Against apologies

All games are defined by a set of rules, which in practice allow the playing of any number of matches. Ritual, which is also ‘played’, is on the other hand, like a favoured instance of a game, remembered from among the possible ones because it is the only one which results in a particular type of equilibrium between the two sides.

– Claude Lévi-Strauss, The Savage Mind


Before becoming a writer, I trained in anthropology, a discipline traditionally concerned with ritual. This training has served me unexpectedly well over nearly ten years of involvement in left-wing organising: the left is a space heavy with codified language and actions, and governed by a set of intricate, unwritten rules usually viewed by outsiders as mysterious, ridiculous, or both. In particular, I have recently found myself considering the ritualistic way in which people on the left feel compelled to offer apologies for having a relatively stable, relatively plentiful life – often glossed as various forms of ‘privilege’.

A concept that began as a reasonable, even admirable impulse to acknowledge unequal social structures and one’s own position within them, ‘privilege’ has more recently morphed into a strange compulsion to apologise for having, or wanting, anything more than the bare minimum. These apologies are often offered hastily – sometimes before a critique has even been raised – as if we must absolve ourselves in advance. This is particularly evident in think pieces written by progressive types since the 2016 US presidential election, which often clamour to infuse some seemingly innocent activity with the guilt of privilege. In November 2017, the literary site LitHub published an article entitled ‘The Weirdness of Promoting a Book in the First Year of Trump’ (profiling eleven authors, all of whom offered some kind of apology for having promoted a novel while Donald Trump was president). Other essays have focused on the author’s guilty sense that some indulgence now ‘feels wrong’: Annaliese Griffin, in a recent article entitled ‘In Trump’s America, It’s a Privilege to Know Where Your Children Are’, worried that ‘right now it feels wrong to call the babysitter and book three hours instead of two for Friday night’, while in an essay otherwise focusing on the publishing industry, Nicole Dieker felt compelled to note that, given Trump’s presidency, ‘it feels wrong to ask someone to pull their attention away from the rest of the world and focus on something as trivial as a novel’.

Putting aside the telling emphasis on the authors’ feelings, it is enough to note that these kinds of rote, ‘forgive-me-Father’ statements appear compulsive on the left these days. Essays and other statements are peppered with apologetic disclaimers: I know it’s a luxury to care about this when … or It feels weird to complain about this when … Behind the ellipses are the familiar outrages, so common these days that one’s capacity even for anger has been dulled. A sort of numb desperation takes its place.

It’s within this context that the ritualistic apology has flourished. It makes a depressing sort of sense. When the ability of ordinary people to effect any material change has been so categorically weakened – when days lost to collective strike actions are at a historic low, and unions have ceded almost all their power, and demonstrations have been reduced to a hollow performance – perhaps the only action that remains is to turn inwards. If we can’t change the world, we can at least try to change ourselves. Much of left-wing politics, accordingly, has been reduced to the work of managing (and, increasingly, policing) individual language and interpersonal relationships.

The apology is part of this: its logic has infiltrated left-wing spaces and dynamics to such a degree that it’s almost inescapable. Most often it takes the form of an apology or quasi-apology for one’s particular racial or gender identity, and the various privileges contained therein. Through this mode of engagement, the concept of privilege, and the ‘checking’ thereof – which, it must be emphasised, can be deployed usefully – has been subject to a bizarre kind of reverse-engineering whereby having any kind of social, material or cultural benefit is immediately viewed as suspicious. This in turn renders the subject unable to speak, unable to complain, unable to demand.

The apology intervenes as a kind of ritualistic signalling, repositioning the privileged subject as aware and therefore acceptable. This, in itself, is somewhat odd, but arguably harmless. However, rituals are never just themselves – they reflect and re-create social structures, shared assumptions and ways of being in the world. As such, it’s worth asking not only what the ritual of the apology is, but also what it does. What is the work it performs?

To me, the apology conceals a fundamentally reactionary stance: at its heart is the belief that blame and culpability are individual problems, rather than structural ones. It silences radical critiques of our material conditions, and it divorces us from the forms of engagement necessary to advance these critiques. In fact, the apology drives us away from the kind of politics we desperately need to embrace: a politics that frames freedom, comfort and stability as universal rights, not unequal privileges.


Who is to blame?

