Reconciliation - Part 2: Making Reconciliation Happen

Charles (Chip) Hauss

May 10, 2021 

Note: Chip Hauss wrote this with Antti Pentikäinen1 but Chip did the last draft, and Antti hasn't had a chance to read through it yet.  So for now, we are listing Chip as sole author.  However, the text still refers, frequently, to "we" which means Antti and Chip.

Also, this is the second half of this essay.  The first half is found here

As we noted at the beginning of Part I, we started putting the final touches on this essay on the very afternoon that a mob tried to take over the United States Capitol building. As a result, we found ourselves turning to the American experience while coming up with examples for this section. Note, however, that everything that we mention here is relevant in any society that is seriously contemplating a reconciliation process.


While the philosophical underpinnings underlying reconciliation have not changed much, we have learned a lot about how to turn them into reality—including how hard it is to do so. There is no simple or agreed-upon way of presenting that material. Our experience suggests that it is easiest to see that progress—as well as the lack thereof—if we start with what reconciliation means for us as individuals and then build “outward” to consider broader social and political change afterward.

Facing History

That starts with what might seem like a counter-intuitive assertion. If you want to create a better future, you have to start by taking a long, hard look at the past.

More Than a Collection of Facts and Dates

Thus, historians have begun emphasizing the need to confront the problematic histories of today’s troubled societies.  None has put the task more eloquently or done better work along these lines than Facing History and Ourselves, which defines its mission in this way:

At Facing History and Ourselves, we believe the bigotry and hate that we witness today are the legacy of brutal injustices of the past. Facing our collective history and how it informs our attitudes and behaviors allows us to choose a world of equity and justice. Facing History’s resources address racism, antisemitism, and prejudice at pivotal moments in history; we help students connect choices made in the past to those they will confront in their own lives. Through our partnership with educators around the world, Facing History and Ourselves reaches millions of students in thousands of classrooms every year.

That is never easy. Every country experiencing intractable conflict has a history filled with events that left deep divisions and, at times, unspeakable trauma in their wake. Slavery. Apartheid. The Holocaust. The Killing Fields.

Reconciliation is based on the assumption that just about everyone in a society has to come to grips with happened in the past, including recent events like the murder of George Floyd here in the United States, as well as with far more distant ones, including the arrival of the first African slaves to the United States just about four hundred years to the day before George Floyd died.

To that end, literally dozens of new organizations have sprung up that are helping us do just that. Facing History and Ourselves itself provides a terrific example. The organization offers curricula and training courses so that that teachers around the world can help their students understand genocide and other human rights violations around the world as well as in their own countries.

In one way, Facing History and Ourselves is typical of other organizations doing this work in that it began by considering the way a single atrocity was covered in America’s schools—the Holocaust. Then, in the more than forty-years since its founding in 1975, it has developed curricula about most the world’s most important human rights abuses and worked with teachers from around the world from more than half a dozen countries.

In another way, Facing History and Ourselves is atypical because it focuses on schools and the way history is taught in the classroom. As important as that may be, the successful reconciliation projects you will see in the rest of Part II all took the generic task of facing history beyond the classroom to the entire society. They used everything from the popular media (for example, via blockbuster films like Amistad) or tough discussions held in church, prisons, military units, athletic teams, and, of course, schools.

Walk Through History

Wherever the work is done, it involves work that involves a subtle change to the Facing History and Ourselves name. Without being critical of the organization because it does state-of-the-art work, we would encourage them to replace the “and” in its title with “in” for our purposes here. We all have to come to grips with the ways that history has shaped the way we view the world, including its conflict. Without facing history in ourselves, it is hard to envision how a society can reconcile.

Among other things, we all need to understand why people “on the other side” think the way they do. Indeed, as you will see in the rest of this essay, empathy has to be at the heart of any reconciliation effort.

Thus, in the crises dividing the United States as we write, we have to understand why thousands of people felt justified in storming the Capitol on January 6, 2021. But understanding and empathy are not the same thing as sympathy. We do not agree with what they did or share the values that led them to do so. However, if we are to have any chance of healing the divides in American (or any other society), we have to learn to treat each other as human beings, which, in turn, means understanding their version of the story.

Surfacing the evidence about past human rights abuses elicits pain, grief, shame, and other emotions that often make it harder for individuals and groups to move forward. Therefore, reconciliation practitioners have developed tools that help the people they work with see their common humanity so that they can begin charting a way forward together.

We are particularly fond of one simple, but surprisingly effective, way of surfacing the emotions that get raised when people decide to face history in themselves. The “walk through history” is the brainchild of retired diplomat-turned-peacebuilder, Joseph Montville. It is best used at a session when people from both sides of a dispute have been brought together to explore options for peace, but have had little or no experience working with each other beforehand. The facilitators have prepared sheets of paper, each of which has the date of a key event in the conflict. They then lay them out on the floor, in chronological order. The participants are then put in pairs with one member from each side. Each pair then walk down the line and discusses what each of the dates on those slips of paper means to them.

