Identity-Based Conflict
Lecture 9

Reconciliation and Dialogue

Rohee Dasgupta speaks to the need for communities to find healing from division in the face of war and structural violence.
Today's class starts with a participant-led presentation and discussion on the intersection of identity, grief and reconciliation. It explores, in particular, the truth and reconciliation commission (TRC) tasked with exploring the damaging legacy of Canada's residential school system. From the late 1800's until the last building closure in 1996 these schools were found to have forcibly removed indigenous children from their homes for "re-education" in order to "kill the Indian in the child."

What the presenters wanted us to walk away with, if nothing else, is that grief, especially when linked to experiences of identity, is hardly a fixed thing moving in a linear, straightforward fashion. It comes in waves, not bound to what outside observers may frame as a "rational" timeline.

The commission itself is an interesting case. TRCs are typically convened after a violent conflict, but in Canada there wasn't so much a war as an extended, often hidden cycle of human rights abuses that needed addressing. It was the first such commission in North America, and its stated goal was to find ways to restore relationships complicated by past crimes. Truth-telling and testimony were core aspects of the process, with many such stories anonymized in keeping with TRC practices elsewhere. It was hoped that, through survivor testimony, former students could reclaim their stories for themselves.
Sustainable reconciliation, the presenters say, may not be possible without understanding and addressing how grief impacts identity, and how identity impacts grief. A disempowered identity is just as much a reason for grief as well, and can impact mental health and wellness generally. What's more, it's an invisible type of suffering that can easily be passed over in favour of more visible factors like forced education, relocation and other abuses. For our presenters, it's important to focus not only on language, land or power issues, but on how people's subjective sense of rootedness and community have been traumatized. If these are not addressed with other factors, then the consequences of grief may continue to endure and be passed on through generations.

With this in mind, some criticisms of the TRC process was that it needed to have been more than an exercise in testimonies – there also needs to be a move to address grief and trauma in ways that reflect the community's experiences. The degree to which the commission engaged with this need is contested.

There are different definitions of reconciliation, with many focusing on drawing different sides into agreement or friendliness after an argument. The Canadian TRC defined it thus:
"Reconciliation is about establishing and maintaining a mutually respectful relationship between Aboriginal and non Aboriginal peoples in this country. In order for that to happen, there has to be awareness of the past, an acknowledgement of the harm that has been inflicted, atonement for the causes, and action to change behaviour" (TRC, 2016)
When opening space for reconciliation, it can be helpful to think about what led to the need for reconciliation, what is the reconciliation for, and who is it inviting to reconcile? TRCs are often launched by the government, one that can be newly-formed after a period of violence, as is often the case, or a long-standing government like Canada's that has had a complex history with the groups in question. Questioning what these actors stand to gain from a TRC, and how they may push their own agendas within their framework, may prove necessary.

That's not to say that parties associated with repression, violence or genocide cannot themselves be part of the process. The question of whose grief is being addressed is huge, as there are griefs on both sides. Both oppressor and oppressed can both experience grief, for different reasons, and there can be ways to address all sides. This forms another intersection of identity: depending on how you identify, your experience of mourning may be legitimized or delegitimized within certain contexts.

This leads to an interesting question of whether to rank different experiences of grief, and how. In one approach, the grief of victims often takes pride of place in processes like the TRC. In another, the question of ranking griefs is out of the question – it's like applying a metrestick to a process that defies linear measurement. Grief, when subjectively experienced, doesn't welcome comparison. It may, however, welcome accompaniment.

Another factor the presenters draw attention to is embodiment. Grief can be a physical process, and often shows up in the body. The residential school system wasn't only a cultural shock, in many cases it was a physical one that involved corporal punishment, disease and death. It taught Indigenous youth to hold themselves a certain way, or to relate to their bodies or the land differently than they would have otherwise have been taught.

When grief shows up in the body, it needs to be addressed with more than abstract, intellectual exercises. The way that a TRC is physically structured can facilitate this – does the setup of a room welcome physical response? Are testimony givers placed on pedestals, like on a trial, or incorporated into a circle? Do the physical structures speak to Indigenous or settler culture?

