Apologies for Harm, Apologies as Harm

What would you do if you opened your complaint file and found an apology from the person you complained about?

This is not a hypothetical question.

We ask some questions because of what has happened.

A student is being harassed and bullied by the professor who teaches the core course of her MA. In a one-to-one tutorial, he shouts and swears at her, tells her that her questions about “gender and race,” were “the fucking wrong questions.” He tells her that her grades don’t matter, that she doesn’t matter, because she’s too “fucking old,” she is “not going to have a career in academia.” She is “insulted, undermined, threatened.” She felt afraid not only because someone with power was acting toward her in such a manner but because his actions left no physical trace.

She said: “I felt afraid. He hadn’t touched me. He hadn’t physically abused me.”

If other people can’t see it, that it happened, did it happen? Some forms of violence, however hard they hit you, do not appear to others. Fear can be magnified by not being able to evidence what you encounter.

She said: “So, then I started getting afraid, I started questioning and doubting myself.”

Fear can be not only directed toward something, but can be the experience of not being able to communicate what it is directed toward to others.

We can feel the absence of evidence as fear.

What then, what to do then?

She did make a complaint after her MA about what happened during it. And she complained in part because the professor used the power he had as professor to close the door. He was not supposed to mark her dissertation, but he does; she gets a much lower mark than she did for her other course work. On the prospect of doing a PhD, she said “that door is closed.” He closed the door on her complaint, he closed the door on her career; he closed the door on her. She knows that the low mark was a form of retaliation, for asking the wrong questions, for not receiving passively what the professor taught as wisdom (in Living a Feminist Life, I call sexism “received wisdom”). Believe me, when someone retaliates, you know it. But it can still be hard to convince others that the retaliation is retaliation. Many people do not want to be convinced because of the investments they have in persons (he wouldn’t do that; he couldn’t do that).

So many complaints are blocked because of people’s investments in persons, in programmes, in projects.

To complain is to encounter a wall of investment.

She felt she had a duty to complain: she wanted to stop what happened to her from happening to others. But her complaint did not get anywhere. He was protected by the organisation and by his colleagues. She is left feeling there was little point to having complained:

I think lots of students would have complained but a lot of people are a lot better at self-care than I am and realised that this process is damaging, is traumatic and to be perfectly frank it is not very helpful for me as a student all I am doing is being fobbed off by the university, where they are making excuses for their behaviour. As far as I can tell, no real change is going to happen. I might get some money at the end of it to shut me up. In terms of change for future students, institutional change, or any real genuine apology or sense of worry from the university that they had let a student have the kind of experience I had, none of that so ultimately the complaints process has not helped me in any way. Maybe you could make an argument that somehow it is therapeutic to air one’s woes but to be perfectly frank I haven’t found it therapeutic at all. And, it continues and I am finding it difficult to move on with my life.

Like many of the stories of complaint I have collected for this project, her complaint did not end well. She was not even able to narrate the experience as therapeutic. Rather she witnessed what I think of as the “clunk, clunk” of institutional machinery. She encountered the same thing she complained about because she complained: the protection of an esteemed professor by an institution and by his colleagues.

How he gets away with it is how he keeps doing it.

Unlike most of the stories of complaint I have collected in this story there is an apology, or at least an apparent apology made by the professor even though, as she describes, there is no “real genuine apology” or even a “sense of worry” expressed by the university. In her complaint file she finds a letter addressed from him to her. She had not asked for an apology. She was quite clear about what the apology was doing and not doing by turning up in her file. She said:

I think it’s a box ticking exercise, oh at least we apologised, but look at the words, think about what an apology really means then tell me you’ve apologised or whether you have got a lawyer and wrote a letter that you wanted to show.

To describe an apology as a “box ticking exercise,” is to suggest that the apology is fulfilling a bureaucratic function. Some apologies are made so those who make them can show they have been made (“a letter that you wanted to show”). If a “real genuine apology,” would be a recognition of harm, a bureaucratic apology would be a way of appearing to recognise harm without really doing so. An apology can be offered rather like that non-performative nod, a way of appearing to hear somebody’s complaint, a way of placating somebody. An apology can be used to resolve the complaint, to complete an action, when it acquires the status of evidence that the harm identified by the complaint has been heard and handled. An apology for harm can be a mode of recovery, a recovering of harm, covering over harm.

