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stakes in reconciliation Arrow vol 4 no 3 contents
About borderlands volume 4 number 3, 2005



The Stakes in Reconciliation

Andrew Schaap, Political Reconciliation (New York: Routledge, 2005)

Ernesto Verdeja
Wesleyan University


1. The political violence of the past hundred years has earned the twentieth century the tragic honorific of being the most violent in human history. It is for good reason that some commentators have called it the century of genocide.   What is also striking—and, at first glance, paradoxical—is that such violence has been accompanied by the development of a sophisticated discourse on human rights and sustained and nuanced attempts at thinking through the requirements for justice and reconciliation in societies that have been shattered by such violence.   At a practical level, this development has been manifested in debates about the viability of trials, truth commissions, programs for reparations, the necessity of political and constitutional reform, and initiatives to address the causes of political conflict.   At a theoretical level, the question that emerges for post-atrocity societies is more fundamental—what is meant by reconciliation?   That is, what are its theoretical requirements, aims, and modes of practical expression?

2. The question of reconciliation has gained even more salience over the past twenty years, as different theoretical solutions have shown their strengths and weaknesses.   The core of the debate pivots on what constitutes a satisfactory account of politics after injustice.   Should politics rest on a thick set of shared norms about identity?   Or, should politics aim at ensuring a thin line of liberal proceduralism, characterized by tolerance of different comprehensive values but excluding these from the formal sphere of political deliberation?   Or should politics perhaps be understood as irreducibly antagonistic—a domain where political difference always risks collapsing into a friend/enemy distinction and thus into open conflict?

3. Andrew Schaap's Political Reconciliation is a tightly argued and important contribution to these debates, for it identifies shortcomings with all three approaches and sets out an alternative that is more sensitive to the real challenges -and promises—of politics following dark times.   For Schaap, the proper way to conceive politics is fundamentally Arendtian—it requires realizing that society is not merely a hypostatized entity that requires reconstruction after violent fragmentation, but instead is best understood as a process, a fragile undertaking that is never ending and shapes us as much as we shape it.   We carry out this task through public action and speech - "We humanize what is going on in the world and in ourselves only by speaking of it, and in the course of speaking of it we learn to be human." (Arendt,1968: 25)   Such an undertaking is first and foremost political.   It rejects apolitical concepts such as compassion and love as the proper bedrock of social cohesion—the position of Desmond Tutu (1999) and Miroslav Volf (2001)—and instead focuses on the importance of worldly mediation between erstwhile enemies.   It is skeptical of transcendental claims about moral reasoning, privileging in its place the contestability of opinions and the plurality of views about the world.   And crucially, it rejects an idea of a destroyed social 'whole' that must be reconstructed—for Schaap, there is no lost paradise to which we should hope to return, but rather a world of potentially incommensurable positions between and among victims and perpetrators, positions that risk undermining the possibility of a shared future, while also giving us the tools to achieve such a future.   To better understand Schaap's argument, it may be helpful to discuss the other paradigms against which he argues.

4. The classic account of politics in times of crisis is Carl Schmitt's.   For him and left contemporaries such as Chantal Mouffe (2000), politics is not about the distribution of power and resources among competing interests; rather, it is an ontological category characterized by the ineradicable conflict found in the friend/enemy distinction.   Such an understanding, Schaap argues, is plainly reductive, but nevertheless useful because it gives pause to those who argue for a substantive form of restorative ethics as the proper basis of politics.   For Schaap politics is, in an important sense, antagonistic.   And such conflict means that there is always the risk of open conflict, especially in the societies under study here.

5. What then, are possible solutions?   Schaap introduces two main approaches, liberal and communitarian.   The liberal understanding of politics, rooted in Locke's conception of religious tolerance, gains it strength from separating comprehensive values from the domain of the public, thus ensuring some degree of political stability.   Here, politics is premised on reasonableness—different actors agree to put aside their most substantive views on the ends of society and instead allow for a highly circumscribed domain of interaction characterized by reasoned argumentation about security, stability, and related issues.   World views (ideally) no longer lead to conflict because they have been banished from the political realm, and politics is, effectively, depoliticized.   Such a conception has its strengths, undoubtedly.   It establishes certain entry requirements into the political domain that privilege a search for consensus on practical issues and a willingness to set aside divisive values all while allowing for a modicum of pluralism.   Nevertheless, as Schaap argues, such an approach is problematic because it risks keeping out precisely those more comprehensive views of the world that can, eventually, serve as the basis for enemies to come together and fashion a more robust sense of the 'we'.

6. At the other end of the theoretical spectrum lies a model of politics that is significantly 'thicker' (that is, basically communitarian).   Using Charles Taylor, Schaap deftly outlines a Hegelian theory of societal identity based on recognition—the idea that our sense of self and self worth emerges only through a process of reciprocal (intersubjective) recognition among members of a bounded community.   Rejecting the contractualist model of much of liberalism, with its tendency to posit free standing, monadic and already self-constituted individuals, this approach calls for transforming the struggle of mutual recognition into the catalyst for achieving a new social identity, one where we understand the other on her own terms, and vice versa.   For Schaap, such a model has certain strengths, such as highlighting the importance of social interaction and practice in identity formation, but it risks becoming mired in a simplistic binary of 'self' and 'other' and doesn't contain the resources to tackle the difficult problem of exclusion that is contained within every act of recognition.

