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Speaker discusses empathy, violence

Christian Myers | Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela, psychologist and senior research professor at the University of the Free State in Bloemfontein, South Africa, spoke Tuesday about her research on empathy and forgiveness in the wake of large-scale violence.

Held in the Hesburgh Center for International Studies, the lecture titled “From South Africa with Love and Forgiveness: The Journey Through Violence and Back,” was sponsored by the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies.

Gobodo-Madikizela said that she was happy to have the opportunity to visit a place she had read about while in South Africa.

“It is a pleasure to be here at your University for the first time,” she said.

Gobodo-Madikizela said she has spent more than 10 years exploring the nature of forgiveness following traumatic experiences, especially the experience of South Africans in the aftermath of apartheid.

“Increasingly, I’ve been interested in the internal psychological dynamics behind forgiveness,” she said.

Some victims reach out to perpetrators as a means of working through their trauma through forgiveness, Gobodo-Madikizela said.

“We’ve witnessed and continue to witness victims and children of victims who seek out perpetrators in order to forgive them,” she said.

The willingness of victims to forgive their persecutors is counterintuitive, but Gobodo-Madikizela said it does happen and is very important to the victims, she said.

“Nothing could be more real than an expression of forgiveness from one of these people who have suffered atrocities,” she said.

She said one of the most powerful means of reconciliation is public acknowledgement of the injustice by both parties.

“I have become aware of the potential for public acknowledgement to restore the humanity of survivors,” she said. “Survivors recover a sense of agency as they reclaim their voice.”

Gobodo-Madikizela said forgiveness helps the victims regain their dignity by reversing the dynamic of victim and perpetrator.

“It’s a point of empowerment for the victims, a turning of the tables if you will. The victims have the power to give or not give the perpetrators what they want,” she said.

Forgiveness, however, is not really about the victims healing, but rather a connection with and empathy for the perpetrator of the crime, she said.

“Forgiveness is not a selfish thing; it’s a concern for others,” Gobodo-Madikizela said. “Perpetrators dehumanize themselves when they engage in these actions that dehumanize another. The importance of forgiveness is found in these situations of suffering and violence.”

She said empathy, as a human connection between victim and perpetrator, is important to both parties.

“Empathy is the critical point. It is at the center of forgiveness on one side and remorse on the other,” she said.

Gobodo-Madikizela said some of the victims she worked with, a group of mothers, experienced a physiological response to exchanging stories with the perpetrator. She said their empathy corresponded to a bodily experience of connectedness that centered on the womb.

She said the women described the feeling with the word “inimba,” which very roughly translates to the umbilical cord. This connection between bodily sensation and empathy reflects the interconnectedness both within a person and between people.

“‘Inimba’ emerged as a cultural word in a cultural context, but I think it is more universal,” Gobodo-Madikizela said. “‘Inimba’ is a human concept; the maternal body as a metaphor for a human embodiment of empathy.”

She said her idea of “inimba” is not gender-specific, but rather a means of understanding the ability of humans to recognize others as fellow humans.

“The body, be it maternal or paternal, points us in the direction of the body as a site of forging human links across time and space,” she said.

After the end of apartheid, Gobodo-Madikizela said her work with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission brought victims and persecutors together to help her country heal.

She said South Africa has come a long way in terms of reconciliation, but there are new problems facing the country. The country is struggling economically and suffering from a lack of honest leadership and issues of race are reentering the national discourse, Gobodo-Madikizela added.

She said new difficulties must be addressed with a hopeful attitude.

“The journey is not over yet. New challenges unfold in South Africa, sometimes on a weekly basis,” Gobodo-Madikizela said. “We must press on with hope. I’m talking about the horizon of hope that came to fruition with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.”