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The politics of contrition

By Jennifer Wilson - posted Friday, 5 March 2010

I really don’t wish to start an argument about whether or not Kevin Rudd is sincere in his apologies for the collapse of the home insulation program. It’s arguably just as important to analyse how the media presented and interpreted those apologies.

The phrase “politics of contrition”, widely used by the media with regard to the Prime Minister’s recent expressions of remorse, is an oxymoron. While “politics” refers to the totality of interrelationships in a particular area of life involving power, manipulation, tactics and strategy, “contrition” refers to the deep and genuine expression of feeling, a sense of deep shame, and a determination to change. The two are worlds, no, galaxies apart.

In order to use this phrase at all, the decision must have already been made by the user that the allegedly contrite individual is insincere at best, and at worst, deliberately and strategically using a false expression of responsibility and regret in order to achieve or maintain power. This is a serious charge that goes to the heart of a politician’s, not to mention a Prime Minister’s, integrity.


Whether or not an individual is indeed cynically imitating remorseful feelings to further their own ends is often hard to determine. But if they are suspected of such manipulation then the expression used ought not to be “the politics of contrition,” but the politics of hypocrisy, insincerity, or lack of authenticity.

Another example. A mea culpa is by its very nature sincere, if it is not sincere then it is not a mea culpa, it is an expression of hypocrisy, insincerity and so on. What we have to consider is the adoption by the media of these two terms with regard to politicians, and the corresponding implication that the pollies are necessarily and always hypocritical, insincere, and inauthentic if they say sorry about anything at all.

There’s no doubt that some politicians are insincere, sometimes very insincere, some of the time. But it’s a big worry if, led by our media, we come to the nihilistic conclusion that all of them are hypocritical and inauthentic all of the time. It appears that this is the belief held by many media commentators, given their reaction to Rudd’s expression of remorse at the failure of his government to deliver what they promised.

The degree to which media form our perceptions of our world and the significant figures in it is contested. However, it is a commonplace idea that the media at the very least assists in the construction of our beliefs about and attitudes towards politicians and the society in which we live, through the language they employ to describe these things to their audience.

This media reaction is both cynical and despairing. Cynical: doubting or contemptuous of human nature, of the motives, goodness or sincerity of others; mocking, scornful or sneering. Despairing, because their reaction holds out no hope for a world in which politicians can feel and express remorse without immediately incurring disbelief and derision. In rushing to determine that Rudd is engaging in the “politics of contrition”, the media requires us to suspend belief in even the possibility of genuine expressions of remorse.

At its most extreme the media reaction encourages a wider environment in which anyone might hesitate to express regret for fear of mockery and contempt. “You’re chucking a Ruddie” might become the next new weapon with which to batter a remorseful spouse, contrite friend, or sorrowful adolescent. But the fault lies, dare I say, not with the one who expresses regret, but with the one who is entirely incapable of conceding the possibility that the expression is genuine.


The use of phrase “politics of contrition” reframes what could be a genuine emotion as a cynical and manipulative political tactic, without any grounds for that reframing. If in the weeks and months to come the Rudd Government continues to present us with unacceptable stuff-ups for which they then apologise, we will be entitled to express serious doubt as to the genuine nature of their remorse. But why is this cynicism the default position?

It would be difficult for the media to come right out and paint the Prime Minister as insincere, inauthentic or hypocritical in his expression of contrition. All of these judgments are highly subjective, and journalistic objectivity is another of the entrenched myths we live by. The facts are that we cannot know if Rudd’s expression of remorse is sincere or insincere, and that his future actions will reveal this to us more powerfully than his words ever can.

In the last few days Rudd has been called “Kevin the Confessor”, he’s been accused of emotional extravagance, and of manipulatively engaging in the “politics of forgiveness”. Whatever they are. A similar argument can be mounted against that conjunction of terms.

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About the Author

Dr Jennifer Wilson worked with adult survivors of child abuse for 20 years. On leaving clinical practice she returned to academia, where she taught critical theory and creative writing, and pursued her interest in human rights, popular cultural representations of death and dying, and forgiveness. Dr Wilson has presented papers on human rights and other issues at Oxford, Barcelona, and East London Universities, as well as at several international human rights conferences. Her academic work has been published in national and international journals. Her fiction has also appeared in several anthologies. She is currently working on a secular exploration of forgiveness, and a collection of essays. She blogs at

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