Restoring Human Capability: Reconciliation and Liberal Multiculturalism

Chapter 10
Restoring Human Capability: Reconciliation and Liberal Multiculturalism1

Monica Mookherjee


Given the persistence of bitter ethnic conflicts today, a question arises as to whether liberal multiculturalists ought to pursue reconciliation. While this goal has gained prominence in countries ranging from Australia to South Africa, the matter remains highly controversial. Since the 1980s, liberal multiculturalists have emphasized diversity and disagreement as permanent features of the human condition, and might accordingly hesitate to compel the deep engagement between citizens that seems necessary for true reconciliation. While much depends on the meaning of this concept, liberals might instead adopt a value pluralist view that confronts irreducible divergence of perspectives and irreconcilable goods in human life (Berlin 1959). On the other hand, however, to assume that reconciliation has no place in liberalism seems unworkable. Intractable problems of diversity today, from the plight of Australian Aboriginals to the legacy of violence in the former Yugoslavia, seem to call urgently for reconciliatory settlements. As the magnitude of the inequalities resulting from historical conflicts suggests strategies like minority rights will not suffice, a liberal multicultural concept of reconciliation, emphasizing the commemoration of past injustice, thus appears timely, if controversial, indeed.

This chapter defends such a concept by considering the French government’s construction in 2001 of a plaque at Paris’ Pont St Michel to remember the killing of Algerians in the so-called ‘Paris Massacre’ of 1961 (Bernard and Gawn 2001). While I postpone the details of the case to my substantive discussion, it bears noting at this early point that the French state’s apparent desire to achieve reconciliation with its Algerian communities in this manner prompts a debate about the meaning of the term. One possibility lies in the reconciliatory narrative of the South African Truth Commission, a narrative that focuses on forgiveness and which aims to ‘heal’ individuals and ‘redeem’ societies (Tutu 2000; Gobodo-Madikizela 2002). The notion of Reconciliation-as-Forgiveness (RF) may be contrasted with a less demanding conception which merely seeks to institutionalize impartiality and respect. Reconciliation-as-Civic-Trust (RCT) does not require citizens to ‘let go’ privately, but invites them to build limited public trust through democratic reason. Locating difficulties with both approaches, this chapter defends an alternative informed by Amartya Sen’s capability approach (1992, 1999) and which develops from Colleen Murphy’s (2010) insight into the role of capabilities in political reconciliation. Drawing on Sen’s emphasis on constructive action in the world with others as the fundamental objective of human development in conditions of cultural pluralism, this conception is labelled Reconciliation-as-Agency (RA).

My discussion proceeds as follows. After outlining problems in defining reconciliation (in the next section), the following two sections unfold the two conceptions above. Finding both inadequate with regard to the French memorial, the chapter then presents RA as the moral heart of political reconciliation under culturally diverse conditions. Plausibly supported by the St Michel commemoration, RA draws on Sen’s theory to defend a higher quality, sustainable peace which restores victims’ and perpetrators’ ‘agency-freedom’. Defined as an ability to assess and act in pursuit of one’s needs whilst cognizant of others’, the concept of agency-freedom locates middle-ground between the ambition of reconciliation based on forgiveness and the weakness of the approach grounded in trust. In questioning liberalism’s border between public and non-public reason, moreover, it promises humane responses to historical injustices, in conditions of cultural diversity, not fully achieved by systems of minority rights.

Reconciliation versus Multiculturalism? Dilemmas in Contemporary France

A preliminary difficulty with integrating reconciliation within liberalism is that the former ideal is usually considered most appropriate to the field of ‘transitional’ justice.2 In contrast with stable liberal democracies, transitional states seek to move towards the rule of law after atrocity and thus lack an established culture of minority rights. Yet recent political events reveal problems with an absolute distinction between established democracies and transitional states. Kymlicka and Bashir (2008: iv–v) accordingly observe that, while the post-war commitment in developed nations to democratic constitutionalism supports minority rights, exclusions and inequalities persist. However, even if one positively welcomes a liberal concept of reconciliation, a further difficulty is that its meaning is notoriously unclear. While it has been regarded as the ‘sine qua non for democracy’ (Ratner 1999: 734), and although some (e.g., Kriesberg 1998; Rigby 2001) define it through various combinations of peace, mercy and compromise, its moral core remains elusive. As Quinn (2009: 182) complains: ‘I have never understood just what “reconciliation” is supposed to be. Is it the sum total of what Christians believe about God’s saving work? … Or [does it involve] bringing … incompatible descriptions of events into narrative equilibrium?’

The need for a clear definition, in conditions of cultural pluralism particularly, becomes apparent on considering the predicament of immigrants in states such as France today. While the republican government has historically opposed Anglophone multiculturalism, the nation confronts the need to accommodate its minority citizens with respect (Silverstein 2004). After colonial independence in the 1960s, the state practised a form of political amnesia, seldom teaching imperial history in schools; and today it not unrelatedly denies the existence of minorities (Norman and Vidal 2004). Yet institutional silence surrounding colonialism and the legal invisibility of minorities have been questioned on account of conflicts including the urban riots involving many immigrants in 2005. Moreover, as a measure to quell populist security fears regarding Algerian migrants, in 2001 Bertrand Delanoë, Mayor of Paris and himself of Tunisian origin, unveiled a plaque in memory of the ‘Paris Massacre’ of 1961, during which 40 – some historians say 200 – peacefully protesting Algerians were killed, and their bodies dumped in the River Seine. The action was commanded by Maurice Papon, erstwhile Chief of Police, in an event which was long shrouded in silence (House and McMaster 2006).

