Ethics of the In-Between

Tuesday October 23, 2007

PowerLines

Last weekend – whilst baking a large batch of bread – I was listening to a programme on Radio4 about the Hello Peace initiative in the Middle East. Hello Peace is an extraordinary idea, and the programme was sometimes demanding, but at the same time, extremely impressive listening. Here is an extract from the Hello Peace website:

Hello, Peace is a project of the Parents Circle – Families Forum, a joint group of over 200 Israeli and over 200 Palestinian parents, each one of whom has lost children or close family members in the conflict. We know from our own painful experience that to move beyond silent despair and isolation, people must begin talking again – especially with people on the other side.
[…]
The media tell us that Israelis and Palestinians don’t want to talk about peace now, and don’t trust there’s anyone on the other side who wants to, either. We believe that underneath, there is actually an enormous hunger to talk, on both sides – and we’re determined to restart that conversation at such a large scale that the new media story becomes “Israelis and Palestinians have begun talking with each other again about peace.” That story, supported by hard numbers, will let political leaders know that there is a reborn and growing constituency in both societies for dialogue and negotiations.

Hello, Peace was a simple idea: to set up a phone line that crossed the dividing wall between Israeli and Palestinian areas, so that ordinary people could talk to each other. It sounded, on the evidence of the programme, like a brave and worthwhile project, although that is not what I want to focus on here. What I was most struck by during the programme was one of the interviewees who talked about coming to terms with the loss of a family member in the on-going bloodshed in the region, and who was trying, in the light of this loss, to build something positive that would help break with the cycle of violence. It is not to do with forgiveness, he said at one point: if on the one hand there are calls for forgiveness, and on the other hand there are calls for revenge, somewhere between the two there is an imperative to find a way that we can go on living.

It was, I thought, an insightful comment. I am sometimes uncertain about the lofty ethical demands that we impose upon ourselves and upon others. Take the demand for forgiveness mentioned by the interviewee, for example. This is a topic discussed by Derrida at some length in a short but penetrating essay. There, Derrida asserts that what calls for forgiveness is the unforgivable, that is to say, what demands forgiveness, true forgiveness, is a situation in which there is no possibility of any kind of genuine recompense, in which no true amends can be made for the wrong committed. It is a worthwhile point, and these are themes that are further explored by Richard Holloway in his book on the subject (or see my interview here).

All of this may be true, and such reflections may be useful: but at the same time, the interviewee on the radio programme provided a useful reminder that sometimes we might have to turn away from these lofty ethical and philosphical heights, and to return to the simpler question of how we are to go on living, how we are to build a more equitable and peaceful world, when we find ourselves, as often as not, as incapable of absolute forgiveness as we are of absolute revenge, when we ourselves are kind and unkind in equal parts, uncertain, mixed-up, swinging now this way, now that. Between absolutes – between, for example, revenge and of forgiveness – the territory upon which we may live and act is wide; and it is here that – when we put our philosophy books down, when we descend from the heights of our ideals – we find ourselves spending a greater proportion of our days.

How are we to go on living? It is an important question. Lofty ideals alone are not enough to secure peace. Perhaps we also need a dose of pragmatism, a recognition of our own mixed natures, a deeper understanding of the possibilities that exist on this territory between opposed absolutes. What I mean is this: perhaps we need to develop an ethics of the regions in-between.

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#1 · Charlene

25 October 2007

This was a very thought-provoking post and the first one about which I have felt the need to offer comment.

I often find that life is lived in the space in-between…not gray in the sense of having vague morality, but questioning the ultimate value of ‘absolute’ anything.

The thinking is that forgiveness is for the person who has been wronged, so that the wrong does not poison them. But, what if you are not in danger of being poisoned, does that mean that forgiveness is not required? Or does it mean that life has taught you, as I think this article implies somewhat, that it is the extreme of anything that rings untrue. Absolute revenge under certain circumstances is a false as absolute forgiveness under those same circumstances. So how to live authentically…perhaps in the middle?

Thank you for this post. I will be thinking about the issues it raises for some time.

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