Understanding the Void of a Historical Pit

Karim Sadek

Imad Kaafarani, The Food's Okay, Digital Illustration. 2021

Though we may disagree on the causes, extent, and means of liberating ourselves from the injustice we are living in Lebanon, the fact that this injustice exists remains undeniably true. This is not to say, however, that we necessarily comprehend its inner workings and how it oppresses our ability to think and act. Since the beginning of the Civil War (1975), the Lebanese have been suffering on multiple levels, though suffering in and of itself should not be confused with injustice. The struggle to defend one’s identity, for example, albeit a painful experience, is not necessarily a form of injustice. This distinction depends on how those involved interpret and understand their suffering, the roots of which extend deep into the history of the region but for which the Civil War serves as an all-affecting and pivotal phase.[1] To better understand the complex dimensions of this affliction, I have found it useful to use the analogy drawn from a common feature in the post-war Lebanese urban vernacular, holes. Beyond the physical holes left by the war —bullet holes, potholes, bomb craters, pits, exit wounds etc.— holes in our collective memory and official history have proven more difficult to repair or even recognize.[2]

A common denominator in the various waves of people’s suffering up until the onset of the October 17 uprising/revolution, was the perceived impossibility of collective self-determination. While different social groups may be able to pinpoint the possible causes of their suffering –e.g. systemic sectarian favoritism– it is imperative to reformulate the question of why we are suffering, to “what are we suffering for?” An answer to the latter question requires that all social constituencies engage in inclusive and open deliberation. The potential to transform collective hardship into a constructive mode of cooperation is only realized when the struggles of specific communities can be recognized against the backdrop of collective self-determination –preventing any one community from monopolizing the meaning of suffering. This public discussion is a starting point from which the path to emancipation from oppressive forces becomes possible.

While some object to such collective processes, deeming them detrimental to social cohesion and conducive to further division, I would argue that the void of the Civil War is a historical pit that hinders our epistemic ability to determine our fate together. This, in and of itself, constitutes an injustice against an entire people. And although the logic upon which this widespread and often implicit objection is predicated is practically self-defeating, it has constituted a lasting hurdle in the collective path towards self-determination. This hurdle has contributed to a form of “epistemic injustice,” or an injustice against agents in their capacity as knowers.[3] The subjective condition of our ability to assess the Civil War backfill is thus under severe threat, irrespective of whether we succeed in overcoming our divisions as a society.

The pit

We fill in a pothole, just as we sew a rip in a garment, to keep using that road or garment. Acts of this sort, however, are not equal: some backfilling is beneficial, some less so, and some even harmful and destructive. A pothole is typically leveled with dirt, and when it is backfilled with gold or the bones of the dead, it is a cover-up of waste or negligence or crime. But unlike road repairs which are relatively easy to assess, other invisible pits, such as those in the lives of individuals and groups, are more difficult to discern. Some of these are obvious but remain difficult to acknowledge, while others might be easy to recognize but impossible to address or difficult to repair. These pits can span entire generations, societies, and stages in the history of a people, hindering their ability to come to terms with their past, deal with their current reality, or move forward.

The Civil War can therefore be referred to as a pit in Lebanon’s modern popular history. In addition to the destruction, displacement, and casualties it caused, the War disrupted and redefined many individual and social practices and normative ideas, such as what political, social, and psychological stability meant and what was and still is politically, socially, psychologically, and spatially legitimate. The War exacerbated existing schisms, created new ones, and engendered a lack of credibility and transparency among social constituencies and their relation to the state. This destructive distrust has further permeated in the absence of state institutions, along with the structural corruption and exploitation that continue to stand in the way of achieving even the most basic rights.

While potholes are repaired and easily forgotten, the pits in our lives remain with us. They interact with us, through us, and constantly transform according to how we deal with them. In order to figure out whether the defects have been repaired, where we have succeeded, where we have failed, why and how we got to where we are; we have to evaluate the way a pit was backfilled. The significance of this evaluation lies in the relationship between the quality of the backfill, on the one hand, and the quality of our carrying on as a people, on the other. Such analysis prompts us to think together about how we have dealt with our recent past, in the context of our current reality, with aspirations for a collective future in mind.

