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Emotional Damage Cannot Always be Repaired

Henry Theriault, professor of philosophy at Worcester State University, speaking about the reparations that follow mass violence. Engleman Hall, New Haven, Conn., April 18, 2018.

August PelliccioNews Writer

Henry Theriault said the idea of reparation after mass violence is
crucial, because emotional damage cannot always be repaired. Society, he said, must not give in
to the return to status quo, but realize the change that must be made.

Armen Marsoobian, chair of the philosophy department, said he invited Theriault, professor
of philosophy at Worcester State University, to speak about the reparations that follow mass

“He’s worked on issues related to genocide and humans rights,” said Marsoobian. “He’s
written on the topic that he’s going to be speaking about: reparations.”

Theriault said his intention for the evening was to do three things. He said he wanted to speak
about what reparations are, in the context, why they are necessary and how to justify them.
Theriault said he also wanted to speak about how the concept of reparations emerged as a
humans rights issue, and became important in his research.

“Reparations are substantial acts or processes that address substantial, clear harms,” said
Theriault. “We have to be clear about what happened to a group, and we have to be clear about
why that deserves or needs repair.”

He said for example, reparation for a hate crime that involved physical harm might include
something material that would address the physical harm and help counteract adverse effects.

Theriault said, however, that violence strikes deeper in a psychological sense, and reparations
can be necessary for that aspect as well.

“Part of repair needs to go beyond the specific individual victims who were targeted,” said
Theriault, “but also start to look at the ways in which the society may need to change in order to
address the social negligence that fostered a culture in which this kind of violence is possible.”

Theriault said the world has had a history of inadequate prevention for mass violence, and
although he said there has been some progress, some places of the world, e.g. Myanmar, haven’t
yet seen the fruit of that progress.

“If we don’t have the prevention,” said Theriault, “we’re stuck with the problem of repair.”
The status quo ante, according to Theriault, is a trap people are put into after a situation of
mass violence, where a culture returns to the way it was before the violence, rather than moving
forward and changing.

“When we think about what reparations has to mean,” said Theriault, “we don’t want to be

He said the status quo ante method works if a child steals a candy bar; a parent can go back to
the story, pay for the candy, and restore the shopkeeper’s loss.

“A genocide causes immeasurable, irreparable harm,” said Theriault. “There is nothing you
can do to just turn the clock back.”

Heidi Lockwood, professor of philosophy, said she does not disagree with Theriault’s
arguments, but that the culture needs to move away from a harm-based assessment of the

“I’ve been working with victims of sexual assault, misconduct, harassment for the last 10
years,” said Lockwood. “One of the things I’ve been working with legal scholars on is something
called the ‘Goldilocks problem.’”

Lockwood said sometimes a victim must have “just the right amount of harm,” to be taken
seriously by the legal system. If there is not enough harm presented, the legal system might not
value the emotional effects of a situation, and if there’s too much harm, she said a law office
might deem the victim to unstable to take them on.

“The argument that we’re making is not that the scope of harm should be expanded,” said

Rather, she said situations should be considered more seriously for their lasting emotional

“If I steal your wallet,” said Lockwood, “you don’t have to demonstrate that that harmed you,
it’s just understood that it’s wrong.”

Lockwood said in reflection of this example, there is a crucial difference between reparation
and renovation: in a cultural context, society can’t repair the harm, so they must right the wrong.

Photo Credit: August Pelliccio

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