Public apologies, or a lack thereof | Inquirer Opinion
Hints and Symbols

Public apologies, or a lack thereof

/ 05:06 AM March 18, 2019

If you google “Justin Trudeau apologizes,” you’ll be met with videos and transcripts of the Canadian prime minister doling out apologies on behalf of his government, both for sins of the very distant past and for recent wrongdoings. He’s made more formal public apologies than any of his predecessors, and whatever his political motivations, this propensity for admitting to both past and recent errors stands in stark contrast to our own government.

Google “Duterte apologizes” and the results will point at apologies to Obama, to God, to Kuwait, and to ousted Speaker Pantaleon Alvarez, and a scattered few more. None to the female rebels that he instructed ought to be shot in the vagina; none to families laid to waste as both target and collateral of the drug war; none to the lady kissed publicly without warning or consent; none to journalists; none to the thousands offended by this or that speech. Malacañang hasn’t made it a policy to apologize on his behalf either, since an apology would begin with an acknowledgment, and since when has the administration admitted to any errors, ever? Each time an offensive comment is made, the House either explains it away, cites freedom of expression, or ignores it completely, and all of our outrage and calling out is like so much useless noise. The President barrels on ahead, proceeds to say or do something else, and a next outrage is born, and the cycle continues.


He’s not alone; so many other public officials don’t even acknowledge error, let alone apologize for it. Special envoy to
China Ramon Tulfo, criticized for calling Filipino workers “lazy and slowpoke,” has responded in the Manila Times, “I will not apologize, not in a million years!” — already a difficult stand as a public figure and columnist, but irresponsible as a paid government official, Sen. Leila de Lima is quick to point out. She’s cited the tone-deaf, unapologetic and nonconciliatory response of the administration as “the usual response of Malacañang to insults and offensive remarks of Duterte copycats in government.” Imee Marcos has met even the basic inquiry of her higher education with jokes, obfuscation, or outright lies; there are no apologies for deception, and there is an utter failure to address directly the gaping wounds left behind by her father’s dictatorship. Not that any of us have expected such a thing to happen, but when contrasted with other countries and governments which at least put up a show of public values, one is struck by the difference. (The Trump administration is the obvious exception.)

Even celebrities here and abroad issue public apologies, of which there are too many to cite. Sexist, transphobic, homophobic slurs; sexual assault; getting caught in infidelity; drunk driving; blackface… the range of material for which celebrities apologize is long, and they allow the public to at least have their outrage addressed, letting us to explain to our children what happens when role models make mistakes. We have no such luck with our government, as though the people who populate our films have more of a responsibility to be upstanding examples than the people we elect into office.


There may be no such thing as an adequate apology, since no words could ever repair any real physical or emotional damage, but apologies matter. Public apologies have been derided as a performance or a political machination, a strategy for personalities to regain public approval. Needless to say, they are also meaningless if not accompanied by changes in behavior, or a resolve to do better. But they also acknowledge misdeeds, and provide some sense of closure as well as showing, at least superficially, a shared commitment to some moral value. Even an acknowledgment that rape jokes are wrong, for example, may repair one tear among many in the fabric of our national values, but the President refuses to give even that. I envy those from other countries who complain that their politicians apologize too much, when we receive hardly any at all, and are left with only so much impotent rage which our officials have the luxury of ignoring.

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TAGS: Hints and Symbols, imee marcos, Justin Trudeau, Kay Rivera, Ramon Tulfo, Rodrigo Duterte
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