The Many Types of Reconciliation

by Heidi Burgess

March 6, 2022



This post is part of the Constructive Conflict Initiative Blog


As I pointed out in my last blog post, I'm teaching a course on Reconciliation this semester at the Carter School of Peace and Conflict Resolution at George Mason University. The course is asynchronous, so that most of the material I present is already set. I can update it with discussion posts, but Guy recently came up with several ideas that make me want to update it more than that.  So I decided to create this blog post to share with the class, and with the wider BI audience at the same time.

Prospective and Retrospective Reconciliation

The course currently talks about two different kinds of reconciliation: prospective and retrospective. Prospective reconciliation involves looking ahead to try to figure out what a reconciled society in the future would look like.  Retrospective reconciliation is looking backward to deal with the wrongs of the past.  It involves coming to terms with past history, through, for example, truth and reconciliation commissions, war-crimes tribunals, reparations, etc.

I used to teach that retrospective reconciliation had to happen first, after which parties could undertake prospective reconciliation.  This is consistent with the view of Tim Phillips, CEO of the Boston-based peacebuilding organization Beyond Conflict. He wrote in an article entitled: "Is reconciliation in a divided America possible? Look to Northern Ireland to see what could happen."  

My decades of experience working in conflict resolution have taught me that for peace to be sustained, it requires a shared vision of the future that’s anchored in a shared understanding of the past. This does not mean, however, that all narratives of loss and suffering are equal. To understand is not to agree, but to recognize that conflict derives from exclusion and deepens injustice. Truly accepting that reality is essential. Otherwise, peace is fragile, calls to reconcile ring hollow, and the tensions that gave rise to the conflict only reemerge. The United States is facing such a moment.

Phillips goes on to explain that Northern Ireland didn't do that:

After the signing ceremony, leaders of the opposing political parties representing the Catholic and Protestant communities separately went before the media offering completely different, self-serving interpretations of the agreement. Many Catholics believed their community had suffered from generations of systemic abuse and discrimination by the British; many Protestants viewed the conflict as a wave of criminal activity by militant Catholics who sought to impose their will through violence. It was clear that neither the agreement — nor the negotiations leading up to it — did anything meaningful to change those views.

The failure of the Northern Ireland leaders to examine their own beliefs, or to acknowledge the validity of the other side’s interpretation of history that brought them into conflict, made it impossible to envision a different society beyond the absence of violence.

So that argues for coming to terms with the past, and creating a shared narrative about that past first, before trying to create a shared image of the future.  

Ebrahim Rasool explained that South Africa has pursued reconciliation by "starting with the end"—starting with the understanding that "the other is here to stay" and that "South Africa belongs to all who live there." 

However, I changed my mind about the necessity of a shared understanding of the past coming first, when I heard a talk given by Ebrahim Rasool, former South African ambassador to the United States. His talk could have been entitled "Is reconciliation in a divided America possible?  Look to South Africa to see what could happen." That was not the name of the talk, but that was the gist of it.

In brief, Rasool argued that South Africa has been able to reconcile to the extent that it has (he admits that it isn't perfect; it is still a work in progress) by "starting with the end," -- starting with an image of what a reconciled South Africa would look like. That image, he explained, was based, first, on the understanding that "the other is here to stay." [1]

"your [American] racism, your polarization, your discrimination, is sustainable only as long as you believe the other will disappear or go away." But they will not.  Most have no where to go.  Nor do they want to go anywhere.  This is their home too. In South Africa, he said, the Blacks came to realize that "if we were going to have freedom, we were going to have to be neighbors [with Whites].  We were going to have to co-exist.  And that is mind-shifting!" It makes you realize that you have to come up with a plan to live together in peace. (Text from "Ebrahim Rasool on What American Might Learn from South Africa's 300+ Years of Struggle")

Rasool explained that the plan was spelled out in 1955 by the African National Congress (ANC).

The ANC vision was that South Africa belongs to everyone who lives there, Black and White. That not only [was] a statement of vision, it [was] an extension of friendship.  It [was] an act of generosity." Even as Whites continued to dis-empower (and often kill) Blacks in South Africa, the Blacks had the "supreme humanity to say that South Africa even belong[ed] to [the White oppressors]. That disrupt[ed] the little pictures [the Whites had] constructed in [their] minds" and allowed people to open themselves up to new ideas.  (Text from "Ebrahim Rasool on What American Might Learn from South Africa's 300+ Years of Struggle")

That vision made the successful transition to a democratic government possible. And it brought forth the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission which allowed most, if not all, South Africans to come to a shared understanding of their past—after they had come to a shared understanding about their future.

