Book Project

On the Uses and Abuses of Political Apologies 


Mihaela Mihai and Mathias Thaler 

Publishing House:



'Rhetoric, Politics and Society' edited by Kendall R. Philips, James Martin and Alan Finlayson

Expected Publication Date:

February 2014


The last decades have witnessed a sharp rise in the number of public apologies. Not only states, but also churches, the medical profession, and academic institutions have issued apologies to those they have wronged in the past. Crimes such as enslavement, territorial displacement, violations of earlier treaties, wartime casualties, ethnic discrimination, and other types of human rights abuses today constitute occasions for official expressions of regret. This book focuses on the theory and practice of state apologies to victimized groups. It consists of two parts. First, it includes papers that theoretically reflect on the nature of the phenomenon at stake. Two questions guide this enterprise: “What is a state apology?” and “What functions do state apologies serve within democratic societies plagued by a past of injustice?” A precise conceptualization of the notion of political apology paves the way for an inquiry into the functions that such a speech act may serve within democratic societies. Second, we test the validity of these theoretical reflections through encounters with real practices of state apologies. Thick descriptions of representative cases and comparative studies offer new insights into the existing literature on political apologies. Through this interdisciplinary engagement this book develops a better grasp of the context-dependent conditions for a successful state apology and of its impact on victimized groups and the society at large. By moving back and forth between theory and practice, we develop a holistic account of why apologies are, and should be, on the agenda of democratic societies today.

Chapter Outline

1. Introduction: Towards a Contextually Sensitive Theory of Political Apologies
Mihaela Mihai and Mathias Thaler

Part I:

Theorizing Political Apologies: Normative Challenges and Democratic Opportunities

2. Arendt on Apologies, Authority, and Public Narrative
Alice MacLachlan

3. Political Apologies: Re-Covenanting the Nation
Danielle Celermajer

4. Problems for Collective Apologies
Nick Smith

5. The Apology in Democracies: The Challenge of Competing Goods and Pluralistic Politics
Michael Cunningham

6. When the State Says “Sorry”: State Apologies as Exemplary Political Judgments
Mihaela Mihai

7. Just Pretending: Political Apologies for Historical Injustice and Vice’s Tribute to Virtue
Mathias Thaler

Part II: 

Context Matters: Power, Membership, and Reconciliation 

8. Revisiting the “Membership Theory of Apologies”: Apology Politics in Australia and Canada
Melissa Nobles

9. Forging a New Relationship or a New Self-Image: The Canadian Response to the Legacy of Indigenous Residential Schools
Neil Funk-Unrau

10. Sorry for the Schools But Not For the Project: Canada’s Residential Schools Apology and the Limits of State Regret
Cindy Holder 

11. Waiting for (an) ‘Apology’: Has Post-Authoritarian Brazil Apologized for State Repression?
Nina Schneider

12. An Apology for Public Apologies? Transitional Justice and Respect in Germany
Juan Espindola

13. Public Dramas of Reconciliation: The Ethnographic Study of Ceremonial and Corporal Elements in the Deliverance of Public Atonement Rituals in Japan, Katyn and East Timor
Michel-André Horelt

Alphabetical List of Contributors and Bios 

Danielle Celermajer (University of Sidney, Australia

Danielle Celermajer is currently the director of the Asia Pacific Masters of Human Rights and Democratisation, a European Union funded project establishing networked postgraduate human rights education across the Asia Pacific Region. Her primary areas of research are human rights and political theory. In the area of human rights, her research focuses on transitional justice and the question of how contemporary states and societies can deal with past violations, the relationship between human rights and religious norms and institutions and human rights education. Her primary research areas in political theory include collective responsibility, conceptual frameworks for human rights and the relationship between secular philosophical and theological thought. She received her Ph.D. in political theory (summa cum laude) from Columbia University. Prior to entering academia, she was Director of Policy at the Australian Human Rights Commission, where she authored numerous reports on Indigenous human rights and was principal speechwriter to the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner. Her book, Sins of the Nation and the Ritual of Apology, was published by Cambridge University Press in 2009 and she is editor of a collection on Hannah Arendt, Power, Judgment and Political Evil, Ashgate, 2010.

