Words, Words, Words! Sorry….Sir!

“Words, Words, Words, 

My words fly up, my thoughts remain below

Words without thoughts never to heaven go.”

Shakespeare was his usual perceptive self when giving these lines to Hamlet and Polonius. Hamlet is When asked  about his reading matter his answer reflects a despair at knowing that his words mean little. And so might our words have less impact while our motives are well meaning.

When I became a principal there were times when I was called on to resolve an issue between school children – antagonisms, scraps, actions that hurt others, things said that sting. I started off in thinking that quite often in these circumstances an apology was an appropriate ending to such discussions. But I quickly learnt that an apology can simply be an easy way out, a proxy for a sound conclusion. It might be this for both the aggressor and for me but the aggrieved remained aggrieved. It was much better to focus on acknowledging what has happened in order to agree on how behaviour or understand will remediate what needs changing and agreeing to do just that.

I wonder whether New Zealand is drifting in a cult of “sorry”-ness, the habit of making an apology as an easy way out. A quick and seemingly tidy way to conclude an issue especially when you see that apology oiled with phrases such as “we need to move on” and other mock-heroic gestures.

Increasingly I see a line-up of events where huge damage has eventuated demanding a response that goes far beyond an apology.

I was working in South Auckland at the height of the Dawn Raids, a brutal and unforgivable period of intrusion, hurt and damage, – actual, pecuniary, of mana, of hurt to families – all this simply because citizens who were doing no harm failed to have the correct papers. We have seen such actions in the regimes of other countries. They were dark and threatening days! Is saying “sorry” adequate?

The events at Mt Alice Psychiatric Hospital, recently in the media, got worse as they were unfolded. Seemingly “sorry” was used to lessen the hurt of the actions that to any ordinary person seemed unbelievably cruel if not barbaric and to draw the matters to a close. Is saying sorry to be the last word or to draw the matters to a close?

Now I am not putting “remorse” into the same category as “sorry” or two – the courts make effective use of the concept of remorse and act to recognise remorse when it shows. That is ensuring that the offender has genuinely reflected on the harm caused and often the sentencing process makes rulings reflecting the view that being “sorry” is not enough. Victims often comment on the fact that remorse has not been shown by the offending party.

In short, sometimes saying “sorry” is simply not enough and the response needs to go further in recognising this.  A list could also include Pike River, Whaakari/White Island, and the transgressions of government ministries, departments and agencies which seem to trot out their CEOs to make apologies at the drop of a hat. 

I have deliberately not included the Treaty of Waitangi process which seems to me to have got it right. An apology with the full might of the current Government and accompanied by recompense for the hurt, the impact on lives and addresses of iwi to get on with resources to build new and better futures. An honest attempt is made to right wrongs. There are lessons in this when saying sorry is a meaningful process with high levels of engagement between the aggrieved and the perpetrator sorrowful events.

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