Every time we have seen it used, the walk through history allows participants to see just how different the other person’s understanding of their shared history is. Because they have just done the exercise with a specific individual they have begun spending time with, the exercise invariably opens minds to the other kinds of activities we are about to discuss. It may not create a shared sense of history in one fell swoop, but it does begin that process, which is usually all one can hope to do early in a reconciliation process.

Bottom Up v. Top Down Initiatives

Reconciliation rocketed onto the peacebuilding agenda after South Africa’s TRC enjoyed so much success in the late 1990s.

Over the course of three years, the TRC heard testimony from over 22,000 individuals and received applications for amnesty from another 7,000. Its hearings were televised and regularly topped the national ratings which meant that everyone got to see both what had happened in the past and the acts of apology and forgiveness that were offered at those sessions. By the time its final report was issued in 1998, the TRC had brought the vast majority of abuses to light, including those committed by anti-apartheid activists in the ANC and other organizations.

In retrospect, it is clear that one of the TRC’s most important accomplishments was its construction of what some would call a “shared narrative” of what had happened in the past that just about everyone accepted. The Commission also did not whitewash the past. Very few perpetrators were actually granted amnesty. Many did not apply and could still technically be prosecuted, although there seems little chance of that happening almost thirty years after the fact. 

Even more importantly, most of the ethnically Dutch Afrikaners realized that they would have to live in peace with Blacks in the newly formed- democracy because there was no ancestral “homeland” that they  could realistically return to.  Equally importantly was the fact that highly-respected Black leaders like Tutu and Nelson Mandela made it clear that they were not interested in revenge, because they understood the new South Africa’s prosperity was dependent on the economic infrastructure largely under White rule.

The Commission certainly had its share of critics. As its own leaders, Archbishop Desmond Tutu and the Rev. Alex Boraine made clear, the TRC itself couldn’t be anything more than a first step on would have to be a generations-long process of reconciliation, which has sputtered since then. Still, no country made as much progress as South Africa did in so short a period of time.

This very top down or elite-driven initiative succeeded to the degree that it did because it took place in an unusual historical context in three key ways:

  • It was part of a series of compromises among the elites in which almost all of the leaders on all sides realized that they had to find a way of living together. Without oversimplifying things too much, the decision to create the TRC reflected a broader understanding that the country would shift to majority rule in which blacks would dominate politically, whites would not see their economic position undermined in the short run, and that reconciliation was a powerful tool for reaching both of those goals.
  • A perhaps surprising number of the white leaders were willing to acknowledge and even apologize for what they had done. Not all of them were, but I have been privileged to spend time with white and black activists whose lives were transformed precisely because they participated in the TRC and related efforts.
  • There was widespread public support for the initiative, including networks of peacebuilders who were prepared to intervene when and if violence occurred as the transition played itself out.

The fact that the TRC drew such rave (but perhaps overly positive) reviews led political leaders in upwards of forty other countries to create commissions, of various sorts, of their own. Unfortunately, few of them have enjoyed anything like the TRC’s apparent success because they were created under very different social, political, and historical circumstances. Put simply, none of them had the kind of elite consensus, honesty, and grassroots support South Africa enjoyed in the second half of the 1990s.

As Karen Brounéus has shown in her research on the much-less well-known TRC in the Solomon Islands, other commissions were created by political elites who had not reached the kind of common ground that existed in South Africa during the transition away from apartheid. As a result, they were unwilling to go through the kind of introspective reflection on their own actions and face their own history in ways that could make anything approaching a shared narrative of what had happened possible.

This has led many of us to stress bottom-up approaches instead that start with transforming the way average citizens think and act before taking on the kinds of political transformation that was possible in South Africa. As Americans have seen, to their chagrin, in recent years, the kind of introspection and critical self-analysis that reconciliation requires will rarely start with elites who have mostly built their careers by accepting the narratives that got society into trouble in the first place and/or keeps it there.

That kind of thinking led Antti Pentikainen to create the Mary Hoch Center for Reconciliation at the Carter School for Peace and Conflict Resolution at George Mason University in Arlington, VA and anchor its work on the idea of insider reconcilers, which I introduced in Part I. He had  spent the previous twenty years watching far too many peace processes fall short because they failed to tackle reconciliation, especially at the grassroots level. Therefore, he decided to form a center to determine and promote “best practices” in reconciliation. As we saw in Part I, insider reconcilers are rarely members of national elites who typically staff truth and reconciliation commissions. Rather, they are individuals who are in the midst of the conflict themselves.

Many of them are activists on one side or the other in the dispute they are working on. However, they have made a conscious decision to heal the wounds the conflict has produced. Insider reconcilers come in many forms, but they share one thing in common. They have decided to build better relationships with everyone in their society, including those who have been their adversaries. Many also have training as psychologists or social workers with a specialty in trauma healing.