7. The alternative for Schaap requires a consideration of worldliness, that is, that we recognize that political reconciliation necessitates that we sustain two fragile but simultaneous moments in politics—one where a shared world is opened to adversaries, and one where that very world is called into question.   In other words, reconciliation underscores the importance of establishing a common horizon of interaction while allowing for the possibility that actors will test and transform the very basis of such a horizon through speech and action.   We cannot, then, assume that political community is out there to be had.   It is always constituted and reconstituted, and thus risk—but also a future—are built into the very nature of political praxis.   Schaap elaborates this intriguing idea through a consideration of four related issues that confront every society facing injustice: the constitution of a space for politics; the possibility of forgiveness; collective responsibility for the commission of wrongs; and, the remembrance of a painful past.

8. On the first point, he argues that political space is always constituted in three ways.   Politically, it refers to the very act by which a space is constituted; legally, it concerns the formal law that delimits this space; and ethically, it points to the 'we' who are created and who create this foundational moment.   All of these point to the contingent nature of political foundations, but also to the necessity of 'promising'—that is, to committing ourselves to a shared future.   For it is at this moment that the possibility of a shared future emerges, a possibility that must always be reaffirmed.   The idea of forgiveness as the touchstone for a new beginning reinforces this idea.   For Arendt, as for Schaap, forgiveness highlights the frailty of the world and possibilities of a new beginning (natality), separating the past from the future without requiring oblivion or forced amnesia.   Forgiveness carries within it the seed of (political) action, for it separates us from the weight of the past and frees us to begin anew.  

9. Such openness to the future is not bereft of a critical engagement with the past.   Drawing from the debate between Arendt and Karl Jaspers on the question of German guilt following the Second World War, Schaap convincingly argues that citizens carry political responsibility for the crimes committed in their name, but such responsibility does not include blame.   That is, rather than demand that citizens merely feel shame, Schaap endorses a notion of responsibility which includes within it an openness to move forward into a new (and fragile) project of shared community, one not ignorant of the ethical demands of the past, but also not overdetermined by them.   Such an account of responsibility is a powerful alternative to continuous expressions of shame which can easily degenerate into stunted forms of sentimentality or only superficial concern with actual victims.

10. The openness to the future characteristic of Schaap's model is particularly evident in his discussion of memory and memory sites.   He rightly rejects radically relativist epistemologies because of the dangerous political consequences they may have—under conditions of unequal power typical of negotiated political transitions, for example, it is easier for perpetrators and their apologists simply to ignore past crimes and criticize victims as mere political sophists.   Schaap is sensitive to this, and begins from the important position of facticity of the past- that there are events, morally condemnable events, that require sincere political engagement and moral reflection.   Yet events only make sense within a broader web of meaning, and the plurality of the world means that there is a plurality of interpretations about the past.   What is required, then, is what Nietzsche termed a critical history—a history that interrogates its own assumptions and presuppositions, and seeks to engage in permanent self-analysis.   Consequently, Schaap emphasizes that memory can never be sutured, it must always remain open to reinterpretation by subsequent generations.

11. A critic may claim, "very well, but what is needed under such circumstances of injustice is a robust conception of practical politics.   How do we differentiate between legitimate and illegitimate forms of politics if we have no prior normative foundations?"   This criticism seems to me to miss the mark and instead implies that such foundations are open to pre-interpretive articulation.   The point of Schaap's argument is that politics is always susceptible to manipulation and always entails risks—it is like philosophizing without banisters, to draw from Arendt once again—but such risks also point to the possibility of real change and the creation of a meaningful polity.   Of course, such creation is always 'to come,' as Derrida says about democracy.   But as a horizon that is always receding, Schaap's conception of reconciliation points us in the proper direction while placing a great moral responsibility on us to move forward.    

12. This is an extremely rich book.   Schaap has outlined an important alternative to the dominant models of reconciliation and in the process has deepened our understanding of what the stakes are for societies facing a legacy of injustice and continued mistrust.   The book is all the more timely given the current madness in Iraq and Afghanistan where the United States hopes that proceduralism and militarism will guarantee stability, and the struggles faced in Rwanda, Cambodia and other authoritarian countries where reconciliation is equated with political imposition.   Schaap's forcefully argued book reminds us that reconciliation is hard and difficult to attain, and must always be reaffirmed.   

Ernesto Verdeja is Assistant Professor of Government at Wesleyan University, USA. His interests are in political violence, theories of justice and reconciliation, and contemporary critical and democratic theory.


Arendt, H. (1968), Men in Dark Times. New York.

Mouffe, C. (2000), The Democratic Paradox. London: Verso.

Tutu, D. (1999), No Future Without Forgiveness. New York: Doubleday.

Volf, M. (2001), 'Forgiveness, Reconciliation, and Justice: A Christian Contribution to a More Peaceful World.' In Helmick, R. and Petersen, R. (eds.), Forgiveness and Reconciliation: Religion, Public Policy and Conflict Transformation. Philadelphia: Templeton Press.

© borderlands ejournal 2005



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