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Lionel Steiman


by Lionel Steiman, October 30, 2012

[Editor's note: This is the first of a two part series by Lionel Steiman  a Senior Scholar of the Department of History at the University of Manitoba.]

James Dawes, Professor of English at Macalester College delivered a keynote address about the problems of eliciting and interpreting confessions of perpetrators of atrocity at a conference entitled "Languages and Cultures of Conflicts and Atrocities." The conference was an international and interdisciplinary conference held at the University of Manitoba and the Inn at the Forks, October 11 through 13. Sponsored by the University of Manitoba, the conference covered a range of topics of interest primarily to scholars, but two of the keynote addresses were of more general interest, and these were free and open to the public.

This article presents insights and opinions of members of the audience as well as those of the author regarding the presentation by Professor Dawes, which was attended by about 75 people.

His talk was based on recent interviews conducted with Japanese military personnel who had committed atrocities and caused incalculable suffering, but who had experienced their own crimes as a kind of trauma. Dawes proceeded like a skilled surgeon, carefully dissecting his subjects’ testimonies, sensitively speculating on his own motives as well as theirs, adapting varying perspectives highlighting the complexity of the process and the ambiguities in his analyses and explanations. What is the meaning of their grief and their apology? What do we learn about the ethics of representation from trying to tell their stories? Rather than coming up with clear answers to these questions Dawes offered numerous fascinating insights into the pros and cons of possible approaches to interviewing perpetrators and interpreting their confessions. His preference for tentative conclusions may be attributed to his sympathizing with his subjects and seeing their side of the story, all the while questioning his own motives for wanting to tell it

Accordingly it was the difficulties and problems in his approach that stood out more than any results. How does one “represent” what can be understood by neither victim nor perpetrator, but for which there is a moral imperative to understand? What risks are run in the effort to give meaning to what is possibly meaningless?

The first of the many problems Dawes encountered was that he found he liked these old men, that he had formed relationships with who were by any definition “monsters”. In their relationships his was clearly the stronger position, so how would this power imbalance affect their “confessions”? Would the final purpose of their confessions, namely the avoidance of atrocity recurrence, be subverted by their possibly unavoidable pornographic effects? Would the publicity gained for perpetrators and their atrocities outweigh the deterrent effects of shaming them?

Discussion of perpetrators often leads to the admission that under similar circumstances, any one of us might have done the same. To acknowledge the humanity of perpetrators may seem morally noble or an obscenity; the cry for justice can become a cry for vengeance. Demonizing perpetrators and their actions may be emotionally healthy but may interfere with prevention. Not “demonizing” them can cost us our capacity to make distinctions and cause us to forfeit the moral energy of a justified hatred.

For Dawes’s subjects there were both positive and negative aspects to the experience of confessing. He found that their awareness and self-reflection in a vulnerable relationship gave them a chance to achieve coherence and give meaning to their lives. Confession resulted in a kind of rescue, enabling them to regain control of events once frighteningly out of control. But the process was never completely authentic because their confessions were also scripted performances, acted on a stage. They became stories, self-regulated by their format, their teller disengaged from the act of retelling or even regaining through words the God-like power once wielded in the commission of atrocity.

It was clear that Dawes had conceived his project, consciously or otherwise, in Christian terms of sin, confession, contrition, penance, atonement, redemption-- the entire progress once framed in a world of divinely ordained hierarchies where power was exercised by infallible authority and redemption was realized on the Cross. Dawes was fascinated by the fact that he was unable to make his subjects understand what was meant by “redemption”, an inability which highlighted the cultural gap between himself as interviewer/confessor and his subjects, which some in the audience saw as a fundamental flaw in his approach but which was actually part of its motive. Dawes’s sympathy for his subjects and his desire to know them as whole persons may be humane, but do they prevent atrocity?

It was precisely the issue of prevention that Dawes neglected, and which elicited the most interesting question from the audience: was it not morally problematic and irresponsible, under the cloak of academic respectability and moral neutrality, to privilege the voice of murderers? The only justification for doing so would be the good that might come of it. And since atrocities arise in the context of relationships between political structures and their individual agents, the only justification for focusing on the agents’ stories would be some illumination enabling us to see through and beyond their individual criminal agency to the underlying political and other structures that produce and permit such agency in the first place. Here as with other questions and comments Dawes was open and respectful, grateful for the views of others, occasionally commenting that he wished he’d had an opportunity to hear this or that point sooner. Altogether, Dawes was commendably candid throughout.



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Publisher: Spivak's Jewish Review Ltd.

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