When Pentikainen created the center at the end of 2019, he assumed that it would work primarily in the Global South. Events since then have radically shifted its priorities. Now, we find ourselves deeply engaged in the United States and its turmoil, most notably as part of the United States Truth and Racial Healing Transformation which we were helping create as we wrote this article.

It does have the support of several members of Congress and will have links to the Biden administration, our contribution will be to work with local initiatives. Thus, we are exploring the lessons to be learned from forty or so local truth and reconciliation commissions in the United States and Canada so that we can take those efforts to scale. Similarly, we are adapting tools for activists’ psychological and social support that we were already developing in the Horn of Africa to the American context.

Another example of insider reconciliation is the work of Chad Ford of Brigham Young University-Hawaii’. Ford published Dangerous Love in late 2020, which could well become the “go to” book for people looking for an inspiring introduction to peace and conflict studies.[2] Ford is an accomplished mediator who has a decade-long engagement with Peace Players International which uses basketball as a tool for bringing together young people in divided societies in the Middle East, the Balkans, South Africa, and, now, American cities. Ford also serves as a consultant for the Arbinger Institute which helps individuals see how they place themselves in psychological “boxes” that keep them from being able to take creative initiatives in their lives, including in (but not limited to) periods of conflict.

In all of his work, Ford and Arbinger focus on the power individuals and organizations gain when they “turn toward” the people they disagree with and thereby take the first step in settling a dispute. There is no guarantee that the “other” will respond in kind. However, there is a huge body of psychological evidence suggesting that such steps do often open the door to creative alternatives to the status quo and also contribute to the personal healing of the individuals who make that first turn toward an adversary.

Businesses can also help foster reconciliation. For example, other than the Corrymeela Center, relatively few organizations in Northern Ireland have explicitly sought to forge reconciliation among Catholics and Protestants, who still live largely separate lives. However, there are investments made in businesses that employ people from both communities such as those made by the International Fund for Ireland or the irreverent street theater productions by Kabosh which have had at least hints of reconciliation as an unintended consequence of their activities.

Or consider something as ubiquitous in American culture as Kind Bars,  which were developed to bring people together in healthy ways and that could promote peace. Their mission statement states that:

kindness can be a transformative force for good – encouraging people to step out of their comfort zones and discover each other’s humanity. By embracing the power of our differences, we believe we can create a kinder, more empathetic world.

Initially established to foster reconciliation between Israelis and Palestinians, Kind  broadened its corporate goals by establishing a foundation to “foster kinder and more empathetic communities” anywhere and everywhere

Those pathways take communities in many different bottom-up directions. They can involve bringing people together in ways that reflect their common humanity, which I’ve seen organizations such as Peace Players International do by creating basketball teams in divided cities in Israel/Palestine, Northern Ireland, and the United States. Whether it’s through sports or through businesses, reconciliation can reduce prejudice, debunk stereotypes, and limit the impact of dehumanization and, thus, the self-perpetuating cycles of violence today and, even more importantly, tomorrow.

From that base, we can begin working toward reconciliation and what Diana Chigas and Peter Woodrow have called “peace writ large.”

First Truth, then Reconciliation

We would not have devoted our professional lives to reconciliation if it only led to a reinterpretation of the past. As I suggested at the beginning of both Parts I and II, we now understand that reconciliation has to be part and parcel of peacebuilding projects and how they can lead to sweeping changes that go even farther than Kenneth Boulding’s notion of a stable peace.

The rest of Part II outlines how that can happen.  We start with one of the most important themes in any reconciliation campaign that all too often gets ignored, as Americans frequently saw in the public discussions in the aftermath of the protest movements in 2020 and 2021 when we heard political leaders calling for reconciliation and healing our divisions.

Start With Truth

All reconciliation experts would claim that it was far too early to focus only on the healing side of reconciliation today. Obviously, that is our long-term goal. However, we would make the case that any such efforts have to start by establishing a common narrative of what the truth is. Unless and until you do so, there is little or nothing around which to build the common ground that reconciliation requires.

That means starting by uncovering and redefining what we think of as “the truth.”

The first is not hard to envision intellectually, but is almost always very hard to pull off emotionally. We have to find out what happened to the victims through the history of a conflict. Americans are seeing that happen before their very eyes now that systematic racism has become a “hot” political topic again.   We have both sat in on graduate seminars in which the instructor showed postcards of lynchings of black men which were routinely sent through the United States mail as recently as the 1920s. We have also been surprised by the fact that many of our otherwise well-educated peacebuilding colleagues knew nothing about the the forced ouster of the black-led Wilmington, North Carolina city council in 1898 or the Tulsa, Oklahoma “race riots” of 1921. Last but by no means least, the recent film Green Book may have been old news to African Americans for whom the phrase “driving while black” has multiple layers of meaning. It was, however, a real eye-opener for northern whites of Hauss’ generation who never were personally exposed to the day-to-day indignities of segregation because they did not face discrimination while on car trips in the South.

The second goal of uncovering the truth is even harder to reach. To be able to move forward constructively, a community has to arrive at what amounts to a rough common understanding of that truth.

