Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Tsvetan Todorov Lecture. Memory: A Remedy for Evil?

He spoke this Monday, at Berkeley. The lecture is a bit repetitive and in some ways rather common sense, but nevertheless, from the later discussion with the audience, I realized that a lot of people were angered and disturbed by it. Is this European vs. American narrative conversation?


Memory: A Remedy for Evil?

Christian prayer: “Our Father who art in heaven … deliver us from evil.”
This implies that there is evil, from which we can be delivered. And, in God’s name, some humans sometimes engage themselves in the project of delivering the rest of the humanity from evil.

**Key point** Memory is one of the means by which some humans propose the delivery to be accomplished.
Famous dictum: “Those who forget the past are deemed to repeat it.”
=> This assumes two things:
1. Past is BAD.
2. If we do remember, we can avoid doing the same thing in the future.

We often hear the media talk about our DUTY to remember. Repentance, reparation -- this is the constant refrain that we hear; NOT forgiving and forgetting.

This DUTY has also been the prevalent agenda in the arena of Law. Law that punishes those who deny Holocaust, for example, or Armenian Genocide, or Slavery. Lawmakers these days tend to describe these things as Crimes Against Humanity and state that their memory is holy, thus to prosecute those who deny them.

So, the lawmakers are also making an appeal to memory in their fight against evil.

Now, if we look at the events around the globe today, evil stubbornly persists despite our best efforts. No collective moral progress seems to haму been achieved. Appeal to memory seems ineffective. Are we going about it the wrong way?

Let’s examine the structure of the traditional NARRATIVE of good and evil:
I. There’s always a villain.
II. Usually there are two protagonists, one who acts and one who endures. The one who endures helps to identify the villain and provide contrast to the one who acts. The hero is the one who acts and does good, while the passive beneficiary of his acts is held in low esteem. The reader is encouraged to identify with the one who acts, the hero.
=> There is something suspicious in this unanimity of identification with heroes and NOT with passive the passive characters and villains.

Vietnam and Khmer Rouge. Francois Bizot, the only Westerner to have survived the imprisonment with the Khmer Rouge. His book “The Gate” (2003). He writes about the closeness he felt to Duch, the captor, the ruthless Khmer leader. Duch wasn’t a monster -- that was what was disturbing. Later, Duch has converted to Christianity and worked with humanitarian organizations. He’s ‘repented’ his since. Even now, the trial of him and Khmer is continuing in Phnom Penh.
What revolutionaries gone mass murders like Duch report is conviction that one must kill to avoid being killed. They start off believing that the sublime goal justifies all suffering -- and the sublime goal is that old attempt to deliver all humanity from evil.

The common narrative of today is that criminals are beasts. But what makes the Holocaust are these projects of trying to achieve sublime humanity. Turning things into reality by force, is where things go wrong.

Humans are different from animals precisely in their ability of abstract thinking, ability to imagine the thinking of others.
Finding the criminals to be human is the first step. Finding that we’re also able, like them, to become inhuman is the second step.

Bizot writes that to defend his own life he was ready to commit a murder of a child. He could also imagine being able to enjoy torture.
We’re all made of the same stuff, most of us simply have the good fortune not to have to kill.
There’s no DNA specific to murderers.
The individual’s past matters (growing up in social despair vs. having every need met). The present conditions also matter.

Yet, we have a difficult time imagining affinity to Hitler and other dictators. Torturers are not aliens but ordinary boys and girls (that’s what makes Abu Ghraib so disturbing). We have equal potential for good and evil. The hope of attaining state with no evil is unrealistic.

**Key point** The concept of evil within us is difficult to accept, we would rather create barriers within us, pretend that those people are fundamentally different.

Bizot proposes to have another kind of justice, the one where we’re forced to imagine the real danger, to see what we’re capable of being.

So what is the proper treatment to which we should submit traumatic past?

1. Most common today, legal, punitive justice.
2. Todorov considers restorative justice more desirable. Justice that considers the moral well being of individuals. Reconciliation, how to achieve it?

Example of South Africa post-apartheid process.
Nuremberg trial option is a bad option. Victorious allies were judging the defeated enemy. Short term. In South Africa, there was no military victory. Apartheid brought down under the condition there would be no settling of scores. Apartheid lasted much longer, more people involved. Justice (legal) also too costly.
Henry the VIIIth option of amnesty and collective amnesia also is impossible because the conflict of whites and blacks is everywhere and the memory is impossible to suppress.

Desmond Tutu’s option: each of us has capability for the most awful evil. **The crime must not be conflated with the criminal.**
The victims receive compensation from the state. Those criminals who confess and testify receive complete amnesty. Goal: to establish the truth, one that results in agreement between two parties. The state accept the guilt. The black majority alleviate the resentment. (How the goal has been achieved, is another conversation).

Unlike in punitive justice, here, in the South African case: punishment not symmetrical to the crime (no tooth for tooth like model).
1. Punitive justice is bad. Punitive justice is inflicted by the representatives of those who were harmed (the only difference between it and vengeance, tooth for tooth, where justice is done by those who were harmed, not their representatives). Frequently, punitive justice coincides with vengeance. Vengeance -- private justice. Punitive justice -- public vengeance.
2. Restorative justice -- the other means of punishment that pitches the health of the community as the ultimate goal. Restorative justice is concerned with the people, to enable the former perpetrators and victims to live side by side.

Obama speaking in Turkey. Issue: how we deal with the past, with Turkey and Armenian massacre. Obama said, “I have consistently stated my own view of what occurred in 1915, and my view of that history has not changed. My interest remains the achievement of a full, frank and just acknowledgment of the facts. The best way to advance that goal right now is for the Armenian and Turkish people to address the facts of the past as a part of their efforts to move forward."
=> It’s up to the people to decide to want to live in the world together.

South Africa: no other country has followed their example. Execution of Saddam – the need of vengeance prevailed even though this might have sowed the seeds of conflict for decades to come.

Punitive justice is only appropriate in very certain cases – perhaps. How should heads of state be punished? Saddam’s execution doesn’t seem satisfying, neither does Milosevic’s trial. Maybe we should’ve put all of them to a desert island, like Helena and let them duke it out. (Laughter in the audience).
Restorative justice can certainly work in a way that complements punitive.

Memory of the past will serve no purpose if used to build a wall between evil and us.
This, though, is what we usually do.
We hold on to the memory of the crimes that we have endured, not those we have inflicted.
The beast is within.
Novelist Romain Gary writing in the 30s and 50s: “The criminal element in the German is man.”
The inhuman is part of what’s human.
The word “human” is not synonym to generous or merciful.
We need to try to contain and tame ourselves.
Gospel: Christ asks to *keep* us from evil, not deliver (the proper interpretation).
Our adversary is not morality, but certain deeds.
Good and evil flow from the same source and in the good narratives they are not neatly divided.

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