What does it take to make reconciliation—even forgiveness—possible? Today at The Immanent Frame, I talk with Eduardo Gonzalez, a sociologist who directs the International Center for Transitional Justice’s program on truth and reconciliation commissions. Before that, he was involved in organizing and executing the commission in his native Peru. We discuss, among other things, the ritual performances that allow victims’ voices to be heard:
NS: You’ve described the truth commission process as, in some sense, a performance. What does it take to create a compelling, effective performance that is also an authoritative arbiter of truth?
EG: When I talk about a truth commission as a performance, that is not to suggest that it is some kind of fictional show. In fact, people opposed to truth commissions suggest just that. I prefer to talk about performance in a different way, referring to the language and codes utilized by victims to tell their stories. The language of victims, particularly those who come from marginalized groups, is rarely the language of the public sphere or the state. They do not typically come to a commission with written evidence or lawyerly arguments. The language of victims is oral and performative, transmitted through the family and the community. These performances may include storytelling, demonstrations, religious ceremonies, and vigils for those who were killed. Truth commissions need to provide an appropriate setting for people to channel those performances. We did that in Peru through public hearings, which I had a role in developing. The hearings were specifically designed to enable people to express their views in a way that they found appropriate, and that way was typically performative.
NS: What did you do to make the hearings more hospitable to these performances?
EG: Beforehand we examined videos of the Ghanaian, South African, and Nigerian truth commissions. We were pretty unsatisfied with what we saw. Truth commissions in those countries had decided to utilize the visual language of courts in order to gain credibility. A courtroom is supposed to convey majesty, authority, and impartiality. But we thought that if a truth commission is to take seriously the right to truth and the duty of memory, it needs to do everything differently. Rituals in a court of law revolve around the accused and the parties whose testimonies converge on the accused. The judge and/or the jury have the ever-present capacity for unleashing violence, because the end result of a trial can be a punishment. In a truth commission, however, the role of the commissioners is entirely different; they are presiding over a healing ritual for the victim. Their role is one of accompaniment, of support. For that reason, we had victims and commissioners sharing the same table. Instead of everyone standing up when the judge comes in, the commissioners and the public stood when a victim came in.