Witnessing as repair of the moral third:

To imagine a way out of the binary of deserving and discarded requires envisioning a world governed by the third, in which our attachment to all beings as part of the whole is honored as real. That vision of social attachment is a condition of the ethical position of the third, and it is central to Ubuntu, the South African tradition that so deeply informed the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. As defined by Desmond Tutu, Ubuntu means: “A person is a person through other persons… ‘my humanity is caught up, is inextricably bound up in yours.’…a person with ubuntu …has a proper self-assurance that comes from knowing that he or she belongs in a greater whole and is diminished when others are humiliated or diminished, when others are tortured or oppressed” (Tutu, 1999, p. 31). Our humanity depends on reciprocal recognition of each other and of our ineluctable attachment. The belief that one’s humanity depends not only the respect one receives but the quality of recognition one gives, that indeed one’s own dignity is fostered by giving recognition, is a more radical part of the ubuntu perspective, an ethos which explicitly represents the position of the moral third.

From the Ubuntu perspective when the world fails to witness it harms us all, for it severs the bond of social attachment. The reciprocal dependency of recognition in Ubuntu, a fundamental tenet of recognition theory as I see it, not only encompasses the embodied personal function of empathy or caring, but also the symbolic function of affirming the “law” of interconnectedness. The function of the witness thus combines both empathy and lawfulness in recognizing the other’s humanity, demanding respect for his or her suffering and identifying the moral violation in his or her injury. The witness simultaneously affirms that some actions violates our expectations of how human beings should be treated and thus rupture the bonds of social attachment and responsibility. This affirmation of violation and rupture is inherent in any acknowledgment of trauma, so that individual recognition and restoring the social bond combine in affirming the moral third. Both giving and demanding such acknowledgment are essential forms of agency. And the reclaiming of agency is vital to the healing of trauma (van der Kolk, 2014).

The reciprocal relationship between calling for and providing acknowledgment has been explored in detail by Gobodo-Madikizela in relation to Ubuntu. When the victims’ protest, outrage, or testimony are heard, their function is not only that of demanding acknowledgment but also of restoring the lawful third, the principle that we are all human, that vulnerability and suffering must be honored and met with justice — dignified rather than disdained. When we demand witnessing as well as when we provide it, we are validating the third.

In most cases of traumatic abuse, there has already been a failure of witnessing (Frankel, 2002), a passive bystander (see Staub, 2011). When personal or collective trauma has been denied, the breakdown of lawfulness normalized, the victims are often pulled into oscillating assertions of doubt as to the importance of one’s suffering and urges toward revenge (see Berger, in Ulrich, Berger and Berman, 2013). Often, a kind of madness is created when people feel that the truth of what is being done to them is being denied and blacked out by the world, which can lead to further violence. This sense of betrayal and lawlessness creates an impulse to show the world what you have suffered through the act of violence, it is a kind of testimony in the face of the indifference: when the witness fails, the victim testifies in spite of, through his actions or even vengeance, to show the world which has turned away its face to his suffering. Furthermore, denial of the importance of wrongdoing toward victims breaks the social bonds of attachment, the obligation of care we have to those we are attached to. In breaking this bond, it reinforces our own helplessness, alienation and despair as bystanders even though this state of helplessness is so often taken for granted that it falls into the unremarked chasm of denial.

In organizing “The Acknowledgment Project” in Israel and Palestine during the height of the Second Intifada one guiding idea was that the abdication of responsibility by the world constituted the frame for both the violent actions on the Palestinian side as well as the Occupation violence by the Israelis. The passivity of the world powers who had claimed to be responsible for intervening, while apparently “favoring” the Israeli side was seen not as a favor but an enabling of further violence. During the period of preparation for the project the second Lebanon war along with military assaults on Gaza took place, and it was clear that neither side felt in any way protected.[3] This failure of witnessing was meant to be addressed by the presence of a large international team in the project, whose role was to embody the third, the witnessing world. But the scenario that was re-enacted in our large group meetings was closer to that of the failed witness. The international team were often psychologically pressured to play the role of the third who betrays and abandoned. Like the bystander parent who becomes an enabler in incest or child abuse (Davies & Frawley, 1994), the abandoning figure is central to the experience of the failed witness and part of what makes bystanders appear — at least in the victim’s mind — as virtually the same as perpetrators.

However, even as the dynamic of the failed witness was enacted in the large group, and members experienced the lack of protection they felt in the presence of the Other, the small groups created a very different space for acknowledgment and attachment in which the experience of the Other’s suffering and reality could be taken in. It became clear how the predictable narratives and group identities expressed in the large group created a barrier to that primary empathy with the suffering of the other, and thus to acknowledgment of responsibility for injury. Such responsibility had to be integrated with the careful process of listening to and receiving the other’s story not as a narrative of identity but embodied experience.

