Further Strides toward Reconciliation

One of the major themes of this blog has been reconciliation and cooperation under difficult circumstances. Below are three pertinent, hopeful stories on reconciliation that I’ve collected over the last few months.

1. Colombia to Spend $30 B to Compensate War Victims (AlertNet; Jan 24, 2012)

Reparations to victims of Colombia’s long, bloody armed conflict will reach as much as $30 billion in the next 10 years, the government said on Tuesday… The reparation program will benefit more than 3 million victims of the war, which has dragged on for nearly five decades.”

2. An Apology 30 Years in the Making: El Salvador Marks El Mozote Massacre (CS Monitor; Dec 12, 2011)

On the 30th anniversary of the massacre of more than 800 people by the Salvadoran Army in El Mozote, government officials attended a commemoration event for the first time. The Foreign Minister, Hugo Martinez, asked for forgiveness:

I would like to take this opportunity to reiterate on behalf of the government of El Salvador our request for forgiveness to the thousands of innocent victims, but especially the victims of the massacre at El Mozote.”

3. Netherlands Apologizes To Indonesia For 1947 Massacre  (NPR; Dec 9, 2011)

The Dutch Ambassador to Indonesia visited with hundreds of villagers to apologize for the 1947 Rawagede massacre of more than 400 men. The link contains video of 90-year old widows discussing how they learned of their husbands’ executions, which had occurred 64 years earlier during Indonesia’s war for independence from colonial rule. Some of them even expressed forgiveness.


As I’ve written previously, in one of the more meaningful things I’ve posted here (see: “Reconciliation, Biology, & the Second Indochina War“), I think there is something deep within us that seeks out reconciliation, forgiveness, apology, or justice under circumstances similar to those above. At the group-level, such as nation-states, politics is obviously a part of the calculus. But for individuals, some of the reasons that offended persons seek apologies include:

seeing genuine remorse in the offender, reestablishing trust, looking for assurances of safety and shared values, and restoring one’s dignity. Similarly, there are many motives to apologize: empathy for others, guilt for the offense, or shame for failing to adhere to one’s standards. To that list, one could add: a desire to repair a frayed relationship, to avoid sanctions such as ostracization, or simply to demonstrate that they recognize and respect the dignity of the offended.”

It is unfortunate that the wait for reconciliation may take years or decades. (To my mind, the best example is the 2007 Danish apology for  the Viking raids of Ireland which occurred 1,200 years earlier). Or, reconciliation may never come at all. Last November, former Canadian Football League rivals, and septuagenarians,  Angelo Mosca and Joe Kapp came to blows after a peace offering was rejected. The main purpose of their meeting was to raise funds for retired CFL players, but it was also hoped that the two could put aside their 48-year old grudge which stemmed from an on-field incident. There is so much meaning contained within an act of reconciliation if/when it does happen, but sometimes old rivalries die hard.

In a Scientific American article, Lauren Friedman wrote that research has confirmed that some personality traits impact the chances that someone will apologize. People scoring high for compassion or agreeability were significantly more likely to apologize, while both low self-esteem and narcissism had the opposite effect. Apparently, there exists a Goldilocks zone of self-confidence linked with the willingness to apologize.

Importantly, while there may be specific personality traits that can predict who is likely to seek reconciliation, the psychologist Daniel Gilbert pointed out that the barriers we face are not only stubbornness and ego limited to particular individuals, but also a predictable, self-serving bias that is common to everyone. For example, we are predisposed to view ourselves as the victim rather than the aggressor, and even our language contains many words which denote that responsive aggression is morally superior to unprovoked aggression (re-taliation, re-venge, re-tribution). In addition, Gilbert noted that we have some built-in neurological quirks that enable our biases: 


What seems like a grossly self-serving pattern of remembering is actually the product of two innocent facts. First, because our senses point outward, we can observe other people’s actions but not our own. Second, because mental life is a private affair, we can observe our own thoughts but not the thoughts of others. Together, these facts suggest that our reasons for punching will always be more salient to us than the punches themselves — but that the opposite will be true of other people’s reasons and other people’s punches.

Therefore, because one can view only the actions of another, we can only infer another’s intentions by their actions, words, and reputation (if only we had that ambulatory fMRI data). It’s easy to see how this can get us into trouble. The November NATO attack which killed 24 Pakistani soldiers was interpreted as a deliberate, blatant act of aggression by the Pakistani military, which NATO denied.  Either way, the outcome is the same, but the distinction is an important one, as intent is what separates maliciousness and murder from negligence and manslaughter.   


In a wonderful essay in the New York Times, the biologist Robert Sapolsky wrote that at a neurological level, our brains are set up to blur the literal and metaphorical. Thus, we confuse warm rooms with warm personalities, heavier résumés  with gravitas, hygiene with virtue, or referring to someone as a cockroach (or a rat, termite, or some disease) with mentally stripping away their humanity. Conversely, apologies are symbols that build metaphorical bridges. Even if the apology comes only in spoken form alone with no accompanying gesture, the symbolic goes a long way.

Related Posts

Reconciliation, Biology, and the Second Indochina War (Mar 11, 2011)

Making Peace with the Past (Apr 14, 2010)


3 thoughts on “Further Strides toward Reconciliation

  1. Excellent. I had absolutely no idea that Denmark had apologised to Ireland for Viking raids 1,200 years ago — long, long before either country existed as a nation-state. I don’t think they apologised to Engl-land for not only raiding the country but becoming the dominant linguistic group over southern England. The northern part of England spoke Norwegian — and people in the isolated town of Hull (until recently almost entirely reliant on fishing) are so ‘Nordic’ the majority of families have Norwegian names today. All that is part of how nation-states formed, and of course every state could apologise to its neighbours for something if it looked hard enough at its past. Amazingly, concepts like the European Union and ASEAN are currently cooperating in spite of the atrocities committed by any individual state against its neighbour. There are conditions placed on entry but these do not include apologies between states for historical nasties. Maybe these nasties cancel each other out, but simply coming together in some sort of political union goes a long way to encourage peaceful resolution of future conflicts — which will surely occur as long as people are human. Without any formal apology I am happy in my mind to forgive the Germans for killing both my grandfathers. I have no idea how many Germans if any my grandfathers killed, and it doesn’t matter to me. When conditions are right, people are in a mental state to forgive — with or without an apology. If there is any real reason for having national leaders (and I am not convinced there is), it would be that they can create the conditions for forgiveness and friendship rather than revenge and war. That is perhaps the great benefit of a United Europe, currently uniting ASEAN, USA and whatever other blocks by-pass national boundaries for reasons other than alliance in war.

  2. Yes all we need is some cash to go along with that apology
    Ireland has lots of different names which date to the Celtic and then to the latter Viking and then Norman periods with all recent German and Huguenots in the 1700s. Just like England we are all mixed up. But the only difference is that the Brits ruthlessly ruled Ireland up until the present day, even though we are all the same people’s. it really boggles the mind how senseless it all is.
    My family name is a famous name and I am related to the Galway royalty that battled the Norman de burgo(Burke). Richard de Burgos. Well funny enough my granny’s last name was Burke. All the burkes I know are very dark haired and have blue eyes, the classic Norman look.

  3. Pingback: Extraordinary Cases of Compassion and Forgiveness: The Secular and Divine – Patrick F. Clarkin, Ph.D.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.