Rasool's talk was so moving and so persuasive, that it prompted me to entirely rework my Reconciliation course, reversing the order in which I taught the prospective and retrospective reconciliation units. In addition, I began to suggest, though I'm not sure I ever said outright, that prospective reconciliation should always come first. 

A year later, I am less sure of that assertion.  In some instances (perhaps Northern Ireland, as Tim Phillips suggested above), retrospective reconciliation should come first. In other cases, such as South Africa, it did well coming second. And sometimes, it might well make sense to pursue both types of processes simultaneously. As is so often true, it depends on the situation.  But understanding that such choices exist, and have consequences, is important.

Unilateral, Bilateral, and Multilateral Reconciliation

Unilateral reconciliation is when there is a clear wrong-doer and clear victim. Bilateral reconciliation is when there were wrongs done by both sides. 

Guy recently suggested to me that another distinction is useful beyond the distinction between prospective and retrospective reconciliation. This is the distinction he makes between what he calls unilateral, bilateral, and multilateral reconciliation.  Unilateral reconciliation, he says, is when there is a clear wrong-doer and clear victim. In that case, reconciliation usually involves the wrong-doer admitting they did wrong, apologizing, working to make amends, and then being forgiven. Bilateral reconciliation, he says, is when there were wrongs done by both sides.  To reach reconciliation, both sides have to acknowledge their wrongs, apologize, make amends, forgive, and chart a path forward. Multilateral reconciliation is when there are more than two sides, all acting badly in some ways and at some times (and acting virtuously at other times), so all needing to acknowledge, apologize, amend, forgive, and chart a path forward where all parties can live together in relative peace.

Unilateral reconciliation is the model of reconciliation that underlies victim-offender mediation (VOM) and small-scale restorative justice (RJ).  This approach works well for minor crimes; it is more controversial for serious crimes, for instance rape or murder or other "unrightable wrongs." 

Unilateral reconciliation is the model of reconciliation that underlies victim-offender mediation (VOM) and small-scale restorative justice (RJ).  VOM/RJ typically only takes place when the perpetrator is willing to admit their guilt or has been found guilty in a court of law. The mediation is designed to help the perpetrator understand the full impact of their actions, to help the victim gain a better understanding of why the perpetrator did what they did, and to help both sides figure out (and implement) a plan to "make things right"—in other words, to reconcile.  Typically the perpetrator will replace what they stole or broke, or develop enough of a relationship with the victim so that they see them as a virtuous human being, not just a "mark."

This kind of reconciliation works well at the interpersonal level in the case of minor crimes. It is used particularly often with youth offenders to try to keep them out of the traditional justice system.  It is much more controversial when applied to major crimes—rape or murder, for example—where many feel asking for forgiveness is not appropriate and amends really cannot be made: lives can't be restored, nor can the sense of loss and violation be remedied after a rape. (These are what Guy and I and some others call "unrightable wrongs.") Though most practitioners think VOM/RJ is inappropriate for such situations, some practitioners do use VOM for such serious crimes, and report considerable benefit.

At inter-group and societal level conflicts, the prospect for unilateral reconciliation gets much more muddy.

At the intergroup and societal level, the prospect for unilateral reconciliation gets much more muddy.  Are there examples of conflicts in which one side is completely innocent, the other side completely wrong?  Slavery seems to be one such case. True, slaves, at times, acted violently towards their masters, but given their completely powerless and exploited situation, they can hardly be blamed for doing so.

Unilateral Racial Reconciliation in the U.S. Now

But what about descendants of slaves?  Progressives have been arguing for quite some time that Black descendants of slaves are due reparations, and some jurisdictions, such as California, are pursing such (along with a California-based Truth and Reconciliation Commission). 

Progressives have been arguing that Black descendants of slaves are due reparations, while Conservatives assert that they've been getting reparations ever since affirmative action was implemented in 1964. 

In addition, progressives across the U.S. are pushing for the continuation (or even expansion of) other remedies for past (as well as continuing) discrimination, such as affirmative action and related policies which give more voice and decision making authority to  "protected classes,"—not just Black descendants of slaves, but all racial minorities, women, and LGBTQs.