The need for recognition by the other was always liable to threaten to one’s own precarious sense of being recognized and having injuries acknowledged. A battle for recognition could be triggered at any moment. In the large group one Israeli member expressed the belief that the threat to their safety was paramount and wholly unrecognized by the Other. His state of post-traumatic hyperarousal was matched by Palestinian anger that once again the injuries they suffered were being justified by Israeli needs for safety rather than recognized and honored. More often, most Israeli members felt their diligent efforts at reparation, expressed through ongoing political protest and provision of services in the West Bank, went unrecognized. Palestinians found it difficult to believe their suffering and injuries were being acknowledged if Israelis who opposed Occupation wanted recognition for their activism even as they lived with such privilege. The underlying premise, “Only one can live” was translated, as it so often is, into “Only one can be recognized.” (The meaning of struggle for recognition in Hegel’s account) By contrast, in the small group a third position could be held in which members could reflect on their role as soldiers or militants, or listen as individuals described in detail the violence they had suffered, or the anguish they felt about family members who were involved in perpetuating violence. The zero-sum struggle over recognition diminished in direct proportion to the experience of being able to empathize with the other — to give and not merely receive.

Gradually it became clear how much recognition was dependent on the self states of participants, and how these in turn reflected the level of containing or flooding in large and small groups. The small groups, rather than fostering narratives of group identity which stimulate patterns of victimhood, non-recognition and helplessness, often allowed an embodied experience of witnessing. In the one-on-one conversations between members of the different nationalities even more powerful experiences of witnessing occurred. Thus despite the frightening moments when the evocation of trauma and violence created despair, the identification with the project and its purpose as a third became a basis for attachment to the group as a whole. Most members could sustain the tension between their national group narratives and the project’s symbolic function in acknowledging the injuries all had suffered, but particularly those the Palestinians were continuing to suffer during the period of several years, and providing a place expressing heartfelt anguish and remorse during the violent wars that took place in 2009, 2012 and 2014. (For a more detailed account see Hadar, 2013)

Creating a possibility for mutual acknowledgment under conditions of such asymmetry in power on one side, injury on the other, requires holding many paradoxes. Each person struggles in their own way with a hurt, unrecognized part of self that wants to choose denial of the other’s suffering and feels the giving of empathy will deprive it. Yet most participants could, when directly called to share in a personal experience, also allow this injured part to yield in favor of a part who could give recognition and empathy. What we found was that the injured, self-protective part is more likely to be aroused by situations in which “hard feelings” were addressed impersonally, intellectually or politically, through narratives of justification and attempts at legitimation. All of these contained some level of dissociation from the concrete suffering with which they were associated and thus blocked the reception of emotionally embodied witnessing. As affect regulation theory contends, hyperarousal (fight-flight reaction) and dissociation close the window of affective tolerance and combine to prevent the actual feeling and communication of specific emotions as part of an intersubjective process. (Fosha, Siegel & Solomon, 2009) Recognition though demanded could not be received on this channel. The failure of witnessing becomes a two-way process, as the shutting down of receptivity to the other matches the lack of empathy, and the rhythmic third is missing. As mentioned, despite the varied success of truth commissions, the healing effect of testimony when victims feel they are truly listened to has been deemed an important transformation of the helplessness of trauma (Herman, 1992; Felman & Laub, 1992; Minnow, 1998; Gobodo-Madikizela 2000; Van der Kolk, 2014). However, I think the matter of how victims are heard is complex, and I do not wish to generalize.

Acknowledgment as empathic listening has one meaning, receiving officially legitimated acknowledgment is another. In 2004, when the Chilean Torture Commission interviewed thousands of survivors of Pinochet’s torture, a member of the commission relayed to me the story of a chief legal advocate, close to the then President of Chile, who said that despite even the President knowing what he had suffered during imprisonment, not until he told the commission his story did he feel truly heard and relieved. Many individuals were relieved when the Chilean army took responsibility and apologized after the Commission’s report was released; but others also experienced the revival of painful memories as their truth was confirmed and turned to the psychotherapists of ILAS (Cordal & Mailer, 2010; Cordal, 2005; Castillo & Cordal, 2014).

Dignifying as repair of the world:

Gobodo-Madikizela’s contention is that the victims’ protest, testimony and claiming of the right of redress has a function not only of demanding acknowledgment but also of restoring the moral community. In this sense, the victim is able to repair the moral third, to contribute to repairing the world, even though the loss of loved ones can never be undone. At least the loved one is not dishonored and demeaned by denial. The demand to be heard is reparative insofar as it affirms the principle that we are all human, that vulnerability and suffering must be honored and met with justice rather than disdained. When we demand witnessing as well as when we provide it, we are validating the third.

