Allard School of Law Assistant Professor Mary Liston has been awarded a Hampton Research Grant for her research on collective apologies from a public law perspective. The Hampton Research Grants are awarded by the Office of the Vice President-Research and International at the University of British Columbia to provide funding for highly meritorious research and scholarly activity in the Social Sciences and Humanities fields. These grants recognize innovation and unique approaches to research in these areas. Professor Liston’s research project examines public apologies from a novel perspective, employing interdisciplinary and comparative techniques to show how legal framework and legal culture structure collective apologies. Her research will contribute to multiple disciplines and audiences both domestically and internationally. Professor Liston describes the project that has brought her recent grant success, below.
We live in the age of apology. Interpersonal apologies abound in literature, popular culture, and now the twitterverse. Anyone who has seen A Fish Called Wanda can never forget the scene where Otto dangles Archie out of window, forcing him to issue this abject apology: “I do, I offer a complete and utter retraction. The imputation was totally without basis in fact, and was in no way fair comment, and was motivated purely by malice, and I deeply regret any distress that my comments may have caused you, or your family, and I hereby undertake not to repeat any such slander at any time in the future.” Could John Cleese’s law background have informed this extraordinary expression of regret? Perhaps an even more famous example is the apology that Ebenezer Scrooge offers to the world near the end of the 1951 movie A Christmas Carol, culminating in his request for forgiveness from his nephew Fred’s wife, “Can you forgive a pig-headed old fool with no eyes to see with and no ears to hear with all these years?”
Non-apologies have also now become the norm in public statements issued by offending celebrities: “I’m sorry if I have offended you or caused you any pain … .” Do these types of non-apologies have any ethical validity? One of the most famous non-apologies surely has to be the one Jason Hanke grudgingly provides to George Costanza in the Seinfeld episode aptly entitled “The Apology.” After George insists that he is owed an apology for a past wrong, and that Jason must apologize to him in order to complete all of the steps of his AA recovery program, Jason replies: “All right, George, all right. I'm sorry. I'm very, very sorry. I'm so sorry that I didn't want your rather bulbous head struggling to find its way through the normal-size neck hole of my finely knit sweater.” George later gripes to Jerry about his dissatisfaction with Hanke, and Jerry astutely replies: “So now you want an apology for the apology, plus the original apology?” Though humorous, Jerry’s response prompts the critical question of how effective apologies are in achieving reconciliation, atonement, or closure.
Famous apologies, however, no longer exist solely on this interpersonal plane. Since the 1980’s, apologies have increasingly become one instrument modern States use to achieve political redress for past discriminatory and abusive actions. My project examines apologies from a novel perspective: public law. My main claim is that apologies should be understood as a permanent feature of public law, both within Canada and worldwide, and they therefore need to be more thoroughly examined from a legal perspective.
The project will examine collective or public apologies as novel and evolving contemporary and distinctively legal phenomena. The significance of apologies for public law extends beyond conventional understandings of collective or State liability to incorporate a variety of democratic and rule of law goods. Though firmly grounded in law – public law theory, government institutions, and legal culture – the proposed research pursues an interdisciplinary and comparative study of the varieties of collective apologies from the State, from organizations with significant public roles such as churches or corporations, and from representative bodies in civil society. This project will show how both a legal framework and legal culture structure the content and form of collective apologies.
My project addresses a number of key questions. How should we evaluate collective and public apologies? Should courts be in the business of ordering legal persons to apologize as a routine remedy or is this somehow antithetical to the very practice of apologizing? Do collective apologies shape national identities and can they help redefine public law norms? Might public law apologies have the potential to further rule of law accountability in government and democratic goals concerning improved government relations with, and responsiveness to, citizens?
I employ an interdisciplinary and case study methodology drawing on legal and political theory on collective responsibility, jurisprudence, new institutionalism in political science, philosophy and practical ethics, and sociology. Examples of apologies will be used as small case studies drawn from Canadian politics (e.g., past State apologies for the Chinese head tax and residential schools, and current demands from thalidomide victims), legal cases (e.g., apologies as a remedy as used in human rights tribunals both federally and provincially), and popular culture (such as the examples above). In order to better understand the function and effectiveness of public law apologies, a comparative lens focusing on ‘most similar’ case studies will be employed to draw on examples from Australia, Israel, New Zealand, South Africa, the United Kingdom, and the United States.
This is a novel project for three reasons: 1) apologies have traditionally been studied through the lens of moral philosophy and sociology rather than law, and at the individual rather than the collective level; 2) collective apologies are usually situated in the literature on restorative and transitional justice, rather than a larger public law framework; and, 3) putting Canada in a comparative framework will help Canadians understand the similarities and distinctiveness of our public law order.
I hope that my research will contribute to multiple disciplines and audiences including domestic and international scholars in law, political science, and interdisciplinary studies; legal professionals and organizations; Canadian governments and the courts; and the general public.