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Is it ever OK not to forgive?

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The print edition of this month’s Prospect Magazine has an article from me on forgiveness. It’s a huge subject, but the particular focus of my piece is the pressure faced by victims of extreme violence publicly to declare forgiveness towards those responsible, even when the perpetrators have shown no remorse or willingness to change their ways.

Together with my own family’s case I was privileged to be able to include an interview with Julie Nicholson, whose extraordinary book, A Song For Jenny, recounts her experiences and reflections following the murder of her daughter Jenny in the July 7th 2005 London Bombings. Julie Nicholson’s story made international headlines in 2006 when she stepped down from her post as a Church of England vicar, and told the media that she would not forgive her daughter’s killer.

Forgiveness is one of those strange areas of human life where a small semantic nuance can have profound political consequences. In some of the most brutalised societies in the world, it has sometimes been taken as read that a) victims of violence  are morally obliged to forgive their abuser for the perceived “greater good” and b) “forgiveness” necessarily entails granting immunity from prosecution to mass-murderers.

When these ideas are taken to extremes, as they have been in Northern Uganda with the treatment of victims of the notorious Lord’s Resistance Army, the results can be both dangerous and deeply unpleasant.

Alongside these individual cases, I was keen to highlight the excellent work that has been done in recent years by philosophers and psychologists seeking to challenge some of the common assumptions about forgiveness and clarify a very muddled area of moral thought.

In preparing the article it was enormously useful to have the chance to speak to Professor Charles Griswold of Boston University, whose outstanding book “Forgiveness – A Philosophical Exploration”   has been a huge help in un-muddling my own thinking on this issue over the last few years. Charles Griswold pointed me towards two further books that I would also strongly recommend to anyone seriously looking into this issue.

“Ancient Forgiveness” is co-edited by Charles Griswold and David Konstan (Professor of Classics at New York University), with essays from both, and was published in the UK just at the end of last year. This book seeks to unravel the mishmash of traditions that have given rise to the many modern (and at times contradictory) definitions of the word.

The second book that Charles Griswold highlighted, and which I also found very helpful in writing the piece, was “Resentment’s Virtue”, by the Danish Philosopher Thomas Brudholm. This takes a refreshingly sceptical view of the absolutist discourse of “forgiveness and reconciliation” that dominates so much of the literature. In careful, forensic detail, Brudholm shows how, well-intentioned though such ideas are, they can often have the effect of re-victimising victims of horrific crimes, and even demonising those who make a free and informed choice not to forgive.

The last book I would recommend is “Forgiveness is a Choice”, by the University of Wisconsin psychology professor Robert Enright, who was also kind enough to speak to me at length about his work in this area. Enright is a strong advocate of the psychological benefits of forgiveness, and has won praise for his work treating victims of serious abuses who choose to go down this path. Enright offers a clear definition of forgiveness that is respectful towards victims, and robustly delineates this very personal process from the political issues with which it is so often conflated.

What’s interesting, however, in comparing Robert Enright’s writing with that of Charles Griswold, is the extent to which their respective definitions of forgiveness – and therefore a number of their conclusions – differ so widely. Even among the experts there appears to be no single definition of the word that is universally accepted, and some of the most fundamental principles around the issue are still being worked out.

This makes for an interesting discussion, but also further highlights the predicament that victims being pressured to “forgive” find themselves in.

Prospect Magazine is available from all good news outlets and on subscription – I’d be interested to know what people make of the piece, and hope to return to this issue in more depth later in the year.

Written by Richard Wilson

July 1, 2012 at 11:22 am

Posted in Titanic Express

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So what’s with the tank?

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Written by Richard Wilson

June 28, 2012 at 8:36 pm

Why I’m supporting the #armstreaty campaign

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As I walked in I could see Charlotte’s body through the long rectangular window at the far side. A white sheet covered all but her face. Her eyes were closed, her eyelids blackened, her lips slightly parted. She looked as if she was frozen in time, neither peaceful nor troubled. Just an incredible, terrible stillness. As though she had died mid-sentence, or mid-gasp. Her skin was mottled brown, black lines tracing the veins across her face, dark hair pulled back from her forehead.

“Her hair looks thin – do you think she was eating properly?”, my mother asked, and somewhere I could hear Charlotte laughing.

