SORRY: TO ΠΑΙΔΟΜΑΖΩΜΑ
Traditional Greek-Australian attitudes to the act of saying “sorry” can be encapsulated in the hybrid observation: «Όταν βγήκε το sorry, χάθηκε το φιλότιμο.» Essentially, unlike Miquel de Cervantes, author of Don Quixote’s conviction that “The worst reconciliation is better then the best divorce,” in the ancient Greek tradition, the mere expression of feelings of remorse were seen as values if they were not accompanied by considerable acts of contrition and expiation. If you failed to acquire feelings of guilt and regret over your various misdemeanours, your remorse would be supernaturally imposed upon you by Olympian gods, custom built for the purpose. The Erinyes, or Furies, born from the blood of the Titan Uranus when his son Cronus castrated him to take revenge on the loss of his siblings, persecuted such crimes as disrespect, injustice, perjury or arrogance and-first and foremost- murder, especially the murder inside a family. Their lust of punishment knew no bounds, for they kept punishing a sinner even after his death, until he finally would show remorse.
Thus, Pausanias, in his ‘Description of Greece’ describes the tomb of Anteros (love avenged), occasioned as a supreme act of remorse for a cruel act. The Athenian Meles, spurning the love of Timagoras, a resident alien, bade him ascend to the highest point of the rock and cast himself down. When Meles saw that Timagoras was dead, he suffered such pangs of remorse that he threw himself from the same rock and so died. From that time onwards, the resident aliens worshipped avenging spirit of Timagoras as Anteros.
Oedipus of course determined that a proper act of remorse, upon learning that he had killed his father and slept with his mother was to put out his eyes. Jocasta, his mother, also fittingly displayed her remorse at the commission of such an unnatural act, by hanging herself. Even Hercules, the great demi-god considered himself bound by the anger of the Furies. When, after a Hera-induced fit of madness, he killed his wife and children, Heracles prepared to do away with himself, only to be directed by the Olympian gods that he should expiate his crime by performing the twelve tasks for king Eurystheus and selling the film rights for Hercules: the Legendary Journeys, to Universal Television - punishment enough, one should think.
Apart from loss of life, proper expiation for the ancient Greek could even entail transubstantiation and loss of human characteristics. Cycnus, for example, was an Aetolian youth who demanded many difficult labours of his love Phyllius. When the boy died carrying out one of these, Cycnus was stricken with remorse, faded away and was transformed into a swan. Similarly, Clytie, daughter of the king of Babylon, and spurned lover of the god Helios, alerted her father to the fact that her sister, Leocothea, was having clandestine meetings with the god, wherein he conducted enquiries as to her father’s health. The king condemned Leocothea to be buried alive Helios arrived too late to restore her and so changed her into a shrub. In remorse, Clytie exposed herself to nature until she faded away, gazing all the time at Helios zooming through the Heavens. In time, she was transformed into a heliotrope.
By Roman times, acts of contrition accompanying remorse seem to have fallen by the wayside, until the emergence of the Catholic Church. Thus Aeneas, having seduced Dido, Queen of Carthage and sailed away in secret to found Rome, is recorded to have felt remorse as he watched his lover slay herself in grief upon her funeral pyre. However, being a Trojan and pre-Roman, he did absolutely nothing about it. Similarly, though his descendant Romulus was reputed to be remorseful at his fratricide of his brother Remus, no expiatory acts were performed.
Perhaps this then underlies western concepts of apology, concerned more with the form than the substance. Serial tax dodger and author of genius P G Wodehouse, once advised: “It is a good rule in life never to apologize. The right sort of people do not want apologies and the wrong sort take a mean advantage of them.” He can perhaps be forgiven his arrogance when it is considered that the proposed recipient of his own remorse was to be the American I.R.S.
For there are aggrieved members of every society that deserve an apology and more besides. Notably, the parliamentary apology to the Stolen Generation of Aboriginal people is a case in point. Throughout the years of the previous regime, an official apology to the victims of British-Australian manifestations of cultural superiority was ruled out. It was held that current generations were not responsible for what transpired a generation or two ago and as a result, non-victims were absolved of all guilt and even sympathy for the plight of those torn away from their families and ‘re-acculturated.’ In other countries, such an act would be considered a form of genocide - a term that cannot be employed in the case of British-Australians, as they are civilized and democratic. The temerity of a society that refuses to apologise for deep ontological disfunctions within it that cause it to kill, maim or attempt to transform sections of their population and instead attempts to cover them up through blank refusals to countenance the causes behind these is truly disquieting.
