False Apology Syndrome

In Character, an online magazine which describes itself as “a journal of everyday virtues”, has just published their Fall 2008 issue, which features a fascinating essay by Theodore Dalrymple entitled “The False Apology Syndrome”. Arts & Letters Daily linked to the essay early today, and it has already been the subject of much praise around the blogosphere. It laments the recent trend in which leaders of Western countries apologize for the actions of their ancestors, and it outlines the psychology behind such a practice as well as the moral hazards both for the givers and the receivers of the apologies.

Read the full article

At the heart of the issue lies the trendy (and foolish) notion that morality is determined not by how one behaves but by one’s views on political and social issues, an idea that Dalrymple addressed in detail in his speech entitled “Reflections on the Locus of Contemporary Virtue” at the Adelaide Festival of Ideas in 2005. The speech is available on our Speeches and Interviews page about halfway down. An excerpt:

In Bleak House, as you will remember, there is a character called Mrs. Jellyby, who is so concerned with the welfare of the natives of the Left-Bank-of-the-Borioboola-Gha that she neglects her own children, who as a consequence live in squalor. And Dickens of course is here satirizing the kind of philanthropist who mistakes or misidentifies the locus of his or her primary moral responsibility. I need hardly add that Dickens of all people did not mean by this that public affairs or politics were not a proper locus of moral concern (and you have only to read his life and read his letters to see that there has probably never been anybody in the whole history of the world who has been more involved in the public affairs of his time than Dickens) but merely that they were not the only or the main locus. His own life of course was not exemplary.

Now, I suspect that there has been recently (or in the last few decades) an increase in what one might call Jellybism, that is to say, moral concern in proportion to the square of the distance of the problem from oneself and a tendency to see high-flown and seemingly generous sentiments as the essence of virtue and morality. A virtuous person thus becomes the person who expresses, perhaps with the most conviction or vehemence (which are not quite the same thing, but they are increasingly difficult to distinguish), what are considered to be the right ideas.

6 thoughts on “False Apology Syndrome

  1. Elberry

    “He who despises himself nonetheless respects himself as one who despises” (Nietzsche) – pertinent to the cultural self-loathing now fashionable in the West.

    1. Michael Cavanaugh

      A close second to Nietzsche: “I despise the pleasure of pleasing people that I despise. ” ― Mary Wortley Montagu

      1. Michael Cavanaugh

        Nietzsche again: A: ‘One is praised only by one’s peers.’ B: ‘Yes! And whoever praises you tells you: you are my peer.’

  2. David

    In a society where most people do not look after their children on a daily basis, where people are highly likely to have a series of marriages (or relationships), where any sexual practice is ‘normal’ and where the old and disabled will be ‘looked after’ by strangers this is a safe area of moral discussion. Then again, these discussions are only for intellectuals because it is impolite to talk about any thing in public except leisure – sport, TV gossip, diets, fashion, sms messages.

    Keep fighting the battle against the Forces of Darkness and humbug.

  3. Pingback: The rise of Jellybism | A dose of Theodore Dalrymple

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