Lucy Parker, Apologies (2016). Commissioned for Jerwood Solo Presentations, supported by Jerwood Charitable Foundation. Image: Hydar Dewachi

Apologies

Philomena Epps

As part of the Jerwood Solo Presentations (27 July – 28 August 2016), Lucy Parker has developed a new short film that examines the role of the apology. Parker experiments with documentary film making methods when making work with or about a community. As part of her practice, Parker often constructs scenarios for exchanges to play out, known as ‘dramatic documentaries’ that combine discussions and scripted drama. The film, simply titled Apologies, explores the subject of the apology, questioning when an apology is meaningful and when it is given simply to ‘draw a line under’ an event, to avoid taking further action.

Apologies is part of ongoing research towards a longer film, Blacklist, which is being produced by the non-profit organisation City Projects. City Projects commission ambitious moving image work that responds critically to social and political contexts. Blacklist is about the construction industry blacklist controversy. The blacklist operated in secret to systematically deny work to thousands of workers involved in trade union activity. Between 1993 and 2009, the UK based Consulting Association compiled a list of workers and activists who they viewed as a ‘potential threat’ to the construction industry. Individuals were placed on the blacklist by employers for speaking out about safety conditions on site, being trade union members or working as activists. The blacklist was accessible to construction firms who could purchase the information before deciding whether to employ workers. Trade unionists, along with safety campaigners, journalists, academics and environmental activists, were all blacklisted by big business. Unable to find work over many years and without understanding why, the blacklist had detrimental effects on workers’ lives, resulting in paranoia, isolation, and poverty. The secret database compiled by these multinational building contractors was exposed in 2009 after the offices of the Consulting Association were raided. 3200 individuals’ files were found on the lists. Dave Smith and Phil Chamberlain’s Guardian article ‘On the blacklist: how did the UK’s top building firms get secret information on their workers?’ from 2015 provides more context on the controversy. They have also published the book Blacklisted: The Secret War between Big Business and Union Activists (2015) that explains the illegal strategies that transnational construction companies used to keep union activists away from work. More information can also be found through the Blacklist Support Group and Art Against Blacklisting networks and campaigns. Since the files were discovered the workers have been seeking justice. They have recently received financial compensation payments from firms and a public apology. The debate surrounding the apology is to underline the acknowledgement of wrongdoing and commitment to change on the part of the involved firms.

Parker’s filmic research explores broader themes of privacy and exclusion, looking at the blacklist as a strategy to exclude people from society under the name of state or economic ‘security’, and how individuals who express their interests or beliefs, risk information being accessed and distributed to their detriment. Apologies responds directly to the public apology, which was given in May 2016. A group of law students are filmed in discussion with political theorist Dr Mihaela Mihai. They specifically focus on the worth of apologies when delivered by a collective to an individual. Two blacklisted construction workers, Stephen Kennedy and Jack Fawbert, also joined the session to discuss their experiences. Jack Fawbert worked as a carpenter. After being blacklisted he retrained to become a sociologist and worked as a Senior Lecturer at several universities before retiring in 2013. He now lectures part-time at Anglia Ruskin University. Stephen Kennedy is an electrician in London. He was initially blacklisted while working as a shop steward on the Jubilee line and has since been active with the Blacklist Support Group campaigning for justice for workers.

Lucy Parker, Apologies (2016). Commissioned for Jerwood Solo Presentations, supported by Jerwood Charitable Foundation. Image: Hydar Dewachi
Lucy Parker, Apologies (2016). Commissioned for Jerwood Solo Presentations, supported by Jerwood Charitable Foundation. Image: Hydar Dewachi

 

In the ‘Introduction’ to Mihaela Mihai’s compendium, On the Uses and Abuses of Political Apologies (2014), she quotes philosophy academic Nick Smith’s opinion that “victims should aim to get individual, categorical apologies from the direct perpetrators”. However, Juan Espindola, another contributor to the book, “draws attention to the possibility that public apologies might not always restore respect between victims and victimisers. This has to do with the fact that, more often that not, victims are not involved in the process of setting the terms of forgiveness.”[1] Smith features on Episode 146 of the ‘Philosophy Talk’ podcast, which takes apologies as its theme. Host John Perry starts the show by considering the philosophical relevance of an apology. Historically, an apology often meant “a reasoned argument or writing in justification of something”. Today it tends to mean “a regretful acknowledgment of an offense or failure”. The episode particularly focuses on apologies in the political sphere. As a speech act, the goal of the apology, and what is supposed to achieve, is important to unpick. An interesting angle taken by the hosts is about contrition – can you be truly ‘sorry’ without intending to change your behaviour in the future? Is it really an apology when the behaviour of the apologiser doesn’t change in someway? Smith discusses how apologies have been commodified by the law, often running alongside cash payments. He continues to explain that it’s hard to evaluate a reform of character or action through words only. Akin to a promise, an apology should be able to be evaluated over time. The moral values of an apology, and how it is carried out in the future, distinguishes whether it is a self-serving exercise in order to gain social favour (the opinion taken by blacklisted workers) or a true expression of regret and therefore change.

