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I’ve heard priests remark about the disconcerting tendency of penitents to confess other people’s sins. “Bless me, Father, for I have sinned. My spouse got angry because I misplaced the car keys . . . ” Then, there’s our curious compulsion to confess offenses that are long past—the Crusades, the Spanish Inquisition, Columbus and Cortez. It’s a way of acknowledging the sins of our heritage, atoning for the atrocities of our unenlightened ancestors.

And yet, like the words of the finger-pointing penitent, there’s something decidedly imperfect about these comfortably distanced acts of contrition. “False Apology Syndrome,” Theodore Dalrymple calls it in the Templeton Foundation’s In Character journal. Under the guise of assuming the guilt of the past, it sets the righteous present apart in self-congratulatory humility:

There is a fashion these days for apologies: not apologies for the things that one has actually done oneself (that kind of apology is as difficult to make and as unfashionable as ever), but for public apologies by politicians for the crimes and misdemeanours of their ancestors, or at least of their predecessors. I think it is reasonable to call this pattern of political breast-beating the False Apology Syndrome . . . .

What is this all about, and what does it signify? Does it mean that at long last the powerful are making a genuine effort to see things from the point of view of the weak, or is it, on the contrary, a form of moral exhibitionism that subverts genuine moral thought and conduct?

Let us examine briefly the apology for the Crusades as an example of the whole genre. It is not exactly a new discovery that the Crusaders often, perhaps usually or even always, behaved very badly. It is not in the nature of invading armies to behave well, even when discipline is strong, morale is high, and control of the foot soldiers is firm; it is no secret that these conditions did not exist during the Crusades, to put it rather mildly.

They were, however, rather a long time ago. The Crusades were an attempt to recover for Christendom what had been lost by force, with all the accompanying massacre, pillage, and oppression that the use of force in those days implied. No one, I think, expects an apology from present-day Arabs for the imperialism of their ancestors, either as a matter of moral duty or political likelihood. We are all born into the world as we find it, after all; we are not responsible for what went before us.

False Apology Syndrome is a way of judging others to avoid judging ourselves—of shrugging moral responsibility. It fosters a perpetrator–victim mentality: “For what can I do wrong to compare with the wrongs that my ancestors suffered at the hands of your ancestors? How dare you even mention it, you hypocrite!” For that matter, what could I do wrong to compare with the wrongs my ancestors committed? I must say, it’s a reassuring mode of thought.

But as Dalrymple makes sure to add, “I am, of course, sorry if you disagree.”

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