Social division and disagreement as a challenge

Many would object that this evaluative task is too difficult, if not impossible, since it requires constructive dialogue and a minimum of overlap among opposing views in analyzing the current reality and aspiring for a future. The task, directly or indirectly, implies an assessment of our self-understanding, our principles, and social and political practices. “Do social divisions and disagreements in Lebanon allow for this kind of genuine openness and confrontation to happen?” naysayers ask rhetorically.

Though modern societies are pluralistic and characterized by diverse and conflicting views, this objection is one of many in Lebanon that rely on exploiting social divisions to argue against this process of evaluating the backfilling of the War –despite its pivotal role in building an inclusive state that serves all its people. And while it is true that the act of evaluating may not be sufficient on its own (after all, the War did not break out in a historical void but was the result of old divisions and wounds), it can still mark the beginning of, and be a reference in, the process of understanding our suffering as a people.

Evaluating the backfill

On a practical level, these objections are self-defeating. Instead of trying, for instance, to dismantle sectarian divisions, they lead –intentionally or not– to positions and policies that perpetuate, normalize, and exacerbate them. In Lebanon, sectarian divisions are present in everything that concerns us, and the less they are spoken about, the more they become a fait accompli, finding their way into preconceived slogans like “This is Lebanon.” Moreover, these objections are used to justify why we should not create and encourage safe spaces for objective and frank discussions about our common problems in general and sectarian divisions in particular. One obvious case is the absence of the Civil War from school curricula, corrupting the possibility of schools being a safe space for future generations to understand these events, their causes, and their repercussions on our present state. What typically happens, instead, is that these questions get asked behind closed doors, resulting in one-sided and biased discussions. There is an urgent need for such public safe spaces, which explains the organic emergence and proliferation of discussion groups during the October 17 uprising/revolution.

On the theoretical level, however, these objections are more robust. Their robustness arises from the fact that any evaluative task or judgment must rely on some standard, on the one hand, and from the theoretical difficulty of securing a legitimate critical social standard for the process of evaluation that concerns us, on the other. Although practical self-defeat may, over the long run, undermine theoretical stability, that stability is capable of maintaining a normative grip over our minds and actions which, in turn, could amplify the negative effects of these objections. It also keeps open the possibility of using these objections (whenever suitable for those in power positions) to block serious attempts for change and maintain the status quo. I propose two responses to this theoretical robustness.

Firstly, while there may not be a consensus on what Lebanon is supposed to be, there is a variety of material interests and conditions that make social constituencies a single people, whether they like it or not. They range from dismal living conditions, to unreliably scarce access to electricity and water, disastrous environmental mismanagement, and the fact that the capital Beirut could be destroyed in the blink of an eye –and life would eventually go on as if nothing had happened. These material interests and conditions constitute a reserve of unifying experiences and suffering shared by all. They also help us better understand and articulate how this struggle, through public debates around these shared experiences, may be the point of departure for collective emancipation. In a joint confrontation of their individual material realities, groups and members of society can attempt to understand the causes and possible means to overcome hardship. Through processes of evaluation —be it of the self, of others, or between groups— each constituency finds itself on the path to understanding its own suffering in relation to collective self-determination.

Secondly, theoretically speaking, a legitimate critical social standard must at least have an “internal dimension” –i.e., it must be a standard that is already, implicitly or explicitly, accepted by those being criticized. In the absence of an internal dimension, criticism is perceived by the criticized as paternalistic or imperialist. Such instances justify the adoption of a defensive stance and a dogmatic adherence to traditional ways of doing things. When a critique has an internal dimension, it cannot be dismissed for being paternalistic or imperialist, and consequently, allowing for real and constructive interaction. The presence of an internal dimension helps those on the receiving end of the critique to become aware of flaws in their traditional ways and in turn possibly motivates them to change their beliefs and practices.

