Sunday, November 29, 2009

prescribed shame?

Since last weeks discussion I wanted to renew the subject of whether or not truth commissions should release names. Some said that they should because it would lead the community to shaming the criminals, thus punishing them even though they were given amnesty. The other people class noted that shaming was too grave of a punishment, and that names should be with held so that shaming would not take place. But, the problem is which is more just?

It seems that the purpose of truth commissions is in the name: Truth. The purpose of revealing the truth in these hearings is the hope that the community will, upon hearing these criminals tell and take responsibility for their actions, restore its relationship to the part of the community that is now the basically criminals. The idea is that the healthy part of the community comprising of the victims will, after hearing the testimony will have stared to overcome their personal grievances and begin to reaccept the perpetrators of the crimes against them into the victims community.

The issue is to some shaming. Some as mentioned above, say that if names are released that the victims will shame the criminals not only negating their amnesty, but also diving the community further. This would defeat the original purpose of the truth commission, if it were true. But, the fact of the matter is that feeling shame is part of human nature. We cannot prescribe shame any more than we can prescribe disappointment as a punishment of any sort. The problem is that you cannot cast shame, because the perpetrator who breaks line with his community’s norms only feels shame.

Shame is cultural, and not at all universal in nature. For example in America we were shoes all the time in our homes, however in Japan it is very impolite and rude to wear your shoes even in your own home. Now if I went to Japan and I wore my shoes into someone’s home without knowing that I was breaking social custom I would feel no shame, until I became accustomed to the social norm.

In This same way sociopaths, or any person that has been so damaged as to no longer recognize social norms, are incapable of feeling shame and in this way would not feel shame even if they were out of sync with their entire community. For this reason it is impossible to cast shame or even prescribe it as a punishment, even if to feel it is the norm. Also this eliminates any reason to withhold names from truth commissions, because there is no way to argue that shame is a predicted punishment.


  1. I think it is still possible for someone to shame another through their own attitudes. With your example of wearing shoes in Japan, if you wore your shoes in the house multiple times because you did not care, your hosts might start being less hospitable, or even locking the door, to emphasize that they disapprove of what you are doing even if you don't care. One of our readings described how in Argentina former torturers would go to restaurants only to be refused service. Even though this might not make them feel shame, these actions of social alienation from their own society, from a society that they may claim to have protected, can be predicted to have an effect on how they live. As a result, even if shame itself cannot be prescribed, social alienation shaming them for what they have done is still a punishment that can be enacted.

    I also think, there are more reasons to withhold names from truth commissions than fear of shame being prescribed as a punishment to the perpetrators. Naming names could restart the violence, or even further divide the communities that are working towards reconciliation.

  2. I think the idea of shame is a tough emotion to factor into the action of a truth commission for many of the same reasons as stated above. However, I think that the releasing of names is essential to the function of a truth commission because by their very nature they assume the ‘moral high ground’ so to speak. We have discussed many times in class that the restorative power of a truth commission is essentially gained by assembling the truest picture of human rights violations that occurred, and often times this comes at the price of amnesty for those who committed very heinous acts against fellow citizens. And while the release of this information could very well spark more violence, it also serves as the surest path towards psychologically healing a nation by allowing both perpetrators and victims to acknowledge fully what happened and then attempt to move forward in rebuilding a society. I would argue that true reconciliation is merely an allusion if some semblance of truth does not exist in the public domain. Sure letting the truth out has the potential to make things more violent or possibly even worse before they start to get better, but I think that any gross violation of human rights fundamentally alters the dynamic of a society, and in this way much of the turbulence that comes with or without a truth commission is essentially unavoidable. Nevertheless, a truth commission as I see it, is the best way to restore at least some level of normality to a damaged society as alluring and satisfactory as retribution or vigilantism may initially seem.


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