Interpreting Political Apologies: The Neglected Role of Performance



In recent years, state leaders have increasingly apologized for historical wrongdoing. This article argues that there are scant conceptual tools available in current apology theory to capture the meanings of such political apologies. Salient theories treat apologies predominantly as “speech acts,” and this perspective produces frameworks of analysis that are preoccupied with linguistic features (e.g., the phrasing of the utterance of the apologizer). This article points to the limitations of this approach by arguing that dramaturgical aspects of performance are equally important. Political apologies are frequently offered during public ceremonies. Reactions in their aftermath indicate that the setup of those ceremonies matter to the victims, who, as primary addressees, assign meanings to the act. Current apology theory, however, gives little consideration to this observation. “What is said” matters most; “where and how it is said” is being neglected. The article concludes with a proposal for future research, which includes the reimagining of political apology as “performance” –a concept that gives credence to both formal speech and dramaturgy.