The need for this internal dimension highlights the importance of taking into account the point of view of those being criticized. Going back to the particular case we are considering, disagreement and division among social constituencies in Lebanon are a central component in satisfying that requirement and should not be ignored in the process of evaluating the backfilling of the War. It is crucial not to confuse the difficulties in overcoming disagreement and division, on the one hand, and the conditions that allow us to do just that, on the other hand. The objections under scrutiny rely on the claim that engaging in such a process of overcoming is vain, impossible, or even destructive, an assumption that must be refuted in practice through the accumulation of experience. Whether we will succeed or fail in overcoming our disputes is something to be determined on the ground. To dogmatically insist, before even trying, that we will fail in this task, is either an expression of latent fears or an attempt at intimidation. In either case, there is no justification for avoiding the evaluation of the War backfill.

Epistemic injustice

The main defect in the backfilling process lies in undermining social constituencies’ ability to fulfill their role, if not duty, in assimilating and digesting their past (looking back) in order to be able to project into a future they own (looking ahead). I find recent work on epistemic injustice helpful in understanding how backfill threatens a subjective condition for our ability to even begin playing our role in evaluating that void in our history.[4] Such work focuses on the various ways in which agents’ meaning-making abilities through communicative practices can be oppressed. At the core of epistemic injustice is the idea that some types of discrimination are unfair to the speaker in her capacity as a knower. It refers to practices and knowledge structures that, for example, distort the meaning, ignore or downplay the epistemic value, of some speakers’ contributions because of considerations of gender, class, or race.[5]

In what sense does backfilling the War constitute epistemic injustice, then? Our treatment of the historical pit formed by the Civil War is characterized by denial, concealment, and disavowal. Suffice it to look at how the downtown area, destroyed by the War and loaded with its symbolism, was developed as a commercial district without serious discussion taking public opinion into account. Human life is treated with similar neglect and recklessness: the 17,000 people missing since the Civil War weren’t even officially acknowledged until 2020.[6] In fact, Lebanon transitioned to the post-war period without any kind of assessment or understanding of what happened or why such suffering was necessary. To this day, no mechanisms or processes of apology or reconciliation, let alone accountability, have been put in place.

Backfilling the War constitutes epistemic injustice on at least two levels. First, the strategy of not talking about the War, denying its impact on our daily life, is effectively a strategy that erases a people’s suffering from its collective imaginary. This, in turn, excludes whatever has crept into our collective consciousness as a result of the War, and consequently, separates us from a part of our collective self. This strategy hinders our ability to understand ourselves and implies a form of self-silencing about one’s experiences. When the War is implicitly mentioned in public discourse in Lebanon, it is only with the intent to scare and intimidate. While the saying “may it be remembered and not repeated” (“tenzakar w ma ten3ad”) applies to the Lebanese Civil War, without understanding the events, we are sure to do just the opposite.

Secondly, the War deepened pre-existing divisions and created new fissures. The Civil War and post-war politics classified people in Lebanon into groups according to a logic designed to fuel identity bias and prejudice. Discrimination on the basis of identity, region, or sect leads to a continuous and repeated failure to express ourselves and communicate with the other. This, in turn, negatively affects the ability of the other to acknowledge our epistemic capacity for expression, understanding, and constructive non-partisan participation in the public domain. Relationships of trust are essential to our ability to be sincere and honestly express our experiences without being defensive or afraid. In the absence of such an opportunity, we are in danger of being engulfed by a collective lack of credibility. In light of such impotence, we live in a state of collective ignorance about the War. Blinded by ignorance and through political, social, and personal practices, we contribute to the consolidation and preservation of our collective ignorance.

Both aspects outlined above are tied to a system that benefits from spreading ignorance about our social reality, as well as about a number of key topics such as the case of the missing or the port explosion. Our collective ignorance serves and nourishes political power and the ruling class. It goes without saying that so long as we remain at the mercy of this political class, we are condemned to live under the oppression of favoritism, indifference, inefficiency, and exploitation.

What Now?   

