difficult republic



In a society that does not have a base for equality, the term “sorry”, which at first glance seems like the most innocuous thing, is actually a verbal bomb with a delayed effect.

The President of the Republic makes a homophobic joke about a soft drink whose color he doesn't like. Soon after, given the bad repercussion of his pronouncement, he declares that he is sorry and apologizes. Isolated act, involving a notoriously mouthy public figure? Far from it. Involved in this episode we find one of the most expressive traits of the everyday language of societies like ours, in a much expanded version. This is the expression “sorry”, used to avoid or mitigate potentially conflicting relationships.

The term “sorry,” which at first glance seems like the most harmless thing, is actually a time-delayed verbal bombshell. It reveals a lot about the society in which it is used, also in comparison with others. It is characteristic of this type of verbal resource to contain hidden messages. In our case, there are two. One indicates the social position by which each of the interlocutors is oriented and the other indicates the exact feeling of those who employ it.

In a society like the Brazilian one, the expression, or formula, “sorry” seems obvious, but has a complex meaning. For all intents and purposes, the President of the Republic can allow himself to apologize and decree from the height of his authority that the matter is closed, no matter who it hurts, as the oligarchic president Fernando Collor would say. If he asked, he was answered, you don't play with authority. However, there are more meanings involved in the use of that formula. Overall this formula has another important hidden component. Its use involves the ability of the dominant interlocutor to proclaim, on his own, who can accept an apology or not.

In conditions marked by hierarchy and with a strong deficit of egalitarian relations, “sorry” is an empty term for the superior and a threatening term for the inferior. It does not mean guilt annulled, but punishment spared. In this type of society, the issue of apology is inseparable from that of punishment. It can be advanced that the social effectiveness of the excuse is due to this. In reality, in a society like ours, the possibility of punishment is at the center, it shapes all relationships. This is key. Among other consequences, this translates into an oligarchic pattern of social relations (or, at best, into what we can call “manorial democracy”) in which escape from punishment, in the exact form of impunity, is directly linked to the proximity of the powerful. . When involved in stratified social relations, the excuse accepted by those in a superior position implies their willingness not to punish “this time”, thus reinforcing their superiority. Under these conditions, abstaining from punishment is a concession, and the person who is excused receives a momentary guarantee of impunity. Which, moreover, facilitates the acceptance of the repeated impunity that is observed in the powerful. The abstention from punishment by the powerful, being a concession, does not operate as an act of justice, rather it represents a favor, an act of discretion, a selective, not generalized concession (for you I do this, I offer you at this moment the feeling of impunity ).

This gives rise to two weighty consequences in social life. First, it creates a model situation, in that it abolishes responsibility on both sides. Whoever asks for or grants an apology is bypassing the responsible act, capable, exactly, of answering for his actions. This means that in societies marked by the apology standard, responsibility is worth little, when it is not despised as a sign of lack of skill in social life. Then, as a deeper consequence of that pattern, the very mainstay of social life, which is reciprocity, is hurt.

An impressive example of this connection between punishment and social distance through the use of excuses is provided by an episode that took place two years ago. Senator Onyx Lorenzoni is judged for maintaining “slush funds”, but goes unpunished. Why? Let us leave the explanation to the then Minister of Justice, Sergio Moro. There is no reason to condemn him, for two reasons. First, that he admitted the crime and apologized. Second, because the minister trust him. The example could not be more perfect, and alone would admit of lengthy commentary. From our point of view here, the most disturbing data of this event does not directly concern the action of the Minister (of Justice, it is good to remember) but the response of society to his conduct. No response, except perhaps in small “bubbles” on the internet. An exemplary fact amenable to indignation, an extreme example of arrogance and contempt for justice in the public figure who should most defend it, and who would deserve indignation and revolt in society, was absorbed as if nothing had happened. Clearly, it never crossed anyone's mind that a Minister of State is not a mere assistant to the head of government, much less a private person, but in the strongest sense of the term a public servant, averse to personal ties, even more so when they exhibit lordly traits ( I am justice and I apply it as I see fit). That incident serves as an extreme indicator of the level of absorption by society of the deep affinity that has historically been generated in it between the idea of ​​excuse and that of impunity. Such affinity of both is presented in the shadow of the matrix idea of ​​punishment, perhaps the strongest symbolic expression of the cultural traits (that is, accepted and practiced) characteristic of the Brazilian social formation. And it makes sense to argue that this trinity is at the very center of our political culture, related, by contrast, to the idea of ​​“favor”, exemplarily explored by Roberto Schwarz.