Although in this case the apology took the form of a letter from another person, by describing it as “box ticking exercise,” she is pointing to the usefulness of the apology to the institution.  The apology is teaching something about how the institution is working (2). Even an apology that takes the form of a letter addressed from a professor to a student can be an institutional speech act. It can follow a format, or a template; it can be signed by an individual but written by lawyers with words carefully chosen to ensure that the apology does not do too much, say too much, reveal too much (“look at the words”). By attending to how the words fall short of what “an apology really means,” she is showing that an apology does not always apologise; it does not mean what it says. A person can apologise for wrong doing in such a way a person frees himself from implication in that wrongdoing.

It is not always clear who is freeing what from what. This lack of clarity can be doing something. Perhaps the apology can be made vague in what the apology is for or in who it is from. She shows the vaguely institutional nature of the apology by switching between “you” and “we”: she says that the apology is written for you or by your lawyers so that “at least we apologised.” That an apology can be vaguely institutional means that an apology can be used by the institution to create an impression that it handled and heard the complaint in such a way that the institution is not implicated, or is cleared, of wrong doing. If the institution can be vaguely cleared perhaps the professor is cleared too. Perhaps the vaguer the apology, the more can be cleared.

Apologies can, of course, be made by institutions such as universities to nation-states. In such instances, apologies are official to the extent they are made by a person or persons who have already been given the authority to speak on behalf of the institution. Even when institutional apologies can be used to cover over wrongs, apologies can still be received as recognition of wrong doing. This is why many governments today still refuse to apologise for colonialism and slavery, preferring weaker words like regret. To apologise can be to say too much, do too much, because of how apologies can be received as an admission of something, or as taking responsibility for wrongs, historic or not, whether intended as such. Some apologies are not made because of where they could lead; apologies as a path toward reparation, for instance. However, we know from history, that it is possible to apologise for crimes against humanity without starting on a path toward reparation.

If apologies are paths, where else do they lead? Perhaps we need to ask about who, who apologises, before we can think about the direction of an apology. Apologies are more often made without the need for authorisation; the person who is apologising is doing so on their own behalf. What such interpersonal apologies do depends on how they are made, when they are made, by whom they are made and to whom they are made.

Some apologies can be habitual; some people can keep saying sorry as a way of prefacing their own existence as if they are apologising for existing. Apology in this form is very gendered; femininity as apology for taking up space.

Apologies can be made without referring to a person’s own conduct. The person who apologises does not have to say what they are apologising for. Or a person can apologise for what they have done in such a way that they make what they are apologising for seem small or minor. Or someone might apologise for causing offence rather than for being offensive. An apology is then made a matter of how someone is affected rather than what the person who made the apology caused: If you apologise for hurting someone’s feelings, hurt feelings become the problem that is being resolved by the apology.

Of course, so much harm can be minimized as a matter of hurt feelings without an apology being made.

Let me return to complaint. In my complaint testimonies, I found different kinds of apologies.

What are they doing?

An academic made multiple complaints relating to plagiarism as well as racism. Her complaints could be well described as “feminist of colour pedagogy,” she came to know the institution intimately, profoundly, as a white patriarchal institution, from the work of complaining. She came to know how it worked, how white men academics ended up with more research time, how people of colour, especially women of colour, ended up with less research time; all those backdoor deals and shadow policies. I share her learning in Complaint! and explain her use of the term “shadow policies.” She is sure that she will never receive an apology for the harm caused to her. She stated, “x will never apologise or acknowledge they made a mistake. They are afraid of lawsuits.” Some apologies can be not made, more than not, will never be made, because they recognise too much, because of where they could lead, to lawsuits.

Apologies can be refused because they recognise harm.

A senior researcher made a complaint about bullying and harassment. Her complaint ends up with an ombudsman. They require that the organization apologies. She describes “The organisation ‘had to apologise formally.’ The state of that apology. It is ridiculous: it is 10 percent of what happened.” She describes the apology, which took the form of a written letter as “not really an apology.” She added, “They are sorry for the suffering…but is not their fault, and things have changed now so it is fine.” Sometimes it is clear: an apology when required can be made in such a way that it clears an organisation of wrong doing. When you are sorry for someone’s suffering, you are not saying sorry for what you have caused. You do not have to admit responsibility for causing suffering when you are sorry for suffering (3). She added: “there is no recognition of the harm they did and that it’s their fault and responsibility and it’s not fair.”

She experienced this apology that did not recognize harm as harmful.

