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Gilbert: Hard Lessons

It was last fall, at the Vermont Humanities Council’s annual conference, which was about the continuing legacy of the Civil War, a war that ended a century and a half ago.  Wesleyan Professor Lois Brown commented that in the understandable desire to put a painful past behind us, to get to peace and reconciliation, as in South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation process, we sometimes don’t linger long enough in the “truth” part of that process.  We don’t want to look honestly at the horrible reality of, say, apartheid, or slavery, or post-Civil War treatment of African Americans notwithstanding the end of slavery and the supposed establishment of equal justice under the law.  She argues that before we can get to real reconciliation, before we can really move on, we have to linger in the ugly truth part of Truth and Reconciliation long enough that we not only acknowledge it, but that we know it and feel it and see it as a powerful and ugly reality.  We have to ask “Whose truth and reconciliation for whom?” 

And we can’t just try to forget, or pretend to forget, or pretend not to know, or consciously or unconsciously change the narrative in our mind’s eye (as often happens in memory) so that the reality seems to us more palatable.

We cannot avert our eyes from the painful truths we wish weren’t true. Indeed patriotism, idealism, and morality all make it incumbent upon us to confront our society’s worst facets and try, in many ways, to help form “a more perfect union.”  If we’re not part of the solution, we are in some way part of the problem.

And so hearing Professor Brown’s admonition in my head to look at and linger in the ugly truths, I forced myself to watch on the web the video of the policeman in South Carolina shooting and killing Walter Scott.  I didn’t want to.  But reading about it in the paper and seeing it happen aren’t the same thing; the experience, the impact, are not the same. I felt in these times it was something I had to do if I’m going to try to be the kind of person I want to be and if I’m going to try to work to make our country the kind of country we would like to think it is.

Peter Gilbert is executive director of the Vermont Humanities Council.
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