A comprehensive history of this event is beyond the scope of this chapter. I draw on its legacy and the memorial specifically as lenses through which to consider the meaning of a pluralist approach to reconciliation. And although this chapter cannot address the significant literature on ‘the politics of memory’ in France (e.g., Lebow, Kansteiner and Fogin 2006), it concentrates on remembrance as a component of multicultural reconciliation. The case itself has proved controversial, as the plaque failed to declare responsibility. The journal l’Humanité notably complained that it referred to a bloody repression rather than to a crime against humanity (Ducoin 2011). Delanoë nonetheless insisted that ‘there are parts of Paris’s history that are painful, but which have to be talked about and which have to be accompanied by acts’. Such commemoration was therefore necessary, he argued, for France to move forward ‘with unity’.3

A key question is whether this call for inter-ethnic unity amounted to a plea for reconciliation. Even if this is assumed, it seems obvious that a plaque alone cannot resolve all inequalities experienced by the country’s minorities today, such as dire housing in shanty-towns, which may be considered in part their colonial legacy (Laachir 2007). As the héritiers involontaires de la guerre d’Algérie (involuntary heirs of the Algerian war), France’s postcolonial minorities have been deemed outsiders of the grand ideal of republican unity, which traditionally demands integration over dedicated protection for minority identities (Bouamama 2008).

The case thus raises a problem concerning the relationship between reconciliation and egalitarian multiculturalism, and, indirectly, that concerning liberal multiculturalism and French republicanism. While the second issue warrants deeper discussion than space enables here, it bears remarking that some recent French writers articulate a progressive republicanism open to recognizing ethno-cultural differences (Laborde 2008; cf. Wieviorka 1996). While republicanism undoubtedly differs from liberalism with regard to its conceptualization of both self and society (Chabal 2010), some newer voices in the tradition take seriously the way in which social exclusion can motivate or exacerbate the politicization of ethnic differences (Laborde 2008: 11). Indeed, at times these progressive republican writers seem better positioned to defend liberal goals of equality and freedom than some writing within the Anglophone tradition.

While my point in this regard is not ambitiously to re-frame French republicanism, it is to emphasize the plausibility of exploring liberal-multicultural ideals in the French context. More precisely, it is to maintain that Delanoë’s call for unity need not imply the suppression of difference that liberals might fear. This point might be considered, whilst proceeding to examine the meaning of multicultural reconciliation and whether state commemorations may support it.

Reconciliation-as-Forgiveness: A ‘Deeply Illiberal Idea’ (Ash 1999: 38)?

In view of the grave violence of the Paris Massacre, it seems apt to consider whether the state’s commemoration contributes to a form of reconciliation often associated with the attractive goal of forgiveness. This idea informed the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission of the 1990s, a ground-breaking response to an arguably more acute history of inter-ethnic violence, namely that which took place during the Apartheid regime. While there are many ways of understanding forgiveness, in essence it appears to involve the resolution of debt by letting go of resentment (Murphy and Hampton 1998). In this sense, it seems to account for the fundamental change of heart that true reconciliation might require after bitter conflicts in deeply divided, ethnically plural societies.

Although South Africa’s Commission’s Final Report defends reconciliation without referring to forgiveness (see Kiss 2000: 75), the two concepts were linked during the country’s transition. For instance, the Chairperson of the Commission, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, alluded to the spiritual dimension of reconciliation in chapter 5 of the report by invoking an image of South African people as the ‘Rainbow People of God’. In No Future without Forgiveness (1999: 34, 56–7), he further allied the Commission’s work with the Catholic ‘sacrament of reconciliation’, which involves the sinner seeking forgiveness from another, notably the priest, and ultimately seeking absolution from and communion with God.4 In apparent accord with the liberation theology underpinning the US Civil Rights movement, Tutu wished to establish the Christian notion that humanity, not only the sinner, has distorted its personality such that each of us requires restoration with God, whose goodness is ontologically prior to violence. The co-dependence of forgiveness and in this context reconciliation was reinforced by Krog’s moving narrative in Country of My Skull, which affirmed that ‘the one begins, or opens a process of becoming … the other … The Xhosa word for reconciliation in the concept of Truth of Reconciliation is forgiveness (uxolelwano). The TRC literally means in Xhosa: the Truth and Forgiveness Commission’ (Krog 2010: 37). Tutu and Krog thus sought the political application of an approach to reconciliation usually belonging to private, spiritual sphere (Philpott 2006: 79–80); and it seems, therefore, that Reconciliation-as-Forgiveness (RF)5 unofficially underpinned the magnanimity that the Commission extended to some of the protagonists of the Apartheid regime.