Michael Cunningham (University of Wolverhampton, UK)

Michael Cunningham is Senior Lecturer in Politics at the University of Wolverhampton. He has published extensively in the areas of Northern Ireland politics, including British Government Policy in Northern Ireland, 1969-2000 (Manchester University Press, 2001) and the politics of apology.

Juan Espindola (University of Frankfurt, Germany)

Juan Espindola is a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Goethe University of Frankfurt. He received his Ph.D. in political science from the University of Michigan. His primary specializations are political theory and public law. He is currently working on a book manuscript on the philosophical ramifications of the German process of coming to terms with its communist past, specifically on the public exposure of former collaborators to the secret police in East Germany. More generally he interested in theories of transitional justice, both at the domestic and the international levels.

Neil Funk-Unrau (University of Winnipeg, Canada)

Neil Funk-Unrau is an Assistant Professor of Conflict Resolution Studies at Menno Simons College, a college of the Canadian Mennonite University and affiliated with the University of Winnipeg. He has also served as Program Coordinator for Conflict Resolution Studies since 2006 and has taught courses in conflict theory, restorative justice and identity conflict, among others. Funk-Unrau has lectured on and written on the use of apology processes in legal and public settings, Canadian residential school abuse dispute resolution and the history of Canadian Aboriginal vs. non-Aboriginal relations.

Cindy Holder (University of Victoria, Canada)

Cindy Holder is Associate Professor of Philosophy at the University of Victoria. Her research focuses on the moral, political and legal significance of group membership, and on the relationship between morality and law. Her work emphasizes the importance of collective human rights and the need for conceptions of what rights protect that challenge rather than reproduce the political primacy of the state. Recent publications include “Culture as an Activity and Human Right: An Important Advance for Indigenous Peoples in International Law” (Alternatives 33), “Who’s Sorry Now? Government Apologies, Truth Commissions and Indigenous Self-Determination in Canada, Australia, Guatemala and Peru” (with Jeff Corntassel, Human Rights Review 9:4), and “Democratic Authority from the Outside Looking In: States, Common Worlds and Wrongful Connections” (Journal of Economic and Social Philosophy 5:3). Dr. Holder completed her Ph.D. in Philosophy at the University of Arizona in 2001.

Michel-André Horelt (University of Munich, Germany)

Michel-André Horelt is currently PhD Candidate and Assistant Professor at the Geschwister-Scholl-Institute for Political Science at the Ludwig-Maximilians-University of Munich. He worked as Research Fellow in the research project “Apologies and Reconciliation in international relations” funded by the German Foundation for Peace Research. Horelt’s main fields of academic research comprise Collective Memory Studies, Transitional Justice, and International Relations. Recent publications include: “Denting a Heroic Picture. A Narrative Analysis of Collective Identity in Post-War Croatia”, in: Perspectives. Review of International Affairs 2/2008, pp. 5–27; “Reconciliation by Means of Law or Symbols? Comparing the Reconciliatory Effects of the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) and Political Apologies in Former Yugoslavia”, in: Die Friedens-Warte: Journal of International Peace and Organization 1-2/2011; and “Performing Reconciliation: A Performance Approach to the Analysis if Political Apologies”, in: Nicola Palmer, Danielle Granville, Phil Clark (Hrsg.) Critical Perspectives on Transitional Justice, Cambridge: Intersentia, 347-370.

Mihaela Mihai (University of Coimbra, Portugal)

Mihaela Mihai is a researcher at the Centre for Social Studies (CES), University of Coimbra, Portugal. She holds a doctorate in Political Theory from the University of Toronto, Canada and a Master’s degree in Government from the University of Manchester, the UK. Before taking up her fellowship at CES she was a fellow at the Centre de Recherche en Ethique at the Université de Montréal, Canada. Her main areas of interest are contemporary political and legal theory, history of political thought, and comparative legal studies. She is currently working on a book manuscript examining the role of emotions within dramatic moments of political transformation. Her work was published in Ratio Juris, Oxford Journal of Legal Studies, Journal of Political Philosophy, and Philosophy Compass. In January 2013 she will take a position as a Lecturer in Political Theory at the University of York, UK.