Prime Minister Stephen Harper's 2008 apology for the residential school system has been deemed by some to have been delivered detachedly, as if it were a matter of policy rather than grief, identity and loss. This has led to much discussion over the extent to which later generations are expected to embody grief and repentance, and what the implications of those are.

There are too many nuances to explore in such a short period of time, but the presenters recommend Naomi Angel's article "Before Truth: The Labors of Testimony and the Canadian Truth and Reconciliation Commission" for those interested in learning more.

Truth-Telling and Dialogue

"During and after a conflict there is a need to come to terms with the past," says Rohee Dasgupta, our instructor at Saint Paul University, after the participant presentation on the TRC ended. "But how do people do it?" She goes on to claim that reconciliation is not a matter of forgiving and forgetting so much as a process aimed at changing behaviour and relationships, especially in contexts where relationships have been damaged by violence.

Direct violence, which includes armed conflict, violent repressions, genocide or systematized assault, affects relationships between groups in tragically visible ways. But as discussed in our third lecture on memory and historical narratives, the need to process the past isn't limited to societies emerging from war – less visible acts like long-term repression, discrimination, marginalization or forced re-education (often referred to as structural violence) can lead to inequality or other forms of relational rupture in a society. Both types of violence, when they occur, may for a number of reasons be underreported, ideologically justified or deliberately hidden from public view, which means that one of the first steps in any attempt at addressing the past involves an extended process of truth seeking. The Canadian TRC process, explored in the presentation mentioned above, is an example of such a reconciliation attempt that strived towards addressing histories of structural violence through seeking and telling the truth of what occurred.

One of the focus points of TRC commissions generally is the recognition of harm. That harm was done, that its effects linger, and that there's a desire on the part of various social groups to address it in order to build a common future together. The extent to which that harm is acknowledged and processed, though, depends on the commission and the willingness of its organizers to delve into an exceedingly complex history.

Another focus is on the willingness to learn or change. Repairing relationships is not about going back to "the way things were," especially if it involved an unjust status quo. This involves attempts to come to term with historical narratives and memory, as well as with the reality of past injustices. These processes can't change the past, but they can involve reforms that work towards a different kind of future – often one aimed at greater inclusiveness, justice and participation.

This process may result in a culture that relies less on the past to define itself now. A pattern identified in the literature suggests that being hung up on the past may be an indicator of unresolved baggage – when that baggage is addressed wholeheartedly, and in ways that make the various actors involved in the process, this reliance may decrease as the focus then shifts to building a more desired present and future. This is what is meant by the term dealing with the past.
A TRC's attempt to deal with violent or oppressive pasts in ways that build a common future is often informed by the values mentioned above, but its degree of success is dependent on a lot of factors.

Violence and oppression, for example, are often a result of long-standing power structures that do not simply disappear – privileged actors may try to shape the TRC in ways that allow them to maintain said power. Strong legal structures, augmented perhaps by outside guarantors of the process, may be required to keep the process on course. This is something that will be discussed in next week's lecture on transitional justice.

Today's focus is on reconciliation, though, which focuses on a related though separate factor: a group's, people's or culture's willingness to deal with the past in a way that creates a joint future shared with a separate group that may be seen as threatening, undesirable, oppressive or entirely alien.

Such groups may have lived separate lives within one society for years, decades or even centuries – this may have been because of power structures (like caste) or factors that have led to parallel existences with little contact between them (different religions or cultural practices). In times of violence or upheaval, groups that are thus "othered" can sometimes take on the appearance of monstrous enemies devoid of understanding and in need of eradication. One of the first steps towards reconciling and building a shared future with such a group is generating mutual understanding, and one of the ways to start this is by dialogue.

Dialogue is an attempt, through words, to build bridges between divided communities. This is often assisted by facilitators specially trained to be on the lookout for how narratives, histories and experiences of conflict or threat have impacted a given group's ability to feel safe when engaging with another group. It often involves a fine balance requiring the creation of a safe enough space for participants to feel comfortable enough to engage with "others" who might otherwise feel threatening. Dialogue and facilitation are enormous subjects in their own right, and they've been addressed elsewhere on this site. If readers are interested in discovering more about how that process works and what it requires, they can link to the following material taken from a training session for facilitators.
Rohee doesn't describe the dialogue process in-depth (readers can click the link above to find out more information), but she does describe some of the barriers that get in the way of this type of reconciliation strategy.

