Newsletter # 44—June 15, 2021
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Reconciliation--Badly Needed or a Misguided Goal?
by Heidi Burgess
I just completed teaching a course on Reconciliation at the Carter School for Peace and Conflict Studies at George Mason University. I've been teaching this course for six or seven years, but this semester was different--it seemed much more timely, but also much more controversial.
When I started teaching the course, we focused mostly on other countries. It was not generally believed that we had conflicts here in the U.S. that needed to be reconciled. While we had conflicts here, they were "under control," while other countries' conflicts were not. So we were always talking about "someone else," where suggesting the two sides reconcile was not fraught with emotion.
Now, there is widespread recognition that the U.S. has very serious and deep-rooted conflicts that are causing a great deal of damage, both over the short term to our citizens' well being, and over the long term to our country's and indeed the entire world's well being. But there is also grave concern that our conflicts have gone beyond the stage at which they can be reconciled. Many see the ultimate power contest--even war--as the only "way out." Others don't believe war is imminent, but they do believe the proper response to our current problems is to fight as hard as they can to help their side prevail, rather than "giving in" which is what they believe is necessary if one is to pursue reconciliation.
I doubt many readers of this newsletter wonder where Guy and I stand on that issue. We firmly believe that reconciliation, while admittedly very difficult, is absolutely essential. If do not try, at least, to reconcile, the future, we think, will be very grim. Indeed, the war that some are now advocating might actually come to be.
Now I do point out in my class that "reconciliation" is not just a Utopian end-state. It is also a multi-faceted set of processes that are used to try to reach that end state. So even if one doesn't believe that it is possible for the U.S. (or any other country) to reach a final reconciliation, it can still be possible to work toward such goal. Even if one doesn't reach the ideal end, a great deal of good can come from working to get there.
In December of 2020, I heard a talk given at the Alliance for Peacebuilding's annual PEACECON meeting by Ebrahim Rasool, the former ambassador to the United States from South Africa. I was so taken with his talk that I not only wrote a blog post about it, I decided to completely redesign my Reconciliation course, based on his framing of reconciliation, with a much greater focus on the United States. He made several observations that I thought were absolutely essential that formed the backbone of the redesigned course.
One was that reconciliation requires that people accept the notion that " 'the other' is here to stay." That means that reconciliation must include "the other" and it must do so in a way that the interests, needs, and values of "the other" are accommodated, not repressed or ignored, or as some would say, "canceled."
In the past I used an exercise in my course asking students to imagine what their reconciled society would look like. Typically, their descriptions would be everything they personally thought was good. Since most of my students were Left-leaning liberals or progressives, when they described a "reconciled United States," they described one in which the progressive agenda had been implemented in its entirety and conservative values were nowhere to be seen.
I used to let my students get away with that, and gave them an A grade if their essays were well done. This year I didn't do that. I harped on the notion that "the other is here to stay" and insisted that the images of a reconciled society take into account that conservatives and conservative values have to somehow be accounted for and allowed to thrive as much as progressive views are allowed to thrive. Impossible, you say? Actually, my students, when pushed, came up with many very innovative ways to do that!
Secondly, Rasool pointed out that people seeking reconciliation "should start with the end." By that he meant that they need to develop an image of what their reconciled society would look like before they start working on achieving it. That made total sense after I thought about it. How can you get somewhere, if you don't know where it is?
I used to teach a unit that I called "Retrospective Reconciliation" (accounting for and reconciling the past) first, followed by a unit on "Prospective Reconciliation" (or envisioning where to go in the future). The notion I had was that you cannot envision a future together until you mend the wounds of the past.
Rasool turned that notion upside down. You can't mend the wounds of the past, he argued, if you don't have a image of what a future should look like. In South Africa, he explained, this amounted to the recognition that "South Africa belonged to all who lived there." That meant that the Whites could not be sent away--there was no longer anywhere for them to go. (Most had lived in South Africa all their lives and did not have another "home country" to return to.) So the African National Congress (ANC) realized that they couldn't simply reverse apartheid, instituting Black rule and oppressing Whites. That would have resulted in a catastrophic, violent conflict. But they also couldn't move ahead without acknowledging and making amends for apartheid. South Africa's solution was the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission which spent four years hearing testimony from victims and perpetrators, offering amnesty to some (but not all) perpetrators, recommending reparations for the victims, and documenting as well as possible what happened during the 40+ years of apartheid rule. Rasool acknowledged that the TRC had many shortcomings and that its recommendations were never fully implemented. But, he asserted (and I certainly agree), without it, the future would likely have been much, much worse.
So, in my rearranged course, Unit 1 presented different concepts of reconciliation and explained how "reconciliation" is both a desired end goal, but also a process to get there, that is pursued using a variety of different "recipes," Unit 2 followed, introducing the notion of "prospective reconciliation"--a term Guy and I invented to describe the process of envisioning the society you would like to create (your desired end-goal). This is where I had students use an Elise Boulding-type envisioning process to develop an image of what a reconciled society would look like. Most of my students followed my lead and focused on the United States, although some of the foreign students looked at their home countries. Almost all came up with images that did make room for both progressives and conservatives, and they developed some very innovative ways for doing so.
