Vol. 16 No. 9 (September, 2006) pp.653-656


TAKING WRONGS SERIOUSLY: APOLOGIES AND RECONCILIATION, by Elazar Barkan and Alexander Karn (eds).  Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2006.  352pp.  Cloth. $65.00.  ISBN: 0804752249.  Paper. $24.95.  ISBN: 0804752257.


Reviewed by Shahla Maghzi-Ali, Jurisprudence and Social Policy Program, University of California at Berkeley. Email:  smaghzi [at] boalthall.berkeley.edu.


In their important and thought-provoking book, Elazar Barkan and Alexander Karn draw together the work of 15 scholars to examine the function and limitations that apology plays in promoting dialogue and cooperation between groups confronting one another over past injustices.  Placing their work at the conjunction between realism and idealism they note that “the essays . . . seek to explain how and to what degree apology injects an idealist component into realist political discourse” (p.5).


The wide ranging disciplines represented by the contributors, spanning the fields of history, political science, negotiation, law, psychiatry, sociology, philosophy and public policy, provide the foundation for the comparative and interdisciplinary approach to the book.  The diversity of perspectives in many ways reflects an emerging problem-centered approach to socio-legal scholarship that draws richness from complimentary fields of study and facilitates a deep investigation of the multiple dimensions of apology. 


The diversity of academic analysis is matched by global reach.  In an age in which the experience of suffering is universal, the scope of the book appropriately examines cases of apology from Europe, Africa, America, the Middle East, and East Asia.  The global contours of reconciliation through apology are conceived as expanding the borders of Plato’s ideal Republic from the boundaries of the city-state to the outer limits of the planet as individuals and nations direct their “aspirations for justice to the past as well as to the future” (p.5).


The theme of the book speaks to the field of legal ethics.  The authors note that the “delicate speech acts” of apology open a window into the realm of ethics and suggest that in order to produce a nuanced theory of justice, “we ought to ‘take wrongs seriously,’ just as Ronald Dworkin once urged us to with respect to our rights” (p.6).  While observing, from an ethical perspective, the powerful role of apology in global politics, the authors acknowledge the criticisms of group apology, including dividing and unsettling communities by dredging the past or mere empty rhetoric.  Notwithstanding such criticisms, the authors point out that despite such compelling arguments, the critics of apology have failed to address the increased inclination toward apology that continues to have enormous appeal. 


While a unique and seemingly new area of study, the authors note that examination of the role of apology in law and politics began with the work of Nicholas Tavuchis (1991).  Tavuchis regards apology as bridging a linguistic and psychological gap between the [*654] victim’s need for acknowledgement and the perpetrator’s desire to reclaim his humanity.  While large scale group apology during Tavuchis’ time was the exception rather than the rule, the authors observe that the occurrence of political apology has significantly increased. 


Building on Tavuchis’ insights, the authors draw together work examining the significant instances of apology.  The book is divided into three parts.  Part One, “An Ethical Imperative: Group Apology and the Practice of Justice,” provides a helpful overview of the field of apology, recent examples of political apology, the major contributors to the field, and the characteristics of productive and unproductive apology.  Part Two, “Amending the Past: Conceptual Approaches and Impediments,” explores how apology can create the possibility for closure and assist in effecting successful transition and reconciliation.  Finally, Part Three, “Case Studies: Australia, America, and Europe,” provides helpful recent comparative examples demonstrating the core principles of apology in action.


Part Two contains six well written articles examining the conceptual issues underlying political apology in recent times.  Robert Rotberg opens the section with “Apology, Truth Commissions, and Intrastate Conflict.”  He focuses in particular on how public apology can “commence the process of post-traumatic reconciliation in a manner that enables a nation-state to build or rebuild” (p.33).  He observes that without it, “a post-conflict nation-state may remain no more than a collective of contending sections and groups in search of a whole” (p.33).  He presents recent examples from South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission to demonstrate the use of apology as a foundation for unity.  While noting its shortcomings, such as delays, evidentiary difficulties and protests against amnesty, he nevertheless underscores its achievements made possible by a process of democratic investigations followed by consensus.


The next three articles address the significance of apology for transitioning states.  David Crocker brings his background in philosophy and public policy to bear on the question of whether apology alone is sufficient for those who want to reckon with past wrongs as a way of promoting transition to democracy.  His answer is that apology alone is not enough, and that the language of reconciliation cannot fully replace retributive justice and punishment.  Nevertheless, apology can be appropriate as part of a larger framework of transitional justice.  Sociologists Daniel Levy and Natan Sznaider examine the theoretical underpinnings of forgiveness against the backdrop of an emerging Human Rights regime by drawing on the work of Hannah Arendt.  Following a review of a wide set of issues related to forgiveness, they observe that we are “witnessing a global genesis of conditions of forgiveness that are shaped through the dialogue with the local” (p.99).  Ruti Teitel assesses the question of “The Transitional Apology.”  In her well organized essay, she examines the ways apology can create the conditions for forgiveness and cement credibility for [*655] new regimes.  She defines “transitional apology” as a ritual of political transformation that is vested with the state’s chief political actor.  Tracing the linkages between apology and political transition, liberalization, democracy and globalization, she provides an insightful analysis into the macro implications of apologies rooted at the domestic level.