Let us begin with the first charge: the question of blame, and where it lands. This has always been a tricky question. In making the 2008 National Apology to the Stolen Generations, for example, Kevin Rudd claimed that it was solely politicians who bore culpability – not those who actually executed child-removal policies, nor the public who supported them. This was likely an attempt to avoid being seen to scold the (white) population, but it didn’t quite work: the Apology still evoked claims of injustice from white Australians who felt they could not possibly be implicated in events that had taken place decades before they were born. These objections were rightly dismissed as short-sighted – an apology (and the blame implicit within it) can be a social event, reaching through history and beyond the boundaries of the individuals involved.

It’s from precisely this standpoint that my critique of the ritualistic left-wing apology stems. The form it takes utterly fails to reflect a social understanding of blame, or of cause and effect. Instead, the blame is projected onto the individual – understood, albeit crudely, in their social role: as a representative of a particular demographic group. This understanding is a symptom of a broader crisis within politics, which the Australian political commentator The Piping Shrike has written about extensively: the shift from ‘representative democracy’ (wherein social groups send representatives to parliament on their behalf) to an ‘inversion of representation’, wherein political figures, faced with a dwindling social base, cast about for a particular group (for example, women or farmers) that they then claim to represent through their own identity. (Think of the way Obama – firmly a member of the political class – traded on the idea of ‘representing’ black people in America, including that country’s massive black underclass.) It’s possible to see this dynamic being reproduced outside of electoral politics, in the obsession with the notion of ‘identity’ as a coherent marker that automatically binds together people with highly disparate experiences. For instance, a ‘person of colour’ will often be called upon to explain, from a racial standpoint, anything to do with another person of colour, even if the conditions of their lives have next to nothing in common. This kind of hollow identity-based politics reflects an inability to think in genuinely social terms – that is, how we, collectively, might make changes that benefit the many. Following the collapse of the social movements that structured politics in the twentieth century, the left is now largely unable to go beyond the individual.

The apology occurs at exactly this individualistic level. Both apologiser and complainant (although, as noted before, the complainant often exists only in imagination, a ghost of the guilty conscience) are viewed as a priori representatives of a social group that, rather than being reflected in any large-scale social movement or struggle, is abstractly conceived of in terms of a (falsely) uniform and coherent identity. Equally importantly, the apology itself works only for the individual: it functions as a get-out-of-jail-free card for a single person. Of course, this is why it has become so popular: it offers the apologiser the relief of no longer being culpable, or at least of having their culpability momentarily reduced.

How, then, should we think about blame? The point is not to dismiss the ways in which individuals constitute and uphold social structures. However, I want to argue for a more complex understanding of historical culpability and privilege, one that renders the utility of an individual apology questionable. The question of racial privilege is perhaps the best way to illustrate this. Noel Ignatiev, co-founder of the journal Race Traitor and an early pioneer of the concept of ‘white-skin privilege’, puts it this way:

To suggest that the acceptance of white-skin privilege is in the interests of white workers is equivalent to suggesting that swallowing the worm with the hook in it is in the interests of the fish. To argue that repudiating these privileges is a ‘sacrifice’ is to argue that the fish is making a sacrifice when it leaps from the water, flips its tail, shakes its head furiously in every direction and throws the barbed offering.

This quote appears in Mistaken Identity, Asad Haider’s recent book, which charts the complex relationship between race and class. In the book, Haider notes that,

In exchange for white-skin privilege, the Euro-American workers accepted white identity and became active agents in the brutal oppression of African American laborers. But they also fundamentally degraded their own conditions of existence.

In other words, there exists a totalising system – capitalism – that structures and mediates a variety of differently experienced oppressions. While white workers are spared its worst excesses by virtue of their racial identity, capitalism by no means serves their interests. Note that Haider does not erase or excuse the historical – and continuing – role of white workers as ‘agents in the brutal oppression of African American laborers’. Rather, he points out the context in which that role emerged and the conditions that it ultimately birthed, suggesting that there might be a more sophisticated – that is, grounded in history and material conditions – way to think about structures of privilege, dispossession and blame.

Contained within this understanding of oppression is an understanding of how to organise against it. In an essay published on Flood Media earlier this year, writers and activists Anni McAllen and Lucinda Donovan argue for ‘a profound unity on the basis of differences’, one in which we ‘come together through our commonalities, acknowledging our differences, to glimpse a common horizon where everything can be transformed.’ For them, solidarity and common struggle, formed through an understanding of the common basis of our different experiences, is the path toward liberation.

