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Shouldn't Massacring Your Neighbors be Unforgivable?

Philip Gourevitch
Mar 16 2016

The McCoy Center for Ethics hosted a talk on Tuesday, February 23 by Philip Gourevitch, long-time staff writer for the New Yorker and former editor of the Paris Review, best known for his work about Rwanda.

The title of Gourevitch’s talk – “Shouldn’t Massacring Your Neighbors be Unforgivable?” – reads like a gimmicky, click-bait sort of tagline, but it turns out to be important, first of all because it represents Gourevitch’s attitude as a writer: find stories that are “infinite and full of unanswerable questions,” and approach them with the mindset, “I don’t understand this.”

People meeting.

Gourevitch first went to Rwanda because he did not understand how, especially after the Holocaust, another genocide could have happened – and not only happened, but gone totally unchecked by all those countries whose leaders had spent so much rhetorical energy decrying the Holocaust and vowing that humanity would never again sleep through such a horror. But the confusion that drove Gourevitch’s recent talk was: how can reconciliation happen in the aftermath of a 100-day period during which millions of people are killed, many by their neighbors? How do survivors live again in the same communities as the people who have murdered their family and friends.

Gourevitch spoke much about one strategy the Rwandan state adopted to facilitate reconciliation – the gacaca court system. Gourevitch described gacaca courts to a western audience as local courts in which “People of Integrity,” chosen by the community, sit in a circle with the one harmed and the one who harmed and try to hash out “the beef.” In 2001, about 12,000 of these courts were established to deal with cases of genocide, and they operated until 2012.

In Gourevitch’s view, the “localness” of these courts was their major strength. “They could not,” he said, “have worked meaningfully in any other way.” Instead of driving towards retribution, a conventional pillar of justice, the gacaca courts promoted confession, which, in turn, facilitated forgiveness – for to forgive is, by definition Gourevitch suggests, to respond to another person’s confession by giving up one’s own claim to retribution. 

Audience member.

But Gourevitch took pains to reduce neither the human nor the moral complexity of the situation in Rwanda. Through a series of stories, Gourevitch showed that, for some survivors, it was healthy to forgive those who had killed their families and friends – it was even healthy for one woman to forgive the man who had cut off her arm. But for other survivors, forgiveness was a torturous proposition - after all, “Shouldn’t massacring your neighbors be unforgivable?” 


Quite often, Gourevitch said, “forgiveness” did not take any neat and heartwarming form. Indeed, one of the most provocative (and entertaining) parts of his talk began when he said that, in some communities, the post-genocide atmosphere could best be described by the Rwandan expression, “You hide that you hate me, and I hide that I know.” Into the silence that followed Gourevitch lobbed the idea that such an attitude is not as sinister as it sounds -- and that, what’s more, it might actually be the underlying code of civil society (!). Then, while the audience stirred/frowned/laughed knowingly, Gourevitch took his claim to its dramatic conclusion, acknowledging that “You hide that you hate me, and I hide that I know” is a low standard for civil society, but suggesting, with sincerity and a cynical, self-aware sense of humor, that “a low standard is a very high hope for humanity.” 

Speaker lectures.

Gourevitch’s soundbite about “humanity” was a rare, sententious moment in a talk concerned overwhelmingly with the stories of individual men and women. Too often western sources have reduced the story of the Rwandan genocide to an impersonal conflict between two factions with, as Gourevitch mocked, “Dr. Suess-sounding names.” Gourevitch’s talk complicated what others have reduced, showed a constellation of particular human responses where others have generalized about “the Rwandan experience.”

By the end of the talk, it became clear that it was not important to Gourevitch to provide a final answer to the question, “Shouldn’t Massacring your Neighbors be Unforgivable?” What was important was to show how differently different people responded to that question in Rwanda, for in so doing Gourevitch could reverse the process of reduction, take the faceless lump of “Dr. Suess-sounding” sufferers and elaborate them back into real people.

More photographs from the event.

Michael Taylor is a 2015 Stanford grad with a degree in English. Since graduation he's been writing fiction on a farm in Cape Verde.