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Acknowledgment and its role in the reconciliation process

One of the things that I have run across time and again is the power of acknowledgment. I think it is incredibly important for humans to feel acknowledged, but it is frequently overlooked. It is explored in art, literature, psychology, anthropology, and religion extensively. It comes up in highly successful programs among victims and perpetrators here in the US (I just saw another headline that those who commit crimes are far less likely to be repeat offenders if they have been required to make amends to the victims, which includes acknowledgment of the hurt suffered by the victim).

But I have also seen transformations among those who are not clearly defined as victim or perpetrator (because they are both and neither). This is used successfully in schools where children in conflict are brought together to share, listen and acknowledge the hurt caused by a conflict of which they have been a part. It is used in marriage (and divorce) counseling. It is being used as part of the widespread programs for truth, justice and reconciliation in Uganda and, I believe, Rwanda. I’ve met two fathers, one Palestinian and one Israeli who each lost a child to violence perpetrated by the “other” side, and they made a point that acknowledgment was key to their healing. They called each other brothers. And, I recall witnessing conversations among other Palestinians and Israelis where hearing one another share his or her pain, and acknowledging it (without judgment about who was right or wrong, who's view of history is more valid, etc.) caused a breakthrough in listening, a breakthrough in perspective.

I think that listening with compassion and acknowledging suffering is not even close to the same thing as making oneself "wrong" and the other "right." On the contrary - it can transcend positional obstacles, clearing a space for a dialogue based on real need. But, as we see throughout the layers of our societies, few are willing to take this approach (note how world leaders rarely stand up and say "we acknowledge that our actions have caused you to suffer"). The US has only offered the vaguest of nods, if any, in a number of very obvious areas such as slavery, genocide of indigenous populations, interment camps, etc. Japan still has not acknowledged the atrocities suffered in China, and (not surprisingly) relations between the two nations are still tense. South Africa and Germany are two countries that have worked harder than any other I can think of to publicly acknowledge great wrong-doing (let’s face it, many other European countries went along with some of the greatest atrocities in recent history, but have never acknowledged their role). It is very rare.

For some, acknowledgment may seem like a silly, theoretical concept - too weak to have a place in the "real" world. I think many people are afraid that if they acknowledge the suffering of another (whom they see as their opponent in the conflict), they diminish the validity of their own suffering. That, to me, is similar to the idea that one cannot love too many people because there is only a finite amount to go around (sorry Dad, I can't love you because there would be less love for Mom...). Sadly, suffering is not finite. Everyone can suffer without their being any less suffering for the next person.

Do you have any thoughts on acknowledgment as a tool for reconciliation?

How do you feel about “truth” and “justice” and does mercy fit in here somewhere? What about forgetting… just moving on? These four elements were discussed extensively in a graduate course I took in “transitional justice,” and they have stayed in my mind, along with the idea of acknowledgment. Can these concepts, put into practice, help produce tangible results and a return to what might be called “normalcy” if it hadn’t been absent in Israel and Palestine for so many decades?

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Comment by Johanna Silverthorne on February 9, 2010 at 10:09am
Eyal, are you familiar with the work of John Paul Lederach? He wrote an excellent book called Building Peace: Sustainable Reconciliation in Divided Societies in which he discusses the importance of building relationships in order to build a shared future. I am too tired to explain more now, but I HIGHLY recommend the book.
Comment by Johanna Silverthorne on December 20, 2009 at 9:46pm
Hello Eyal! Please pardon my lateness in replying. I have been traveling and running on a very busy schedule. I've missed MEPeace!
I am thinking about your question and would like to work on this. I don't have any clear ideas, yet, but I will certainly share them when I do.
Comment by Eyal Raviv on November 6, 2009 at 10:05am
This is fascinating. I am exploring acknowledgement, compassion, forgiveness in reconciliation and how we can bring it about with and through mepeace.org. Any thoughts?

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