Apologies can be made because they don’t recognise harm.

Take these bold sentences together:

Apologies can recognise harm and not recognise harm. Apologies can be not made because of what they do or made because of what they do not do.

Apologies can hold histories because they hold contradictions.

I am understanding so much more about what apologies do and do not do from listening to those who complain.

More instances.

Apologies that do not recognise harm (or do not really do anything) can be experienced as empty or meaningless by those who receive them. I spoke to a student who made a complaint about disability discrimination. Her complaint also ended up with an ombudsman who found that the institution had failed to handle her complaint fairly. She described, “x was required to write an apology, which they did on the last day.” The university also gave her a small monetary compensation. She passed over the gesture because she recognised what the gesture allowed the organization to pass over: “as a gesture of good will you can just go away.”

An apology can be another way you are told to go away.

If an apology from one party to another party is made into a requirement by a third party, the person who receives the apology does not always experience the apology as empty or pointless. In another example, an academic experienced abuse from another academic. She describes: “There was one moment I had to complain where a female member of staff was completely drunk and verbally abusive and aggressive to me, and on that particular occasion I managed to get the institution to force her to write a letter of apology, because I think that is really important to have it on record and on file that in any given circumstances you are not ethically in the wrong position.” She was not concerned about whether the person who made the apology was being sincere or not, or whether the apology in its wording offered a recognition of the harm that had been caused or not. For her that an apology was made was what mattered. An apology here, however solicited, however required, or perhaps even because it was solicited, because it was required, becomes a record of a wrong.

An unsolicited and unrequired apology can also matter in part because it is unsolicited or unrequired. A postdoctoral researcher made a complaint about racism that led her to experience more racism. She attends meetings that end up as interrogations. But in the middle of the process, a person from human resources apologies to her. She describes, “She was like: wow I am really sorry you had to go through this. And the union official said they and never heard someone apologise.” If you are an administrator of a complaint process you might be encouraged not to apologise because of an institutional concern that an apology can be used by the recipient as evidence or as acknowledgment of wrong doing. If someone apologies in the middle of a complaint process about the process, in part as that’s the right or decent thing to do, it stands out. An apology becomes a gesture filled with meaning because in being offered it does not follow the path laid down by the institution.

It can help sometimes to have someone recognise how hard a process is, which can be about how hard a process is on you. If so, then: apologies for how someone is being affected by something can do something for someone.

In writing about apologies and what they do, and do not do, I am not writing apologies off. I am not claiming that in doing this or doing that they only do this or only do that. Perhaps apologies are another queer map of the organization, also of a complaint, also of a life: messy.

And yet: we still need to write about what some apologies write off.

The following is the some of that story.

Let me return to the testimony from the MA student with which I opened this post. She said:

And the other thing they did is send me that letter by x. I didn’t ask for any contact from that man. He is a bully. He already lives in my nightmares.

If the letter was an apology, it was also a form of communication. Making an apology allowed the professor to enter the complaint she had made about him in his own terms; it allows him to enter her mind as well as her file, to take up space in the way he had already taken up space (“he already lives in my nightmares”).

The insertion of an apology into a complaint can be a continuation of the kind of communication she complained about. The apology becomes another instance of unwanted communication. Even his apology is a form of self-assertion. To accept his apology would be to accept how he inserts himself, into her complaint, her file, into her mind; her world. She needed not to accept that apology because she needed him not to be there.

She added, “I think they thought I would accept it as a real apology.” The action she is identifying as problematic is not only the apology, but the expectation of what would follow the apology, that she would accept it. Finding that letter in the file is to be put under pressure to accept it, to move on with it, to get on with it.

The use of an apology teaches us how reconciliation can be a form of governance (4). When reconciliation becomes a mode of governance, abuses of power are treated as minor squabbles or as the product of poor communication that can be resolved by better communication.

Another student was considering making a complaint about sexual misconduct by her former tutor.  She was told her options would either be a formal complaint, which she didn’t “think would lead anywhere without tangible proof of physical assault” or “writing him a letter directly.” She did not want to write such a letter. As she describes: “I have no wish to reopen channels of communication with X as I have successfully cut myself off and I do not want to start a conversation with him or give him a chance to explain himself.” To be asked to communicate whether in writing or in person with the person who has harassed you, is to be asked to reopen channels of communication that you closed to protect yourself. The person who abused you is given more chances to express himself.

Reconciliation can be experienced as the enforcement of communication.

