The ethics of Indigenous reconciliation, and the ethics of reconciliation in general involves the exploration of the relation between power and subjectivity. What it means to be a ‘good ethical Hearer’, i.e., the recipient of moral exhortation, is inseparable from the recognition of ourselves as Wrong-doers or Wronged with regard to particular moral events. And to be ‘The Wrong-doer’ or ‘The Wronged’ is to find ourselves inextricably entwined in relationships of power and powerlessness. This analysis is focussed on the dynamics of hearing moral exhortation as a Wrong-doer. The simple reason for this is that in hearing moral exhortation regarding Indigenous reconciliation, that is who I am.
Why is it that when you’ve hurt someone very badly, and you know this, you can’t bear to look them in the eye? The sight of the person that you’ve wronged is, in some mysterious way, painful to you, isn’t it? I think it’s because every time you see that person you are unavoidably reminded of the wrong you did, and more than that, you are forced to contemplate a part of your character that has been given concrete expression in the body of that other person. No matter how much remorse you feel, no matter how much recompense you make: you will always be the Person-Who-Did-That-Wrong. That act will be part of your identity, your Name. And the only person who can release you from that prison is the person against whom you did the wrong. In the person of the Wronged you are finally confronted with your own powerlessness: the knowledge that the true knowledge about yourself is the knowledge of you possessed by your enemy. You can never be more than, you can never escape from being other than what they say that you are.
Wronging another creates a particular power relationship that is not merely analytic to mastery by the Wrong-doer over the Wronged. It marks the The Wrong-doer as having a particular character, an identity, and the key to that identity lies utterly within the power of the Wronged. That is why ‘recognition’ is a central ethical concept in situations of conflict and reconciliation. Even when distributive justice has been pursued with regard to other goods, the Wronged will still pursue recognition, indeed they will pursue it even with the sacrifice of other goods. Why? Because extracting recognition is the great moment of reversal in the power relation generated by the wrong. It is the capture of the Wrong-doer by the Wronged through the knowledge that their act of mastery (the wrong) has alienated their ability to self-determine identity. His identity is fixed as ‘The Wrong-doer’ and only the Wronged can ever do anything about that reality.
The Wronged holds the power to release you precisely because they now hold the key to who you will be. The person you have wronged has the power to place your act within a history. That they would choose to do this is inconceivable. Indeed, the act of Wrong-doing is itself an act that seeks to destroy history. In doing wrong you have sought mastery, self-determination in a way that seeks to fix your power over another person and over the forces that have generated your common life. In wrong-doing you have sought to fix a constellation of relationships for your advantage. You have waged war on history, on its dynamic ecology of relationships, on its progressions of identity through interdependence. You have refused to listen to the word spoken from the lips of all the people around you that tells you who you are. And ultimately, you have refused to listen to The Word, who tells you who you are.
Only the person you have wronged has the power to respond to your act in such a way that your history can begin again. They can forgive you. To be forgiven places my act of wrong-doing within a new history whereby is it transfigured and becomes for me a marker of my identity as someone who is loved. The power of the Wronged which has captured me and threatens to fix me in my identity as The Wrong-doer is exercised as a new power of recognition, the gift of a new name: The-Person-Who-Is-Forgiven. It is an utterly free movement of the Wronged. It cannot be given in the absence of recognition, but it is not in any sense constrained by recognition or necessitated by it.
That is why the recognition of yourself as Wrong-doer is so utterly terrifying. It is the surrender of self-determination to another that is a contradiction of myself, and therefore the loss of what we believe to be the most precious performance of human power. It has all the appearances of a suicide, and may in fact turn out to be so. In this light, the withholding of any recognition of wrong-doing may appear infinitely preferable. Is it better to suffer the breaking of our land through the toleration of injustice, and therefore suffer a perversion and impoverishment at the heart of our national life, or to come to a proper recognition of who we are and face the possibility of being fixed in that knowledge forever?
Is it “Better to reign in hell, than serve in heav’n”?
Those are the stakes at play in hearing moral exhortation regarding Indigenous reconciliation. There is nothing more terrifying to the human soul than to be without power. It is a contradiction of our assumed divinity – the contradiction of our ability to judge rightly, to determine good and evil. The almost irresistable temptation in the face of this experience is to seek a new form of mastery: usually violence or asceticism. And, at their core, these forms of mastery underpin the two ‘civilised’ reactions of critique or confession that I described in the previous post.