Exploring the outer contours of apology, Vamik Volkan and George Irani end Part Two with careful examinations of both the physical symbols and cultural practices of apology that influence local response.  Volkan, a psychiatrist by training, examines large groups in conflict.  He addresses the particular question of how public monuments may in some cases prolong the process of group mourning.  He focuses specifically on the Crying Father monument in the Republic of Georgia that commemorates the killing of three schoolboys during a 1991-1992 siege.  Volkan vividly describes how the monument is frequently referenced in negotiations between Georgians and South Ossetians and often disrupts peace building efforts by fueling the desire among South Ossetians for revenge.  At the same time, significant healing occurs when Georgians offer to visit the monument and pay their respects to the victims alongside their South Ossetian colleagues.  Irani, a professor of conflict analysis and management, carefully examines how the use of specific concepts of apology are most effective when based on culturally understood and appropriate reference points.  Focusing in particular on Middle Eastern traditions associated with apology, he presents examples of practices, such as musalaha, that promote pardon and forgiveness.  He suggests that communities find principles that bridge particular cultures, such as the practice of suhl (agreement) within Muslim, Christian and Jewish traditions, in order to build a grassroots peace process that is understandable to all involved.


Part Three takes the reader across several continents to examine, in a comparative framework, the core principles of apology at work.


The first four articles examine in particular the incidence (or lack thereof) of official apologies to racial minorities for historic injustices.  Danielle Celermajer begins the section with a look at the Australian apology for the social policies enacted by their government against Aboriginal indigenous peoples.  He points notes that this apology is unique because it expanded the conception of social responsibility.  Those who apologized did not necessarily accept causal responsibility, but rather acknowledged that they are members of a nation in whose name misdeeds were committed.  This expression of shame recognizes the breakdown of norms and simultaneously restores a commitment to ethical principles considered essential to national identity.  In contrast to the large scale apology offered by the Australian people, Rebecca Tsosie, examines the case of an apology offered by an individual to the Native American tribes on behalf of the Bureau of Indian Affairs.  The apology came from a Pawnee Indian appointed to the post of Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs.  Tsosie observes that, despite its heartfelt [*656] and stirring message, the response was mixed because many believed that it came from an individual who should also receive the apology.  In addition, because it was not accompanied by substantive action, many observed that its effectiveness was diminished.  Nevertheless, Tsosi sees the apology as a useful first step, offering an opportunity for self-reflection and an “effort to acknowledge the truth of history” (p.201).  Roy Brooks, in his examination of “The New Patriotism and Apology for Slavery,” points out that thus far, there has not been an official apology for slavery in the United States.  He notes that recent civic soul-searching could provide the right environment for a moral apology for the atrocities of slavery.  Such an apology, Brooks suggests, should be “about honor not alms” (p.221), and be voluntary, genuine and recognize the exceptional act of human suffering associated with two and one-quarter centuries of human bondage.  Brooks posits that such an apology would allow recovery of moral capital lost as a result of human injustice and therefore make America more virtuous in the eyes of the nations.


The final articles address the role of accurate historical description in eliciting a moral response to apologize.  Alfred Brophy examines the significance of accurately describing the historic causes and origin of the Tulsa race riots in order to lay the foundation for apology and reparation.  Julie Fette recounts the important acknowledgment by Jacques Chirac of the history associated with French involvement in deporting 13,000 Jews during the Holocaust, which subsequently prompted many more declarations of repentance.  And finally J.D. Bindenagel highlights the creation of an historic endowment for education and remembrance resulting from Holocaust settlement negotiations between German business leaders, politicians and the victims of Nazi slave labor.   Each of these works demonstrates the importance of documenting historic wrongs in order to inspire a moral response to apologize and make right.


On the whole, this is an excellent collection, drawing together insights from the disciplines of history, political science, negotiation, law, psychiatry, sociology, philosophy and public policy.  It is rich in analysis of apology, as well as in methodology and moral striving.  It reminds us that widespread concern for apology and taking wrongs seriously is a reflection of a universal inclination toward “the good” and desire to make the future better in full cognizance of the wrongs not to be repeated from the past.



Dworkin, Ronald.  1978. TAKING RIGHTS SERIOUSLY.  Cambridge: Harvard University Press.


Plato. 1986. THE REPUBLIC, translated by Benjamin Jowett.  Buffalo: Prometheus.


Tavuchis, Nicholas. 1991. MEA CULPA: A SOCIOLOGY OF APOLOGY AND RECONCILIATION.  Stanford: Stanford University Press.


© Copyright 2006 by the author, Shahla Maghzi-Ali.