Stories of apology are also about who is given the task of reconciliation.  A white academic, when she became head of her department, told a black academic to reconcile with the former head of department: “I want you to reconcile with her because after all she is my friend and colleague and all she ever did was write you some long emails.”  The black woman she is addressing (although not addressing as a colleague) had in fact been racially harassed by the former head of department, another white woman, for many years. This white woman by expressing her desire for reconciliation (“I want you to reconcile with her”) is also offering an interpretation of events (“all she ever did is to write you some long emails”). A key tactic for minimising harassment is to present harassment as a style of communication: long emails might be annoying, but the implication is that they are not harmful or serious.

If reconciliation can be the enforcement of communication, violence is shut out by being presented as a style of communication.

The work of reconciliation often falls upon those who have been harassed: it is the Black woman who is given the task of reconciling “with her,” the white woman who harassed her whilst she was her head of department.  The expectation she will smooth things over or keep smoothing things over is how she is required to maintain a relationship that is damaging.   An expression of desire for reconciliation might appear to be a friendly gesture. There is nothing friendly about this gesture. If she does not return the desire for reconciliation, if she is not willing to smooth things other, moving on, getting along, getting on, she becomes the one who has not only broken a connection but refused to repair it.

This story is not a story of an apology. And yet I learnt from her testimony something about timing that allows me to return to apology in a different way. Being required to accept an apology can be how you are required to accept a situation. Perhaps some apologies are made not after harm but before harm; apologies for harm, apologies as harm. An expectation of reconciliation can be enforced right from the beginning; the violence that follows must be forgiven in advance for someone to advance.

In fact, then, the requirement to accept an apology can be the requirement to overlook violence: it didn’t mean anything, they didn’t mean anything, don’t be mean!

Abusive relationships are often treated like fragile, breakable things. And repair is often narrated as achievable through giving time and attention; patching it up, patching things up. Sometimes, however, in order to end abuse, we need to end relationships with those who are abusive. Keeping those relationships going in the hope they can improve is to keep going with something that is harmful.  If an apology is made to keep a relationship going that is harmful, an apology is harmful.

Institutions too can be treated as fragile things that can be patched up or as persons whose problems can be resolved by learning to communicate better. In my book, On Being Included I noted that when racism is recognized as institutional, institutions are quickly psychologized. Consider this definition of institutional racism: “processes, attitudes and behaviour which amount to discrimination through unwitting prejudice, ignorance, thoughtlessness and racist stereotyping.” In a way, the institution becomes recognised as racist only through being posited as like an individual, as someone who suffers from prejudice, but who could be treated, or made better (perhaps through diversity, that reconciliation story).  The recognition of institutional racism can easily be translated into a form of institutional therapy culture: where the institution becomes the sick person, who can be helped by being given the appropriate treatment.  An apology can be expressed as treatment.

When institutions apologise, those apologies often assume a magical form: as if to say it is to be over it. An apology can be offered as a way of “being over it.” If it is not over, it is not the time to be over it. If apologies are to have a point as well as purpose, they need to be offered in recognition that what an apology is an apology for is not over. Being sorry is not being over it. We apologise for what we are in not what we are over.

Perhaps an apologetic institution is also one that demands we preserve our attachment to it despite everything the institution has done not to deserve that attachment.

Apologetic institutions: the violence perpetuated by an apology for institutional violence as if apologising for institutional violence is no longer being violent in the same way.

Apologetic racism: the racism perpetuated by an apology for racism as if apologising for racism means no longer being racist in the same way.

Apologetic sexism: the sexism that is perpetuated by an apology for sexism as if apologising for sexism means no longer being sexist in the same way.

And so on. And so, it goes on (5).

The problem is not only that apologies can be used as if they create the conditions for transcending what apologies are for. An apology can enact what the apology is for. For instance, someone can take up more time and space by apologising for taking up more time and space.

I want to return for the final time to the story of an apology found in a complaint file that inspired this post. This former MA student also said:

Reading it, it is not an apology. He did exactly the same thing he used to do in seminars. Of course, of course, you’re right, but not actually to enter into any discourse, so in fact telling you, I am not even going to grant you the respect of a conversation. I am just going to capitulate in such a tone that tells you that I don’t believe a word you are saying, therefore not giving you the respect of recognising that you might have a valid point. It sounds bizarre but by saying a person’s right you can somehow devalue or invalidate the point you are making but x is an expert at doing that.