In left-wing circles, this notion of commonality is often invoked on a superficial level: yes, we are all anti-capitalist; yes, we are all anti-racist; yes, all our oppressions are connected. But bringing in the question of blame – and, by extension, interests – gets closer to what I consider the heart of the issue. If we understand racism and white supremacy as key aspects of capitalism, then we understand that the whole working class, including white workers (who are themselves comprised of many backgrounds and ethnicities), have an interest in overthrowing it. (Whether or not they have always acted in accordance with that interest is, of course, another question.) On the other hand, if we understand the white working class as simply benefiting from racism and having a straightforward interest in upholding it, then we must resort to moralising, hand-wringing and apologising. These tactics not only reflect a flawed historical understanding of the invention of race and its relationship with class, but also, insofar as they rely on making people feel bad, they are doomed to wild unpopularity among all but a guilty few.

My focus on race here isn’t meant to suggest that it’s the only ‘privilege’ susceptible to this practice. Rather, it’s a way of illustrating a more general point about apologies and blame: that individual apologies detract from structural systems, and that structural systems (most notably, this thing we call capitalism) function to oppress the vast majority of us, albeit in a variety of ways and to greater or lesser degrees. Viewed in political context, then, the apology functions to obscure this system, by reassigning culpability to the individual and reinforcing the assumption that most people’s interests are contrary, not common. In this way, despite appearing on the surface to be a tool of interpersonal harmony, the work the apology does – the assumptions it reinforces, the understandings it shapes and encourages – arguably cuts against the possibility of genuine solidarity.


The bare minimum

In 2017, Irish writer Sally Rooney published Conversations with Friends, a brilliant, funny and deftly written novel. It features a narrator, Frances, who utterly refuses (with conviction, but without malice) the idea of having a successful career.

‘You’re bright, you’re going to have to do something,’ says her boss at the literary agency where she interns.

‘Maybe I’ll marry for money.’

In creating the character of a talented, clever young woman who is absolutely determined never to use her talent in the labour market, Rooney is trying to say something about work itself. A few months after the book’s publication, Rooney noted in an interview that ‘people think the book is about extraordinarily privileged people’, something she rejects: Frances is, Rooney insists, a member of the precariat. In other words, Frances’ rejection of a particular bourgeois status quo was read only through the lens of who she was (white, middle-class, educated), and not through the lens of what it was, or what it represented.

I have had similar experiences in talking and writing about my dissatisfaction (occasionally edging into despair) with full-time professional ‘knowledge’ work. In fact, the first article I ever pitched to a publication – which centred upon this dissatisfaction – was met with editorial feedback that I ought to clarify what I was complaining about, because readers would think I was ‘so lucky’ to have a job at all. In other words, I ought to apologise for complaining, or for having a complaint in the first place.

This rather backwards position is the product of a discourse that takes any privilege (for example, a regular income) as inherently scarce, something to be pursued, hoarded and treasured. At one level, it’s hard to argue against this – we live in a world of mounting scarcity and precarity, where people increasingly struggle to reproduce the basic conditions of their lives. There is little point pretending otherwise. That said, how useful is it to hold as sacred whatever crumbs we happen to receive from the table? A well-paid, stable, untaxing office job – like the one I had, and the one Frances knew she was expected to get – is undoubtedly the key to an existence easier than that lived by the vast majority of the planet’s population. But it’s also unbearably dull, wildly depressing and ultimately a waste of one’s life and potential. The sacrifice of one’s humanity to the mechanistic workings of wage labour (in other words, alienation) is one of capitalism’s most fundamental forms of violence. But a narrow focus on the income associated with work – and the privilege thereof – effectively silences any critique of this alienation. This is what this form of apology does: by positioning the complainant as ultimately lucky, it diminishes the weight of the complaint itself.

Another subject where this rhetorical manoeuvring is often observed is healthcare, particularly in the US context. I’ll confess here to being an avid reader of any long essay detailing a medical crisis, of which there is no shortage on the internet. Very often, when the essay is penned by an American, a significant section is devoted to the financial aspects of the crisis: what the author’s health insurance company paid for, what it didn’t, and the various arguments conducted on this topic. Usually, the author ends up with a final bill for an amount that seems astronomical to me, but which is presented as ultimately manageable or even low. This is followed by a disclaimer – an apology, in effect – noting that the author was so lucky to have had health insurance, and that there are many millions of people in the US who aren’t as lucky, so, really, they have a lot to be grateful for.

Molly Osberg’s essay ‘How to Not Die in America’, published earlier this year in Splinter, is an illustrative example. After suffering a mysterious, life-threatening infection, the ‘occult transmissions’ between the hospital and insurance company left Osberg liable for $2,654.42. This figures does not, as Osberg notes, include medication co-pays or other out-of-pocket costs, nor the indirect costs arising from months of being unable to work or care for herself. The essay concludes with the statement that the author was ‘lucky not for surviving the infection, but for being a member of a shrinking class of Americans whose lives can absorb a trauma of this magnitude.’

