Revising Our Pasts

Our practical life is for the most part future-oriented, concerned with what to do next. But though the future often presents daunting challenges, the past can raise more intractable ones. When two neighbors disagree about the use of a driveway, it is possible that with some ingenuity and goodwill they may be able to reach a mutually advantageous agreement. But if the source of their acrimony is that one neighbor had already slapped the other or hit him over the head, the prospects for an amicable resolution seem dimmer. Future-regarding conflicts appear at least in some respects easier to settle than past-regarding ones. Since the future is open-ended, there may be room for an accommodation that will make the bone of contention disappear. But a past event is fixed, casting a permanent shadow; it cannot be undone. This predicament of living in the dark shadow of the past is faced not only by individuals, but by collectivities as well. States in particular must often cope with the “dead weight” of history and address grievances whose origins lie in past mischief.

In considering the predicament of the past, we can draw encouragement as well as guidance from recognizing that we are not in fact helpless in coping with past misdeeds. Although humanity’s record in this regard is far from stellar, it is not altogether bleak. Not all disputes linger forever, and many grievances, individual as well as collective, have been successfully resolved. Indeed, we have at our disposal a battery of familiar responses to wrongdoing: punishment, reparations, repentance, forgiveness, and pardon come immediately to mind. But although they all serve to overcome the lingering effects of a past misdeed, they do not do so in quite the same way. The first two responses I have listed, punishment and reparations, are in part future-oriented: punishment is designed in part to forestall a repetition of the wrong, and reparations ameliorate an ongoing injury. But the other practices on the list—repentance, forgiveness, and pardon—are distinctly past-oriented: their avowed purpose is to remove or escape the shadow of the past. They raise therefore the predicament of the past in a starker form. For, given the tenacity of the past, how can their mission be accomplished?

In the previous chapters I have discussed and illustrated some aspects of a constructive approach to the self, and correspondingly, to collectivities. In both cases constructive practices are central. In this chapter I introduce and explore the correlative notion of revisionary practices, practices that on my interpretation are designed to change the tempo - ral boundaries of individuals and of collectivities alike. I argue that the various past-oriented responses to wrongdoing I have mentioned are designed to redraw our temporal boundaries, and so in effect permit us to revise our pasts.[1]

In introducing the notion of a revisionary practice, I focus primarily on those practices in which past-orientedness predominates—repentance, forgiveness, and pardon are the most salient—though what I say bears on other responses to wrongdoing, such as punishment and reparations, inasmuch as those too play, at least in part, a similar revisionary role. Despite important differences, repentance, forgiveness, and pardon have much in common. They all pertain to the same object, a wrongdoer, and perform the same function: the cessation of a range of appropriate negative responses triggered by a wrongful action. These practices differ primarily in the subject of this reorientation: the subject of repentance is the wrongdoer; of forgiveness, the victim; and of pardon, an official acting on


behalf of society or the state.2 Each of these subjects in turn correlates with a distinctive paradigmatic response to wrongdoing: the wrongdoer with guilt; the victim with resentment; and the official with stigma.3 There are many differences between guilt, resentment, and stigma, but what is more instructive in the study of revisionary practices is the common thread: a wrongful act gives rise to a range of negative responses; revisionary practices bring these responses to an end. How can they do so?

The issues I am addressing here are primarily theoretical, not practical. We are looking not for a new strategy, but for a new account. Given that we do in fact occasionally escape the shadow of the past, we want to better understand how we manage to do so. Greater clarity may, however, have a practical payoff as well, in perhaps increasing our rate of success. The first task, discharged in the next section, is accordingly to examine some pervasive conceptions of the predicament of the past and of our common responses to it. As I try to show, the problem has remained largely out of focus, with its difficulty either understated or overstated. Consequently, the most common responses, as generally understood, also appear to miss the mark, by either undershooting or overshooting it. Once the problem is in sharper focus, we can address it more effectively. [2]

particular the victim’s resentment.4 Why are negative responses to the misdeed deemed appropriate, and correlatively, what might require their termination?

  • [1] By speaking of practices, I only mean to imply that some public criteria exist as to whatcounts as repentance and so on. It doesn’t follow that the practices themselves must consistin public acts. For example, internal, subjective acts of contrition may in principle satisfy thecriteria for repentance, though in such a case these acts would obviously have to be communicated for repentance to play its usual interpersonal role (e.g., as a reason for forgiveness).
  • [2] THE SHADOW OF THE PAST In the case of the two neighbors, as in the case of two neighboring states,the aspiration is to relieve acrimony and induce peace. But the past altercation stands in the way; it casts a dark shadow. For the peacemakingmission to succeed, we must be clearer about the nature of the obstaclepresented, the shadow cast, by the past event. What is the significance ofthe assault, and why does it mar the neighbors’ relationship? The starting point is to observe the obvious. Following the attack, bad feelingswill linger, perhaps to the point of prompting further hostilities. Butbad feelings do not beset the parties as a common cold might; they arenot just brute facts. Rather, there is a normative dimension as well. Wejudge it appropriate that an assault should provoke reactive attitudes, in
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