What you are told to receive as apology you do not have to receive as an apology. You have to be assertive not to do as you are told, not only not to accept the apology but to insist that an apology is not what it is (“reading it, it is not an apology”). You might refuse to recognise the apology as apology because of what you recognise. She recognises the letter, the tone of it, what it is doing, what he is an expert in doing, because it is what he did before (“exactly the same thing he used to do in seminars”). An apology for conduct can be that conduct: it is familiar to her, he is addressing her in the same way he used to address her, the disbelief, disdain; how a right, you’re right can be a way of not engaging, not recognising someone, not entering into discourse. You can be telling someone how little you think they are worth by appearing to concede in such a way that intonates their point, their complaint, is not “a valid point.”

Summary: an apology for bullying can be an extension of bullying.

Remember: violence is often enacted in a way that makes that violence intangible to others.

Also: we can feel the absence of evidence as fear.

An apology can add to the fear: how the violence is made to disappear.

An apology inserted into her complaint file can be a way of countering the evidence of complaint, countering an absence with its presence. His apology could be showing: she has nothing to show.

What would happen if you opened a complaint file and found an apology from the person you complained about?

I don’t know what would happen in every instance. But I know what could happen from what did happen.

When you open the complaint file and find an apology, you can find the enactment of what you complained about. An apology can be that enactment.



  1. In my book, Complaint! I have only one paragraph on apology. I could have written much more than I did but there was only so much room and I had so much material. In the year to come, I hope to share posts drawing on data I missed out from the book.
  2. I have wondered about the work of the apology before. In the chapter, “Shame Before Others,” from The Cultural Politics of Emotion, I examined the role of apologies, as well as expression of sorrow, remorse and shame, in the Sorry Books written by settler Australians about the stolen generations of Aboriginal peoples in Australia. Many of these speech acts were requests for an apology by the government for the violent theft of Aboriginal children from their homes and communities. I was struck then by how often the request for an apology by government took the form of a desire for national pride, in other words, an apology was deemed a necessary condition to be able to return to being proud to be Australian. An apology was assumed to be necessary to bring an end to this shameful period of colonial history. Colonial violence and subjugation can be treated as inexpressive, as not being evidence of what we are really like. So much structural violence is deemed to be inexpressive in this way (we are not that, we need to do this to show we are not that.
  3. As I was writing this post on January 26 2021, the British Prime Minister Boris Johnson was widely reported by the press as having apologised for the suffering caused by coronavirus. This was a day to be sorry, a day to be outraged, very angry and very sad: it was the day that over 100,000 deaths from coronavirus were officially recorded in the UK. Johnson’s speech was an expression of condolence to all those who had lost loves ones. But it was not an apology in the sense of offering a recognition of wrong doing and harm caused by government policies. Or perhaps it was more of an apology in the original sense of the word; an apology as speech given as defence. Despite saying he was responsible as Prime Minister, Johnson also attempted to clear his government (and thus himself) of responsibility by saying they had done “everything [they] could” to minimise death and suffering.
  4. The uses of reconciliation as a governing strategy by organizations is not unrelated to the uses of reconciliation by settler colonial nation states. Reconciliation can be the demand that indigenous peoples reconcile themselves to the situation of occupation as well as with the colonizer (see Nicoll, 1998). The use of reconciliation in the settler colonial context can imply, as Glen Sean Coulthard has astutely noted, that the task for native peoples is to overcome “negative feelings” in the promotion of harmony. He writes, “it is frequently inferred by proponents of political reconciliation that restoring those relationships requires that individuals and groups work to overcome debilitating pain, anger and resentment that frequently persist in being injured or harmed by a real or perceived injustice” (2014, 107).
  5. The structure I am describing here is similar to the uses of criticality: critical racism as the claim to have transcended racism (as racism is uncritical) and so on.



Coulthard, Glen Sean. 2014. Red Skins, White Masks: Rejecting the Colonial Politics of Recognition. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Nicoll, Fiona. (1998) “B(l)acklash: Reconciliation after Wik,” Meanjin, 57, 1: 167-183.

About feministkilljoys

feminist killjoy, affect alien, angry queer woman of colour
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4 Responses to Apologies for Harm, Apologies as Harm

  1. Pingback: Really a lot of thoughts on racism: A links round-up - Reading the End

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  3. S says:

    Thank you for your posts and your brilliance.

  4. Valvts says:

    Thanks this was illuminating!

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