Charlotte had been shot seven times in the back with an Eastern-European weapon, from a distance of two to three feet. She’d either have been kneeling or lying down. She would have died quickly. The only possible verdict was murder.

A lot has changed in my life since I finished the book from which the extract above is taken. It’s long enough ago now that I find it quite shocking to read back some of the things I wrote in the years following my sister’s murder.  But Charlotte’s death changed the course of my life, and for me,  the arms trade will always be a deeply personal issue.

Charlotte was shot dead in a bus massacre by Hutu-extremists in Burundi at the end of 2000. But the bullets that killed her, and the gun that fired them, were manufactured thousands of miles away. And they didn’t end up in Burundi by accident. Someone, somewhere, made a deliberate decision to transport these weapons to one of the poorest countries in the world, and put them in the hands of serial killers.

The reason I support the #armstreaty campaign is because I think it’s a good idea to try to stop serial killers getting hold of bullets and guns. According to Oxfam and Amnesty International, there are more international regulations controlling the global trade in bananas than the trade in deadly weapons. As a result, over 1,500 people die through armed violence every day, the majority of them civilians. If the international rules were more robust, it would be harder for serial killers in countries like Burundi to get hold of bullets and guns.

Now one of the big problems here is that the term “international regulation” is inherently dry and dull. I suspect this is one of the main reasons that the Arms Trade Treaty campaign (let’s face it, another quite dull term)  has had so little media coverage.

This is a shame because, dull and legalistic though these terms are, the fact that we don’t yet have a comprehensive global system for regulating the arms trade (yawn, I know) means that hundreds of thousands of people are dying each year who might have lived, if it wasn’t quite so easy for serial killers in countries like Burundi to get hold of bullets and guns.

Happily, the inherent dullness of the words we have to use to talk about this problem has not stopped the United Nations from drawing up a treaty that could, if all goes well, make it much, much harder for serial killers to get hold of bullets and guns in future.

Even more happily, Oxfam and Amnesty have hit on a great way to make this issue less dull. On Wednesday, they will be driving around London in a tank, seeking to ramp up the pressure on the governments whose support could help to swing the crucial vote taking place at the UN next month. A number of bloggers, me included, will be tweeting from inside the tank under the #armstreaty hashtag.

Despite being quite boring, international treaties can make a huge difference, even when not everyone signs up to them. The 1998 treaty banning the use of landmines reportedly helped cut deaths and injuries from 26,000 per year to less than 6,000 a decade later – even though a number of countries refused to join in, and continued producing land-mines.

This is a really boring issue. It’s also a really important one, with the potential to save hundreds of thousands of lives. If you’d like to find out more about the campaign and what you can do to support it, please visit this website.

Written by Richard Wilson

June 27, 2012 at 12:17 am

Skepticism and freedom

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The video that could see Sanal Edamaruku jailed for “blasphemy”

At Leicester Skeptics in the Pub on June 19th, I’ll be talking about the link between skepticism and freedom of speech.

It’s hard to find a more pressing example of the problems that skeptics can face when powerful institutions threaten freedom of speech than that of Sanal Edamaruku, President of the Indian Rationalist Association. On May 10th, Sanal went on Indian TV to debunk a purported “miracle” at a Catholic Church in Mumbai. Now, after local Catholic groups reported him to the authorities, he is facing a criminal prosecution for “deliberately hurting religious feelings and attempting malicious acts intended to outrage the religious sentiments of any class or community”.

The Rationalist Association have set up an online petition calling on the Catholic community to withdraw their complaint, and urging the Catholic authorities elsewhere in the world to speak out against the prosecution.

The Catholic Church in England and Wales has a Twitter account here if you would like to send them a polite message urging them to speak out against the persecution of Sanal Edamaruku.

Things are also reaching a critical point here in the UK as the Libel Reform campaign seeks to ensure that the government’s proposed changes to our laws really do ensure that people asking difficult questions are properly  protected from vexatious prosecutions. The Libel Reform Campaign are now appealing to all those concerned about freedom of speech in Britain to contact their MP and join a mass lobby of Parliament on June 27th.

