January 12, 2004

No-fault reconciliation

Thee Smith is associate professor of religion.

Consider this modest proposal: A campuswide essay writing contest on the theme, “How would you facilitate a campus forum on recent developments regarding the ‘racial language incident’ of last semester?”

Were I asked to conduct a campus forum on this topic, I would employ the following perspective in addressing the many issues raised by the incident. While I am not “bidding” on that role, nonetheless I want to seize this as a “teachable moment” for the kind of perspective I bring to such race matters. Incidentally, the term “no-fault reconciliation” that provides the title for this article was coined by the celebrated African American scholar, Eric Lincoln (1925–2000), in his last book, Coming Through the Fire: Surviving Race and Place in America.

I employ a systems analysis of conflict resolution in such situations. You may be familiar with this approach in terms of family systems theory or social constructivist theories of human interaction. From a family systems perspective, the presenting client in a conflicted situation provides only the occasion—not the “cause”—for addressing problems or issues that are generated collectively by all participants in the system.

On this view, a conflict is not simply (or even significantly) about the principals involved, but rather refers to the total system in which the conflict occurs. This also can be likened to a field theory approach in physics. In field theories, it is not simply the particles or units of interaction that are key, but rather the field and the energies within which those particles or units interact or operate.

Thus I would encourage us not to—and would do everything in my power to ensure that we not—target each other as specific persons involved in the conflict, or as causes of the conflict itself. Rather we would regard the interaction of the principal persons involved as key indicators of the nature of the system itself.

Contrary to conventional perspectives, we would appreciate the emerging humanity of specific persons, irrespective of their behavior or attitudes, as occasions for observing how the system is disclosing itself via the conflict. This counter-conventional, conflict-savvy and more strategic approach would enable us to manage better—or even transform—the system. Therefore I am all the more appreciative that the principals involved in this case have been cooperating with this disclosure process by rendering apologies on the one hand and constructive criticisms on the other.

Such good fortune is not always available and is never to be taken for granted. In too many conflicted situations, apologies are not proffered at all and the testimonies of aggrieved parties do not even pretend to be constructive. Too often, indeed, the principals will neither speak to each other nor cooperate in face-to-face conversations on the issues.

We are indeed fortunate to experience a different climate in this situation, however stressful it remains. As a campus community we need to congratulate ourselves for this achievement. Such affirmations and acknowledgments are all the more necessary when the conflict itself renders us tone deaf to the many ways in which we are all doing the best we can. The pernicious power of conflict too easily takes hostage our more normative and generous perceptions of each other. The real enemy here is runaway, reciprocal and escalating scapegoating of each other as “the cause of the problem.” Congratulations to my colleagues, co-workers and students alike for our more generous impulses and efforts.

In this connection I am mindful that all our societies are cultures of addiction to blame, where blaming and counterblaming are automatic responses even when this vicious cycle is demonstrated to be socially dysfunctional. I challenge us all to research, explore and, if necessary, invent counteractive practices that deconstruct blame by “reinventing fault.” Through this view, fault is an attribute of the field within which conflicts occur rather than an intrinsic characteristic of subjects interacting within that field. Certainly perpetrators can be contaminated by fault (it is socially contagious), but not in such a way that one becomes blameworthy for the fundamental fact of one’s existence as a human being.

In that regard I share with you the “blamelessness” feature of the “Unlearning Racism Workshops” (www.unlearningracism.org) developed in the 1970s and 1980s by my mentor, Marxist scholar Erica Sherover-Marcuse (1938–88). Those groundbreaking workshops insisted on the presumption of blamelessness. No one was permitted to blame another, and even self-blame was challenged as a suspect form of internalized socialization.

Indeed, Sherover-Marcuse’s “unlearning” model boldly envisioned humanity’s total emergence from the “internalized oppression” and “internalized domination” patterns that we all learn through the social construction of reality. Her workshops enabled both target persons (i.e., victim and survivor groups) and nontarget persons (perpetrator and ally groups) to find the necessary safety to explore their issues of oppression without the inhibiting fear of being attacked or shamed by oneself or

Thirty years later, that perspective of blamelessness remains new across the spectrum of social change theories. Regressively, conventional wisdom still maintains that only by means of overt accusation and moral condemnation will perpetrators acknowledge and change their behavior, despite sufficient evidence that many (if not most) do not respond accordingly.

The continual failure of reforming people by means of blame and accusation means that a different strategy is called for. The “no-fault” strategy proposed here directs our criticisms away from persons just long enough (indefinitely?) so that they can observe something more key about the system—more key than their being assigned fault. If it’s change we really want for other human beings, and not simply assigning them blame, then the effective strategy will be to show how we are duped and co-opted by a system that uses (and abuses) us contrary to our human freedom. Only after we have shown such persons how their humanity is being manipulated and distorted in the service of injustice and mistreatment—and they persist in such injustice—only then can we claim that they have made a moral choice for injustice. Until then, in effect, we blame them for our own failure to show how their attitudes and behavior are not freely chosen but rather complicit in a system that compels them unwittingly.

Accordingly, Sherover-Marcuse assumed that perpetrators never voluntarily acquired the social conditioning and misinformation that led to their oppressive behavior and attitudes. She took seriously the fact that oppressive forms of misinformation, attitudes and behaviors are socially sanctioned and imposed upon non-target people during their youth, when they are most vulnerable and impressionable. Moreover, this approach rendered the phenomena more accessible for treatment—more accessible, that is, than attributing the phenomena of oppression to individual moral problems or defects of character.

Thus the approach proposed here is not a covert bid for moral legitimation of oppressive behaviors. Rather it is a strategy for psychosocial effectiveness as a subjective or intersubjective precondition for moral transformation and social justice.

Through this connection, the approach to ethics and justice espoused here is a restorative justice approach.

Restorative justice seeks to reinstate civil relations following an injury or insult to such relations, not only between victims and their perpetrators but throughout the entire community. Since fractured relations also constitute an injury to social comity, a more holistic justice seeks to reconcile conflicted parties as a means to redress the communal level of injury as well. The real challenge here is to deconstruct the victim-perpetrator paradigm itself. It is that paradigm that maintains our collective captivity to polarization and the politics of blaming and counterblaming each other. I challenge us to become more cooperative and proactive in such deconstructive practices that already are available.

For example we might consider, as only one such resource, reinstating the Faculty Diversity Council established in 2001 by former Provost Rebecca Chopp. This was an initiative among the faculty themselves to set standards and provide accountability for pro-diversity practices and policies across the University. Additional resources include the “Prejudice Reduction” and “Conflict Resolution” workshops available through our campus chapter of the National Coalition Building Institute (www.ncbi.org). NCBI is a state-of-the-art diversity organization I helped organize on campus in the early 1990s. It treats diversity issues as a framework for helping groups build alliances and practice conflict resolution on an ongoing basis, not just for crisis management but as a way of life.

Colleagues and co-workers, students and friends: Only by means of our emerging solidarity across all our divisions (of ethnicity and religion, gender and class, and orientation and ability) will any of us be able to escape that age-old drama of endlessly blaming each other. Without such exploratory practices of no-fault reconciliation, the system itself—the system that hold us all enthralled—will go unchallenged in rendering us all its unwitting dupes.