People, not places

In regard to Bristol apologising for its role in the slave trade, Marcel Berlins says:

Can you apologise for something you didn’t do? (We are dealing here with events that took place long before anyone alive today can remember, let alone have taken part in. Different arguments apply when dealing with the outrages of more recent times.) It is one thing, as a government or other authority, to be very sorry, to express regret that something unpleasant happened a long time ago, and to sympathise. That is not the same as apologising, which incorporates an admission of guilt, or at least an acceptance of responsibility.

There’s an argument, flimsy at best, that the current representatives of those families could be, respectively, the offerers and accepters of apologies. But that’s not what’s being demanded. It’s the whole city of Bristol, with a population immensely more populous than it was when slavery flourished, full of non-native Bristolians, a city in which no one now alive has profited from the slave trade (except perhaps those connected with the museum on the subject) that is to be held responsible and required to make an apology. But it’s when you try to analyse who is to be the recipient of the apology that the whole exercise becomes absurd.

Norm says:

Without making any judgement about the particular question of Bristol, I would say that in the way he frames and discusses this issue Berlins misses a central dimension of it. Even if there’s no one alive who can be blamed for a grave crime of the past, collective entities like states, nations and, at least arguably, cities may be thought of as having responsibilities which their formal representatives and officers have to fulfil. There doesn’t seem to be any reason why these can’t include making an apology for a wrong done by the collectivity they represent – even if no one living can be held culpable for it. There is a continuity to such collectivities across generations.

I’m with Marcel on this one. It certainly makes no logical sense to demand an apology from a group that is continuous only in name, but furthermore I doubt that the concept of a continuous collective entity does anybody any good. If a city has a responsibility to apologise for events completely unrelated to anybody still alive, why shouldn’t it have to pay recomponse? If you follow this logic you end up holding entities responsible for everything ‘they’ have ever done, no matter what changes have taken place in the meantime. Would you ask a school headteacher to apologise for caning that took place in the same building seventy-five years ago? Of course not. That the inhabitants of Bristol all now abhor slavery is of far greater import than a meaningless apology. You see this attitude all the time in the ridiculous machinations of international politics, where the beliefs of the people in charge of a country 100 years ago are deemed to have some relevance today. While an apology may be symbolic (to some people), it’s below the logical standards we should be setting ourselves.