Therein may lie the South African TRC’s greatest success, because so many members of the white elite willingly took part in it. Its co-chair was a leading white religious leader with a long track record of opposing apartheid from within the system. A number of staff members came from prominent Afrikaner families. Perhaps most importantly of all, many leaders in the outgoing regime testified before the TRC and, in some cases, even requested amnesty for themselves.

By contrast, progress on racial issues in the United States is limited because members of the white and black communities typically reach very different understandings of that truth. Plenty of well-intentioned white Americans doubt that there is such a thing as systemic racism. Others have a hard time seeing their role in sustaining American racism because their families had not yet emigrated to the United States while slavery was still legal. Still others reject the whole notion of white privilege and resist calls to become “woke.”

It’s not just the United States. Jewish Israelis celebrate their Independence Day of April 15, 1948 with at least as much enthusiasm as an American on the Fourth of July. For Palestinian Israelis, April 15 is remembered as al nakba—the catastrophe.

Digging Deep Inside Oneself

Exercises like the Walk through History (and there are dozens of others) open the door to another critical component of any successful reconciliation initiative, which the TRC also did extremely well. In order to truly reconcile, individuals and then societies as a whole have to go beyond recognizing what happened.  They also have to reexamine how they treat the people they deeply disagree with in at least four ways, each of which is featured in work on racial reconciliation in the United States.

No Naming, Blaming, or Shaming

Insider reconcilers, in particular, have to approach the people they work (and disagree) with in what many find a new and challenging way. Instead, of “naming, blaming, and shaming’ the other, as is the norm today, reconciliation has to start by acknowledging the humanity of the person one disagrees with. As Melinda Gates describes the work of the Tostan Foundation (which focuses on genital cutting rather than reconciliation, per se), its “approach is not to judge from the outside but to discuss from the inside” (The Moment of Lift, p. 164)

First and foremost, reconciliation is needed because the issues that gave rise to the conflict also give rise to powerful emotions, including rage, sorrow, trauma, dehumanization just to name a few. That should have been obvious to any American who saw the faces and listened to the words of the protesters following George Floyd’s murder or the occupation of the Capitol. Unlike some mediators who sometimes can use rationally-based negotiating practices that, say, allow the parties to “split their differences,” that is rarely an option for people running reconciliation projects, since raw emotions are often the name of the game. Indeed, as you will see on several occasions in the rest of this essay, it helps if at least some reconcilers who work on a particular project have therapeutic skills that allow them to offer professional psychological and social support to the people they work with—including their own colleagues who all too often suffer from burnout.

Second, in some cases, insider reconcilers have to be open to changing some of their own values—although only in some cases. Thus, in Hauss’s adult lifetime, his work as a peacebuilder has led him to expand what he means by the phrase “all men are created equal” to include people of color, women, and the LGBTQ community. And, as his young friends keep telling him, he still has a long way to go. In other areas, we do not have to question our core values. We are both, for example, as committed to nonviolence as we were when we became peacebuilders when we were both teenagers in the 1960s and 1990s respectively.

Third, reconcilers of all stripes commit themselves to working with all parties to a dispute, however difficult that may be. Among other things, they have to be prepared to take steps that make constructive relationships with people whose values they reject possible. Doing so effectively means mastering a set of interpersonal skills, none of which is more important than empathy, which is another peacebuilding concept that is often misunderstood. To be empathetic literally means being able to put yourself in the other person’s mental “shoes.” You need to understand how they think and why they hold the values they do—especially the ones you find personally objectionable.

That said, understanding is not the same thing as agreeing. In our own case, we are both deeply committed to overcoming the effects of systemic racism in the United States. Everyone we work with knows that. Our challenge is to treat people who disagree with us as “whole human beings” and create an environment in which they are more open to considering our point of view, which is what Chad Ford has in mind when he talks about turning toward the people we disagree with.

Finally, we have to understand how our own thoughts and actions contribute to the problem we are dealing with before we you can become part of the solution. The previous sentence is a riff on Eldridge Cleaver’s line that if you aren’t part of the solution, you are part of the problem, which he used to convince white liberals to support black power in the late 1960s.

While we would not disagree with Cleaver, we also think it is important to switch the sentence around. All of us contribute to the mess our societies find themselves in today in much the same way that each of us contributes to the conflicts in our families or at our workplaces. Once we acknowledge that we help cause and/or perpetuate the problem, it becomes easier for us to see the initiatives we can take, in Ford’s terms again, to turn toward the people we disagree with.

Trauma and Healing

Reconciliation is most likely to be on the agenda in places that have suffered the most over extended periods of time. Invariably, those are also countries and communities where people have been dehumanized and traumatized in ways that many today find impossible to wrap their heads around—genocide, slavery, systematic hatred, and more.