The first involves the role of grief, as described in the presentation above. When someone endures a major loss, they may not be ready to reconcile or even listen to the other side. It may not matter if the hurt party was a member of the "oppressor" or the "oppressed" side – when someone experiences hurt, they can sometimes lose the ability to look at the situation from the side and decide whose actions are "legitimate" and whose are not. Pain can prevent that process from happening, and the persons affected have to engage with their own needs as human beings before addressing the needs of society as a whole.

This can become dangerous when the grieving process does not take place, or when it is repressed. Psychoanalyst Vamik Volkan has developed concepts like the chosen trauma, which is what happens when a cultural group undergoes a collective trauma that goes unresolved and can go on to motivate violent or oppressive behaviour in the future. The grieving process is one step towards addressing such traumas, but not everyone has the time, space or tools to do so. This is especially true in contexts of massive trauma like armed conflict or long-term structural violence.

Hurt or grieving people can even perceive ideas like reconciliation as a kind of betrayal – a concession to an oppressive or dangerous group that needs to be reeducated, managed, restricted, separated from us, imprisoned, cleansed or even eradicated. In this light, even dialogue advocates from one's own "camp" can be interpreted as a fifth column consciously or unconsciously bent on the destruction of group cohesiveness.

A threatened group can also frame resistance to reconciliation as a moral factor, claiming that dialoguing with the other side amounts to legitimizing, empowering or giving a platform to the evil, the oppressive or the problematic. When in this polarized state, it can be difficult to assess whether the other side indeed matches this description (with dialogue thus being a dangerous activity), or if one's perception is more informed by grief or hurt than by the facts of the matter.

That's not to say that the facts are to be elevated above a lived experience or felt reality. Grief and healing don't necessarily progress in linear ways that can be neatly mapped to outside realities. One of the major difficulties of the dialogue and reconciliation process is that both inner and outer reality matter, and privileging one over the other leads to problems down the road. Integrating both, however, is not simple and sometimes demands more resources that the parties have at a given moment. This can be a paradox that doesn't have a clear resolution.
Note: while most of the material in this class is directed at violent conflicts requiring measures like a TRC, the concepts and tools involved (dialogue, reconciliation, encountering the "other") are the same no matter if the scale are family conflicts, large group conflicts or "culture wars"
Dialogue, truth seeking and the recognition of past suffering – all in hopes of building a common future – is no simple thing. The acknowledgement of harm, the processing of grief and the initiation of a dialogue process are all preconditions that need to be met before mechanisms aimed at the restoration of broken relationships are initiated.

Once these processes are underway, however, the intimidating task of a TRC is to institutionalize these attempts and elevate them to a state-led level, one that often lasts for years and extends far beyond the formal closing of any given commission.

Beyond Healing:
How is Reconciliation Institutionalized?

Truth seeking and reconciliation, once they are underway and, hopefully, backed up by the necessary degree of sincerity and political will, can form the basis for the creation of shared, inclusive institutions that will undergird society moving forward. Extreme division and polarization not only affect institutions like political parties or the media, but can extend to affect the legal, medical and educational systems. If a social group perceives these institutions as beholden to a hostile group's interests, they are less likely to trust or offer their support to them.

Two ways of attempting to generate institutional consensus and power sharing in divided societies are consociationalism and centripetalism. Consociationalism attempts to anchor social power in coalitions, where different ethnic, religious or cultural groups mediate their disputes and maintain a balance of power. Donald Horowitz, a prominent researcher of ethnic conflict featured in our second lecture, criticizes this model as coalitions inherently consolidate differences instead of deconstruct them – his idea of centripetalism suggests a different model where members of polarized identity groups organize themselves along different lines so as to make the divisive identity factor less so. For example, if a conflict is ethnically driven, Horowitz would suggest organizing coalitions around class, professional or religious grounds.

