Peace and Conflict Series: Into the Grey Zone of Human Rights Violations with Political Theorist Mihaela Mihai
The many ways of being complicit in violence and injustice
An interview with Mihaela Mihai, Senior Research Fellow in Political Theory at the University of Edinburgh
What is your current research about?
The Auschwitz survivor and great Italian writer Primo Levi – who coined the term ‘the grey zone’ to refer to moral ambiguity in a situation of violence – said that ‘we all make our deals with power, willingly or not.’
In our research project, we are using his concept of the ‘grey zone’ and his insights into the ambiguity of moral responsibility as starting points for an inquiry into the many ways in which people are complicit in violence and injustice. We analyse complex accounts of moral and political complicity in four cases: Vichy France, apartheid South Africa, totalitarianism in Communist Romania and the military dictatorship in Argentina during the Dirty War in the 1970s and 80s.
Our claim is that the ambiguous roles of collaborators, bystanders and beneficiaries has not been properly reckoned within the current theory and practice of transitional justice in post-conflict societies. We ask how historical sources, cinematic and literary representations illuminate this murky reality of political conflict.
Can they then reinvigorate efforts at justice and reconciliation in societies wrought by violence and division?
To give one example, we’re exploring how powerful films that touch on this space between victims and perpetrators can promote debate, public engagement and historical understanding. Think of how Louis Malle’s classic film Lacombe, Lucien unsettles viewers’ preconceptions about the motivations of perpetrators in its portrayal of the thoughtlessness and divided loyalties of its lead character. Likewise, the disturbingly ambivalent relationship between a torturer and his young female victim in the powerful 1999 Argentinian film Garaje Olimpo challenges the way we normally think about responsibility and culpability.
As you can imagine, this research takes in many disciplines, including philosophy, history, political science, law, literature and cinema. Within that general project, each of the four team members has developed specific interests.
As the principal investigator in this project, I am currently exploring two themes of relevance. First, I am working on delineating an account of the epistemic functions of artworks. The main question is: by virtue of what characteristics do films, novels and poems help us better understand the thorny issue of complicity? In addition, I explore the significance of feminist theories of responsibility and complicity for the ‘grey zone’. Feminists have long worked on unpacking the issue of how one becomes complicit with an unjust structure. Their insights into this phenomenon bear a great relevance for any sophisticated attempt to illuminate the ‘grey zone.’
Hugh McDonnell has recently published his book, Europeanising Spaces in Paris, c. 1947-1962, which examines contested conceptions of ‘Europe’ and ‘Europeanness’ in the post-World War Two French capital. He is now undertaking historical research on aspects of the ‘grey zone’ in Vichy France, and is also working on an article on Jean-Paul Sartre’s varied engagements with the idea of Europe and what it means to be European.
Maša Mrovlje is currently exploring ways of judging instances of violent resistance to oppressive systems, looking particularly at South Africa’s anti-apartheid struggle. More generally, she is interested in how existential philosophy illuminates the dark realities of conflict. She is also finalising a book manuscript on existentialism and the ambiguity of political judgement, with a focus on transitional justice as the area where these philosophical frameworks clearly show their value.
Last but not least, Gisli Vogler’s PhD project focuses on the issue of responsibility and is located between social and political theory. Gisli draws on the work of Hannah Arendt and Margaret Archer to provide an account of political judgement that takes seriously its situatedness and limited emancipatory power. This has great relevance for transitional justice in general, and for our understanding of resistance and complicity in particular.
How does your research contribute to global justice and peace?
We address what we consider to be weaknesses in current approaches to transitional justice: their unsatisfactory take on the ‘grey zone’. Post-conflict societies worldwide understandably seek clear answers and solutions, but these obscure the messiness and ambiguity of human interaction. We argue in favour of sustained efforts to understand the shadowy zone of collaborators, bystanders and beneficiaries of violence. By grappling with invisible injustices in various historical and geographical situations, we call attention to the fragility of peace and the incompleteness of justice in societies that have neglected the ‘grey zone.’
We should also say that our work is not about dismissing or overthrowing existing approaches to transitional justice processes. Rather, it is about supplementing or enriching the toolkit of scholars and practitioners of transitional justice. As already mentioned, one innovative aspect of our work is our belief that art might be better placed to provoke societal processes of reflection on invisible forms of participation in violence and injustice.
What impact has your work had so far, and what impact do you hope it will have?
Not least because of the broad scope of our work, we are excited about its future impact. In the first place, it raises awareness of the dangers involved in ignoring general complicity with violence and allowing undemocratic attitudes to reproduce across generations. In this vein, it aims to make a convincing argument about why and how cinema and literature should be used in civic education aimed both at deterrence and reconciliation.
And as part of giving wide exposure to our research goals, last April the team organised and participated in the prestigious European Consortium for Political Research – The Joint Sessions in Pisa. We organised a workshop on “Imagining Violence: The Politics of Narrative and Representation,” which brought together scholars from all over Europe and North America to discuss the role of imagination in understanding and responding to the complex issues of political violence. The fruitful discussion has in turn led to a special journal issue on Imagination and Violence, forthcoming with Critical Review of International Social and Political Philosophy.
We also aim to translate our academic work for a broader public audience, to promote dialogue between academia and the wider community, and to develop cultural and educational resources on the issue of ordinary complicity in injustice. We are especially excited about our film series on “Complicity and Resistance” that will be held in March 2017 at Cameo cinema in Edinburgh. Films like The Secret in Their Eyes and The Headless Woman from Argentina, Une Affaire de femmes and Lacombe Lucien from France, Quad Erat Demonstrandum and The Paper Will Be Blue from Romania, or Fools and Skin from South Africa will be screened to highlight exactly these sorts of troubling questions about complicity, difficult choices and agonising dilemmas confronting individuals in the grey zone.
What other research questions are you discovering which you think need to be addressed, and others you would like to move on to?
It’s certainly the case that our research is always generating further avenues of fruitful inquiry. For instance, an examination of the ‘grey zone’ of resistance as the other side of the coin of complicity in injustice. What are the moral dilemmas, tragedies and human cost involved in (violent) struggles against oppressive systems?
Another example would be the further investigation into the distinct nature of complicity and responsibility of artists and intellectuals, and the significance of varying representations of the grey zone.
The project also raises the problem of how the political effects of failures to engage complicity in human rights violations might be transmitted and reinforced not only over time, but across different geographical and spatial contexts. The questions we raise are of course applicable far beyond our case studies. Similarly, the colonial links or global interconnections in histories of complicity in violence need to be further addressed.
We are also finding that the issue of complicity raises new questions about silence and memory, betrayal and revenge, friendship and trust – notions that remain at the margin of transitional justice scholarship, which yet contain important insights.
Finally, the exploration of cinematic and literary narratives poses the question in turn of the potential moral and political significance of other art genres, such as music or architecture, and their relevance to the issue of ‘grey zone’ and transitional justice more broadly.