In other words, reconciliation has to help people overcome those psychological wounds through a series of tools that together are referred to as trauma healing. Many of them require the intervention of trained mental health professionals. However, there are nowhere near enough professionals who have expertise in the kinds of socially- and politically-induced trauma to help all of the victims that we can identify today. As a result, activists who work, for example, in camps housing Syrian refugees, or in underserved American neighborhoods, have begun experimenting with what Beyond Conflict calls a field guide for barefoot psychologists, drawing on a term the Chinese used to describe its non-professionally trained health care providers in the 1960s.

The challenges in this regard are daunting. Immediate victims are not the only ones to suffer the effects of a traumatic history. Despite the progress Americans have made in overcoming racism, for example, we still have a long way to go, as the events of this year so clearly attest. And the causes of racism are more complex than the effects of time and the obvious structural elements of systemic racism. To cite but one example, 2020’s crises have drawn our attention to what psychologists call adverse childhood experiences or ACEs, including multiple forms of abuse and neglect. Research in the United States and elsewhere has shown that children from underprivileged and ethnically minority homes are most likely to have experienced ACEs which leaves them least well prepared to deal with the many different challenges of adult life. There is even evidence that their impact can be passed down from generation to generation through what psychologists and neuroscientist call epigenetics.

There is mounting evidence that Americans who are lashing out against Black Lives Matter activists, members of the LGTBQ+ community, or immigrants also suffer from something akin to trauma. Many of the people who most stridently supported the Trump administration feel disrespected and even dehumanized by the people who have benefited from the social changes that have swept the U.S. and countries like it over the last half century.

For all the reasons discussed so far in this post, they, too, have to be part of any serious reconciliation campaign. It also explains why we decided to become one of the founding members of the United States Truth and Racial Healing Transformation movement which was launched at the end of 2020. It is a coalition of NGOs and academics that is urging the Biden administration and others to launch an integrated campaign that could take the next steps toward overcoming the effects of systematic racism in the United States.

We expect the USTRHT to do lots of things at the national level since Vice President Harris was an early champion of the idea. However, if we have learned anything from our work on reconciliation around the world, it has to put trauma healing and the psychological and social support of Americans on all sides of the debate squarely on center stage.

At the point, the initiative is too new for us to provide many details. That said, we will be updating this essay as it evolves.

Apology and Forgiveness

Reconciliation involves a lot more than parties to a dispute sitting down with each other, talking things out, and somehow magically finding ways to get along. While they have to do so, they also have to go farther to include some mixture of apology and forgiveness which I discussed separately when I wrote the original 2003 essay. Reconciliation experts include these two terms because they also bring us back to an essential common denominator of all such efforts—the emotional transformations that digging deeply leads to.

In the South African case, the TRC was authorized to grant amnesty from prosecution (forgiveness) to perpetrators on both sides if they made a heartfelt admission of guilt that included an apology to their victims.  Not everyone was eligible; applicants had to be accused of a crime that was political in nature. Not every applicant would be granted amnesty. To be eligible, they not only had to confess to their wrongdoings but show enough genuine remorse to convince the distinguished members of the commission. Perpetrators were encouraged to directly apologize to their victims and/or their victims’ surviving family members.

Make no mistake about it. No perpetrator finds it easy to apologize, and no victim emotionally jumps over backward when he or she decides to forgive. But both are always critical steps toward healing the devastating effects trauma can take on an individual and an entire society.

As Archbishop Tutu and others who participated in the most successful TRCs have pointed out, confronting the past doesn’t mean forgetting or somehow “getting over” that past. Instead, it is a way of dealing with the trauma of that past and finding a way to live together now and in the future in a constructive and mutually-beneficial way.

Reach Out to the “Other”

Reconciliation has a “secret sauce” which has mostly lurked below the surface so far in both halves of this essay. People who truly want to reconcile treat the “other” in unexpected ways—at least where political conflict is concerned.

I put the word other in quotes in the previous sentence and in this section’s title because that’s the what social psychologists start discussions about -- what seems like a universal human trait. Whether we want to or not, people tend to divide their known world into in- groups and out-groups. Conflict pits “us” v. “them.” When the going gets tough, study after study in country after country at time after time has shown that we tend to stereotype, demonize, and dehumanize the “other.”

Reconciliation is based on the assumption that we do not have to do that. Although the neuroscience research on this front is limited, scholars in at least a half dozen disciplines have shown that we can control how we respond to that “other.”

This is where research by Chad Ford and the Arbinger Institute come into play. Both start with the fact that we create mental “boxes” that limit the way we view the world and shapes the way we react to the people we are in conflict with. We tend to assume that the other side is primarily responsible for creating and sustaining the problem and therefore wait for “them” to take the first step toward solving it.

In reconciliation, both Ford and Arbinger’s facilitators suggest that “we” should take the first step “toward” the other. That rarely is a physical step. Instead, it is a mental and emotional one in which we do what we can to reach out to the person we disagree with and begin suggesting ways in which we could conceivably solve our problems together.