In her extraordinary accounts of the meeting between perpetrators and victims Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela has shed light on the meaning of healing trauma. Gobodo-Madikizela’s work argues for the value of restorative justice over prosecution, calling upon Desmond Tutu’s renowned promulgation of reconciliation and forgiveness. Her direct observations of remorse and acknowledgment by apartheid perpetrators have led her to unusual convictions about the strength of the Ubuntu ethos and the embodied aspects of the rhythmic third (personal communication, April 2013). Her primary study described her encounters with the security chief Eugene de Kock whom she wrote about in A Human Being Died That Night. De Kock was responsible for many deaths and did not received amnesty, was sentenced to 200+ years of prison. De Kock said to the wives of the men he has commanded to be killed, “I wish I could bring your husbands back.” The victim said she “was profoundly touched by him, especially when he said he wished he could bring our husbands back.” (Gobodo-madikizela 2000, p.17)

Goboda-Madikizela shows how facilitating remorse through the offer of potential forgiveness changes the consciousness of the perpetrator but also the nature of the social bonds surrounding the violence. She describes a form of restorative justice in which the forgiveness is deeply appreciated by the perpetrators as restoring their bond with the community.[4] She worked with a group of mothers who confronted a black police collaborator who caused the death of their sons; the seven young men, the Gugoleto Seven, who were shot after being entrapped in a situation where they believed they were going to become resistors, arms were given to them and they were immediately killed. An ongoing story that has been shown in several films (see One Day After Peace, 2012) is that of a black commander of an armed group of the ANC that attacked a café and killed a young white girl, whose mother wished to forgive him for her own peace of mind. The black PAC commander Letlape and the militants who carried out the attack explain how this mother of the slain girl, Gin Foure, “gave us back our humanity.”[5] Letlape did not appear at the TRC because he refused to renounce his actions, arguing that even civilians were settler colonialists. Foure accepted his political position but insisted upon reconciling with him nonetheless. They agree they would set up a foundation that would help young men, former militants, be re-integrated into society, and Letlape proposed that they name it after Foures daughter. In the film, Letlape is visibly moved when Foure tells her story publicly, despite having heard it so many times, and declares that each time it causes him pain on her behalf.

In the aftermath of these initial events Gobodo-Madikizela described (2006) how when the Gin Foure was invited by Letlape to give a speech at a ceremony welcoming him back to his rural village (a conscious process of re-integrating former warriors), she came with her sleeping bag as she was to stay in his sister’s hut and did not wish her to have the arduous work of washing the sheets. But the next morning, after hearing that this was why the sheets were not slept in, the sister expressed disappointment: “I did not intend to wash the sheets, I wanted to sleep in the sweat of the woman who forgave my brother.”

For me the power of this story of forgiveness is its visceral metaphor of skin and sweat as recognition of the other’s humanity and kinship, exemplifying the overcoming of bodily separation on which we found our dissociation from the other’s pain. It links the power to confer dignity through the smallest gesture, a singular act of intimate aid or communication, with a moment of transgressing the ordinary boundaries and conventions of society — it is a striking metaphor for abandoning self-protection in favor of the intimacy between Others, strangers. And it is a display of Ubuntu ethics that powerfully expresses the position of the Third: a challenge to the normal dissociation of the perpetrator’s suffering and need for rehumanization and thus more broadly to the separation of individuals in which self-interest is paramount. It becomes clear how dignifying the suffering and its redress provides a different basis for humanizing both perpetrator and victim. It also shows how the effects of the TRC carried beyond its institutional reach, in lending power to the ethos of reconciliation.

Upon hearing my account of the story of Letlape and Foure as well as Gobodo-Makizela’s analysis, which I presented to a psychoanalytic meeting in Israel a few months after the Gaza war, some Palestinian members of our project were inspired to articulate in a powerful way how they as victims had the power to forgive, to be a moral force, to become agents. The idea of transforming victimhood, that is, dignifying it as a position from which to recognize the other, emerged as we reflected through the lens of Gobodo-Madikizela’s insights on the difficulties of the workshop process. This idea of the politically weaker side’s power to give something the other side urgently desired — recognition of their efforts to repair, their pain at having harmed — had been difficult to grasp in the midst of our dialogue project, because it required a recognition of how being on the powerful side, as bystander or in some cases as perpetrator, compromises one’s feeling of humanity. That is, it requires empathy with the perpetrator’s loss[6], which in itself presupposes moving out of the complementarity of power-powerlessness where the goal is to reverse positions. The vision of a dignified victim gestures toward the power of the third, the power to humanize and release the other, as well as to a sense of the reciprocity and interdependence that underpin the moral third.[7]