A section within the entry for ‘Apology’ on the Internet Encyclopaedia of Philosophy is dedicated to the collective apology: defined as ‘many to many’ or (as in the case of the discussion in Parker’s Apologies) ‘many to one’. The author explores the meaning of collective responsibility; “in what way can we plausibly speak of collective – as opposed to individual – acts? … Who has the proper standing to apologize for something that the collective has supposedly perpetrated: the upper echelons of the chain of command or the direct perpetrators? … Can groups express remorse and regret? How can we measure their sincerity and commitment to transformation and redress in the absence of these emotions?” Akin to Smith’s theories, the author concedes that the “sincerity of collective apologies should be measured in terms of what follows from the act. Changes in the norms and practices of the collective, reparations, compensation, or memorialisation projects give concreteness to the symbolic act of apologizing”. While many scholars might see public apologies as creating a space of communal reflection and restoration (eg. war apology statements from one country to another), there are strong sceptical positions that “see such official acts as nothing but a ‘smoke screen’ meant to hide the intention to avoid responsibility or further projects of assimilation and discrimination.” When reading Matthew Talbert’s review of Smith’s book I Was Wrong: The Meaning of Apologies (2008) on the ‘Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews’ website, I identified elements of his argument about the collective apology which were particularly relevant to the blacklisting scandal – particularly the last sentence,

“Smith identifies and characterizes the elements that combine to form meaningful, morally significant apologies. Additionally, Smith analyses the inadequacies of evasive, insincere, or otherwise defective apologies. For Smith, the centrality of regret to apologetic meaning has largely to do with the fact that we – the recipients of apologies – often care about whether an apologizer expresses regret and about whether he is sincere in so doing. He is generally mistrustful of collective apologies precisely because they often fall short of the categorical ideal. Smith is interested, for example, in drawing our attention ‘to how many political, corporate, and other group declarations stretch the notion of apology so thin that it lacks most of the moral force characteristic of categorical apologies’. One of Smith’s particular concerns has to do with the way in which wrongdoers can obscure their individual blameworthiness by burying it in a collective apology. Smith worries that ‘a metaphorical understanding of the collective’s culpability will supplant the literal blame that should be ascribed to living individuals’: that collective apologies ‘allow wrongdoers to diffuse blame into the ether of institutional doublespeak’; that those who are most culpable for an institution’s behaviour will ‘deflect their individual wrongdoings into the culpability of the collective’. Stated in the most general terms, Smith’s worry seems to be that collective apologies allow individuals or institutions to get away with something: to reap the benefits of offering a full apology without having done so.

Lucy Parker, Apologies (2016). Commissioned for Jerwood Solo Presentations, supported by Jerwood Charitable Foundation. Image: Hydar Dewachi
Lucy Parker, Apologies (2016). Commissioned for Jerwood Solo Presentations, supported by Jerwood Charitable Foundation. Image: Hydar Dewachi

 

After listening to the negative experiences of the workers in Parker’s film, their reaction to the apology as insincere and hollow seems appropriate, even leading Dr Mihai to ask the group, “Should we just do away with apologies all together?” The significance of the public apology is completed undermined by the lack of effective legislative change or a criminal trial, meaning that there is a palpable threat that the practice of blacklisting will continue. As it is with many bureaucratic scandals of this type, one is forced to consider whether the perpetrators were sorry about their actions, or just sorry that they got caught. Those seeking justice and like-minded politicians have made calls for a public enquiry – if effective, hopefully this will be a crucial step in both recognising and repairing the gross breaches of workers’ rights, if not validating the sincerity of an apology.

 

[1] Mihaela Mihai and Mathias Thaler, ‘Introduction’, in On the Uses and Abuses of Political Apologies, Palgrave Macmillan, 2014, pp 1-8