[...] The False Apology Syndrome flourishes wherever there has been a shift in the traditional locus of moral concern. At one time, a man probably felt most morally responsible for his own actions. He was adjudged (and judged himself) good or bad by how he conducted himself toward those in his immediate circle. From its center rippled circles of ever-decreasing moral concern, of which he was also increasingly ignorant. Now, however, it is the other way round. Under the influence of the media of mass communication and the spread of sociological ways of thinking, a man is most likely to judge himself and others by the opinions he and they hold on political, social, and economic questions that are far distant from his immediate circle. A man may be an irresponsible father, but that is more than compensated for by his deep concern about global warming, or foreign policy, or the food situation in Africa.
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A false apology is usually accompanied by bogus or insincere guilt, which is often confused with appropriate shame. The German chancellor, Mrs Merkel, spoke in the Knesset recently of her shame at what Germany had done: this was the correct word to use, and precisely the right sentiment for a German who shared no part of the responsibility for what had happened. Pride in the German musical tradition; shame for what Germans had done in the 1930s and ’40s.
Guilt, by its very nature, ought to be connected to responsibility; it ought, moreover, to be in proportion to the wrongdoing that is its occasion. To assume a guilt greater than the responsibility warrants is actually a form of grandiosity or self-aggrandisement. The psychological mechanism seems to be something like this: “I feel very guilty, therefore I must be very important.”
In some case, it is a substitute for importance, or for a loss of importance. Europe (or at least its intellectual class) now feels more than ever responsible for Africa, precisely because its power over it has waned. If Europe cannot feel itself responsible any longer for all that is good and progressive in Africa, such as modern medicine, roads, railways, telephone, etc., it can at least feel responsible for all that is bad in it, such as starvation, civil wars, and so forth. For it is far better, from the point of view of self-esteem, to be responsible for great evil than to be completely or even relatively unimportant. If in the process of false apologizing the participants render Africans themselves inert and inanimate, responsible themselves for nothing, or nothing very much, that is a small price to pay.
False Apology Syndrome — which is not yet found in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of the American Psychiatric Association or the World Health Organization’s International Classification of Diseases, tenth edition — is a therefore rich but poisonous mixture of self-importance, libertinism, condescension, bad faith, loose thinking, and indifference to the effects it has on those who are apologized to. Read more