Alice MacLachlan (York University, Toronto, Canada)

Alice MacLachlan is an Assistant Professor of Philosophy at York University (Toronto, Canada). She has written articles and book chapters on forgiveness, reconciliation, and apology in personal and political contexts; her recent publications include “The State of Sorry: Official Apologies and their Absence” in the Journal of Human Rights (2010), “Unreasonable Resentments” in the Journal of Social Philosophy (2009), and “Practicing Imperfect Forgiveness” in Feminist Ethics and Social Philosophy: Theorizing the Non-Ideal (ed. Lisa Tessman, Springer 2009). She also has a chapter titled “The Philosophical Controversy over Political Forgiveness” forthcoming in Public Forgiveness in Post-Conflict Contexts. Ed. B.A.M. van Stokkom et al (Intersentia Transitional Justice Series, 2012). She is currently completing a manuscript on forgiveness and co-editing a volume of essays on moral issues in the wake of violent conflict.

Melissa Nobles (Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Boston, USA)

Professor Nobles is the Arthur and Ruth Sloan Professor of Political Science at MIT. Nobles is a graduate of Brown University where she majored in History. She received her MA and PhD in Political Science from Yale University. Nobles has held fellowships at Boston University’s Institute for Race and Social Division and Harvard University’s Radcliffe Center for Advanced Study. She has served on the editorial board of Polity, and currently serves on the editorial boards of Perspectives on Politics and the American Political Science Review. Professor Nobles’ teaching and research interests are in the comparative study of racial and ethnic politics, and issues of retrospective justice. Her first book, Shades of Citizenship: Race and the Census in Modern Politics (Stanford University Press, 2000), examines the political origins and consequences of racial categorization in demographic censuses in the United States and Brazil. Her second book, The Politics of Official Apologies (Cambridge University Press, 2008), comparatively examines the political uses of official apologies in Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and the United States. At present, Prof. Nobles is conducting research for a third book manuscript that will analyze the prospects for “transitional justice” in the American South.

Nina Schneider (FernUni Hagen, Germany)

Nina Schneider holds a PhD in History from the University of Essex, United Kingdom. She works in the Department for Extra-European History at the Open University of Germany, and specializes in contemporary Brazilian History, Transitional Justice History in Latin America, Human Rights History, Memory, and Propaganda. Her recent publications include: “Breaking the Silence of the Military Regime: New Politics of Memory in Brazil?”, Bulletin of Latin American Studies, vol. 30, no. 2 (2011), 198-212; “The Supreme Court’s recent Verdict on the Amnesty Law: Impunity in Post-authoritarian Brazil”, European Review of Latin American and Caribbean Studies, no. 90 (2011), 39-54; “Truth no more? The Struggle over the National Truth Commission in Brazil’”, Iberoamericana, vol. 42 (2011), 164-70.

Nick Smith (University of New Hamphsire, USA)

Nick Smith is an associate professor of philosophy at the University of New Hampshire. A graduate of Vassar College, he earned a law degree from SUNY at Buffalo and a Ph.D. in philosophy from Vanderbilt University. Before coming to UNH, he worked as a litigator for LeBoeuf, Lamb, Greene, and MacRae and as a judicial clerk for the Honorable R.L. Nygaard of the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit. He specializes in the philosophy of Law, Politics, and Society and he writes on and teaches aesthetics. His writings have appeared in journals such as Continental Philosophy Review, Criminal Justice Ethics, Social Theory and Practice, The Journal of Social Philosophy, Culture, Theory & Critique, The Rutgers Law Journal, and The Buffalo Law Review.

Mathias Thaler (University of Coimbra, Portugal)

Mathias Thaler is a senior researcher at the Centro de Estudos Sociais of the Universidade de Coimbra (Portugal), where he coordinates the academic observatory on religious and cultural diversity. His areas of specialization are contemporary theories of global justice as well as intercultural philosophy. Thaler’s papers have been or will be published in Analyse & Kritik, Diacrítica, Critical Review of International Social and Political Philosophy, European Journal of Political Theory and Philosophy & Social Criticism. He is also the author of Moralische Politik oder politische Moral? Eine Analyse aktueller Debatten zur internationalen Gerechtigkeit. Frankfurt/New York: Campus, 2008. In the fall 2012 he will take up a position as a lecturer at the University of Edinburgh, UK.