Great Plains Studies, Center for


Date of this Version

Spring 2010


Published in Great Plains Research 20.1 (Spring 2010): 145-46.


Copyright 2010 Center for Great Plains Studies, University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Used by permission.


In recent years there has been an active dialogue on whether historic injustice has relevance in contemporary societies and, if so, whether an official “apology” accomplishes any beneficial purpose. Many scholars working on the topic of reparations have argued that an apology is largely irrelevant as a mere “symbolic act” unless accompanied by some material recognition of rights or transfer of resources that demonstrates a commitment to “repair” the injustice. This book, however, posits that the apology itself has value. Nobles proposes a “membership theory of apologies” that focuses on the ideological and moral value of apology rather than anticipated material gains. Within this view, apologies are not mere “symbolic gestures,” like monuments, but instead “publicly ratify certain reinterpretations of history” and also “morally judge, assign responsibility and introduce expectations about what acknowledgment of that history requires.” In this sense, although apologies focus our attention on the “past,” they also have implications for the “future.”

Nobles examines the role of official apologies as a mode of altering conceptions of national membership for minority groups within pluralistic democracies. She posits that “apologies are desired, offered, and given in order to change the terms and meanings of membership in a political community,” arguing that membership in democratic societies entails a shared sense of rights, obligations, and responsibilities manifested between and among citizens and their government. Claims may arise when the government fails to meet the “expectations” of its citizens. For groups that have suffered a history of injustice, however, “grievances” are just as likely to relate to the historical injustice as they are to the contemporary perception of group members that they are at a disadvantage in contemporary society. Thus, the harm may be one that cannot be remedied merely by passing a law or by implementing a new policy. Apologies are desirable in such circumstances because they “bring history into the conversation, providing justification for political and policy changes and reforms.”