Posted on 06/15/2013

Photo taken on June 15, 2013

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Better angles of our nature
Steven Pinker

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Fig.8-6. Apologies by political & religious leaders, 1900-2004

Fig.8-6. Apologies by political & religious leaders, 1900-2004
On the international scene, the last decades have an explosion of apologies by political leaders for crimes committed by their governments. The political scientist Graham Dodds politicalscience.concordia.ca/people/Dodds.php has compiled “a fairly comprehensive chronological listing of major political apologies” through the centuries.

His list begins in the year 1077, when “Holy Roman Emperor Henry IV apologized to Pole Gregory VII for church-state conflicts by standing barefoot in the snow for three days. History had to wait more than six hundred years for the next one, when Massachusetts apologized in 1711 to the families of the victims of the Salem witch trials. The first apology of 20th century, Germany’s admission to having started World War I in the Treaty of Versailles in 1919, is perhaps not the best advertisement for the genre. But the spate of apologies in the last two decades bespeak a new era in the self-presentation of states. For the first time in history, the leaders of nations have elevated the ideas of historical truth and international reconciliation above self-serving claims of national infallibility and rectitude. In 1984 Japan sort of apologized for occupying Korea when Emperor Hirohito told the visiting South Korean president, “It is regrettable that there was an unfortunate period in this century.” But subsequent decades saw a string of ever-more-forthcoming apologies from other Japanese leaders. In the ensuing decades Germany apologized for the Holocaust, the United States apologized for interning Japanese Americans, the Soviet Union apologized for murdering Polish prisoners during
World War II, Britain apologized to the Irish, Indians, and Maori, and the Vatican apologized for its role in the Wars of Religion, the persecution of Jews, the slave trade, and the oppression of women. Figure 8-7 shows hw political apologies are a sign of our times.

Do apologies and other conciliatory gestures in the human repertoire actually avert cycles of revenge? The political scientists William Long and Peter Brecke took up the question in their 2003 book “War and Reconciliation: Reason and Emotion in Conflict Resolution. . ….. They selected 114 pairs of countries that fought an interstate war from 1888 to 1991, together with 430 civil wars. They then looked for reconciliation events – ceremonies and rituals that brought the leaders of the warring factions together – and compared the number of militarized disputes (incidents of saber-rattling or fighting) over several decades before and after the event to see if the rituals made any difference. They generated hypotheses and interpreted their findings using both rational actor theory and evolutionary psychology.

When it came to international disputes, emotional gestures made little difference. Long and Brecke identified 21 international reconciliation events and compared the ones that clearly cooled down the belligerents with the ones that left them as disputatious as ever. The successes depended not on symbolic gestures but on costly signaling. The leader of one or both countries made a novel, voluntary, risky, vulnerable, and irrevocable move toward peace that reassured his adversary that he was unlikely to resume hostilities. Anwar Sadat’s 1977 speech to the Israeli parliament is the prototype. The gesture was a shocker, and it was unmistakably expensive, later costing Sadat his life. But it lead to a peace treaty that has lasted to this day. There was few touchy-feely rituals, and today the two countries are hardly on good terms, but they are at peace. Long and Brecke note that sometimes pairs of countries that looked draggers at each for centuries can turn into good buddies – England and France, England and the United States, Germany and Poland, Germany and France – but the amity comes after decades of coexistence rather than as the immediate outcome of conciliatory gestures.

The psychology of forgiveness, recall, works best when perpetrator and victims are already bound by kinship, friendship, alliance, or mutual dependence. It is not surprising, then, that conciliatory gestures are more effective in ending civil wars than international ones. The adversaries in a civil war are, at the very least, stuck with each other inside national boundaries, and they have a flag and a soccer team that put them in a fictive coalition. Often the ties run deeper. They may share a language or religion, may work together, and may be related by webs of marriage. In may rebellions and warlord conflicts the fighters may literally be sons, nephews, and neighborhood kids, and communities may have to welcome back the perpetrators of horrible atrocities against them if they are ever to knit their communities together. These and other ties that bind can prepare the way for gestures of apology and reconciliation. These gestures are more effective than the mechanism that leads to peace between states, namely the costly signaling of benevolent intentions, because in civil conflicts the two sides are not cleanly separated entities, and so c an =not each speak with one voice, exchange messages in safety, and resume the status quo if any initiative fails.

Long and Brecke studied 11 reconciliation events since 1957 that symbolically terminated a civil conflict. With 7 of them (64 percent) there was no return to violence. That figure is impressive: among conflicts that did not have a reconciliation event, only 9 percent way a cessation of violence. The common denominator to the success stories, they found, was a set of conciliation rituals that implemented a symbolic and incomplete justice rather than perfect justice or none at all. …….

The prototype of reconciliation after a civil conflict is South Africa. Invoking the Xhoza concept of ‘ubuntu’ or brotherhood, Nelson Mendela and Desmond Tutu instituted a system of restorative rather than retributive justice to heal the country after decades of violent repression and rebellion under the apartheid regime. As with the tactics of the Rights Revolutions, Mendela and Tutu’s restorative justice both sampled from and contributed to the pool of ideas for nonviolent conflict resolution. Similar programs, Long and Brecke discovered, have cemented civil peace in Mozambique, Argentina, Chile, Uruguay, and El Salvador. …… Pages 543 to 546 (The Better Angles of Our Nature)
5 years ago.