The idea of the perpetrator being “given humanity” by the victim’s forgiveness may be usefully compared to the bystander being given agency by allowing her or him to serve as a witness and provider of acknowledgment. After the Gaza war one of the Israeli team leaders — whose members remained in touch across the lines by email all through the war — reflected on his need to witness and be allowed to give his solidarity. He spoke of gratitude for friends and colleagues in Gaza putting up with his persistent calls to find out how they were doing, his asking perhaps irrelevant questions, enabling him to feel his humanity, that he was not an indifferent bystander, and thus allied with perpetrators. For me, expressing my sorrow to the widow in Gaza whose son and husband had been killed by a missile fired into their house merely because their silhouettes were exposed seemed to give her a representation of “the world” witnessing while it gave me a sense of doing what was right despite my helplessness.

The experience of moving from the paralyzing guilt of the bystander, the helplessness to protect those in harm’s way, to the more active position of the witness may be seen as part of a wish to repair the world, even when it is no longer possible to repair the concrete injured other. In it lies a yearning to connect to the social world beyond one’s own self-interest and validate the social attachment that can overcome enmity. These aspects of non-violent sensibility have been expressed repeatedly by activists who reach across the divide despite the overwhelming violence, injustice and lack of juridical resolution, because they lessen the feeling of helplessness through connecting with the other.

For perpetrators, acknowledging the human bond with the victim may allow them to feel partially returned to themselves, to inhabit a human status in which their own vulnerability is included. Such action, again, transforms the binary of powerful vs. helpless, for when the formerly helpless can take action to recognize the vulnerable human being hidden within the killer their own dignity can be reclaimed. The “monstrous” side of the powerful, for whom the calculus of killing has been cloaked in the absolute justification of self-protection and survival, is exposed when the victims are no longer discarded “collateral damage” but real humans. In forging a new bond of empathy with the suffering and embodied other, however, those who have harmed confront the other side of suffering their own monstrousness. Suffering arises not only from being injured but also from being the one who harms, and not merely one who is harmed — thus the binary that denies one’s vulnerability is transcended. The horror associated with the realization of having “blood on one’s hands,” the sense of being contaminated, were expressed by one former combatant who asked, How could these hands ever hold a baby? What if a soldier like myself wanted to marry my daughter? (Shapira in Singer, 2014.) This thought broke through his initial numbness at having killed, accepting both the painful reality that the Other was human and his own self-hatred led this former combatant to struggle with how his body had been altered through killing, to realize that overcoming victimhood through violence had placed him on the side of the perpetrator.

To finish reading, click here for Part 6 and bibliography.


[3] Israel’s Prime Minister Olmert gave a speech after the bombing of civilian refugees in Kfar Khana, Lebanon in 2006 in which he said “Any human heart, wherever it is, must sicken and recoil at the sight of such pictures” and yet they would continue the bombing because of the : “And that, ladies and gentlemen, leaders of the world, will not happen again. Never again will we wait for bombs that never came to hit the gas chambers. Never again will we wait for salvation that never arrives. Now we have our own air force. The Jewish people are now capable of standing up to those who seek their destruction – those people will no longer be able to hide behind women and children. …You are welcome to judge us, to ostracize us, to boycott us and to vilify us. But to kill us? Absolutely not.” Ehud Olmert, Jerusalem Post, August, 2006.

[4] The function of re-integrating individuals into community and healing social bonds is the leading argument for the Gachacha process in Rwanda as well. In regard to those processes there is considerable debate about effectiveness, whether perpetrators try to escape justice, and outcome. I cannot address the issues related to just outcomes here because my purpose is to explore a psychological function within a social institution in terms of the effect on collective trauma and the sense of moral community.

[5] From the film interviews and speeches in One Day After Peace, (Laufer 2012) a film about the Israeli peace activist from Bereaved Families, Robin Damelin, who went back to her native South Africa from Israel after her son, doing reserve duty, was slain by a sniper, in order to explore what reconciliation might mean in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

[6] It was notably difficult for Palestinian members to recognize the injuries suffered by Israelis in violent attacks, or the threat of ostracism involved in taking a stance against Occupation in the wake of such attacks because of the hurt feelings and aggression this generated among one’s own people. It has been equally difficult for Palestinians who work with ordinary Israelis (not peace activists) to gain any recognition for their suffering and doubtless this contributes to the difficulty.

[7] One member described going through a checkpoint in a car with his family, being harassed by and forced to wait unnecessarily by a soldier, despite having a “VIP” pass. When the soldier finally waved them through, the man’s baby son who had been wriggling in the back seat waved back at him — causing a look of confusion and consternation on the soldier’s face. After a moment’s pause, in which he clearly tried to process how he could be perceived as a human in this moment, he waved back to the baby.