There can sometimes be a desire to downplay histories of division altogether in an attempt to establish a united identity, especially when it comes to educational or political institutions. This was the case with the "New Soviet man," which was a campaign to eliminate ethnic differences through promoting a common set of ideals – this proved, however, merely to cover up divisions until they exploded in sometimes violent conflicts with the fall of the Soviet Union. Certain researchers claim that institutions emerging out of a TRC should find ways to recognize past divisions while emphasizing a collaborative future – as mentioned in our third lecture, this can be assisted with memorials and public commemorations aimed at facilitating a public grieving process aimed at resolving grief rather than exacerbating, freezing or reigniting it.
Another major decision to make involves prosecuting perpetrators – once the facts of major crimes are established, arrests are often called for. But this is a tricky thing because a TRC has to establish a position regarding who to blame. Were the people holding the guns at fault? Their commanders? The political leaders giving the orders? Cultural, grassroots or religious leaders inciting people to violence? Our fifth lecture explored some of the nuances involved in assessing the influence of leaders, and different TRCs have different approaches to prosecution.

In some cases, all crimes are prosecuted but coming forward with information can lead to reduced sentences or even immunity. Sometimes even officials and highly placed political leaders are able to walk free if they assist with information leading to the prosecution of other major figures – though often this will not be an option if a person committed war crimes.

These can lead to perpetrator testimonies, where TRC representatives or even the victims themselves are told the other side of the story, and sometimes where to find the remains of loved ones. These mechanisms can even take place long before a TRC during the peace process itself, as was done in Colombia when members of government-aligned paramilitaries or the rebel FARC group were confronted with each other or with victims.


Fredy Builes | The Nation
There's often a desire to set up a local mechanism so as to create local ownership of the process instead of having it be a matter dealt with at the International Criminal Court (ICC) in the Haag. This usually involves the establishment of special tribunals that often work in concern with TRCs and other mechanisms of transitional justice, which will go on to be explored in next week's class. The international criminal tribunals for Rwanda (ICTR) and the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) were internationally backed legal bodies in charge of assisting with these processes, and are set up in collaboration with the states involved.

This collaboration is important – an international criminal tribunal cannot be forced on a state and have to be invited into the post-conflict reconstruction process. While this is meant to respect sovereignty and national agency, in cases involving a military defeat or an armed humanitarian intervention these processes are sometimes initiated in states that have been severely weakened and have less leverage to counterbalance international pressure to launch a tribunal.

Once they are set up, one of the major tasks is to provide anonymity for those providing testimony. This is important for victims and sometimes even for perpetrators, who may not be safe from future revenge attempts. This anonymity for both can sometimes be motivated by the fact that victims and perpetrators, especially in contexts of intractable conflict, sometimes switch roles.

Guaranteeing this anonymity can take a long time, and so tribunals often end up spending years collecting testimonies and building cases aimed at prosecution. This is a procedural task that intersects with broader reconciliation and dialogue practices, and these can either interfere with or support each other depending on how systems are established.

There may also be institutional attempts to forge a national identity, one that binds divided groups together within one tent. This can involve civic rituals, commemorations and educational materials that promote a common identity along with specific virtues or characteristics that are aimed at reducing social tensions and lessening the likelihood of conflict resurgence.

These are all incredibly sensitive procedures, however, and they face a number of obstacles that need to be addressed in order to make sure these institutions shore up movements towards collective reconciliation.

The Limits of Reconciliation

The new identities mentioned above can come from the ground up, from grassroots attempts, or it can be a top-down process initiated by elites. Top down processes can be especially problematic if the people on the receiving end of identity-building practices perceive the attempt as foreign, or even oppressive. People sometimes perceive identity-building campaigns as a threat against their own chosen identities, especially if they are grounded in ethnicity, language or religion.

In cases where there is such a divide between various groups and the leaders seeking to forge common identities, conflict-supporting actors known as spoilers can exploit the situation in order to seize power or influence. Spoilers can act directly in bad faith, sometimes pretending to champion ethnic, racial or religious causes in order to further their own interests. But spoilers can also act sincerely – they might resist a peace settlement if they frame it as a genuine act of persecution or repression. This is often a sign that the process was not as inclusive as it needed to be, and that there are other groups that may need to be brought to the table.

In addition to spoilers or flawed TRCs, tribunals or peace processes, grief and trauma remain obstacles to institutional reconciliation. Even though these may be addressed through dialogue and reconciliation processes, deep-seated wounds can persist for decades into the future. This means that even carefully crafted reforms can come up against nonlinear, psychological processes that need to be respected but can nevertheless create barriers to creating a common future.

