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Partisan Commemoration as a Resource for Peacebuilding

Partisan Commemoration as a Resource for Peacebuilding

Photo credit: Albert Bridge 

This analysis summarizes and reflects on the following research: Brown, K. (2019). Political commemoration and peacebuilding in ethno-national settings: The risk and utility of partisan memory. Peacebuilding, 7(1), 51-70.

Talking Points

  • While partisan commemoration can certainly “harden boundaries” between hostile groups, its potent symbolic resources can also be adapted to maintain community cohesion, legitimize shifts to peaceful politics by providing ideological continuity, and signal a newfound openness to previous adversaries, all in the service of peace.
  • By engaging in adapted forms of partisan commemoration, leaders can gain a “reputational shield” that helps them lead constituencies towards peace, assuaging concerns and holding these constituencies together to guard against “splits and spoiling.”
  • By repurposing and capitalizing on partisan symbolic resources (like martyrs or key battles) for peacebuilding, leaders can reorient constituencies towards peace by communicating new ideas in “a more digestible form.”
  • “Critical and reflective approaches” can emerge in the form of parallel commemorations within a community, enabling unfamiliar narratives to exist alongside—and therefore raise questions about—more familiar ones.
  • In commemorative activities, highlighting cross-cutting social identities like gender and class, as well as individuals who engaged in boundary-crossing or inter-ethnic cooperation, may usefully “complicate [ethno-national] identity” by revealing porous boundaries between groups.

Summary

In post-war and other deeply divided societies, the manner in which the past is commemorated can have tangible effects on present and future possibilities for peace. Partisan forms of ethno-national commemoration might seem to have only negative effects on peacebuilding, serving to maintain polarized identities, reignite ethnic tensions, and even justify further violence. While recognizing this tendency, the author also examines other ways partisan commemoration might influence peacebuilding. Drawing on Northern Ireland and Lebanon, he argues that, while partisan commemoration can certainly “harden boundaries” between hostile groups, it can also be used—through “adaptive commemoration”—to maintain community cohesion, establish political/ideological continuity, and signal a newfound openness to previous adversaries, all in the service of peace.

Adaptive commemoration: “a more pragmatic adaptation of [ ] partisan forms of ‘hot’ memory, one which reframes them to underwrite more peaceful methods or environments, and attune key constituencies to necessary shifts in the political dispensation.” Through adaptive commemoration, leaders can reframe certain key historical events and figures and acknowledge conflicting narratives on the “other side,” effectively nudging their ethno-national constituencies towards support for peace while providing themselves with needed legitimacy.

The elements of partisan commemoration—collective memory, political ritual, symbols, and so on—provide potent, emotionally evocative resources for maintaining collective identity, cultivating political leaders’ legitimacy, creating political purpose, and mobilizing communities for a particular course of action—especially during crisis and upheaval. Accordingly, partisan commemoration is often used by so-called “ethnic entrepreneurs” to whip up polarized ethno-nationalist sentiment for war. Yet, due to the openness of “commemorative material” to multiple interpretations, partisan commemoration can also be a resource for moving ethno-nationalist constituencies to support peace, while also keeping them united in this support and preventing the emergence of spoilers amidst the uncertainty of a peace process.

The dual role partisan commemoration can play in relation to peacebuilding is apparent in both cases the author examines. In Northern Ireland, for instance, partisan commemoration is certainly used in ways that are harmful to peacebuilding, strengthening in-group/out-group divisions and also justifying violence as a tool of struggle. Yet, forms of adaptive commemoration can also be observed. Some Irish Republican leaders have affirmed continuity with past struggle, the maintenance of Republican goals and values, and the strength of communal identity while also asserting the necessity of a shift in means, from armed resistance to political engagement, in support of the peace process. With the legitimacy gained from commemorating and connecting with the movement’s history of violent struggle, these leaders reorient their constituencies towards peace by framing political engagement as the “new phase of the struggle for Irish unity.” Drawing on powerful symbolic resources—“the dead and the memory of campaigns of violence”—is also important for keeping these symbols close, rather than making them available for contemporary violent splinter groups to appropriate. Commemorations of the deaths of 10 Irish Republican hunger strikers drew on their legacy as “shrewd political analys[ts]” to underscore the need for unity and strategic political (peaceful) engagement in the present, even while celebrating past armed struggle. Other commemorations have also taken an adaptive approach when noting conflicting narratives on different sides of the conflict, as well as the harm other groups have experienced at the hands of Irish Republican militants.