Written by Richard Wilson

June 18, 2012 at 9:10 pm

BBC (nearly) runs film praising Rwanda’s dictator, “supported” by company linked to ruling party

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Update: Many thanks to Nick Wallis, who tells me that the film was pulled from the BBC schedules prior to being aired and never actually went out. Will update again if I can find out more…

Last year I blogged about the Rwandan government’s $50,000 deal with the US PR firm Racepoint, whose strategy includes promoting “Rwanda’s Visionary Leader… highlighting President Kagame and his visionary leadership”, while  “communicating the successes of Rwanda with key stakeholders in the political and financial elite communities”.

The PR firm…  outlines “a consolidated set of tactics to publicize both Rwanda and President Kagame“. This will initially involve “leveraging top print and broadcast outlets to communicate the Rwanda success story… and, in the process, validate it based on their credibility”, together with “a proactive campaign that leverages the web to seed stories favorable to Rwanda”.

Racepoint singles out  the Huffington Post as a particular online media target, together with “careful seeding across the blogosphere” to “initiate an offensive to control the organic search on Rwanda and set the agenda in print and broadcast”.

One of the key themes within the PR strategy’s “Education and inform program” would include:

The Rwandan Miracle: Healing of a Nation – We will highlight the rapid healing of the Rwandan nation, it will rely on visuals to drive the story home, Including inviting a handful of top-tier influencer media into the country to observe and Interview people in society.”

So I was very interested to hear about a new 45-minute film, reportedly due to air on May 12th and 13th on BBC World News, called “Rwanda-17 – Healing a Nation”.

The blurb from the film paints a heartwarming picture of the country’s under-17 football team, which it suggests “represents Rwanda’s breathtaking evolution and hopes for a better future, with good leadership and unity at the heart of not only sporting success but also a nation’s efforts to achieve reconciliation and prosperity.”

“What is it about Rwanda? What it is it that you’ve got *so* right?” asks the interviewer in the 2-minute trailer. His respondent tells him that “every ship” needs to have “a good captain”.

“Our team today, to play well, *they* a good captain, they need a good coach. They need somebody who has a vision. This is what we have in Rwanda.”

The shot then cuts to an interview with Rwanda’s President Paul Kagame: “As the captain of this ship, what would you say you need to deliver to the people?”, his friendly interviewer asks. “We want to leave poverty behind us. We want to leave any kind of conflict behind us”, Kagame tells him.

This will doubtless come as good news to the UK-based dissidents who Rwanda’s government tried to murder last year… And the exiled opposition leader who has twice avoided assassination in South Africa, though it’s sadly too late for the opposition politician found beheaded in Rwanda in 2010.

There is a longer version of the trailer here, where it is stated that the film was “supported by Crystal Ventures”.

According to a DFID-funded research paper on Rwanda’s development, Kagame’s ruling party “funds itself by a combination of member contributions and the dividends paid by a private company which it fully owns… formerly known as Tri-Star Investments S.A.R.L. and now registered as Crystal Ventures Ltd.”

The Crystal Ventures website, meanwhile, states that:

“The company is wholly owned by Rwandan business people who pooled resources together to meet challenges of economic recovery and take advantage of growth opportunities in a virgin environment.”

Opposition activists, however, have claimed that the company is effectively controlled by the Rwandan President.

Google reveals lots more speculation – but far less concrete detail – about Crystal Ventures and its background. I’d be grateful for any input from readers on good sources to help unravel this…

Written by Richard Wilson

May 11, 2012 at 4:38 pm

“Breaking Their Will” – book review in the New Humanist

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My latest book review is in this month’s New Humanist magazine, looking at a harrowing account of religiously-motivated child abuse and neglect: “Breaking Their Will”, by Janet Heimlich. This month’s edition also features the excellent Alom Shaha and Martin Robbins.

The New Humanist magazine is published by a registered charity, the Rationalist Association. It’s a great example of the growing trend for non-profit organisations to fill the gap left by the decline of the mainstream news media, covering niche and public interest issues that are covered superficially or ignored by commercial newspapers. If you want to support this project, you can subscribe here.

Written by Richard Wilson

April 22, 2012 at 10:51 am

Posted in Don't Get Fooled Again

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The 1930s advert that Mercedes Benz would rather forget

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…found by a family member in an old magazine from the 1930s:

Written by Richard Wilson

March 18, 2012 at 5:00 pm

Posted in Amnesia

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