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How does a society deal with what #MeToo has revealed? There are more cases of workplace sexual harassment and abuse than any criminal justice system can deal with adequately, and in the U.S., the law has let a lot of victims down. Not every abuse merits prosecution, either. On our recent Masthead conference call with Megan Garber, a member, Rachel, suggested the U.S. could take inspiration from truth and reconciliation commissions abroad. The director and actor Jodie Foster suggested a similar idea on “CBS This Morning” recently. In today’s issue, I’ll look at what experiences with truth commissions can teach Americans about how to process the reckoning with sexual harassment and abuse.

Truth Commissions Can Help Societies Heal

Truth commissions might seem like something that only countries transitioning out of war and conflict do. But the U.S. has tried them before outside that context, with some success, and experts say it’s the right kind of tool to think about for addressing a phenomenon as big and intractable as gendered abuse in the workplace.

South Africa’s commission is the most famous example. The crimes of apartheid were so big that not only could they never all be prosecuted, but attempting to do so could make it harder for all the victims’ stories to be told. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission was in part an acknowledgement of those realities. It offered legal amnesty to the agents of apartheid in exchange for their testimony, and collected the experiences of victims. The result was an official record of the apartheid years and policy recommendations to mitigate the legacies of violence going forward, including by paying reparations.

The many similar efforts that have followed—in Kenya, Guatemala, Canada, and elsewhere—have echoed that process. After a period of of abuses, a government works to put victims’ experiences on the record in an effort to promote healing and national reconciliation.

The Truth Movement Has Already Reached America

“There’s this kind of truth and reconciliation moment that the U.S. is in, that really was an outgrowth of some efforts that went around in the late 1990s and early 2000s,” said Joshua Inwood, who studies America’s experience with truth and reconciliation as an associate professor of geography at Penn State and a senior research associate at the Rock Ethics Institute. “The first real seeded, funded, and executed truth and reconciliation commission went on in Greensboro, North Carolina,” he said. In 1979, members of the Ku Klux Klan and the American Nazi Party killed five labor activists, a violent episode that came to be known as the Greensboro Massacre. Efforts to prosecute the killers failed. Twenty years later, to salvage some sense of justice, survivors started a truth commission with private funding. It issued a detailed report in 2006.

Several other commissions have been set up in the U.S. In Maine, the state government worked with the indigenous Wabanaki to produce a report about abuse in the state’s child welfare system. The city of Detroit tried to set up a commission to look at the legacy of residential segregation, but the effort collapsed. “One of the reasons the Detroit truth and reconciliation process kind of fell apart is they never got grassroots city buy-in to make that process work,” said Inwood.

Community involvement is vital to these efforts, Inwood said. “Almost all of these commissions are grassroots-driven, and I think that’s a huge difference between what goes on in the United States and what goes on internationally.” These efforts don’t need to be run by governments, and can be successful even if they don’t produce a public record with the national seal on it. (Many American nongovernmental commissions do publish records and reports.) Even without legal powers to give amnesty or compel testimony, grassroots efforts like the one in Greensboro have succeeded in getting powerful people on record, Inwood said.

They also can be a lot smaller-scale than South Africa’s effort to grapple with apartheid. Inwood described the work by the William Winter Institute at Ole Miss, which started a program called the Welcome Table to deal with racism in Mississippi. “They bring a bunch of people from a community that has a legacy or history of violence. They sit around the table, and they talk about what that means, and the different kind of interpretations, the different kinds of events,” Inwood said. “That’s the model that you can think about in the 21st century, in the U.S. with the #MeToo moment.”

The Scope of #MeToo Will Make Any Reckoning Difficult

Both internationally and in the U.S., experience with truth commissions also shows how difficult it will be to process this moment of reckoning. “A lot of people tend to think of truth and reconciliation as a kind of panacea,” said Inwood. “We’re going to have this moment, we’re going to have this document, we’re going to have this history, and there’s going to be a set of recommendations, we’re all going to shake hands, and we’re all going to walk away. In any community around the world that has engaged in reconciliation and truth processes, that has never happened.”

Part of the challenge with #MeToo is that the experiences happened over many years, in many places. “What would a reconciliation and truth commission look like in the United States around issues of sexual harassment and sexual violence? That’s a heck of a question,” said Inwood. For one, it’s hard to separate contemporary women’s workplace experiences from America’s deeper legacies of abuse and inequality. “Are we going to talk about the histories and legacies of sexual violence directed towards African African women that go back toward histories, legacies, and geographies of slavery?” he asked.

“The context is so broad, and across so many industries,” said Amrita Kapur, who served on the Black Women’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, an effort that convened in New York in 2016 to look at the history and consequences of sexual violence against black women. But Kapur’s experience suggests that truth and reconciliation commissions can be effective vehicles for beginning to reckon with sexual violence, even when the scope of the trauma is deep-rooted. The testimony the commission collected painted a picture larger than any one woman could create herself. To illustrate structural problems, it set out strategically to collect testimony from women in many different contexts. “They wanted the full spectrum of experiences,” Kapur said. By creating a representative sample, she said, a commission like that can create a macro picture above and beyond any individual story.

The plague of sexual violence against black women has not ended, of course, in New York or elsewhere. But collecting testimony is a step. “Reconciliation and truth commissions are a first step to creating a particular set of conversations,” Inwood said. For Kapur, a truth commission like that can “establish a record which makes it very difficult to deny that it happened.”

Today’s Wrap Up

  • Question of the day: Where have you seen progress, or failure, in the months since #MeToo focused America’s attention on sexual harassment in the workplace?
  • Your feedback: Take today’s quick survey to let us know how you enjoyed this issue of The Masthead.
  • What’s coming: Tomorrow, Caroline Kitchener writes about the growing number of people who identify themselves as being spiritual but not religious.
  • One more thing: Masthead member Stephen Bates has graciously organized a happy hour for members in Washington, D.C. tomorrow. Caroline and I are planning to stop by, and we may bring some friends from the Watergate. If you’d like to come, it’s from 5:00 p.m. to 7:00 p.m. at Sidecar (underneath PJ Clarke’s, 1600 K Street, NW). Please reply to this email to RSVP. More details on Facebook.

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