The making of a civic discourse on controversial historical past: from denial to parrhesia
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AbstractThis contribution discusses the pragmatic effects of different rhetoric strategies conveying evidence of past ingroup violence after a long lasting social denial (Cohen, 2001). In particular, a case study is presented on the making of a civic discourse on controversial historical past: war crimes committed by the Italian Army during the colonial invasion of Ethiopia (1935-36). Although very well proved (Del Boca, 2005), these facts were only recently inserted in Italian history textbooks (Leone & Mastrovito, 2010; Cajani, 2013). In this same period, evidence of these crimes was officially presented during discussions of the Italian Parliament. In spite of these recent acknowledgments of the Italian responsibilities for these crimes, a social myth is still widely shared by the public opinion, representing Italians as good fellows (Italiani, brava gente: cfr. Del Boca, 2005), unable to be cruel both in everyday life and in wartimes (Volpato et al., 2012). This specific situation, denying even the reality of facts happened, has been defined literal social denial, i.e. the deepest among the three possible states of denial (literal, interpretive, implicative: cfr. Cohen, 2001). The issue of literal social denial of past ingroup violence is at the intersection among theories on narratives on national past (László, 2003), social representations of history (Liu et al., 2014), conflict ethos (Bar-Tal et al., 2012; Kelman, 2008), group-based emotions (Allpress et al., 2010; Leone, 2000) and intergroup reconciliation processes (Nadler et al., 2008). Namely, understanding how a social denial could break down implies the theorization of human mind’s reflexivity as grounded on historical awareness (Ortega y Gasset, 1930), and the notion of social change as primarily rooted in natality, i.e. the fact that each birth represents a new beginning (Arendt, 1958). Drawing on this theoretical background, we will present an ongoing research program (Leone, in press) on the literal social denial (Cohen, 2001) of war crimes committed by the Italian army during colonial period and on the pragmatic effects of different kinds of communication on this controversial past. In order to address this issue, we will particularly focus on the concept of parrhesia as defined by Foucault (1983): the communicative choice of «frankness instead of persuasion, truth instead of falsehood or silence, [...] the moral duty instead of self-interest and moral apathy » (Foucault, 2001, p.19). Studies we conducted in this line tested the change in beliefs and the emotional reactions of young citizens confronted with mild or parrhesiastic descriptions of socially denied war crimes (Leone & Sarrica, 2014, 2012). Empirical evidence will be discussed in order to reflect on our core idea: that a parrhesiastic communication is a risky tough necessary pragmatic move to break long lasting denial of ingroup wrongdoings, to trigger critical civic discourse in the place of social myths and to start reconciliation processes.