Violence might have also become normalized, or even established as a marker of identity, meaning that attempts at peacebuilding may have to be framed using other words in order not to rub up against local sensibilities. This is often related to what sociologist Johan Galtung calls cultural violence, referring to the ways cultural phenomena (art, customs, parenting styles, etc) privilege or promote violent action.

This can develop in situations where groups hold onto chosen traumas that become part of their identity – violence can become an institutional expression of the desire to redress wrongs or resist enemies. This can lead to behaviour that, ironically, can create enemies or oppress others, thus entrenching violent cycles. Top-down institutional initiatives won't be enough to address these dynamics – they require grassroots movements aimed at working within communities.

One advantage these community initiatives have is that these smaller groups may be better suited to building trust. They have a stake in their locality and may be able to facilitate shifts in identity, and a broader healing process, in places where TRCs and tribunals may not necessarily reach
That said, the divisions polarizing communities sometimes form over centuries and don't immediately heal even when addressed with the most conscientiously planned reconciliation processes. That doesn't mean that projects like these are useless – just that they have their limits. And that the negative consequences of division and polarization may have to be actively mitigated for the long term.

This can rub up against the discourse motivating certain post-conflict reconstruction initiatives, especially if they are focused on terms like forgiveness. Forgiveness was one of the focal concepts motivating South Africa's immensely influential TRC, and the word sometimes meant different things to different people. For some, it was a religiously-charged way to describe the complex, ongoing process of choosing a common future over a divided past, but for others it implied an act that, once and for all, closed the book on past sins.

The religious connotation of words like forgiveness and reconciliation can sometimes create barriers to achieving them in public life. Forgiveness can be imposed as a religious imperative on groups who are not ready to reconcile – as mentioned above, even engaging in mere dialogue can feel like a betrayal or even a sin. Trusting in a TRC process can seem an immoral compromise in the face of recent persecution, and so people can feel spiritually torn – especially when forgiveness is demanded of victims with no guarantee of justice.

This is only exacerbated when the demand for reconciliation is imposed by a powerful player and has the effect of marginalizing certain populations. The very word itself can take on negative connotations or become shorthand for repression.

In contexts of hybrid war this is even more complex, as many conflicts are, in effect, undeclared wars where perpetrators can deny their involvement and can suggest or even impose reconciliation measures as a means of pacifying a resisting population. In cases where reconciliation becomes weaponized, sincere actors looking to initiate peace processes have to step carefully because even words like "peace" can be understood as oppressive.

That's not to say that advocating for peace, reconciliation, dialogue and justice are impossible even in these complex situations – just that practitioners, researchers and policy makers need to be aware of these nuances in order to design interventions that take these factors into account without making the situation worse.

El Salvador's truth commission paved the way for South Africa's TRC, which went on to provide a model used in other nations emerging from periods of violence. As mentioned above, these practices can come to be incorporated into peace negotiations, as in Colombia, or used to address social repressions like the treatment of Canada's indigenous population. Even though reconciliation faces huge barriers, steps are still being made toward establishing sustainable, peaceful coexistence.

The systems we build aren't perfect, Rohee says, but they're certainly better than war. And they will continue to improve with time.
Rohee Dasgupta teaches conflict studies at St. Paul University; her research interests include identity, cosmopolitanism, security and anthropology.

Josh Nadeau is a freelance writer and dialogue practitioner.
He studied identity-based conflict at St. Paul University in 2021.

Banner photo by Sean Kilpatrick from The Canadian Press
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Further Reading
Before Truth:
The Labors of Testimony and the Canadian Truth and Reconciliation Commission
Naomi Angel (2012)
Culture, Theory and Critique, 53(2), 199–214
From Conflict Resolution to Reconciliation
Ed. Yaacov Bar-Siman-Tov (2004)
Oxford University Press
On Dialogue
David Bohm (1996)
Routledge
Bosnian Society on the Path to
Justice, Truth and Reconciliation
Sanela Basic (2006)
Peacebuilding and Civil Society in Bosnia-Herzegovina: Ten
Years after Dayton
. Münster: Lit Verlag, 357-386
Reconciliation and Remembering:
(How) Does it Work?
Ann Rigney (2012)
Memory Studies, 5.3 251–258