This is, of course, true. And using one’s medical emergency to encourage reflection on the woeful state of health insurance is an admirable goal. However, one effect of the apology here is to valorise the notion of ‘health insurance’ as it currently exists in the US – that is, a wildly inefficient and exploitative private industry that demands absurdly high premiums and co-pays, and lashes people to their jobs on pain of losing their coverage. Complaining about this state of affairs is not only justified, but also very clearly necessary. Yet the apology in the form it appears here (‘I know I’m one of the lucky ones’) only functions to diminish any complaint, and the radical hopes and demands contained therein.


A politics of the abstract

I have so far focused on the content of the apology, but it’s also worth considering its form. Specifically, while the ritual act of the apology undermines the possibility of demanding more, its medium simultaneously divorces us from the material plane in which these demands take place. Apology-centric politics are remarkably abstract, and manifest predominantly online – social media is an especially effective virtual court (as well as judge, jury and executioner). These spaces are fertile ground for an endless feedback loop of questioning, blame, guilt and apologies (the latter rarely accepted in good faith, thus setting off a further cycle). As the late theorist Mark Fisher wrote in 2013’s ‘Exiting the Vampire Castle’:

‘Left-wing’ Twitter can often be a miserable, dispiriting zone. Earlier this year, there were some high-profile twitterstorms, in which particular left-identifying figures were ‘called out’ and condemned. What these figures had said was sometimes objectionable; but nevertheless, the way in which they were personally vilified and hounded left a horrible residue: the stench of bad conscience and witch-hunting moralism.

Fisher notes that one of the only things to snap him out of the depression brought on by the ‘atmosphere of snarky resentment’ on left-wing social media was to attend a local political meeting, where working-class activists met, talked and shared organising strategies. He noted, as one can hardly fail to, the total disparity between the atmospheres in these two spaces. The anxiety, guilt and suspicion of left-wing social media seem utterly irrelevant – a language simply not spoken – outside the small online spaces where they flourish. The medium is, of course, the message: apology-centric politics is primarily a politics of the abstract, of affect and form rather than content. But if the past few years have taught us anything, it’s that for the left to succeed, we must be grounded in a politics of the material.

Although ritualistic apologising, and the culture it reflects and creates, proliferates mostly online, it predates the internet by quite some time. In a recent essay for Jacobin, Helena Sheehan recalled how its dynamic influenced the American New Left in the 1960s: ‘It was most often well-educated white men denouncing each other for their privilege.’ This reveals, I think, a key truth about the ritual of the apology as it exists on the left: that it’s before anything else a performance, something which is – as Lévi-Strauss recognised in his characterisation of ritual – ‘played’. (The word ‘play’, of course, sustains two meanings: to play a game, and to play in front of an audience.) But such a performance distracts from and undermines what is arguably the real work of left politics today: a bold, strategic, anti-capitalist universalism concerned not with performances, but with getting the goods. We desperately need a politics that frames a comfortable, stable life, one as free from oppression as possible, as a right to be fought for, not a privilege to be denounced.

This isn’t just a question of isolated discourse. To me, perhaps the most dangerous thing about a culture of ritualistic apology is that it drives the left away from utopian demands at just such a moment when those demands are becoming achievable. Despite the remarkable success of late-stage capitalism in diminishing our security and consuming our horizons, we have never had greater technological capacity to end poverty and hunger, afford material plenty to everyone, and reorient society away from the hollow competitiveness of precarious neoliberal subjects and toward relations of care, solidarity and human flourishing. Movements and schools of thought around the world – notably, the growing push to automate work and introduce some form of universal basic income – reflect this potential. What is needed, clearly, is a bold, radical left-wing movement advancing universalist, utopian demands.

Rituals of apologising undermine any possibility of building such a movement, reflecting as they do the underlying assumption that good things (call them privileges, benefits, luck) are to be apologised for. They are marked with suspicion and thereby undermined. Through the ritual of the apology, it becomes unfashionable to ask for more – lest one be seen as ungrateful, or insufficiently woke to one’s privilege.

I cannot see left-wing politics getting very far on this mantle; it’s both politically self-defeating and personally alienating. Our task is to advance a praxis that takes the good things in life as fundamental rights, not privileges. Our task is to identify the source of our oppression as capitalism, not each other. Our task is not to apologise, but to demand.





Joanna Horton

Joanna Horton is a writer living in Brisbane, Australia. Her work has appeared in Overland, The Millions, and The Toast, among other places.

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