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The Worth of Words

Gay McAuley’s talk at the TFTS Department in Aberystwyth yesterday made me wonder about the worth of words.

She spoke of a ‘wave of official apologies’ that were happening across the globe and – if I remember correctly – that she deemed ‘necessary’. Perhaps my issue is as much with the politics of such a gesture – the official apology – as with the word ‘necessary’. Necessity indicates need, at least to me, especially since it stems from Latin, ‘indispensable’. Is there a need for an absorption of historical (and in some cases still ongoing) trauma into the discourse of politics? She did evaluate the issues surrounding both silence and speech and offered place as a potential alternative to those two.

Yet I cannot help but wonder at the issue of ‘genuine’ regret, which is perhaps at the heart of an apology, or should be. There is a difference (and perhaps more so to me as a German-speaker) between ‘I’m sorry’ and ‘I apologise’, a fine but important line between regret (grief felt over wrongs done, understood and acknowledged) and exculpation (acknowledgement of wrongs done and anderstood, but not necessarily grieved over). In McAuley’s examples in particular, but in any situation involving pain caused (by or to others), I seriously wonder what palpable effect words may have. Is it ever ‘enough’ to say sorry? Will any such lamentation have an effect? What is the intended effect (apart from acknowledgment and perhaps a request for absolution)? Is it possible to amend, to redress grief, which – to me – is both mental/emotional and inherently physical, by language?

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