Reconciliation as a Noun and a Verb (Outcome and Process)

Heidi Burgess
Guy M. Burgess

January, 2021

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This video explains how reconciliation is both an outcome and the processes used to reach that outcome, and further explores some of the dilemmas in deciding what outcomes are most desirable.

Full Transcript:

Slide 1. This is Heidi Burgess.  Today I want to explore more about the idea of how reconciliation can be a noun and a verb.

Slide 2. In our complexity-oriented, massively-parallel reconciliation video, we ended with this slide, which showed that reconciliation involves many people, doing many different things, but working basically in concert, largely in parallel, towards a similar goal.

Slide 3. So this notion was very much reconciliation as a verb--in other words, a process.

Slide 4.  That slideshow also had this slide in  it. Here we pointed out that some of these concepts, such as latent conflict and hurting stalemate, were states or nouns, or the way things were at a fixed period of time. Others were processes or verbs, such as conflict emergence, conflict escalation, de-escalation, dispute settlement and post-conflict peacebuilding. But out to the right, after you do post-conflict peacebuilding, the idea was that you would get to an end state, a desired outcome.  And that was, supposedly, reconciliation. So, let's explore a little bit more about what that means. 

Slide 5. One of the common images people have is that that reconciliation is some sort of Kumbaya resolution--the notion of the end of history, a utopia where there is no more conflict. Is this true?

Slide 6.  I would argue that it is not. For a start, you are never going to get rid of conflict. And you never want to. Guy argues that conflict is the engine of social learning. We don't learn how to change bad things into good things without having conflict. And even if you could, there's no way in the kind of complex, intractable conflicts which we talk about, that you're going to completely do away with all conflict.  So if you don't that, then what is reconciliation?

Slide 7. In the article that I referenced in the earlier video by Simon Keyes, he summarizes many different papers, all of which had different definitions of what reconciliation meant. There was a distinction between vertical reconciliation and horizontal reconciliation, where vertical reconciling was people reconciling with their government and horizontal reconciliation was reconciling across divides between different people. Or thick and thin reconciliation, which is similar to the minimalist-maximalist distinction. You can either have a very thin veneer of people getting along, tolerating, each other, but not really liking each other, to a maximalist reconciliation where people become completely identified with each other--as I have in the next I bullet point. They have new inclusive identities with all groups  being identified as "we" as opposed to us-versus-them. That implies new attitudes, new norms. It implies trauma healing--psychological and physical, social concerns cohesion and many8 many more that Keyes listed his article.

Slide 8.  One of the ones that he listed was the notion of "The Meeting Place" that was developed quite a few years ago by John Paul Ledearch, who remains one of my peacebuilding heros. And since this is the way I first learned about reconciliation, it still resonates deeply with me. I particularly like his notion of reconciliation, because it reflects the complexity that I've been talking about.. This notion is that reconciliation is a “meeting place” of four concepts: peace, justice, truth and mercy. 

Slide 9. All four of these concepts are to some degree in conflict with each other. If you want justice, then according to one theory of justice, people should get “just desserts” for what they did and therefore should not be granted mercy. If you want truth, you can't ignore what happened --which people who grant mercy are accused of sometimes doing. And sometimes finding truth will violate the peace because people don't want to acknowledge all the harms done–fearing that will make people angry. Likewise, finding justice also can be seen as preventing peace from happening, although there also is the argument that if you want peace, you have to fight for justice.  

So all four of these concepts are very complex! We will be talking a lot more about each of them as time goes on. But the key ideas is that in order to get to Lederach’s place called reconciliation, you have to balance out all four of these ideas

Slide 10. Just before I was going to make this video. I was at the Alliance for Peacebuilding’s conference PEACECON 2020 and I heard a talk by Ebrahim Rassool who is a former ambassador to the United States from South Africa. He was talking about the tension between peace and justice.  He explained that many people in South Africa (and elsewhere) argue that South Africa should not have given nearly as much amnesty for the crimes of apartheid as they did, as part of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. They argue that as a result of “selling out” on justice, there still is a great deal of inequality and injustice in South Africa. 
His answer to this charge was a question: if they had held out for perfect justice,  would they have even been alive a year or two later? Or would they would have had total war, instead of an uneasy peace?  So his belief was that no, they would not have been alive two years later. They know the peace that they have in South Africa is not perfect. The  justice they have is far from perfect. The truth wasn't entirely perfect. Not everybody came and told the truth, and what was told was partial at best. And mercy was granted unevenly. 
But what they found was a way to balance all of these things, in order to get them in a position to be able to work over time to perfect them and perfect the notion of reconciliation.

Slide 11. So what he emphasized was that reconciliation is a careful balancing of many factors. And it's not a short-term prospect. It takes a long time. But eventually you can get to the point where the balance beam isn't as narrow. It isn't as precarious, but is much more stable, with many, many more on board.  This is a great example of what Guy and I call “dynamic reconciliation.”  Even reconciliation as a noun–as an end state isn’t a static end state.  It is a dynamic end state, where everyone has to continue to work to stay balanced on the reconciliation balance beam

Slide12. Guy points out that his image of reconciliation is moving from what he says are “invisible fist societies” where there is one side inflicting coercive power on the other, to “invisible hand societies” where people work together in balance, in concert, so that everybody's needs are met. The “invisible hand” notion, of course, came from Adam Smith, who was talking about capitalist economies, and Kenneth Boulding added the “invisible fist” notion, as a contrast to the “invisible hand.” So Guy's interpretation of this is, once you get the invisible hand overcoming the invisible fist, that's when you're have reconciliation. 

Slide 13. He goes on to point out that reconciliation needs to limit the power of tyrants and plutocrats and “tyrant wannabes” to dominate and oppress others. And it also requires limiting the ability of those people to stop the invisible-hand people from being effective.

Slide 14. Another way he puts it, is that peace and reconciliation are the inversion of Clausewitz. Clausewitz said that “war is a continuation of diplomacy by other means.” If you turn that upside down, peace and reconciliation are the continuation of war, in other words, violent approaches to conflict, by other means.  It is not the absence of conflict.  It is just the engaging in conflict in constructive ways.     


Slide 7: Simon Keyes. "Mapping Reconciliaton"

Photo Credits:

Slides 5 and 6: Public domain.

Slide 14. Picture:  open source.