Overstating the Problem: The Fixity of the Past

I have so far examined attempts to evade the predicament of the past by converting it into a present- or future-oriented concern. By contrast, when the predicament of the past is confronted head on, it appears intractable, eliciting some rather extreme suggestions for how the past’s shadow can be escaped. Upon inspection, however, such suggestions turn out to be mere counsels of despair. Two approaches in particular are noteworthy, one ontological, as it bears on the contending parties’ continued existence, and the other epistemological, concerning our knowledge of the past misdeed. The basic idea of the ontological suggestion is simple and stark. To revert to the example of the neighbors, if either of them were to die, discord would come to an abrupt, if sad, end. Though this would resolve the conflict only in a Pickwickian sense, this scenario does in fact provide a model for a serious theme. Reactive attitudes are relational, addressed for the most part by a victim to a wrongdoer, and so require that both parties continue to exist.* In light of this, it has been argued that the change in an offender wrought by repentance may be so profound as to count as a change of identity. The offender’s transformation thus deprives the reactive attitudes of their object. A similar suggestion is made in regard to collectivities as well. In particular, the discussion of strife between states sometimes focuses on their conditions of identity: is today’s Russia continuous with Tsarist Russia, or today’s France with Napoleon’s?

To simplify matters, I ignore here the offender’s own reactive attitudes, such as guilt.

The assumption animating such inquiries is the same as that concerning the neighbor’s death: the condition for release from responsibility or for the termination of a grievance, and so for a cessation of hostility, is that one or the other of the parties has effectively ceased to exist.

As the case of the neighbor’s death also teaches, however, such appeals to discontinuous identity are not a promising track. First, an interest in reconciliation arises only among parties who at least view themselves as respectively continuous with the wrongdoer and the victim. To take seriously the notion that one or both parties to a dispute are no longer around is not to effect a reconciliation but to deny the need for it. Second, the conclusion that the wrongdoer no longer exists achieves the abatement of grievances at the victims’ expense, as it deprives them of any recourse and nullifies wholesale all claims to remedial steps. Finally, if we allow that as a result of the wrongdoer’s change in identity there is no one to resent or attach stigma to anymore, we must also recognize that for the very same reason there is no one to forgive or pardon either. Just as resentment loses its object, so do forgiveness and pardon.[1] 11

The other radical response to the predicament of the past has a more epistemological bent. The suggestion is sometimes made that relief from the burdens of the past lies in forgetting; amnesia is allegedly a strategy individuals and societies follow in order to escape an unpleasant past.12 But this response is no more attractive than the previous. One reason is unreliability: deliberate attempts at forgetting are notoriously counterproductive (“don’t think about an elephant”) and precarious, easily reversible by anyone who cares to provide a reminder. More importantly, knowledge of the past, and in particular of a grim past, is a valuable source of learning that can help avoid repeating past abominations and mistakes. Foregoing this knowledge is a high price to pay even for attaining a desirable goal.[2]

But why are such radical responses to the problem of the past deemed necessary? Why invoke the equivalents of death and amnesia as required to escape the past’s shadow? In contrast to the reductionist approach, which evades the problem of the past and thus understates its difficulty, these responses tend to overstate the problem and thus overreact. The source of the overstatement and overreaction lies in a simple oversight. Past events are indeed unalterable. But when it comes to wrongdoings and grievances, we are not in fact interested in the past as such. Reactive attitudes are addressed not to the wrongs themselves, abstractly conceived, but to their perpetrators; the concern is with someone’s past, be it an individual or a collectivity such as the state. And to speak of someone’s past is to speak of a relation—namely, that between some events and a subject. The realization that the past is unchangeable pertains only to one of these relata, the events themselves. This does not preclude the possibility that the subject might change, particularly in such a way as to no longer be the subject of these events. The inquiry accordingly shifts away from a fixation with the past and the hopeless task of undoing it, and focuses instead on the subjects of the wrongful acts: how are we to understand the temporal career of individuals and collectivities, and how does this career affect their relationship to past events?

In considering these questions, I begin with an analogy and a detour. Though our interest is in the temporal dimension, I propose to look at the spatial dimension first. My starting point is a phenomenon that is as familiar as it is misunderstood: the territorial borders of a state. Properly construed, these borders and their change provide a key to the account of revisionary practices we seek. It is commonplace that a change in a state’s border affects the state’s responsibility. I argue that analogous shifts in a state’s temporal boundary are also possible, bearing a similar relationship to responsibility and consequently to the appropriate responses to a past wrong. I then extend the account to individuals as well: the boundaries of the self, physical as well as temporal, resemble in relevant respects those of the state. The result is a unitary account that applies to individuals and collectivities alike: revisionary practices redraw the wrongdoer’s temporal boundary so as to leave the offense outside, thereby rendering any negative attitudes toward the wrongdoer based on the past misdeed no longer appropriate.

  • [1] Though ruptured identity is mostly invoked to account for the effects of repentance, thusfocusing on the wrongdoer, the same idea can be extended, symmetrically, to the victim aswell. If repentance can amount to a change of identity, so supposedly could other practicesand events, which might affect the victim in a corresponding way. In this scenario, the erstwhile victim no longer harbors negative attitudes toward the wrongdoer because the connections to the historical self that had suffered the harm have been severed. However, a similardifficulty arises in this case to the one that arises in the case of the victim’s changed identity.Offenders often desire forgiveness, which can be granted only by the victim herself. To takethe victim’s changed identity seriously is accordingly to deprive the offender of the prospectof forgiveness rather than grant him this wish.
  • [2] Though amnesia can play a corresponding role in the offender’s life, and so, for example,stop guilt, the situation is different from the one involving either party’s change of identity,since the offender’s forgetting the wrongful act is more likely to exacerbate hostility thanallay it.
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