Like a ‘Sorry’ in the Sky

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!


[end rant]


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? 

7 Responses to “Like a ‘Sorry’ in the Sky”

  1. Rebecca Says:

    I don’t know what sorry should look like.
    My church formally apologized to Canadian native people a few years back for the damages done by residential schools – and the native people politely did not accept the apology. I don’t know if things can be fixed, if old wrongs can be righted. I just hope that we can learn from history and not cause more harm.

  2. John Dekker Says:

    “Sorry” is just an expression of one’s feelings, and so it doesn’t mean much. It’s not the same as confessing, repenting and seeking forgiveness. As Jay Adams says, there is nothing in the Bible about apologising. See here.

  3. Islandsparrow Says:


    there’s a better word than sorry

  4. echoofthedesert Says:

    Here in the U.S. the government also did the same, formally apologizing to the black populatation for all the years of slavery.
    After the same debate you describe, which by the way did make it into our newspapers. The black people did not retaliate for the apology. Sorry may not make for restitution but it can do no damage and certainly som good.
    I enjoyed your rant. Thanks.

  5. Steve Says:

    Should white Australians apologise to black Australians?
    who knows? I remember as a kid getting kicked out of a corner shop where I grew up for being “black”.. in fact I was just well tanned!
    Even in the last week some have inquired of my heritage (except that it was convict.. the fellow was sentenced to 7 years in Botany Bay for being nearby when someone was mugged, and being on a ship that had switched flags 3 times during the American revolutionary war).. I guess I should apologise… I think someone on their ship brought the flu to Australia.. and that wiped out the majority of first citizens… I guess that is worth apologising over.. the accidental demiose of the vast majority of original owners through disease. Though, how does one apologise when truly these folks had no idea of the effect of the flu bug? It was not willful homicide.
    And yes, having lived in an area where the majority of masacres occurred (the New England) there are times where white’s were very culpable… I understand that the goverment of the day addressed and convicted those who took paret in those massacres. Do we apologise for something the government of the day already punished?
    Personally I think the issues are more complicated than a simple “sorry” can accommodate. Should the government apologise to the convicts made to settle here under false imprisonment laws? oh hold on.. it wasn’t the Australian Govt that made the mistake, it was the British Govt, and most of the soldiers sent out were as much prisoners as the convicts (no one to marry, no way to get home).
    The only thing I feel any compulsion to apologise for is that a fella bearing the same surname as mine inflicted Australia with the rum rebellion. Now for that I am truly sorry.

    How do we feel sorry for something we did not and would not have participated in?

    🙂 sorry to throw the cat among the pigeon’s..

  6. S Says:

    Saussure was from Switzerland.

  7. missmellifluous Says:

    My apologies. Yes, he was born in Geneva and taught in Paris.

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