Before the Apology to the Stolen Generations on 13 February 2008, many people canvassed the relative merits of symbolic reconciliation and practical reconciliation.
The limitations of such symbolic gestures are evident: they may make divided groups feel better about each other but lead to no material benefit for the weaker group. The limitations of practical reconciliation have also often been noted. Actions may address particular needs, but, if imposed, can further alienate the weaker group.
To lead to reconciliation, both symbolic and practical actions must flow out of a shared imaginative world. Each group must make space in their imagination for a realistic view of the often terrible events that divided them and of who was responsible for them. They must also make space for a realistic view of the enduring consequences of these actions. And they must share a hopeful vision of what reconciliation might mean for their society.
How difficult it is to reach an imaginative world in which hope and acceptance of a horrifying reality are held together could be seen in the South African Truth Commission.
It was often difficult for White South Africans to acknowledge the horrific things the government had done in their interests and the extent of the sufferings caused to Black South Africans. It was equally difficult for many to hope that out of this acknowledgment could come reconciliation. But when hope and recognition of a terrible reality went together, seeds of change were sown.
Because it is so difficult to hold together in the imagination a vision of a full reconciliation and the recognition of past wrongs whose consequences continue to be felt many generations later, it is natural to reduce the tension between hope and recognition. We minimise the wrongs and horrors of the past and the extent to which their effects mark people's lives today. And we lower our hopes for what reconciliation might mean.
It may mean moving on without confronting the past and the way it has advantaged some and disadvantaged others, or thinking up plans to deal with the problem that the other group poses. Because the causes of division are not addressed, no reconciliation takes place. Indeed what is intended to benefit people is perceived by them as an imposition and resented.
If divided people are to be reconciled, both symbolic and practical actions are important. But both must flow from a shared imagination in which harsh historical realities and large hopes are held in tension. Symbolic actions of reconciliation are important because they help to preserve the tension.
In the Apology, Kevin Rudd spoke powerfully of the sufferings inflicted on people by a wrong policy, and of the continuing effects of those policies. But the context of the Apology expressed the hope and determination to build a better and reconciled Australia.
Symbolic actions like this give hope that by acknowledging a harsh reality we can be reconciled and set free. And in turn they strengthen us against yielding to the easy charms of a harmonising imagination.
Practical actions are also needed to heal what has been broken in society, and these will of necessity be enabled by the more powerful of the divided groups. But these actions must also come from a shared imagination that holds conflicting things in tension.
For non-indigenous Australia this means acknowledging the wrongs done to Indigenous people by the settlers and the continuing effects of these wrongs today. It also means acknowledging the harm that when the descendants of settlers analyse the situation of Indigenous people and devise solutions to what they see as problems, they will perpetuate the effects of the original wrongs.
Practical actions that will bear fruit demand listening with a humility born out of awareness of a destructive history, and taking time to listen and to build reconciliation, not simply to implement a policy.
This article was originally published in Eureka Street in June 2013.
Image: Butupa (Flickr - Creative Commons license).