The power of sorry
I was 12. I stole R2 (Rand, South African currency) from a donation to a charity. I placed the R2 note in my front blazer pocket. My mother must have gone through my clothes because she found it, and punished me. Then I had to make recompense at Church and place the money in the offerings box but I never had to say ‘sorry’ to anyone. I simply had to make good in light of my flawed values as a child. Here was a missed chance to teach me the power of reparation. ‘Sorry‘ was an ideal solution but I never addressed those I had wronged. However, I wasn’t sorry I had stolen. I was ashamed because I didn’t meet my mother’s expectations of me. Perhaps the shame I carried was enough because I didn’t do it again.
I love the myth of George Washington as a boy. Who chopped the cherry tree down? I can’t tell a lie — I did it — was met with love and congratulations for telling the truth. There was no consequence to the act, which clearly was wrong. Nor was he instructed to say ‘sorry.’ Another wasted opportunity to educate.
Here in Australia, 26th May 1998, we had our first ‘National Sorry Day,’ a response to a government report about the enforced, legal removal of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children from their families. The report was called ‘Bringing Them Home.’ Not a federal holiday, it was comprised of activities to encourage better relations between aggrieved parties and other Australians. But what did it do, really? A community barbecue couldn’t reunite families. Signing ‘sorry books’ didn’t right the wrongs of years of abysmal laws discriminating against First Nation people. Nothing really changed.
A bit of background: Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders were allowed to vote in 1962. This was the first time that they were recognised as human, allowed to be counted on a census. Families were still being damaged from their children being torn away from them by missionaries, under government orders to go to orphanages and taught to be like whites in Australia. They were denied their cultures, their families, and finally, their languages. (There are many indigenous languages and cultures in Australia as there are many different tribal families.) How marvelous — they were taken from the land, from their families, civilised and given a western education. Children only stopped being taken away from their families in 1969. The horrific devastation that was evidenced by the stolen generations (1950s and 1960s) was also compounded by social welfare practices and laws that actively discriminated against Aboriginals and Torres Strait Islanders.
When I first emigrated to Australia, I thought that having a National Sorry Day was important, when in reality, it wasn’t largely observed and proved no more than lip service. So what was the value of ‘sorry?’
In 2008, the then Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, took the floor in Parliament and gave his now-famous ‘SORRY SPEECH.’ It was then I learned the value of ‘sorry.’ When I was a child, saying sorry wasn’t as important as making good a situation. The consequence of a lack of values was to repay the R2. There was no way the Australian government could put right generations and generations of disgusting, racist laws, policies, and procedures. To examine the past in detail since the 1800s could only open and infect old wounds. The SORRY SPEECH admitted fault and drew a line beneath the pain and anger of years of discrimination. The government could not offer reparation but this was in a way, a call for amnesty and a marker for moving forward, together. The apology also included a commitment to ‘CLOSE THE GAP’ between the indigenous and non-indigenous in matters such as life expectancy, education standards, and economic opportunity.
But what of George Washington? His story has really struck me. A future president was not taught to say ‘sorry.’ Is this an apocryphal allegory? What of the many leaders of nations today who can’t or won’t say ‘sorry.’ ‘Sorry’ is not about fixing it. ‘Sorry’ is about drawing a line underneath it all and creating a better future, together.
From the relative safety of my Queensland home, (with COVID-19 in mind) I am watching the riots take place across the United States. I am seeing people desperate for change, desperate for recognition, desperate for justice, desperate for equality. Today, in the richest country on the planet, thousands upon thousands of people, of all colours and cultures are standing up to say enough! It is clear that it would be impossible for the U.S. government to make reparation but it could go a long way to solve and create an environment for change by saying one little word. Somehow I don’t think this will be possible, from either Republicans or Democrats. Am I simplifying the issue? Only in as much as I have time and space to comment. Am I outraged at what happened to George Floyd? Do I understand the crazed desperation of people rioting? Yes. And yes.
I leave you with an extract from the Sorry Speech by Kevin Rudd, our ex-Prime Minister and the link on YouTube to watch the speech in full. Perhaps politicians in the U.S.A. could take a leaf out of his book, note the words of this speech, and consider, just consider that one day, an apology will be due.
Prime Minister (the Honorable Kevin Rudd, MP): (an excerpt)
“Mr. Speaker, I move:
That today we honour the Indigenous peoples of this land, the oldest continuing cultures in human history.
We reflect on their past mistreatment.
We reflect in particular on the mistreatment of those who were Stolen Generations – this blemished chapter in our nation’s history.
The time has now come for the nation to turn a new page in Australia’s history by righting the wrongs of the past and so moving forward with confidence to the future.
We apologise for the laws and policies of successive Parliaments and governments that have inflicted profound grief, suffering and loss on these our fellow Australians.
We apologise especially for the removal of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children from their families, their communities and their country.
For the pain, suffering and hurt of these Stolen Generations, their descendants and for their families left behind, we say sorry.
To the mothers and the fathers, the brothers and the sisters, for the breaking up of families and communities, we say sorry.
And for the indignity and degradation thus inflicted on a proud people and a proud culture, we say sorry.
We the Parliament of Australia respectfully request that this apology be received in the spirit in which it is offered as part of the healing of the nation.
For the future we take heart; resolving that this new page in the history of our great continent can now be written.
We today take this first step by acknowledging the past and laying claim to a future that embraces all Australians.
A future where this Parliament resolves that the injustices of the past must never, never happen again.
A future where we harness the determination of all Australians, Indigenous and non-Indigenous, to close the gap that lies between us in life expectancy, educational achievement and economic opportunity.
A future where we embrace the possibility of new solutions to enduring problems where old approaches have failed.
A future based on mutual respect, mutual resolve and mutual responsibility.
A future where all Australians, whatever their origins, are truly equal partners, with equal opportunities and with an equal stake in shaping the next chapter in the history of this great country, Australia.”