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Newsletter # 44—June 15, 2021

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Does this work? Should it Be Pursued?



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 a 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: 

* Designates papers written by students in my Reconciliation Course

From the Colleague Activities Blog:

From the Beyond Intractability in Context Blog

All CC-MOOS Posts


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