Furthermore, the issue of the stolen generation is not one that concerns merely British-Australians and Aboriginal victims. Vassilacopoulos and Nicolacopoulou have shown in their book “From Foreigner to Citizen” Greek Migrants and Social Change in White Australia 1897 - 2000” how Southern European migrants unwittingly served to legitimize the arbitrary seizure of Aboriginal land by the ruling British Australian class, through that class’s assertion of the right to be the sole arbiter of the Southern Europeans’ right to be present in a country that did not in fact belong to British-Australians. By our parents and grandparents accepting the ground rules set out for us by the authorities who let them in to the country, they by inference, acknowledged those authorities as the legitimate ‘owners’ of Australia, ignoring the rights of Aborigines to the title of original owners of the continent. We have thus played a significant role in reinforcing the concept of terra nullius and by extension, that of the non-humanity of Aboriginal people. A sorry, of remorse, regret but most of all, of compassion and understanding is thus well overdue, by ALL sections of Australian society, not only by those who have perpetrated crimes of violence against selected victims. For further than an admission of responsibility - something that white society struggles to come to terms with at all, as it explodes the myths of civilization it has woven about itself - an apology surely must be an expression of sympathy and resolve never to repeat past wrongs.
The Rudd Government, in contrast with the reactionary recalcitrance of the Howard government appears to understand that an apology from the Parliament is necessary if national reconciliation is to be brokered. As Paul Boese contended, “Forgiveness does not change the past, but it does enlarge the future.” However, as G K Chesterton noted, “A stiff apology is a second insult… The injured party does not want to be compensated because he has been wringed; he wants to be healed because he has been hurt.”
The question them becomes whether we, as a society, are truly remorseful or whether the act of saying ‘sorry’ is merely a matter of political expediency to satisfy bleeding hearts and dispense with unpalatable perceptions of ourselves. The fact that the Rudd government has ruled out compensation for aggrieved victims of forced removal, despite the recommendations of former Keating attorney-general and head of the Stolen-Generation Commission Michael Lavarch, seems to suggest that Australian parliamentary conceptions of remorse differ to those of the ancient Greeks. One would have thought that, in the words of Filipino president Corazon Aquino, “reconciliation should be accompanied by justice, otherwise it will not last.” An expression of regret that is not followed up by any expiatory act thus appears to be half-hearted, regardless of how noble the sentiments expressed in an apology may sound.
For an apology of remorse to abate the mania of the Furies, it would have to first of all identify the cause of the transgression. In this case it is blatant racism. It was the conviction of British-Australian cultural and racial superiority that led to the belief that Aborigines are an inferior people. This in turn led to the belief that Aboriginal parents are not fit to bring up their children (as they would perpetuate a line of inferior people) and thus their offspring should be removed from them and brought up according to British-Australian cultural norms, in order for them to be considered ‘human’ and ‘acceptable.’ The fact that a number of notable Australian personalities who purport to be remorseful at the treatment of the Stolen Generation take pains to emphasise that Australian authorities and their personnel ‘believed that they were doing the right thing,’ displays if not a lack of remorse, then at least, a lack of full understanding of the full extent of the heinous crime that was committed against a defenceless, dispossessed people. There seems to be an unconscious attempt to minimize or justify a terrible act when in actual fact, what Australians should primarily be doing is appreciating its enormity.
Migrants have a role to play in educating British-Australians as to the physical and emotional extent of traumas associated with dispossession and violence. A great many migrants have found their way to this country as victims of war, genocide and persecution. Within the Greek community, there are still a considerable number of persons who form their own ‘stolen generation’ - those forcibly removed from their families by fanatical communists and sent to the ‘paradise’ of Soviet Bloc countries. Their experiences could parallel and shed light on similar experiences inflicted upon the Aboriginal people. Unfortunately, there seems to be a subconscious refusal to permit anything that befell migrants before their Australian experience, to inform Australian culture in general, except as to reinforce the simplistic stereotype that our countries of origin were the Egyptian captivity to Australia’s Promised Land. If this is so, then the plight of the captive Aborigines in the Promised Land assumes the mantle of a greater tragedy than has hitherto been conceived.
Policy considerations ruling out the payment of compensation to surviving Stolen Generation victims, could be paralleled to a hypothetical situation whereby compensation is denied to victims of say, sexual abuse. In that case, such a denial would be considered an unwillingness to truly express remorse at the victims’ plight. Why then does the Rudd government balk at providing victims of the Stolen Generation with the expiatory acts that will permit them to move on with their lives under the precepts of Isaac Friedmann that: “Forgiveness is the sweetest revenge?” Is it because the payment of compensation will place upward pressure on interest rates and forever damage the Australian economy? or rather is it because a reaction is feared by a large cross-section of Australian society that, through misinformation and an absence of education has not been offered the opportunity to appreciate the crimes of violence that have underpinned the institution of British-Australian socio-political hegemony in this country? “All futurity seems teeming with endless destruction never to be repelled,” William Blake wrote. “Desperate remorse swallows the present in a quenchless rage.” For there is much to be remorseful about, including the post-modern condition of the particularized Homo Novus Orbis who cannot objectively feel remorseful about anything. For though as Seneca observed, “There is no person so severely punished, as those who subject themselves to the whip of their own remorse,” for the rest there αρε pane et circenses, or Prozac.
Finally to the Stolen Generation, we, members or descendants of a dispossessed generation, descendants of a race that has been persecuted and subjected to genocide and discrimination in the past because of our race and religion, feel your pain keenly. We are truly sorry for what you have had to bear. We resolve never to become the willing accessories to the denial of your plight or the perpetration of further violence against you, by any party. And most of all, we love you.