So we’re sitting around the table tonight and discussion turns to the enormous ‘sorry’ that was written across the sky on Australia Day. The ‘sorry’ story made the headlines briefly and was removed abruptly, as if it had just evaporated into thin air. It’s rather symbolic really.
You see, saying ‘sorry’ has been a matter of contention in Australian culture for quite a few years now. Many Australians have thought that saying ‘sorry’ to the Aboriginal people would be beneficial, would aid reconciliation. However, some of our population, indeed our last Prime Minister, John Howard, thought that there was no point in saying ‘sorry’. Their argument went along the lines of, “well we didn’t kill your family, steal your children, give you grog or keep you uneducated so why should we apologise for things that the generations/governments before us were responsible for? Why should we say sorry?” In my opinion, we have a lot to say sorry for: invasion, the stolen generations, inequality in health and education, deaths in custody, the introduction of alcohol…and I could go on. These things still affect the Aboriginal people of Australia today, regardless of who instigated them.
Kevin Rudd has stated that he will say ‘sorry’ on the 12th February 2008, so long as there are no legal ramifications – which, by the way, there aren’t. Saying ‘sorry’ has no real consequences. We don’t have to give land back, reunite families, offer equitable access to health or education, or provide rehabilitation. There will be no compensation – which is lucky for how would we ever compensate for these life-shattering losses anyway? – Isn’t that great. Ha! A sorry without consequence.
As my dad said rather facetiously, “We can say sorry and Cathy Freeman can carry the Aboriginal flag if she wants…as long as she carries the one emblazoned with the Union Jack as well. Archie Roach can sing from time to time…we kinda like his tunes – he’s a good Aussie.”
Let’s say sorry, what can we lose?
Today I’ve been reading Saussure in preparation for teaching this year. You probably know Saussure, he was the French guy who revolutionised the study of linguistics. He was of the view that language was a system that consisted of a signifier (the word or sound) and a sign (the object to which the signifier referred). The signifier never was the sign. For example you don’t get much of a sense of what a dog is by reading or hearing the word ‘dog’ in isolation to the object to which it refers. ‘Dog’ doesn’t tell you anything about what it is to be a dog. In this way language is arbitrary. But Saussure argued that it is this very arbitrariness of language that makes it so important to use language correctly. If I start calling a dog a ‘dooshka’ communication is going to be limited, hindered because you will not know what I am talking about.
All this, and the discussion of the significance, or lack thereof, of saying ‘sorry’ has left me with this question: what does ‘sorry’ actually mean? To us? To the Aboriginal people? Because if it means “sorry bad stuff happened to you, but it wasn’t our fault and we’re not doing anything about it,” then I’m mad about that. What kind of sorry is that? What does it signify? What is its sign? And what does it say about our culture when our most potent words are emptied of meaning? I want to know exactly what kind of ‘sorry’ we’re offering before I start applauding politicians on the 12th Feb. How will a ‘sorry’ aid communication between disparate people if we don’t have a clear understanding of what ‘sorry’ means?
I know I’m sorry. Sorry I belong to such a racist and discriminatory society that is afraid to speak meaningfully into the hurting lives of its citizens – even if they were only recognised as citizens of their own country in 1967. Sorry we don’t have a language to express what we mean. Sorry our words are empty. Sorry I fear our ‘sorry’ will evaporate into the ether like the words that appeared in the sky so briefly on Australia Day, or Survival Day – the day we are supposed to celebrate the tenacious endurance of a race that our ancestors tried to erase like an inappropriate news story.
On the upside: It will be so nice of us to make Aboriginal people “full participants” of society…after over 200 years of abuse and deprivation!
I’m still mad.
Thanks if you stayed with me through that. 🙂
If you’re still game, here’s a question:
What does ‘sorry’ mean and what should ‘sorry’ look and sound like?