Conservatives argue, however, that Blacks and other protected classes have been given "reparations" ever since the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which, together with President Lyndon Johnson's executive order in 1965, established Affirmative Action.  They have long asserted that such polices are reverse racism, as they favor protected-class candidates for jobs and college admissions over whites.  While nine states in the United States have banned race-based affirmative action, it is still enforced in 41 states.[2]

While progressives believe the 1619 Project more accurately reflects U.S. history that traditional textbooks do, conservatives see it as denying the legitimacy of their identity—an affront human needs theorists point out is a recipe for protracted and deep-rooted conflict. 

Another fight is raging over history, with the two parties locked in a battle of competing narratives. This is reflected in the many bitter controversies over memorials and names. Progressives have been demanding the removal of many civil-war era statues and memorials, and the renaming of schools and buildings that were named for people who were seen as supporting slavery (even the likes of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Benjamin Franklin). Conservatives find these moves deeply offensive, as they feel they are denying their personal history and hence their identity.

A similar fight is raging over the teaching of history in schools.  The progressives' preferred approach to history is summed up by the New York Times' 1619 Project:

The 1619 Project is an ongoing initiative from The New York Times Magazine that ... aims to reframe the country’s history by placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of black Americans at the very center of our national narrative.[3]

The project is named "The 1619 Project" because it asserts that 1619, not 1776, marks the true founding of America, as that was the date the first slave ship arrived on American shores. This was the seminal event, the Times asserts, which has defined America's course ever since. 

Conservatives soundly reject that assertion, asserting that slavery has not been nearly that central to our history, and that America's traditional Founding Fathers deserve the credit for setting American on the course it has followed these last 250 years.  They see the assertion that the history of Blacks is more important than the history of whites as a denial of the legitimacy and honor of the white race. 

A closely related (and very hot ) controversy is the teaching of what is being called Critical Race Theory (or CRT) in the schools. Definitions of CRT abound (and are themselves contested), but I find the NAACP's definition most useful:

Critical Race Theory, or CRT, is an academic and legal framework that denotes that systemic racism is part of American society — from education and housing to employment and healthcare. Critical Race Theory recognizes that racism is more than the result of individual bias and prejudice. It is embedded in laws, policies and institutions that uphold and reproduce racial inequalities. According to CRT, societal issues like Black Americans’ higher mortality rate, outsized exposure to police violence, the school-to-prison pipeline, denial of affordable housing, and the rates of the death of Black women in childbirth are not unrelated anomalies. [4]

Many people don't yet know about CRT, and many scholars who are familiar with it maintain that what is being called "CRT" by Conservatives and the press is not a fair representation of its tenets. Nevertheless, a large (and growing) number of vocal Conservatives oppose the history curricula that are being taught in many schools (labeling it CRT), and asserting that it is, itself "racist" (as in biased against whites) and anti-American. For instance, according to PBS

Many Republicans view the concepts underlying critical race theory as an effort to rewrite American history and convince white people that they are inherently racist and should feel guilty because of their advantages.

But the theory also has become somewhat of a catchall phrase to describe racial concepts some conservatives find objectionable, such as white privilege, systemic inequality, and inherent bias. [5]

Conflict theorist John Burton and other human needs theorists have long maintained that attacks on a group's identity and security are likely to lead to deep-rooted, protracted conflict.  These debates over history and the role of different races therein is exactly that.  So it is not surprising that reconciliation is hard to come by.

So, as much as Progressives see Black-White relations as a situation calling for unilateral reconciliation (with whites apologizing and making amends before they are forgiven), Conservatives do not see the situation that way at all.  Some Conservatives are ready to apologize (or already have), but many are not. And many believe that they are being harmed in reverse, by having their identity denigrated, and being all lumped into one undifferentiated category of "deplorables," "haters," and "racists." This is one of the main issues driving support for Trump and Trump-allied politicians. whose poll numbers remain very strong.  

Conflict theorist John Burton and other human needs theorists have long maintained that attacks on a group's identity and security are likely to lead to deep-rooted, protracted conflict.  These debates over history and the role of different races therein is exactly that.  So it is not surprising that reconciliation (or even diminished polarization) is hard to come by.

Split here?

Is US Racial Reconciliation Hopeless?