They both acknowledge that there is no guarantee that turning toward one’s adversary will work. Both realize, too, that there are times when it does not make sense to reach out. Few people we know, for example, would expect a constructive outreach to the people who occupied the Capitol in 2021 would have done any good.

However, we agree that turning toward the other with suggestions that might unlock the deadlock can open a space in which more and more progress can be made.

Beyond the Individual

There probably are times when reconciliation between two people is enough, most notably in families. Although the pioneers who thought about reconciliation even before it reached the peacebuilding community rarely thought about it, reconciliation efforts have to be taken to scale in two ways that should be familiar to any American who thinks about racial justice or anyone else in any other country where the effects of generations-long conflict is on the agenda.

As we do, note two things. First, we are about to discuss issues that are just now entering into discussions on reconciliation. Second and not surprisingly, some of our colleagues would not include them in an essay of this sort.

Bridging Social Capital and New Cultural Norms

Many social and political scientists stress the importance of cultural norms or the often- unspoken values that shape the way people think and act. Depending on the specific discipline, the term culture can include the kinds of attitudes about the other and more which are at the heart of anything that touches on reconciliation. A lot of the indicators those academics use are of particular interest to reconciliation practitioners in the United States and beyond these days—declining trust of leaders and institutions, our tendency to isolate ourselves in filter bubbles, the importance of identity politics, and the like.

The link to reconciliation can be seen most easily in the writing of Robert Putnam. [3] Beginning with his landmark 2000 book, Bowling Alone, he has all but single handedly rekindled interest in social capital which is most often defined as “the networks of relationships among people who live and work in a particular society, enabling that society to function effectively.” In his early work on the subject, Putnam worried about the overall decline in social capital because we were literally, and figuratively, bowling alone rather than in the teams and leagues he played in as a child in the 1950s.

In the last twenty years, Putnam has focused on the difference between what he calls “bonding” and “bridging” social capital. “Bonding ties” refer to the connections we have with people more or less like ourselves. Of more concern here are bridging connections in which we interact with, learn from, and eventually get along with people who are different from ourselves.

Those are the connections that are of particular interest to those of us who work on reconciliation. How can we find ways to bring people together who represent opposite sides of the deep social and ideological divides that characterize most countries today? Only after we do that and begin to build on what Gordon Allport called contact theory, in the years after World War II, can we begin to make reconciliation a real possibility.

That is why many of us worry about the very geographical sorting that is taking place in the United States today. Thus, the neighborhoods that we live in in northern Virginia are filled with progressive, upper middle-class residents who vote overwhelmingly democratic. That is a far cry from what you find in what is often referred to as “fly over country” where Trump supporters are very much in the majority.

There are signs that we are overcoming at least some of those differences. For instance, interracial couples are far more common than they were a generation ago. Indeed, when Hauss was growing up in Connecticut in the 1960s, it was still rare for Catholics to marry Protestants or for either to marry Jews.

We also know from decades of research that cultural norms usually change slowly, which is one of the reasons why all experts assume reconciliation will take generations to achieve. Nonetheless, there have been times when history has sped up, most recently in the support for same-sex marriage which was virtually non-existent at the turn of the century and is now legal and widely accepted throughout the industrialized world.

Getting away from the specifics, the research on race, gender, and everything else points toward a general conclusion. We can redefine who we consider to be a member of our in-group which involves reconciling with the “other” as part of the process. In the 1920s, people from Eastern and Southern Europe were not universally seen as white. But remember, it took a century for those earlier definitions of what it meant to be white to disappear.

Policy Changes

Reconciliation has one final component—innovations at the public-policy level. There is no question that the adoption of new cultural norms is a sine qua non of reconciliation. However, it is hard to imagine reconciliation lasting unless cultural changes are accompanied by shifts in the ways that policy-making institutions act.

Before going any farther, we want to make one thing clear here. In using the word “institution,” we are not limiting ourselves to the government. Instead, political scientists pay attention to all institutions that have power over other human beings, including private sector corporations, schools, nongovernmental organizations, and even families. And, they have broken those policies into three main areas which people interested in reconciliation should focus on as well:

  • One of the breakthroughs in 1960s was the attention we began to pay to symbolic policies which can be as simple as flag waving in all of its forms. And, as we we all have learned to our dismay, symbols can be manipulated in ways that keep key issues off the agenda or warp the ways in which they are dealt with.
  • Regulatory policies do just what the term suggest. They determine what we can can cannot do. Americans cannot drink alcohol before the age of twenty-one, (which also suggests that not all regulatory policies are obeyed or enforced). Seriously, however, regulations can have a huge impact on how vital issues are dealt with. One example is the American “Title IX “which regulates gender equality in intercollegiate athletics.
  • (Re)distributive policies affect the way economic and other resources are allocated. Sticking with the United States again, the fact that the USA has never had universal health coverage has gone a long way toward explaining why the poor and people of color have suffered disproportionately from COVID-19 and just about every other public health problem in recent history.