“Who can command, who cannot obey”. It sounds like a trivial phrase, but the secret of its widespread acceptance is due to the socially generated and culturally transmitted blockade of the question of the origin and legitimacy of such power. The degree of penetration of these conceptions is manifested in apparently insignificant expressions of everyday life, which remove their automatism from the circumstance of presenting themselves as empty, purely formal. It is in this formal character, however, that lies the secret of its social effectiveness, when its deepest meanings are hidden. Consider the expression "please". Nothing could be more polite and kind, say the unprepared. Deep down, latent in this formal envelope, it turns out that such an expression, like similar ones, means the opposite of its face value. “Please” indicates its opposite, it is an authoritarian imperative in disguise. More than an empty conception, it conceals a warning, “otherwise you will have a problem”.

Something similar occurs with that expression, in principle much more civilized, “I'm sorry”. In English speaking countries and historical tradition the corresponding term is “sorry”, in France it is used “desolé”. In the case of English and French, the social message is that there is equality between those who speak and those who listen, and that exhausts the issue. For this very reason, the message in terms of language can be, as it is, brusque and without any concern for the other's possible feelings. The question is very objective, like a linguistic push, something like “let it go”. There are no major consequences for anyone, everyone is on the same level and understands each other. They are citizens, as the English would say, and republicans, as the French would say. In these cases, the delayed effect bomb boils down to a symbolic push.

Things change a lot when the society involved does not have a basis favorable to equality, as ours does. In this case, the expression integrates an incomplete sentence, which hides its complement, always announced by a “but”, something like “but nothing I can do”. Built into the expression is an expectation of recognition. The fundamental point at this point is that the expectation is mutual, strictly speaking the meaning of the expression is that both sides suffer and expect recognition for this. This does not exhaust the issue, however. Both sides suffer, but the feeling of one part is real, while that of the other, who “sorries a lot”, is derived, at the limit only formal. Where there seemed to be an act of mutual recognition, the asymmetry of positions infiltrates again.

Something similar occurs with another term equally eroded by use, “thank you”. Here the very history of the term is directly relevant to overcome the veil of forgetfulness and misconceptions that it carries. Its origin is in the social practices of aristocratic societies, when the act of a gentleman on behalf of another on the same social level (one does not say obliged to a lackey) generates an obligation for the favored one. And this recognition is translated into the expression “thank you”, that is to say, I know I must reciprocate. In this situation, there is no general equality in society, but, on the contrary, the restricted and exclusive character of this way of acting (only we are equal). This manifestation of compliance with the duty to provide equivalent conduct in the future finds the most appropriate response among equals in the expression “for nothing”, which by common acceptance signals its opposite, for what it is worth. The erosion of formulas in this vein accompanies the decline of court society and makes room for more maliciously ambiguous expressions such as the sharp “not because of that” (that is, for many other reasons). However, this case is different in one special point. Although at least in the beginning the principle of reciprocity was respected, now this principle is surreptitiously kept hidden under an empty formula (I owe you that one). This means that something that at least invokes full reciprocity remains in non-aristocratic societies, marked by more democratic standards, which promise, devoid of the guarantee of fulfilling it proper to the world of aristocracy, the generalization of egalitarian ways of life.

In this way, such historical residue loses substance and ends up taking effect precisely on the side that would be imagined to be outdated. It consists in reserving the most equal use for the few and the good and never for everyone. In this, he acquires an unequivocally formal character, simulating what he knows to be fictitious.

It should be noted that this pattern of social relations carries with it an unfolding of the utmost importance in this set of formulas, which in itself would deserve special attention. Its specific character consists in the fact that it is a social reference that is effectively generalized in societies like ours and that it becomes a tacitly accepted component of social relations, to the point that it dispenses with verbalization. This is the powerful, even because it is hidden, formula “make-believe”, by which the same lack of responsibility is installed in everyday language that integrates the effect of formulas acting explicitly in face-to-face relationships. Its effectiveness derives from the circumstance that it acts as an extension of the others, by insinuating a kind of general validity when it is applied indiscriminately to all, in a perverse allusion to a fictitious democratic equality like itself.

The warning of the nature of this game of mirrors involved in the set of formulas that we have seen here (and that constitute a system) can serve to illuminate non-trivial traits of the dilemmas of the peculiar realization of democratic ways of life in our difficult republic.

*Gabriel Cohn is professor emeritus at FFLCH-USP. Author, among other books, of Weber, Frankfurt (Quicksilver).


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