that we might approach that ideal, and then only because of the damage it brings about and the cry it provokes in the other who becomes our accuser. And it is only our confession, our apology to the other, that drags us past the limitations and parochialism of our normative identity.

Only the ethical recognition that arises from opening up to the perspective of the one who was not-me, or not-us, can give birth to a movement beyond the justice we already have. Only opening to the perspective of the other can reorient us so as to recognise the injustice of our apparent justice.

In the original sense of apology, only when one is called to justify oneself before the other — and, most importantly, before an other who accuses us of the inadequacies of the justice of which we were so sure — only then can a genuinely new movement in justice occur.


Danielle Celermajer is Professor of Sociology and Social Policy at the University of Sydney. She is the author of The Sins of the Nation and the Ritual of Apologies, and a forthcoming book on the prevention of torture. Danielle is also an executive member of the Evatt Foundation. This article has been reposted from ABC Religion and Ethics, where it was published to mark the 10th anniversary of the National Apology to the Stolen Generations of Australia's Indigenous Peoples on  Tuesday 13 January 2018.


Suggested citation

Celermajer, Danielle, 'How to deal with the past? ', Evatt Journal, Vol.17, No. 1, May 2018.<>


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