As they did in South Africa, we in the United States need to recognize and accept the notion that "whites, as well as BIPOCs, are "here to stay."

Does this mean racial reconciliation in the United States is hopeless? I don't think so.  It seems to me that we should seriously consider following Rasool's advice by first, by starting with a recognition that whites, as well as BIPOCs[6], are "here to stay." Once most people come to understand and accept that, then we can try to figure out what that means.  We need to work across racial boundaries, across class boundaries, and across political boundaries to imagine a society in which all of these groups would feel comfortable and want to live.  Once such a broad image of the future is developed, as they did in South Africa, we could begin to define needed structural changes, and shape policies and programs that would start bringing that future about.  One such program could, indeed, be a retrospective reconciliation program including, among other things, a national Truth and Reconciliation Commission or a set of local TRCs, and possibly reparations. But the reparations, most likely, should go to all people who have been harmed by discrimination in the past: Native Americans, Hispanic/Latinos, Asians, lower-class whites, and LBGTQ as well as blacks.  This would look more like multilateral reconciliation than unilateral. Is unilateral reconciliation ever appropriate at the societal level?

The Example of Germany

Can unilateral retrospective reconciliation work anywhere at the scale of entire societies?  There are not many examples of it working successfully, but Germany is one interesting and important example. 

There are not many instances of societal-level unilateral reconciliation working successfully, but Germany is one interesting and important example.  Germany was not open to reconciliation immediately after World War II. Most people were in denial and mourning about what happened, and were just focused on basic survival, as much of the country had been entirely destroyed. 

But starting in the 1950s and continuing to this day, Germany reached out to its former enemies, providing over a billion dollars in reparations to Jews (mostly, but not entirely in Israel), and worked to rebuild trust with the U.S. and its former enemies in Europe. As a result, Germany is firmly allied with its former enemies in the European Union, of which it is seen as a leader.  This--together with the very notion of the European Union —is perhaps of the greatest large-scale success story of reconciliation that exists. (Do readers have other such stories—please share them!)

One of the things that interests me most about the German story is the degree to which Germans born in the last few decades still feel responsible for making amends for the wrongs of the Nazi regime which was gone long before they were born.  This is very different from conservative whites in America, who widely refuse to accept responsibility for slavery or even continuing racial discrimination. What is the difference?  I don't know, (and I will admit, I haven't researched this).

But I have a hypothesis.  Germany, after World War II (unlike World War I) was dealt with respectfully. (At least that was true in West Germany, not so much in East Germany.) The Marshall Plan helped rebuild Germany as well as the Allied European countries.  While Germany was required to pay some reparations to the Allies after the war, they were not nearly as crushing as the reparations demanded after World War I, which were widely seen as creating the animus and desperation that led to World War II. Further, the Nuremberg Trials only charged a very small portion of the German leadership with crimes—most Germans were not held responsible for the Holocaust or the war. This set the groundwork for reconciliation. 

In addition, Germany, the United States and France were all lead by visionary leaders who understood that a profound system break had occurred, and they had a choice.  They could rebuild a new system in the image of the old—quickly rekindling all the hatred and fear that had existed before.  Or they could try to build something entirely new—a set of new relationships built on mutual respect and peace.  They all chose respect and peace.  The result was the European Union and a strong bond between the United States and Germany.  (Megan Huber wrote an excellent article for BI on the building of the new Franco-German relationship which highlights how this came about.) 

This focus on respect and peace may be waning now, however. A Washington Post article posted on February 11, 2022 reports that the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party has grown in strength in part "thanks to growing resentment over the country's entrenched 'memory culture' around the horrors of the Holocaust." The article goes on to say that many of the supporters of this party live in East Germany, which was not treated as well by the Soviets after the war as West Germany was. Although most of the supporters of the AfD are far too young to remember the immediate post-war era, it is well known that "chosen traumas" are passed down through generations, and resentment of the Soviet's harsh treatment of East Germany shortly after the war may well still be fueling this anti-reconciliation mindset.

Contemporary Germans are (mostly) still willing to pay reparations for events that happened long before their birth.  But contemporary white Americans are much less inclined to do so.  If Progressives were to frame the problem less in terms slavery and the civil war, and more in terms of contemporary discrimination, whether they might be more successful in their reconciliation efforts. 