To summarize, adaptive commemoration can fulfill a few functions during the unsettled times of a peace process:

  • Constitutive, though the “maintenance of constituency cohesion”;
  • Ideological, through the “legitimising of political shifts” by tracing continuity between past forms of violent struggle and current peaceful engagement; and
  • Communicative, through the “signalling of potential relations with other communities.”

As an antidote to the possible dangers of partisan commemoration, however, the author argues that societies can further engage in “critical-inclusive commemoration.” Exploring the Decade of Centenaries (1912-1923) in Northern Ireland, he notes how the Northern Irish Community Relations Council (CRC) encouraged critical-inclusive commemoration by developing “Decade Principles” for community groups wishing to commemorate events during the decade. Although not mandated, adherence to these principles was tied to funding, thereby ensuring a broad slate of commemorative events to “counterbalance[]” narrower forms of partisan commemoration and foreground “[d]iffering interpretations,” “internal diversity within ‘bounded’ communities,” and “deeper contextualization,” while challenging previously unexamined narratives.

Critical-inclusive commemoration: “a form of relating to the past which seeks to provide a pluralistic space for engagement whilst combining it with a measure of critical inquiry and reflection, informed by evidence and a more ‘historical’ method.”

The author concludes with five insights intended to inform interventions related to commemoration:

  • By engaging in adapted forms of partisan commemoration, leaders can gain a “reputational shield” that helps them lead constituencies towards peace, assuaging concerns and holding these constituencies together to guard against “splits and spoiling.”
  • By repurposing and capitalizing on partisan symbolic resources (like martyrs or key battles) for peacebuilding, leaders can reorient constituencies towards peace by communicating new ideas in “a more digestible form.”
  • “Critical and reflective approaches” can emerge in the form of parallel commemorations within a community, enabling unfamiliar narratives to exist alongside—and therefore raise questions about—more familiar ones.
  • Highlighting cross-cutting social identities like gender and class, as well as individuals who engaged in boundary-crossing or inter-ethnic cooperation, may usefully “complicate [ethno-national] identity” by revealing porous boundaries between groups.
  • “[E]ngag[ing] with earlier memories of conflict first” and opening them up to scrutiny will usually be less politically sensitive than engaging with more recent conflict memories from the outset.

Informing Practice

Adapting partisan commemoration as a source of legitimacy and unity for peace illuminates the paradox of needing to draw on dominant, widely held narratives in order to simultaneously challenge or transform them. Put simply, political leaders or peace activists must engage with people where they are—on the symbolic registers most meaningful to them—in order to begin to shift their understandings of the conflict and their relationships with (former) adversaries. This approach also draws attention to the diversity of views and political positions already existent within single ethno-national communities—and to the fact that it is those within these communities, perhaps holding minority views but also fluent in the most powerful symbolic material of their communities, who will be most effective at influencing their co-ethno-nationals in support of peace.

With these insights in mind, it is instructive—if also somewhat unsettling—to consider how adaptive commemoration may aid in the “peace process” (or, more accurately, justice, truth, peace, and reconciliation process) the U.S. so desperately needs to undertake in response to the legacy of slavery, racial discrimination, and racist violence. Although chattel slavery may be past, the racism and dehumanization it spawned to legitimate itself live on in the routine killing of black Americans at the hands of police officers and neighborhood vigilantes. The theft from black Americans that slavery instituted lives on in the enormous wealth gap that persists between black Americans and white Americans, further entrenched by the discriminatory policies of the 20th century, from redlining to limited educational access and everywhere in between. The only way to heal as a country, to become a place where all Americans become inheritors of the unrealized ideals of this country’s founding, share in its riches, and feel safe walking down its streets, is to fully reckon with slavery and how it has shaped economic, social, and political relations in this country. A good place to start is with H.R. 40, the bill calling for the mere study of reparations, which Rep. John Conyers began introducing annually in Congress in 1989, and which has not yet received the support it would need to get out of committee and onto the House floor.

