You’ve all heard of Irish Alzheimer’s. That’s where you forget everything except the grudges. Jean Améry distinguishes between “natural time” where time heals all wounds and “moral time” where the wrong remains until we find a way undo it. People may joke about the Irish sense of moral time, but that sense can have serious consequences. Historians, for example, still cannot publish the names of informers who warned the English of potential uprisings two or three hundred years ago. Their descendants might suffer reprisals. Those who might feel called upon to hurt the descendants of informers are taking their sense of moral time to ridiculous lengths. In fact, one might question whether they would really be acting out of pure moral outrage. There are other motives involved that are not so righteous. In any case, violence against the great-great-great-grandchildren of an informer would not undo the past wrong. It would just inflict a new wrong.
On the other hand, the international aid worker’s impatience with the “wailing” of the survivors of genocide in Rwanda, a mere 10 years after the horror occurred, strikes us as callous. But why would such a comment be any less callous 50 or even 100 years later? James Smith, who reported the aid worker’s comment in a paper to the 2004 Stockholm International Forum on Preventing Genocide, notes: “Reconciliation comes with constraints – the past must be admitted, the guilty punished and dignity restored, otherwise reconciliation is an unreasonable demand.” Continuing failure to recognize the suffering of victims insults those victims. How much more insulting, then, is adamant resistance to recognizing that a crime even took place? That the victims suffered at all? No matter how long ago.
I was reminded of these questions the other day when I read an article in the New York Times that the Japanese government had tried again to get changes made in a U.N. report documenting how the Japanese army enslaved tens of thousands of women to be abused for sexual purposes in countries it occupied during World War II. Despite all the evidence to the contrary, many Japanese continue to assert that these women voluntarily served as prostitutes. How can victims or their communities forgive when not only is there no regret, but no admission that any wrong has been committed?
In 1997 students at Princeton University organized a conference to memorialize the 60th anniversary of the Rape of Nanking, one of the worst atrocities of the 20th Century, a century too full of atrocities. The Chinese estimate that as many as 300,000 people were killed, some in very gruesome ways, and up to 80,000 women were raped, also involving extreme violence and mutilation.
I was working at the time and not able to attend the weekday sessions of the conference, but I was able to go on Saturday morning. The presenters at these Saturday sessions turned out to be Japanese scholars, who were given the opportunity to challenge the Chinese narratives of what happened and why.
I was impressed at the organizers’ commitment to learning the truth. The session I attended was equivalent to inviting Holocaust deniers to a conference organized by Jewish students on Babi Yar. The audience listened politely to the presentations. Things began to get a bit heated when Iris Chang, who was present in the audience, challenged the evidence and the conclusions of the presenters. Since Ms. Chang had recently published her excellent study The Rape of Nanking, she had all the statistics and the sources at her fingertips.
Neither of the Japanese scholars spoke English very well and had used interpreters during their presentations and during most of the Q&A. As the exchange went on, however, the one who most strongly denied any credibility to the Chinese story started to bypass his translator. After he had been cornered and contradicted intellectually, he started to ramble in broken English. As someone who had spent many years in public meetings, I sensed that the moderator needed to assert control over the situation and end a heated exchange that was now getting repetitious. Unfortunately, the moderator did not take control and the Japanese presenter kept rambling until he finally blurted out in frustration that the Chinese had brought the massacre on themselves. Of course, the lecture hall, more than half-full of Chinese people, exploded. Unfortunately again, the moderator, who was an academic, threw kerosene on the fire by telling the audience to be quiet because the presenter had the right to say what he did on the grounds of “academic freedom.” The room calmed on its own, no thanks to the moderator or the presenters.
Some people respond to Jean Améry in the same way as the moderator did to the outrage of the audience. In the case of Améry, they read the word “resentment” and respond “bad.” They read “forgive” and respond “good.” No nuances, no conditions, no exceptions. No matter how many times and how many ways Améry says that he does not want to hurt the perpetrator, people read “I don’t forgive the Nazis” and say that Améry just wants revenge.
What Améry just wants is for the perpetrator, his heirs, and all who benefit from the crime to join with the victim in wishing that the crime be undone. To join with the victim not merely in the expression of the wish, but with the same intent as the victim. One cannot wish that the crime be undone if one never recognizes that the crime took place. That lack of acknowledgement of the crime can arise from willful denial, but also from being allowed to “just get on with it.”
The imperative for the victim to “just get on with it” is another way to let the perpetrator pretend that the crime and its consequences are no longer present, i.e., as if they never happened. In this insidious way we don’t deny the crime, we just deny that there are any more “victims.” Those who “hang on” to their “victimhood” are dismissed as emotionally or mentally unwell, or demonized as trouble-makers who upset what Thomas Brudholm calls “the hegemony of harmony.” (49) We refuse to recognize the presence of the crime by denying or belittling the presence of any victims. If any inconveniently refuse to forgive and forget, they are badgered to “get well” or marginalized.
The United States has its own deniers, those who argue that life under slavery was not all that bad for the enslaved. But how many of those of us who think of ourselves as enlightened on this stain on our history, how many of us wish that African-Americans would just stop blaming their problems on 300 years of slavery and oppression? We don’t deny the crime, but we don’t want to recognize its continuing presence in our lives. Is that any less insulting to the victims?
When we read that Jean Améry will not forgive the Nazis or those who continue to benefit from the crimes of the Nazis, we need to let go of our own automatic urge to place forgiveness and reconciliation above all other responses to wrongdoing. In the first place, such “hegemony of harmony” keeps us from truly listening to what Améry is saying by inserting presuppositions about what he means in place of his own words. Secondly, we need to recognize the assumptions we are making when we claim that anger and resentment are the most destructive responses to being wronged. Desmond Tutu took this position on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa. Brudholm points out that Tutu makes
two untenable assumptions: first, that forgiveness is always morally, psychologically, and socially preferable to resentment, and second, that resentment has absolutely no constructive or positive role to play in the maintenance of social harmony and human relationships. (47) (original emphasis)
One comment on one of my earlier posts about Améry’s resentment states the position of people like Desmond Tutu much more succinctly: “Resentment is taking poison and waiting for someone else to die.”
Brudholm calls these assumptions “untenable.” That’s his opinion. I think they are certainly arguable. My point here is not to argue against them, but to draw attention to their presence in our daily lives, as well as in our reactions to Améry. As we become more aware of the hegemony of harmony, reconciliation, and forgiveness in our thinking, we can also pay more attention when we tell people to forgive. There are times when such advice can be insensitive if not insulting, inappropriate if not counter-productive. I’m not arguing that forgiveness is not of value, but that it is not an absolute, unconditioned value. Like yelling “academic freedom” to people who have just been told that their grandparents were massacred through their own fault, telling people to forgive, when we really mean we just want to be able to forget them, insults them and our own intelligence.