There will not be a national savior, nor should we expect decision-makers in Lebanon to suddenly awake from their slumber. It should be clear then that there is no way around direct action and popular initiatives. While the absence of the state has forced people to figure it out for themselves (“ydabbero rasson”), the results were not, and will not, be successful so long as such efforts are operating from within, and through, our collective ignorance. We must breach the barriers of this ignorance before anything else. One suggestion may be to organize on the level of neighborhoods, schools, and via social media to create safe spaces for a conscious and focused effort to fight ignorance, with the intention to transform individual self-reliance into a collective one. Multiple methods of social activism and organization may offer such an opportunity, through identifying, questioning, and investigating the mechanisms, thought patterns, and “reactions” that our collective ignorance feeds on and spreads through. The road is long and difficult, but what is key is that we embark on the right path. My claim is that this path begins by recognizing our collective ignorance and by consciously observing it so that we learn how, where, and when we can punch a hole in it on the individual and group levels. One hole at a time, we puncture that ignorance, and construct increasingly communicative, fair, and egalitarian interactions with one another. Figuring it out for ourselves might just hold the promise of self-determination.

Translation: Karim Sadek

[1] The concept of “a people” is a social construct. In this paper, I assume that a central element for considering a group of people “a people” lies in how that group understands itself. Factors for such an understanding could include shared intellectual and material conditions, habits and rituals, interpersonal relations over time… The content and contours of “a people” are not fixed but move and change in accordance with historical, sociological, and political contexts.

[2] This interview with Chloé Kattar was helpful in developing key aspects of this text. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pt_aVKvZfwU

[3] Fricker, Miranda. Epistemic Injustice: Power and the Ethics of Knowing. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007.

In this book, Miranda Fricker coined the term epistemic injustice, distinguishing between “hermeneutical injustice” and “testimonial injustice” and others have developed and added to these two types of epistemic injustice (Kidd et al. 2017).

[4] Fricker, Miranda. Epistemic Injustice: Power and the Ethics of Knowing. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007.

Dotson, Kristie. “Tracking Epistemic Violence, Tracking Practices of Silencing.” Hypatia, vol. 26, no. 2, 2011, pp. 236–257.

Medina, José. The Epistemology of Resistance: Gender and Racial Oppression, Epistemic Injustice, and Resistant Imaginations. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013.

Jenkins, Kathatine. “Rape Myths and Domestic Abuse Myths as Hermeneutical Injustices.” Journal of Applied Philosophy, vol. 34, no. 2, 2017, pp. 191–205.

Kidd, Ian James, Medina José, and Pohlhaus Gail, eds. The Routledge Handbook of Epistemic Injustice. London and New York: Routledge, 2017.

[5] Initially, works on epistemic injustice were mainly concerned with individuals, but there are recent and serious attempts to apply the concept onto groups. See for instance Altanian, Melanie, and Nadja El Kassar. “Epistemic Injustice and Collective Wrongdoing: Introduction to Special Issue.” Social Epistemology 35.2 (2021): 99-108.

[6] Despite the fact that Law 105, related to the missing and the forcibly disappeared was ratified in 2018, it was only until 2020 that the council of minister signed a law decree for the formation of the national committee for the missing and the forcibly disappeared.
أيوب، لور. “خطوة متقدمة لتكريس حق الأهالي معرفة مصير ذويهم : تشكيل الهيئة الوطنيّة للمفقودين والمخفيين قسراً”. المفكرة القانونية، 23 حزيران\يونيو 2020، https://legal-agenda.com/%D8%AE%D8%B7%D9%88%D8%A9-%D9%85%D8%AA%D9%82%D8%AF%D9%85%D8%A9-%D9%84%D8%AA%D9%83%D8%B1%D9%8A%D8%B3-%D8%AD%D9%82-%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%A3%D9%87%D8%A7%D9%84%D9%8A-%D9%85%D8%B9%D8%B1%D9%81%D8%A9-%D9%85%D8%B5/، تمّ دخول الصفحة في 28 نيسان\أبريل 2021.