Yet, quite apart from the profound dissatisfaction of many South Africans in relation to this ideal, states like France with a strong public–private divide might strongly resist the idea of invoking any, and particularly a religious, notion of forgiveness in politics. This is because any version seems part of a comprehensive vision of the good life or world-view, the political endorsement of which might deny the culturally diverse values that inform responses to wrongdoing. Although Arendt (1958: 236–43) defended the indispensability of forgiveness in politics, she recognized that the version based on Christian love could threaten human ‘plurality’. Tutu notably also grounded forgiveness in the African notion of Ubuntu or humaneness, which holds that ‘a person is diminished when others are humiliated and diminished’ (Tutu 1999: 35), without, however, seemingly recognizing that different world-views might specify different conditions for forgiveness; and that if parties to a conflict hold divergent tenets regarding forgiveness, its specific grounding may hinder the reconciliatory process (Auberach 2005: 469). Yet in presuming that a damaged society cannot move forward without deep inward change to break the cycle of revenge, Tutu was not alone in aiming to synthesize forgiveness and reconciliation (Philpott 2006; Gruchy 2004).

However, while the TRC ideal thereafter proliferated (Van Antwerpen 2008), the synthesis proved controversial amongst South African, European and American critics alike. Crocker contends that the moral consensus on which forgiveness is based is an objectionable goal in modern politics (2000: 69). Bhargava (2000) further argues that, while forgiveness is sometimes an appropriate response to historical injury, it is a personal choice beyond the state’s responsibility. It is not always clear if these objections relate to a secular as well as a religious notion of forgiveness. The two may differ (Kohen 2009), in that the spiritual version may be unilateral, involving a pure ‘act of grace’, whereas the secular notion seems to require the perpetrator’s atonement or reparation. In any event, the problem lies in the ‘thickness’ of forgiveness and its dependence on a moral scheme which liberals might rightly hesitate to impose on all in a pluralist society.

The concern might also be expressed that the backward-looking focus of this approach neglects future political transformation (Kymlicka and Bashir 2008: 14; Murphy 2010: 11). However, as attention to a more peaceable future does not seem logically precluded, and indeed might seem the very point of forgiveness, the liberal multicultural worries arising about this approach may be distilled into the three following concerns. The first may be called the Objection from Justice, which emphasizes that RF sacrifices the liberal duty to prosecute, the need for which may be felt particularly acutely in cases of offences by members of one ethnic or cultural group against another. And although amnesty6 is not necessarily an act of forgiveness (see Bennett 2003), the concern is that RF renounces proportionality between an individual’s or community’s resentment and punishment for moral wrong, thereby violating retributive justice (Minow 1998: 12). Yet, this objection does not seem decisive: absolving the wrongdoer from suffering may be a humane and liberal aim sometimes, in part because of the historical contestability which diverse liberal societies should acknowledge. Yet, even then, the core worry persists that RF, at least when promoted through truth commissions or memorials, imposes on citizens a requirement to react uniformly to trauma in such a way that might conflict with their private sentiments (Murphy 2010: 11).

What we might call the Objection from Privacy thus holds that, if remembrance of past violence is not necessarily healing (Hamber 2007), and if these measures reopen old wounds, the required change of heart may fail to transpire. Furthermore, even if these measures could prove cathartic for some by establishing an official account of past events (Gobodo-Madikizela 2002: 8–10), reasonable people evidently can hold conflicting accounts of the past without anyone being misled. This point suggests a lack of agreement on the appropriate circumstances of the forgiveness-reconciliation synthesis. More specifically, commemoration may counter-productively seek institutional closure on a troubled past without addressing issues of responsibility, reparation or the possibility of multiple histories, which perhaps must be the real grounds of forgiveness. Moreover, and in a different vein, one might doubt whether Algerians today, who wish for equality and respect, have any real interest in forgiving the state or other French citizens. In this sense too, RF might violate their private beliefs.

A final concern regarding this approach addresses the claim that, even if forgiveness is liable not to transpire in practice, reconciliation may be legitimate so long as the aspiration to forgive is its agreed rationale. However, liberals may object that even to justify reconciliation on this basis grounds policy on a comprehensive, ‘sectarian’ ideal which some may reasonably reject under conditions of diversity. If a justification may be rationally rejected then a given policy will not be stable under liberalism (D’Agostino 1991). Thus, the Objection from Comprehensiveness draws attention to the need for common justifications to establish mutual commitment to life according to fair terms of cooperation. These objections suggest that RF would clash in our central case with French republican neutrality (laïcité). Even if one grounds reconciliation on a potentially viable notion of political forgiveness, aligned perhaps with judicial clemency or mercy, it seems that the relation between personal and political forgiveness is too controversial to ground a political commitment to reconciliation under conditions of diversity (cf. Digeser 2000). Consequently, in relation to the French state’s desire for unity, the risk is that RF would exacerbate an already fraught and unequal situation.

Reconciliation-as-Civic-Trust: The Weakness of Democratic Public Reason?