That has led us to four key arenas in which a commitment to reconciliation has led to profound policy changes. But do note that what follows is largely aspirational. As Julia Roig of Partners Global likes to note with her tongue firmly in her rhetorical cheek, “we don’t have a seat yet at the grownups’ table.” That is certainly the case as far as policy making is concerned. Nonetheless, as you are about to see, we are making progress.

1. Beyond Performative

That starts with symbolic actions. You did not have to read the first 25 pages of this essay to know that many statements calling for reconciliation, healing, or deploarization are purely performative examples of virtue signaling that might make the people performing them feel good, but actually change next to nothing.

Many argue that reconciliation is performative because it is often pursued without the adoption of reforms in the other two policy areas. To the degree that that is the case, those criticisms are justified.

However, as should be clear by now, reconciliation is more than just virtue signaling. It does include what can turn out to be purely symbolic actions like the choice of language we use (e.g. gender pronouns) or even the number of people of color we see in prominent roles on our television screens.

But, it has to go farther and literally change people’s souls, which is anything but performative. And, as you are about to see, it also has to be accompanied by concrete policy changes, too.

2. Restorative Justice.

As the South African case shows most clearly, reconciliation rests on a relatively new kind of justice in which legal authorities are more interested in restoring good relationships than in severely punishing wrongdoers as discussed in Part I. Restorative justice processes are designed to reach outcomes that solve the problems that are left behind by conventional crimes and human rights abuses alike. The international Centre for Justice and Reconciliation defines restorative justice as:

a theory that emphasizes repairing the harm caused by criminal behaviour. It is best accomplished through cooperative processes that include all stakeholders. This can lead to transformation of people, relationships and communities.

In some cases, that will lead to prison terms, fines, and other forms of coercive punishment. More often, however, restorative justice practices try to bring both sides of a dispute together to right the wrong one side committed against the other.

Restorative justice comes in many forms. In some cases, it can lead to the kind of amnesty we saw in South Africa. More often, as the Centre’s definition suggests, it brings all stakeholders—including the accused, the victims, their families, other members of their networks, and others—together so that they can collectively determine the best way for perpetrators to atone for their crimes and to forge better relationships among everyone involved. Similar logics underlie the kind of anti-bullying projects our children and grandchildren learn about in their schools.

There may be a small place for traditional, punitive justice. Not all perpetrators will ever be eligible for amnesty in most truth and reconciliation processes. Some crimes are simply too horrific. Other perpetrators may not be willing to take responsibility and apologize for their actions, which many suspect will be the case for former President Trump. Put simply, versions of justice that includes any variant “an eye for an eye” only appear as a last resort in the literature on restorative justice.

3. Equality

The next two items do not always appear in the literature about reconciliation. We also have made the least progress toward reaching them. Nonetheless, they both need to be addressed in any project that hopes to forge reconciliation.

The traumatic events of 2020 had one common denominator. They all magnified the many inequalities that characterize life in the first decades of the twenty-first century—economic, race, gender, access to health care, and more. As we suggested earlier, those inequalities are often the direct or indirect byproducts of the conflicts that made reconciliation necessary in the first place.

As a result, any reconciliation project has to tangibly and visibly reduce those inequalities, including the systemic racism that has been at the heart of recent protest movements in the United States and so many other countries. As the critics of the South African TRC have properly pointed out, the fact that economic inequality has mostly off the table during its deliberation meant that there were limits to how much the commission could have accomplished.

No one expects structural and other enduring forms of inequality to disappear overnight. However, if serious attempts are not made to at least blunt the impact of enduring inequalities, any reconciliation effort will almost certainly be seen as purely performative.

4. Reparations 

That brings us to the final and most controversial policy change at least for Americans. In recent years, many activists have demanded that the United States government make reparations to African Americans to pay for more than four centuries of systematic racism. Those demands have come in many forms, including different ways of determining how much is paid, by which entities, and to whom.

This is not the place to go into the details of the debates over reparations. However, the logic underlying reparations has to be considered. It is doubtful that the United States will be able to overcome the effects of a history based on systemic inequalities until and unless it can level the various “playing fields” that continue to keep so many people of color at the bottom of American pecking order—including the fact that they have disproportionally borne the brunt of COVID-19.

Reparations to the descendants of slaves and Native Americans (and other victims of oppression elsewhere around the world) may have to be part of any reconciliation process However, the existing evidence suggests that any such effort has to strike a hard-to-find balance between retributive and restorative model of justice, a desire to bring societies closer together after decades of traumatic division, and more.

Reconciliation and its Discontents

Some peacebuilding and conflict resolution practitioners have little love for reconciliation, arguing that it is little more than pie-in-the-sky idealism. We obviously beg to differ. However, two of their criticisms have enough merit to include here. While we think that the more extreme versions of them go way too far, we do agree that they can sing a reconciliation process that ignores them.