Another difference between West Germany and the U.S. that Guy points out is that 1619 and even the U.S. Civil War (1861-1865) was much farther back in time than was World War II.  It is worth wondering whether, if Progressives were to frame the race problem less in terms slavery and the civil war, and more in terms of contemporary discrimination, whether they might be more successful in their reconciliation efforts. 

Historical versus Contemporaneous Reconciliation

That brings up another distinction Guy makes: between "historical reconciliation," (which is, essentially, what I've been calling" retrospective reconciliation") and what Guy calls "contemporaneous reconciliation"—reconciliation for wrongs being done now or in the recent past.  It is much easier, he asserts, to get people to understand the harms they might currently be imposing on another person or group, than it is to get them to understand or take responsibility for harms done long ago.  The degree to which the entire world rose up in horror following the murder of George Floyd is an example of how powerful a current event can be in galvanizing emotion and making people recognize a problem that they had long ignored.  It is much harder to get such widespread reaction to things that happened hundreds of of years ago.  So while historical or retrospective reconciliation is important to undertake in many situations, it might be that contemporaneous reconciliation, together with prospective reconciliation, which addresses current wrongs and works to design a better future would be more feasible, and quite possibly, yield more benefits than retrospective reconciliation--particularly historical reconciliation used alone. (I am not sure this is true, but it seems worth considering.)

Bilateral and Multilateral Reconciliation:

In almost all intractable conflicts, there are more than two sides, although they often get over-simplified into two "us-versus-them."  In these cases, there are wrongs on all sides that need to be accounted for, but the situation is often not symmetrical. One side may have committed a much larger share of the wrongs, but the other side is not blameless, particularly if they respond to the wrongs in ways that drive the escalation spiral higher. 

The only difference between these bilateral and multilateral reconciliation are the number of sides involved--just two or more than two. In almost all intractable conflicts, there are more than two sides, although they often get over-simplified into two "us-versus-them."  In these cases, there are wrongs on both or all sides that need to be accounted for, but the situation is often not symmetrical. One side may have committed a much larger share of the wrongs, but the other side is not blameless, particularly if they responded to the wrongs in ways that drive the escalation spiral higher.  That is arguably the case in the United States, where "the system" (in addition to individual people) have long been discriminating against BIPOCs (Blacks, Indigenous and other People of Color), but BIPOCs with their white progressive allies contribute to the maintenance of this system by instilling fear in whites (for instance by writing books entitled The End of White Christian America, and instituting policies that make it clear that whites, particularly white men, are no longer wanted or valued in positions of authority, regardless of their expertise or experience.)

The wrongs, clearly, are not commensurate. But if true reconciliation is to be reached, it is necessary to be clear that America belongs to all who live here, white Christians included, and statements to the contrary need to be remedied. (I am aware that this statement will raise alarm in many progressive readers who believe that the BIPOC's "turn has come."  While that is clearly true if the goal is to give each racial group equal "time at the top," that goal is very unlikely to be reachable, due to the inevitable push back from white conservatives who still, clearly, have a lot of political power in this country. What will result, instead, is continued struggle, with great harm being done to all groups as a result. So I would contend that seeking a reconciliation that includes white Christians AND BIPOCs on equal footing would be far superior--and attainable if progressives would decide to work for that.)

South Africa, again, illustrates the way multilateral reconciliation can work.  Although the majority of the crimes in South Africa were perpetrated by whites, and "the system" of apartheid massively discriminatated against Blacks, the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission also acknowledged and handled Black crimes against whites.  The story that immediately comes to my mind is that of Amy Biehl. 

Amy was a white Fulbright Scholar working in South Africa in 1993, doing voter registration work. She and some friends were driving through one of the Black townships when her car was stopped by a mob of angry youths, who beat her and then stabbed her to death. The four youths who committed the crime were tried, found guilty, and incarcerated.  But once the TRC was started, all four applied for a hearing. As explained by Cate Malek, who profiled Amy's mother Linda Biehl for BI in 2005, 

The Biehls wanted to be respectful of the TRC process because they knew that Amy would have supported it. They granted all four men amnesty. At the hearing, Peter addressed the Commission saying, "The most important vehicle of reconciliation is open and honest dialogue...we are here to reconcile a human life which was taken without an opportunity for dialogue. When we are finished with this process we must move forward with linked arms." However, despite what Peter had said at the hearing, probably nobody expected what happened next.

