Tuesday, October 04, 2011

Conflict skill #10: Reconciliation

Of all the unlikely conflict competencies for a large number of us males, reconciliation is one of the most unattainable. I think of those with whom I've been in conflict over these decades and with whom I've failed to achieve reconciliation and I am reminded of how much work I have to do. Indeed, I suspect this is my greatest conflict incompetency.

Probably the most stark measure of this is when I contact someone with whom I've had unresolved conflict and offer an unconditional apology, not necessarily even seeking reconciliation but looking to reconcile my own notions of good conflict conduct with my own history. The responses I get are uniformly shocked and then gratitude mixed with residual surprise. That I'm offering no explanation, no conditions and no expectations along with my apology takes a bit to accept. I think, wow, I must have handled this conflict even worse than I thought, since the surprise seems so predominant.

So much for my glitches. I have my lists. Let's see, at one such apology per year, I should have my karma all straightened out before...Y3K. Maybe.

If it's that tough for me and that shocking to my apology receivers, imagine how tough it is for a group of people to decide to do even one apology. One real apology, that is, not an expression of regret that an action they conducted produced hurt or anger (insinuating that you all certainly are sensitive, aren't you?), not a "guilty with an explanation" about how conditions forced us to be so rotten to you (classic attribution error), and not a "we're sorry if you're sorry" quid pro quo expectation. But a real, sincere apology, from a group to another group, that is a rare and difficult thing. Sorry about the theft of North America and the genocide. Sorry about the kidnapping from Africa, the slavery, the discrimination and like that... These are really unusual, aren't they?

Desmond Tutu really sought reconciliation between black and white South Africans and between the black South Africans who collaborated with the agents of apartheid against their own people. His process wasn't the first attempt in the world but it has become the sort of brass ring exemplar. Truth and Reconciliation is now a phrase that seems natural. If we want reconciliation we need truth. There are no guarantees, of course, but Tutu recognized that if South Africans were going to be able to go forward together, they had to take the time to look at the past, uncover the heinous crimes against innocent people and use that process to work toward enough reconciliation to move ahead rather than stay stuck on grudges, mired in bad memories, vowing vengeance and blocking progress.

Is reconciliation nirvana? Of course not. It rarely turns former rivals into partners, foes into friends, enemies into buddies--and when it does, it is noteworthy, isn't it? So expectations about reconciliation should be realistic. It is needed in order to remove obstacles to development of better lives for all. Reconciliation won't make a better future happen, but it will remove one serious barrier to those who are striving for that better future.

"It takes a big man to admit when he's wrong." This is what my father told me and it was a fairly popular statement, a cultural norm in the society of my upbringing. This indicated how hard it was to admit error and make that known to others. Most of us like to quietly vow to just do better in the future. That is the heart of why Americans were able to accept Rosa Parks, the Sit-In Kids and Dr. King. We knew we had done the wrong thing for so long that we just wanted to say, OK, no more segregation, let's do a Great Society and call it good. But reconciliation is much more than that, isn't it?

It will be interesting to watch America exit Iraq, especially, a nation that attacked America exactly zero times with zero bombs or bullets or terrorists. Will we be "a big man," a big nation, and admit our profound criminal behavior to that country? Will we actually apologize and offer some sort of reparations? Doubtful, wouldn't you agree?

And so, Iraq may hold that injury to itself for all time and never forgive. Who could blame them? Our great-great grandchildren may well pay the price for our failure to reconcile. There is often a price, perhaps in some sense always a price. And the path to reconciliation most often requires unilateral action.

So I'll offer a start. To the people of Iraq from one American profoundly ashamed of his nation's unprovoked attack on your nation, I apologize.

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