Following periods of mass atrocity and oppression, states are
faced with a question of critical importance in the transition to
democracy: how to offer redress to victims of the old regime
without perpetuating cycles of revenge. Traditionally, balance has
been restored through arrests, trials, and punishment, but in the
last three decades, more than twenty countries have opted to have a
truth commission investigate the crimes of the prior regime and
publish a report about the investigation, often incorporating
accounts from victims.
Although many praise the work of truth commissions for empowering
and healing through words rather than violence, some condemn the
practice as a poor substitute for traditional justice, achieved
through trials and punishment. There has been until now little
analysis of the unarticulated claim that underlies the truth
commissions' very existence: that language-in this case narrative
stories-can substitute for violence. Acknowledging revenge as a
real and deep human need, Shattered Voices explores the
benefits and problems inherent when a fragile country seeks to heal
its victims without risking its own future.
In developing a theory about the role of language in retribution,
Teresa Godwin Phelps takes an interdisciplinary approach, delving
into sources from Greek tragedy to Hamlet, from Kant to
contemporary theories about retribution, from the Babylonian law
codes to the South African Truth and Reconciliation Report. She
argues that, given the historical and psychological evidence about
revenge, starting afresh by drawing a bright line between past
crimes and a new government is both unrealistic and unwise.
When grievous harm happens, a rebalancing is bound to occur,
whether it is orderly and lawful or disorderly and unlawful.
Shattered Voices contends that language is requisite to
any adequate balancing, and that a solution is viable only if it
provides an atmosphere in which storytelling and subsequent
dialogue can flourish. In the developing culture of ubiquitous
truth reports, Phelps argues that we must become attentive to the
form these reports take-the narrative structure, the use of
victims' stories, and the way a political message is conveyed to
the citizens of the emerging democracy.
By looking concretely at the work and responsibilities of truth
commissions, Shattered Voices offers an important and
thoughtful analysis of the efficacy of the ways human rights abuses
Subjects: Political Science
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