After they were released from prison, Easy Nofemela and Ntobeko Peni, two of the men convicted of Amy's murder had come to much the same conclusion the Biehls had about the townships.

"They were shocked to see things hadn't changed. Things were worse. Their friends were not in school. There was a lot of drinking and drugs," Linda remembers. The two men started a youth group in their township and they wanted to show the Biehls what they had done. An anthropologist who had been interviewing them offered to contact the Biehls. They agreed.

The Biehls took Nofemela and Peni out to dinner. That night was the beginning of a strong friendship between the four. The Biehls hired the two men to help out with their organization [The Biehls had already started the Amy Biehl Foundation in South Africa, which ran after-school programs and small businesses in the townhships]. For many, this is the hardest part of the Biehls' story to grasp.

Linda explains, "Mediation and conflict happen on the most personal level. I'm not sure if I can describe my relationships with Easy and Ntobeko. They make sense to me and it is what it is. I love them, but you don't have to love everyone. You do have to see someone as a human being. They call me Makulu, which means wise woman. It's about respect for humanity and finding strength to open up to that realization. I feel badly for people who get in situations, for people who can't open the door and get a little light."

For Linda, this is where the reconciliation part of the story comes in. After she and Peter forgave Easy and Ntobeko, there was still much work to be done. They divided their time between the United States and South Africa, working in some of the most dangerous areas in South Africa. After Peter's death in 2002 from colon cancer, Linda continues to run the organization. She focuses on after-school programs. Her programs teach children how to avoid abuse and introduce them to the arts. Linda says that the adults in the townships are just as interested in the programs as the children are.

"People in the townships want their kids to do these things and they want to do them too," she says laughing.

Linda says her work in South Africa has been an enormous opportunity for her and she will continue to do it as long as she is physically able.

"People want me to talk about the past, but I'm not back there. It's been 12 years," she says. "I feel extremely privileged to have had these opportunities. Often, I have to swallow hard and I think I'm not sure I can do this. But then I do it. It's energizing. The more you learn, the more you learn you don't know... It's hard, but it should be hard. It's the same with parent/child or husband/wife relationships. That's what makes it real."

In 2005, Linda wrote on the Foundation website: 

Amy's legacy lives inside so many people. It drives her mother to continue her work and flourishes among the staff of the Amy Biehl Foundation Trust in Cape Town. Her legacy has inspired young people in the United States and has been a source of opportunity to thousands of South African youth. Amy's legacy thrives in the hearts of all of us who knew her and thousands of people she never met who have been inspired by her story. Perhaps most amazingly, her legacy lives through two men who played a big role in her death. Today, Ntobeko Peni and Easy Nofemela spread Amy's legacy throughout their community in South Africa. It is their transformation that truly represents the powerful legacy of Amy Biehl. Their transformation is what Amy was working for.

Had the South African TRC just looked at the task of reconciliation as a unilateral problem, this would not have happened.  It was the multilateral approach they took, giving the opportunity for apology and forgiveness to people on all sides, that this amazing story came to be.  What other amazing stories might occur were we to take a multilateral approach to reconciliation in the United States?

Other Reconciliation Distinctions:

I assign a very useful article by Simon Keys to my students which delineates many more reconciliation distinctions. If my students read that carefully, they will remember these, but I wat to include them here for our BI audience.

Vertical reconciliation is the repair of the relationship between the state and its citizens. Horizontal reconciliation is the repair of the relationship between citizens and groups of citizens.

Vertical vs. Horizontal Reconciliation

First, Keyes makes a distinction between vertical reconciliation and horizontal reconciliation. Vertical reconciliation is the repair of the relationship between individuals and the state, particularly relating to citizen's trust of the state, and the state's protection of individual rights and accountability for past human rights abuses.  Horizontal reconciliation, on the other hand involves repairing relationships between individuals and groups.  The focus here is on apology, forgiveness, reparations, and re-integration of offenders. So this is more akin to the restorative justice model I discussed above.

