On the Meaning of Non-Repetition
It is often said that societies must “learn” from the past so as “not to repeat it”. But what, precisely, does “non-repetition” mean? After all, the past never repeats itself exactly. The Visigoths will never again sack Rome. The Iranian Revolution of 1979 can, by definition, only happen once.
One common understanding of the relationship between “learning” and “non-repetition” is quite literal: that if we learn the causes of Action/Event X in the historical past, then we can take steps to stop Action/Event X from happening again in the future. Take for example the 1981 shooting of Pope John Paul II while he was riding in an open car, sometimes called the popemobile. Shortly after he was shot, bulletproof glass was fitted onto the popemobile, thus successfully decreasing the likelihood that a future pope riding in the popemobile driving through a future crowd will be injured by a future shooter. The Vatican has “learned from the past” so as “not to repeat it”.The past isn´t dead. It isn´t even past.
But there is a second way to think about this relationship, summarized pithily by William Faulkner when he wrote that “the past isn’t dead. It isn’t even past”. Learning from the past in this second sense would require understanding legacies: ongoing patterns, systems, and institutions that were established in the past that continue today.
A legacy is a historical trajectory that is “repeated” through its consistent affirmation and normalization, even deepening, almost on a daily basis. Seen from this perspective, non-repetition would require understanding and “not repeating” the uncountable ways in which societies affirm and normalize those legacies in the present and future. A related concept is path dependency: certain historical moments launch societies down new trajectories, which become deeply entrenched pathways. Like a trail in the forest, we rarely even notice the pathway itself (it seems normal enough) and we even more rarely go through the trouble of bushwacking off the trail, much less forging an entirely new pathway. But, continuing with the metaphor, if we want a different destination (non-repetition in the fullest sense), we need new pathways too, not just scenic diversions.
The difference between perspectives can be quite stark. For example, if we seek to “not repeat” the violence and atrocities committed by the British reactions to the Mau-Mau rebellion in Kenya (1952-1960), these perspectives would take us in different directions. The first perspective would focus on the extreme acts of torture and repression committed by the British during those years. The result would be new laws, policies, norms, and practices which prevent the British from committing violence overseas. This is a positive outcome, and resembles the actual results of a 2012 legal case but does not go very far. After all, today, the British are no longer the direct Colonial administrators of Kenya and generally do not use brute violence against Kenyan Citizens. The likelihood of “repetition” has already been reduced or even eliminated as a result of major world-historical shifts and geopolitical change.
But the second perspective provides a different framework by looking at the broader historical trajectory and asking whether patterns established long ago are continuing today. From this second perspective, we would examine the larger context of crimes and atrocities committed in Kenya starting in 1913, when the British Land Act created a new historical trajectory resulting in massive inequality of land ownership. This, in turn, created the conditions for the Mau Mau uprising. To this day, Kenya is characterized by inequitable land distribution. Because this pattern has become normalized, it can be seen as a daily form of “repetition”. Seen from this perspective, “non-repetition” would mean addressing land distribution.This second perspective is admittedly far more difficult. Inequitable land distribution has become normalized in Kenya (as result of this historical trajectory) and significantly changing it sounds revolutionary. But taking “non-repetition” seriously as a concept and a desired goal means understanding and addressing pernicious and ongoing legacies.
This essay was adapted from previously published versions in the blog series managed by the German agency The Working Group on Peace and Development (Die Arbeitsgemeinschaft Frieden und Entwicklung: FriEnt), which can be found here and here. Die Arbeitsgemeinschaft Frieden und Entwicklung (FriEnt) ist ein Zusammenschluss von staatlichen Organisationen, kirchlichen Hilfswerken, zivilgesellschaftlichen Netzwerken und politischen Stiftungen.