So, how do we get there? How do we as a country engage in a serious dialogue about reparations—acknowledging and attempting to repair at least some of the harm caused by slavery and the racist policies since—when some (white) Americans deny that slavery even has a legacy or that racism still exists and others are actually re-embracing white supremacy in its most blatant forms?

This research suggests that we should look in an unexpected place to move reluctant or defensive communities to support such a process: partisan commemorations. While Confederate Memorial Day and other such Confederate commemorations can be dangerous in their nostalgia for a white supremacist order, might they also—through adaptive commemoration—become opportunities to reach those communities whose support of racial justice and reconciliation would be most transformative? How might leaders and activists in Confederate-identifying communities, who may feel a connection to their Confederate “heritage” (due to their ancestors’ sacrifice) but vocally acknowledge and disown its racism, draw on but also re-shape Confederate narratives in a way that recognizes the direct, structural, and cultural violence of the Confederacy?  Would community members be more likely to undertake such a reckoning if it were framed as a natural outgrowth of Confederate chivalry and valor? This approach could reveal Confederate identity in unexpected ways—whether by connecting self-proclaimed Confederate values to values espoused by Black Lives Matter activists or recovering marginalized histories of revered white southerners assisting black neighbors in escapes to freedom or standing with them in civil rights marches. Although there is a danger that such moves could serve to reinforce representations of the Confederacy as benign and non-racist, there is the potential here—if there is also full recognition of historical and contemporary racist violence—to move self-identifying Confederates to question foundational understandings about their history and contemporary political commitments. Some may even begin to see engagement in a national conversation on reparations or other racial justice activism as an extension of, rather than in opposition to, their identities. This shift might only become possible precisely because it would be rooted in the cultural context of Confederate narrative and identity rather than imposed from outside—an experience likely instead to spark a defensive response.

Let us not stop there, however. To do so would be to take the rest of the country off the hook and suggest that slavery and racism are only the Confederacy’s problems; they clearly are not. Both are baked into the United States’ founding, making mainstream American commemoration also complicit in the legitimation of historical and contemporary racist violence and injustice. The bigger project here, therefore, is how to rethink or reclaim American commemoration—its narratives, symbolism, and values—in the service of racial justice and peacebuilding. One promising model for how this might be done, from a slightly different context, is the work of U.S. veteran peace movements who effectively re-cast American patriotism by drawing on narratives of patriotic sacrifice while at the same time disowning the military projects for which that sacrifice has been requested. It’s an especially powerful juxtaposition and one that can change minds—highly revered identities and values paired with resistance to the violence previously or currently justified in their name. [MW]

Continued Reading

The New York Times. (2019). The 1619 project. Retrieved on May 28, 2020, from https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2019/08/14/magazine/1619-america-slavery.html

Jackson Lee, S. (2019, June 17). H.R. 40 is not a symbolic act. It’s a path to restorative justice. ACLU NorCal. Retrieved on May 28, 2020, from https://www.aclunc.org/blog/hr-40-not-symbolic-act-it-s-path-restorative-justice

Coates, T.-N. (2014, June). The case for reparations. The Atlantic. Retrieved on May 28, 2020, from https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2014/06/the-case-for-reparations/361631/

Duggan, P. (2018, November 28). Sins of the fathers: The Confederacy was built on slavery. How can so many Southern whites still believe otherwise? The Washington Post Magazine. Retrieved on May 28, 2020, from https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/magazine/wp/2018/11/28/feature/the-confederacy-was-built-on-slavery-how-can-so-many-southern-whites-still-believe-otherwise/

Organizations

Community Relations Council (Northern Ireland): https://www.community-relations.org.uk/decade-centenaries

N’COBRA (National Coalition of Blacks for Reparations in America): https://www.ncobraonline.org/

ACLU (Reparations): https://www.aclu.org/news/topic/reparations-h-r-40-and-the-path-forward/?redirect=node%2F91006

Keywords: partisan commemoration, adaptive commemoration, peacebuilding, critical-inclusive commemoration, memory, peace processes, Northern Ireland, Lebanon

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