Trudeau was already a Canadian case study in the psychology of apology, and the related but distinct moral notion of responsibility
In the dramaturgical history of Canadian politics, it was a missed opportunity. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau had other things on the go this week, and it fell to Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Carolyn Bennett to perform the apology to Inuit for the government killing of sled dogs after forced settlement during the Cold War.
Trudeau is good at saying sorry. He emotes convincingly on diverse topics, crying where appropriate. He is so practiced at formal national apologies that academics have taken notice of what Angie Wong, who teaches women’s studies at Lakehead University, calls ”a new cultural dynamic of apologism in Canadian politics.” It might aim at welcoming historically disadvantaged groups into the body politic, but Wong argues in a paper that an eager apology can seem like an inauthentic spectacle, falling short of actual atonement.
So even before this week’s revelations from Ethics Commissioner Mario Dion that Trudeau violated ethics rules by pressuring the former Attorney-General to accept a deal with SNC-Lavalin over alleged criminal corruption, Trudeau was already a Canadian case study in the psychology of apology, and the related but distinct moral notion of responsibility.
Now, though, he is something closer to a riddle: What does a prime minister accept but deny, for which he takes responsibility but cannot apologize? Answer: A violation of Canada’s Conflict of Interest Act.
“I fully accept this report… I take full responsibility. The buck stops with the prime minister, and I assume responsibility for everything that happened in my office. This is important because I truly feel that what happened over the past year shouldn’t have happened,” Trudeau told reporters in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont. “I take responsibility for the mistakes that I made… What we did over the past year wasn’t good enough. But at the same time I can’t apologize for standing up for Canadian jobs.”
He has very little room to deny his behaviour anymore
Each of those words make sense by themselves, but put together like that, absent any hint of regret, they rankle some.
For Karina Schumann, a Canadian-educated psychologist who studies apology, forgiveness, revenge and empathy at the University of Pittsburgh, Trudeau is reminiscent of former U.S. president Bill Clinton. He was a “phenomenal apologizer” who set a high bar saying sorry for the Tuskegee study of untreated syphilis, but then “fell quite short” when his personal opportunity arose.
“They have this distance from the offence so they’re able to offer these apologies more sincerely,” Schumann said.
But when it comes to their own failings, they can apply a logician’s scalpel to their moral predicament, finding galaxy-brain solutions that are not always convincing to the man on the street. Famously for Clinton, it was parsing what the meaning of “is” is. For Trudeau it is walking what Schumann calls the “fine line” of taking responsibility for his mistakes while simultaneously denying he did anything wrong.
There is something in the culture of the audience too. Public apologies have become part of the accepted script of redemption. In politics especially, apologies are “normative and expected,” Schumann said, and are therefore sometimes “diluted in their value.”
So not apologizing when the opportunity so clearly presents itself is all the more striking. “People are aware that an apology is missing,” Schumann said.
Why would he apologize, though? He is at no risk of formal sanction. Dion has no power to order penalties, so when Trudeau says he takes responsibility, that is that. It is a statement more of fact than morality.
What we did over the past year wasn’t good enough. But at the same time I can’t apologize for standing up for Canadian jobs
The partisan Liberal concern is obviously with the judgment of voters. Evidently a calculation has been made about the public’s willingness to either accept he did nothing wrong, or otherwise to forgive without being asked to. There may even be a certain charm in this air of defiance.
As Schumann sees it, Trudeau could apologize to Jody Wilson-Raybould, who resigned rather than capitulate and is running as an independent, now with her story vindicated. He could apologize for lying at the outset when he said initial reporting in The Globe and Mail was false. He could say sorry for the ethical breach as outlined in the commissioner’s report.
But as Trudeau has said, he does not believe he did anything wrong, notwithstanding his acceptance of the report that concluded he did.
“He has very little room to deny his behaviour anymore,” Schumann said. So he is “trying to justify his decision making” and “moralize his behaviour… He’s still trying to say, ‘Look, I have your best interests at heart.’”
When people apologize, they usually take responsibility. But not always. Sometimes people apologize for things beyond their control. And not vice versa.
“Taking responsibility does not necessarily mean you accept wrongdoing” said Michael Ross, distinguished professor emeritus at the University of Waterloo. “That’s not so unusual.”
Part of apology is to acknowledge you cause harm, he said, but Trudeau does not feel he has to say those things, because he believes his intentions were honourable.
Timing matters, of course. “He’s had several opportunities to take responsibility. It’s too late after the fact,” said Wong.
In the broadest sense, responsibility is a stereotypically conservative virtue, and apology is a liberal one.
Schumann said her research with others has shown that conservatives in general are both less likely to offer apologies and less likely to be impressed by them. In an election year especially, that human psychology can often be reflected in partisan strategy.
Way back in 2002, after U.S. Senator Trent Lott offered a smug and unconvincing apology for racist remarks, Washington Post critic Philip Kennicott wrote that politicians “may have a Hamlet complex (indecisiveness) or a Lear complex (insecurity) but they almost never have a Macbeth complex (guilt).”
As criticism of political theatre, this observation holds up today. And if Canadians have learned anything for sure from the SNC Lavalin affair, it is that Trudeau has none of those Shakespearean complexes.