As a last question, I asked them to reflect on whether or not they thought attaining such an end goal was possible. Responses to that question were mixed: some said yes, some said no. There is no doubt, obtaining reconciliation of political and racial conflicts in the United States is going to be extremely difficult, particularly so if we don't even try. But as was true in South Africa in the early 1990s, when apartheid was unraveling, the alternative to reconciliation is likely very grim.
Unit 3, on Retrospective Reconciliation followed. For this unit, I relied heavily on John Paul Lederach's notion of reconciliation as being the "meeting place" between four concepts: truth, justice, peace, and mercy. I had students do a version of Lederach's famous exercise that explores those concepts and their interrelationships in depth. I've done this exercise many times, and each time the students come up with new and interesting ideas. The truth group usually calls for some kind of truth commission, the justice group usually turns to some combination of truth commissions and war crime (or other) tribunals, the peace group calls for dialogues and mediation between the opposing sides, and the mercy group calls for restorative justice or other mechanisms to encourage apologies and forgiveness. They then share their desires/demands and quickly figure out that each person/organization cannot get all that they want if the others are to get all that they want.
When Lederach does this exercise face-to-face, he mediates between a spokesperson for each group, helping them to reach a "meeting place of reconciliation." Since I am teaching online, I simply ask students to figure out a way that the interests and needs of the different people/organizations can be balanced so reconciliation can be achieved. There is enough overlap here that they students usually don't have too hard a time in the second part of the exercise envisioning how all these approaches might be balanced if each side gives up a little, suggesting that yes, reconciliation is possible, if the advocates don't insist on winning "it all."
The last two units look in more detail about how these concepts (truth, justice, peace, and mercy) can be pursued at the small scale, local level, and at the large scale, societal level. Unit 4, looking at small-scale reconciliation looks at what individual people can do to pursue reconciliation in their own lives: how they can de-escalate their own personal conflicts, and avoid escalating those conflicts unintentionally, how they can talk successfully with people on the other side, how they can develop a personal image of the future, how they can work to "level the playing field" in their own domains, and how they can take advantage of opportunities for mutually-beneficial actions with the other side.
The last unit, Unit 5, I talk about what I call the "scale up problem" -- the notion that it isn't possible to do enough small-scale processes to include enough people in a whole society to reach "herd immunity" from violence. Rather, you need to utilize processes that are designed to work at scale, such as problem-solving workshops (as opposed to simple dialogues) that have a scale-up provision designed into the process, and various media strategies that can reach millions of people simultaneously. (Unit 5 also acknowledges that these media strategies are being simultaneously used by "bad-faith actors" and I give a short introduction to the Bad Faith Actor materials that Guy just talked about in the last newsletters)
I was gratified by the number of positive comments I got from my students at the end of the semester, but even more so from the quality of the papers many of them produced for the class. A couple were so good that the students, to my disappointment, chose not to publish their papers on BI, but rather seek publication in a "regular" journal. I hope to be able to link to these papers in the future.
Several more whom I invited to publish on BI agreed to do so, and those are listed below as new additions to the Conflict Fundamentals Section of BI below. (I marked those essays with an asterisk.) Also linked there is Chip Hauss's completely rewritten set of two essays that replaces his original essay on reconciliation that was written in 2003. These two essays, just completed in May of 2021, reflect on what has stayed the same in the intervening years, and what has changed. Hauss observes that much of the theory behind the concept remains the same, but in practice, the way we pursue reconciliation, has come a long way.
Recent and Related Posts:
From the Conflict Fundamentals Seminar and BI Knowledge Base:
- *Nunavut: Reconciliation in Canada’s Northern Territories - The establishment of Nunavut was the most far-reaching indigenous political and land agreement in the world, now seen as a model for other indigenous groups. June 3
- *Rules and Rhythms of Reconciliation -- This paper explores what happens when there is a disconnect between legal interpretations of "justice," and cultural definitions. June 3.