The Unfortunate “Re”

I have to start with the two little letters that begin the word—re. Using them at the beginning of a word implies a return to something that existed before, which, in this case, would suggest a return to a more harmonious past. Like our critics, we can’t think of any real-world example in which peacebuilders would dream of proposing a return to some earlier era in which people already got along for one simple reason. No such period ever existed. You don’t need at PhD in conflict resolution or American history to know that the United States has never had anything resembling a “golden age” in race relations in the five centuries since Columbus landed in what he mistakenly thought of as a “new world."

It’s not just the United States. The kinds of identity-based conflicts that are roiling so many parts of the world today, too, are centuries old. Many people, for example, trace the hostilities between Serbs and Kosovars back to the Battle of Kosovo Polye—in 1389. In all of these cases, too, creating a society characterized by reconciliation would mean creating a society that has never existed before.

If we had it to do over again, we might not have chosen a word that begins with “re” and therefore seems to connote some kind of glorious and harmonious past in describing our work. Alas, we can’t do that, and we are stuck with a word which English speaking peacebuilders inherited from Christian theologians who talked about a believer’s need to reconcile him or herself with Jesus Christ and, therefore, with his or her fellow humans. Indeed, even in that wing of the Christian community, one’s spiritual reconciliation with God does not revolve around a return to some pre-existing ideas. Even that does not evoke a return to anything like a better and harmonious past.

However you define it, (at least outside of accounting), reconciliation rests on building a new future that is qualitatively different from anything that has existed in the past.

Beyond Kumbaya

Reconciliation comes with another unfortunate connotation. Skeptics conjure up images of people sitting around a campfire singing Kumbaya.

We find that image doubly worrisome. First, Hauss was a camp counselor and music director at a YMCA camp in the late 1960s. We never sang Kumbaya because we thought it was insipid. I still do and find its message too simplistic to include in any complex peacebuilding process. Most of our colleagues would agree—even if they never spent time coaxing ten-year olds to sing around a campfire.

Second, as noted earlier, many skeptics suggest that public statements calling for healing and understanding are little more than perform symbolic acts that are all but meaningless, eliciting pejorative labels like “performative” or “virtue signaling.” There is nothing new to those criticism. The 1960s satirical songwriter, Tom Lehrer, raised the alarm in his song, National Brotherhood Week.

Oh, the poor folks, hate the rich folks
And the rich folks hate the poor folks.
All of my folks hate all of your folks.
It's American as apple pie.
But during...

National Brotherhood Week
National Brotherhood Week
New Yorkers Love the Puerto Ricans 'cause it's very chic
Stand up and shake the hand of
Someone you can't stand
You can tolerate him if you try.

Oh the Protestants hate the Catholics
And the Catholics hate the Protestants
And the Hindus hate the Muslims
And everybody hates the Jews, but during

National Brotherhood Week
National Brotherhood Week its
National everyone smile at
One another-hood week, be
Nice to people who are
Inferior to you. it's only for a week so have no fear
Be grateful that it doesn't last all year

As we hope you have seen, when done well, reconciliation is a far cry from either virtue signaling or Lehrer’s National Brotherhood Week. Companies that make slick television ads but don’t change their internal hiring and promotion policies, for example, may meet Lehrer’s “standards,” but in can actually do more harm than good.

True reconciliation is nothing like National Brotherhood Week. In Lehrer’s terms, it definitely lasts a year—if not for years on end.

As Archbishop Tutu often said about the South African TRC, “reconciliation isn’t cozy.” It doesn’t come quickly or easily. Indeed, achieving anything like reconciliation normally takes years or even decades. And, in a country like the United States, whose racism is etched into its entire history, the first signs of reconciliation will also have to constantly reinforced and nurtured if we want the change to survive the challenges and setbacks we will inevitably encounter along the way.

The Bottom Line: Our Best, Imperfect Answer

We have covered a lot of ground in the two halves of this essay.

In closing, we want to return to the main points we made in the box on page 1 of the first half. We hope that you have seen that reconciliation has to be part of any project that purports to end any of the kinds of conflicts covered on Beyond Intractability. We hope you have seen, too, that reconciliation is hard to achieve and that any successful process has to go through those five steps and then some:

  • People have to be held accountable for their actions
  • The truth about what happened has to be explored and the overwhelming majority of the population on all sides of the dispute has to accept that “narrative.”
  • Individuals and organizations who committed abuses have to acknowledge and apologize for their actions.
  • Significant cultural and policy changes have to be made that address the issues at stake.
  • Only then can a community or country even think of forgiveness and reconciliation.

We hope that you have also seen that it is worth it.


1. Charles Hauss is Senior Fellow for Innovaton and Board Member Emeritus at th Alliance for Peacebuilding. Antti Pentikäinen is founder of the Mary Hoch Center for Reconciliation at the Carter School for Peace and Conflict Resolution at George Mason University. Chip can be reached at chip@charleshaussinfo.

[2] Chad Ford, Dangerous Love. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler, 2020.

[3] In the interests of full disclosure, Hauss and Putnam have been friends since he took one of Putnam’s courses as a graduate student in the 1970s.