First Nations “talking circles” and the “truth and reconciliation commissions” in South Africa aim at a “restorative justice” for the victims of domestic and state-sanctioned violence. Out of both of these forums, people who have experienced violence at the hands of their lovers and relatives, or the apartheid state, have been critical of the way that their abusers have been returned home in the name of “reconciliation” and healing, only to find them continue their violent and bigoted behavior.
So I wonder what it means that the more interpersonal aspects of the talking circles or the public testimony and confrontation of commission hearings anticipates the absolution and amnesty of restoration and reconciliation in the name of the family or in the name of the nation? What would it mean if the situation of telling about one’s experiences of violence and their consequences anticipated legal responsibility and reparation?
To be clear. Of course First Nation “talking circles” and the South African commissions have and still produce much needed moments of interpersonal and public support and healing around matters of violence. They have the potential to do so. This is because indigenous cultural beliefs and practices offer a viable alternative for personal and collective accountability for violence, certainly more so than those that have so staggeringly failed within the world’s military and prison industrial complexes.
But the perceived aim of “restorative justice” models is, after all, to restore. To reconcile. So, what does it mean when the talking through, the testimony, and the confrontation of one’s oppressor(s) is made to anticipate the absolution and amnesty of that violence? What would it mean if the situation of talking about one’s experiences of violence anticipated legal responsibility and reparation?
I have been thinking a lot about how indigenous models of “restorative justice” have been co-opted by nation-state interests in the service of their power over indigenous peoples, by perpetuating interpersonal violence and military and police abuse. And they seem to do so with the aim of deflecting their culpability within the structures and forms of violence onto specific individuals or groups who commit wrongful acts. These individuals and groups are then represented as deviant criminals—in contrast with good citizens and the state. But further, deploying the rhetoric of “restorative justice,” they are treated as deviant criminals without the real need to take lasting responsibility or make reparations to those they have abused.
So excused, the nation-state maintains its authority as effectively having dealt with both crime and criminal. The nation-state can then lay claim to being democratic and humanist, even as it is actively facilitating and perpetuating a violence without lasting consequence.
For the record, no, I do not believe in “forgiveness” without legal responsibility and reparation. Forgiveness is the stuff of dominant religious/church practice, where the mere confession of guilt serves as the occasion for an exoneration that tacitly endorses the very actions needing to be “forgiven.” (I can’t help but think of Amy Berg’s 2006 documentary “Deliver Us From Evil,” about the way the Catholic Church endorses pedophilia.)
The Settler Colonial
I believe that the lack of legal responsibility and reparation in the nation-state’s violence is exactly what is made illegible in “settler colonial” narratives. These narratives historicize the subtle, local differences of colonization between “settlement” and the empire. I guess I am still having a hard time appreciating that difference. I feel we lose some things in our histories and understandings of how societies are formed by not retaining imperialism and empire in our analyses.
Some might contest that “settler colonialism” is about understanding the nation-state’s history of land dispossession and forced assimilation in a post-imperial, post-empire historical context. I have certainly learned a lot from writers like Wolfe and Ford about the historical specificities and comparativities of colonies, settlements, and empires.
But I still do not think “settler” is the term indigenous peoples want to describe these specificities, their transformations over time, or their lasting consequences in indigenous-state relations. “Settler” suggests a legitimacy in the modernist teleologies of progress—from less civilized to more civilized, from empire to settler—and often within the very critical space of accounting for the nation-states’ resilience as an imperial power.
(See Part II...)