- *Engaging Extremists in Reconciliation Processes: Limitations and Opportunities -- This paper imagines what is and is not possible in terms of responsible engagement with extremists during different stages of reconciliation. June 2
- *History Education and Reconciliation in (Post) Conflict Societies -- History education forms narratives of conflicts that can continue tensions or lead to reconciliation, depending on how it is done. June 1
- *Reconciliation in Cameroon -- Recognizing that Cameroon belongs to all who live there, and building relationships around that notion, is the best hope for reconciliation. #mbi_fundamentals -- May 25
- *Post-Genocide Rwanda: A Unique Case of Political and Psycho-Social Peacebuilding -- Rwanda's focus on security after the genocide has resulted in a repressive regime, not democracy. How stable will this be? #mbi_fundamentals -- May 24
- Reconciliation Part 1 - What is Reconciliation? -- Providing an historical and theoretical basis for the concept of reconciliation and beginning to explore ways it can be pursued. #mbi_fundamentals -- May 18
- Reconciliation Part 2 - Making Reconciliation Happen -- Pursuing truth, accountability, apology, and structural and policy changes all contribute to reconciliation. #mbi_fundamentals -- May 20
* Designates papers written by students in my Reconciliation Course
From the Colleague Activities Blog:
- When Language Leads to Violence: How Can Peacebuilders Counter Dangerous Speech - A webinar held by Beyond Conflict describing what kinds of speech is likely to incite violence, and how such speech can be countered.- June 8
- The Way Out - The webpage to accompany Peter Coleman's new book on escaping toxic polarization - June 7
- Reducing and Preventing Violent Conflict and Violence in the US: What Makes a Good Interaction Between Divided Groups and How to Ensure We “Do No Harm”? -- Four expert conflict resolvers talk about the difficulties of talking across political divides and what to do about that. - June 6
- Don't Shoot! One Man, a Street Fellowship, and the End of Violence in Inner-City America Using giant community meetings with gang members, drug dealers, cops and neighbors, David Kennedy has had remarkable success in reducing violent crime. - June 2T
- This Man Says His Anti-violence Plan Would Save 12,000 Lives. Why aren’t more cities using it? - Similar to Kennedy's anti-violence work, this article profiles the work of Thomas Abt who created GIVE: Gun Involved Violence Elimination. June 3
- How to Avoid High Conflict -- In high conflict the focus becomes on "the other" not the substantive topic. This is very dangerous, but here Amanda Ripley discusses "ways out." June 2
- Artificial Intelligence and Negotiation: The New Frontier -- A webinar with AI and ADR expert Colin Rule, talking about the myriad ways computers are impacting negotiation and our lives more broadly. June 1
- What are we fighting for? -- A short rap video, essentially making the primary point of our CCI--our conflicts are destroying us--we need to change direction now. #mbi_colleague -- May 18
- Preventing and Reducing Conflict and Instability in the United States: Shaping What Comes Next -- Spring Speaker Series running April-June at the Alliance for Peacebuilding. Past webinars are posted for later viewing. #mbi_colleague -- May 04
- Global Negotiation Conference -- GNC-2021 is open to students from all disciplines with an interest in negotiation theory and practice. The online conference includes 4 days of presentations and workshops and a day-long multiparty simulation on a current international issue. #mbi_colleague -- May 03
- Some Credible Evidence: Perceptions about the Evidence Base in the Peacebuilding Field -- An investigation about what evidence exists and what more is needed to support "evidence-based" peacebuilding practice. #mbi_colleague -- May 02
- 6 Tips For Making Online Collaboration More Productive and Engaging -- There’s more to online collaboration than using the right technology and best practices. Meeting planners must also harness "the human dimension." #mbi_colleague -- May 01
From the Beyond Intractability in Context Blog
- Shifting Sands: Report I - Amid widespread calls to "trust the science," a look at what the National Academy of Sciences thinks is needed to make science trustworthy. - June 8
Everyone Thinks Americans Are Selfish. They’re Wrong. - A report on research with the counterintuitive finding -- more individualistic nations are also more altruistic. - June 8
- The Americanization of the Israeli-Palestinian Debate - With respect to the US, Israel,and Palestine, an explanation of why it is so dangerous to think that another part of the world is just like your part of the world. June 7
- How Liberal Elites Use Race to Keep Workers Divided—And Justify Class-Based Inequities - A provocative argument that, by over focusing on race, elites are undermining challenges to class-based inequities (and preserving their dominant position. - June 6
- Screaming Into The Void - A terrific Hidden Brain podcast exploring the neuropsychology of anger and why we are drawn to things that make us mad.
- Beliefs Aren't Facts - An exploration of the all-important distinction between objective facts and personal beliefs and values. - June 3
- The World Is a Lot Less F*cked Than We Think It Is -- As a partial antidote to today's often dismal news, a look at the many positive trends that we need to celebrate and strengthen. June 2
- Founding vs Inheriting -An explanation of an insightful new concept with far-reaching implications – read-only cultures. - June 2
- Are We Cut Out for Universal Morality? - An eye-opening essay that takes a fresh look at our moral beliefs and the conflicting beliefs of our fellow citizens.-- June 1
- Your Book Review: Humankind - A long and thought-provoking review of Bergman's book, "Humankind" and a chance to think about the traits that define humanity. June 1
- On What do we Agree? Finding Ethical Consensus in the Midst of Factual Confusion. -- An interesting effort to find points of consensus in the midst of today's intense conflict over how best to address the problem of racism. #mbi_context -- May 24
- Can’t Beat the Real Thing: Why Liberalism is the Key to Authentic Workplace Diversity -- A thought-provoking look at two models for building a diverse society that really works--one based on critical race theory and another based on liberalism. #mbi_context -- May 19
- imagine -- Amid our anguish over the many shortcomings in our pandemic response, a reflection on how much worse things would have been had it happened just 20 years ago. #mbi_context -- May 03
- Should Young Americans Be Required to Give a Year of Service? -- Another look at proposals for promoting mutual understanding, empathy, and compassion through a year of National Service. #mbi_context -- May 03
- Should Biden Emphasize Race or Class or Both or None of the Above? -- A look at what the latest political science has to say about how best to balance race and class-based social justice efforts. #mbi_context -- May 03
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