Thick vs.Thin / Minimalist vs Maximalist Reconciliation /Coexistence vs. Social Cohesion

Thin = Minimal = Coexistence

Thick = Maximal = Social Cohesion

Keyes also distinguishes between "thick" and "thin" reconciliation." Thin reconciliation is "coexistence with little or no trust, respect, and shared values." Thick reconciliation requires "the restoration of dignity, reversing structural causes of marginalization and discrimination, and restoring victims to their position as rights bears and citizens. [6]

This distinction is very similar to that between co-existence versus social cohesion.  Coexistence is a "minimalistic approach" through which groups live relatively peacefully together without seeking revenge for past wrongs. Social cohesion, which is a "maximalist approach" which includes such things as freedom from corruption, satisfaction with civil life, trust in institutions (see vertical reconciliation, above), representativeness of institutions, economic, political, and personal security, and the reduction or elimination of negative stereotypes, enforced social distancing, intergroup anxiety, social threats and discrimination. [7]

 Reconciliation is a goal or an outcome; it is also a process for reaching that goal. Progress along the pathway toward reconciliation is still progress.  It can seem a bit like Sisyphus's struggle with the rock, or like climbing a steep sand dune, but with patience, stamina, and some luck, the processes will eventually lead to the goal. 

Reconciliation as Outcome versus Process

A final distinction I make in the class materials is between reconciliation as seen as a goal, or an outcome of peacebuilding work, and as a set of peacebuilding processes designed to get a society closer to that goal, even if the goal itself has not been attained.  Given Guy's and my long focus on intractable conflicts—conflicts which are extremely hard to resolve (or reconcile), I tend to think of reconciliation more as a process, designed to reach a goal sometime in the future. 

Now, one of the processes I teach about is prospective reconciliation (discussed above) which involves imagining what that goal would be, and then charting steps to get there.  But I always stress that one hasn't failed if one doesn't make it all the way.  If one makes it enough of the way to improve relationships to some degree, and/or to make resumption of violence less likely, I would call that a "success."

One of my students noted in a discussion post that she was discouraged by the lack of progress made in Rwanda and South Africa, since they aren't yet entirely reconciled.  I responded that I look at those countries in the opposite way.  What they have accomplished, based on where they came from, is actually pretty remarkable.  That they still have a ways to go is hardly a surprise, or reason for disappointment.  To the extent that they seem to be moving backwards (and in some senses both do), that is a cause for concern.  But progress in reconciliation and peacebuilding work is never uni-dimensional. Sadly, it is a little bit like Sisyphus who was doomed to push the rock all the way up a high hill, only to have it coming rolling back down—over and over again. I envision peacebuilding and reconciliation work as a "winning, but still challenged, Sisyphus" — we push the rock part way up, it falls back some, but not to the bottom, we push up a little more, it falls back a little more....but we keep on pushing.  I also think about it like climbing a steep hill of sand.  Every time you take a step, some of the sand falls away and you slip back down — but, again, not quite as far. Eventually, if you are patient, you will make it to the top. 

Peacebuilders working on reconciliation need to be determined, and patient too. They should take pleasure and pride in the little steps, weather the setbacks (and learn from them), and continue climbing.  The top may never be reached, but the process of trying, alone, has many benefits.


[1] Here is an earlier blog post I wrote about Rasool's talk, and here is a link to the actual video of which Rasool's talk was part (he starts talking at 58:25.)

[2] "Affirmative action in the United States" Wikipedia.,the%20ban%20on%20affirmative%20action.

[3] This quote is from the Home Page of the 1619 Project.

[4] "Critical Race Theory: Frequently Asked Questions." NAACP Ledgal Defense and Educational Fund.

[5] Bryan Anderson. "Critical race theory is a flashpoint for conservatives, but what does it mean?" PBS Newshour November 4, 2021.

[6] BIPOC = Blacks, Indigenous Peoples and Other People of Color

[7] Simon Keyes, "Mapping on Approaches to Reconciliation" Posted by the Network for Religious and Traditional Peacemakers. p. 5.  Keyes attributes the idea to Paul Sells: (2017). "The Place of Reconciliation in Transitional Justice: Conceptions and Misconceptions. ICTJ Briefing." 

[8] Simon Keyes, "Mapping on Approaches to Reconciliation" Posted by the Network for Religious and Traditional Peacemakers. p. 10.




[1] Two explanations of Conservative (and some Liberal) critiques of the 1619 project can be found in:  Adam Serwer "Why Conservatives Want to Cancel the 1619 Project" The Atlantic. May 21, 2021. and Conor Friedersdorf "1776 Honors America’s Diversity in a Way 1619 Does Not" January 6, 2020.