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Apology: Its Role in Political and Social Life

40th Social Research Conference

April 2 - 3, 2020




In this moment of political turmoil in the United States and abroad, characterized by a great many people with a great deal to apologize for, by many apologies being made and many that should be made but are not, we announce the 40th Social Research conference on Apology that will take place in the spring of 2020 at The New School. The conference focuses on public apologies in the political or social realm, rather than on private apologies between individuals.


The range of questions this theme raises is wide, including: What is the value or consequence of an apology from a politician? (e.g, Hillary Clinton apologizing for describing some of the electorate as “deplorables”; or Donald Trump refusing to apologize for anything at all.) What is the impact of apologies on historical wrongs? (e.g., US apologizing and compensating people of Japanese descent who were incarcerated during World War II; Truth and Reconciliation in South Africa.) Why do some states apologize and others do not? Are institutional policies for addressing reports of sexual abuse effective? (e.g., Pope Francis’s motu propio policy to hold the clergy accountable for misconduct in allegations of sexual abuse.) When someone is accused of sexual misconduct, under what circumstances might apologies be effective? (e.g., the wave of sexual misconduct allegations and global reckoning forced into public discussion by the #MeToo movement.) Are reparations, or other forms of redress effective in righting or mitigating historical wrongs? In 2017 former Congressman John Conyers sponsored H.R. 40, a measure with the stated goal to “address the fundamental injustice, cruelty, brutality, and inhumanity of slavery in the United States and the 13 American colonies…and to establish a commission to study and consider a national apology and proposal for reparations for the institution of slavery…and the impact of these forces on living African-Americans.” In June 2019, the U.S. Congress held its first hearing in a decade to discuss a bill that would create a commission to discuss the enduring legacy of slavery and the role of reparations in addressing what many call the “original sin.” Clearly, reparations for past atrocities are front and center in U.S. political life.


Guilt, accountability, and forgiveness all play a role in apology, both in cases where actors recognize their culpability, (e.g., former Polish President Aleksander Kwaśniewski urging fellow Poles to beg for forgiveness for Jedwabne pogrom in which as many as 1,600 Jews were murdered by their civilian neighbors), and in cases where they do not, (e.g., Harvey Weinstein denying the accusations of over 80 women in the film industry; Myanmar to the Rohingyas, Israel to the Palestinians; Corporate-caused disasters, such as the Deepwater Horizon oil spill).


This conference brings together experts from a range of disciplines, including historians, policy makers, the clergy, the law and the courts to examine the role of apology in social and political life, and how and when apologies make a difference.




Day 1: Thursday, April 2, 2020


Session I. Apology in the Public and Political Domains

3:30-5:30 PM

Alvin Johnson/J.M. Kaplan Auditorium

66 West 12th Street, 10011



Fr. Michael Lapsley, Director, Institute for Healing of Memories


Elazar Barkan, Professor of International and Public Affairs, Columbia School of International and Public Affairs


John Torpey, Presidential Professor of Sociology and History, and Director of the Ralph Bunche Institute for International Studies, CUNY Graduate Center


Pablo de Greiff, Transitional Justice Program Director, Center for Human Rights and Global Justice, New York University


Moderator: Jeremy Ginges, Associate Professor of Psychology, The New School



Keynote Event

6:00-7:30 PM

Alvin Johnson/J.M. Kaplan Auditorium

66 West 12th Street, 10011






                                         Day 2: Friday, April 3, 2020


Session II. Case Studies: United States

10:30 AM – 12:30 PM

Arnhold Hall

55 West 13th Street, 10011



Nancy Gertner, Judge, USDC Massachusetts (retired); Senior Lecturer, Harvard Law School


Peter Steinfels, former editor, Commonweal; former religion writer, The New York Times; University Professor Emeritus, Fordham University


Katherine Franke, Sulzbacher Professor of Law, Gender, and Sexuality Studies, Columbia Law School


Margo Anderson, Distinguished Professor Emerita, University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee


Moderator: John Torpey,Presidential Professor of Sociology and History, and Director of the Ralph Bunche Institute for International Studies, CUNY Graduate Center



Session III. Case Studies: International

1:00-3:00 PM

Hirshon Suite

55 West 13th Street, 10011



Jan Gross, Norman B. Tomlinson '16 and '48 Professor of War and Society, emeritus; Professor of History, emeritus, Princeton University


Rena Steinzor, Edward M. Robertson Professor of Law, University of Maryland Francis King Carey School of Law


Ahmed Bawa, Chief Executive Officer, Universities South Africa


Moderator: Elzbieta Matynia, Professor of Sociology and Liberal Studies; Director of Transregional Center for Democratic Studies, The New School



Coming soon





Session I. Apology in the Public and Political Domains


Fr. Michael Lapsley


Elazar Barkan

Exploring the global politics of restitution and negotiating historical injustices from 1945 to the present

Exploring the tension between apologies and reparations in different cases raises the question of what does justice look like? Can an apology be adequate to provide redress? And if not, why do all victims demand acknowledgment? In most cases, when victims reject apologies, it is because the apology is insufficient, not that they do not want/deserve an apology. Apology is essential for victims, so the question is what role apology plays in redress. 


John Torpey

Rejuvenating Reparations

My talk will address the resurgence of talk about reparations for African-Americans during the Trump presidency and the character of the discussion. I will argue that the debate has been positive in certain respects, returning the subject to the forefront of public debate, but that the discussion has been unhelpfully polarizing as well.


Pablo de Greiff


Session II. Case Studies: United States


Nancy Gertner

Proportionality and MeToo


Peter Steinfels


Katherine Franke

The Role of Apology in Reparations for Slavery

As the call for reparations for slavery gains wider traction in the United States, what role, if any, should apology play in repairing the intergenerational legacy of slavery? Some regard it as a necessary, but not sufficient element in reparations, while others consider an apology an insult. Professor Franke will explore the political and moral relevance of apology in ongoing organizing around reparations for slavery.


Margo Anderson

The Census and Apology

In March 2000, Census Director Kenneth Prewitt, in a public statement, apologized for the role the bureau played in the evacuation and incarceration of Japanese ancestry Americans on the West Coast during World War II. The apology came a decade after the formal letter of “sincere apology” that was mandated in the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, and which President Bush and later President Clinton provided to surviving internees with their redress payments. This talk will examine the events that led to the Census Bureau apology, in the context of the overall history of the incarceration.


Session III. Case Studies: International


Jan Gross

The Case of Poland and the Jews

This talk will examine the form and logic of Polish apologies addressed to Jews for anti-Jewish violence during World War II.


Rena Steinzor

Corporate Malfeasance and Meaningless Apologies

Tragedies caused by corporate negligence have dominated the headlines since industrialization began. Their scale, like the scale of everything else, has expanded substantially in modern times. From the Boeing 747 crashes to the BP and Transocean Deepwater Horizon explosion and oil spill to the collapse of Massey Energy's Big Branch mine to VW and Fiat Chrysler emissions cheating, apologies are made but do not assuage the public's outrage, in large measure because remedies are delivered in the context of government enforcement. Several themes link all these fatal incidents: the company was in a tremendous hurry to push a product out the door or enhance its economic stature by becoming the biggest in the world; internal culture rewarded compliance with these goals and did not tolerate interference; mid-level and higher managers became immune to the slow but steady erosion of safety standards--in other words, deviance was normalized; executives were overly tolerant of risk, despite repeated examples of multi-billion dollar fiascos experienced by competitors; and the regulatory system meant to prevent these problems was, quite literally in tatters. Until we unwind these negative incentives, apologies will be meaningless and the public will remain unprotected.


Ahmed Bawa








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