In a recent episode of BBC Radio 4’s The Public Philosopher, Michael Sandel invites young men and women from China, Japan and South Korea to discuss national guilt and historical reconciliation. The conversation begins with factual questions concerning, for example, the nature of Japan’s past imperial expansion and the sincerity of the Japanese government’s post-war apologies. It then moves on to issues of philosophical nature, such as whether the present generation is responsible for a wrong committed by a past generation. Listening to the programme, one gets the impression that the conversation was overall a fruitful one; it did not result in an important agreement, but some elementary misunderstanding and prejudices were removed, and the participants treated each other respectfully throughout. The host himself concluded by expressing the ‘hope that one day, soon, you will be able to draw upon the spirit of honesty and reflectiveness [....] to build a deeper mutual understanding among these three countries and by doing so help make this world a better place’.
This is a nice way to bring the forty-minute conversation to a close, but I doubt Sandel is as optimistic as he portrayed himself. The reason for saying this is that he (like myself) must have taken part in similar discussions in the past to see how repetitive they tend to be. One can be fairly optimistic if one sees one single time people with conflicting convictions talking to each other to move towards reconciliation. But one cannot be so optimistic if one repeatedly sees similar conversations to realise that the small progress made on each occasion hardly amounts to a cumulative difference on a larger scale. Considering the target audience of the programme, the host is wise to present the episode as a one-time event and conclude it with a corresponding, optimistic note. Having observed and occasionally participated in similar discussions over the past dozen years, however, I cannot share the Harvard professor’s hope for an imminent mutual understanding among the Chinese, the Japanese and the South Koreas. Nor do I believe that Sandel, a frequent visitor to the region as well as a learned scholar, literally meant what he said to conclude the episode.
The repetitiveness, however, does not need to disappoint. On the contrary, it is remarkable that the 2014 conversation scarcely differs from those in the recent past in terms of both mood and substance, while the tension in East Asia has significantly increased. Here, it may be worth recalling the Newsnight episode earlier this year, in which China’s and Japan’s ambassadors to the UK could not even sit in the same room and ended up in blaming each other from behind a wall. Contrast this to the ordinary young men and women that appeared on the Public Philosopher; unlike the ambassadors, they engaged with each other respectfully and face to face, as their predecessors had when the regional tension had been lower. This gives hope, for failing to reach a genuine mutual understanding is not nearly as bad as ceasing to try. I say this with some sadness, knowing Indian summers before the region entered the current diplomatic frost. To end this, we need more than small-scale conversations such as the one that Sandel hosted. But these are worth repeating, not least because they help avoid black smoke filling the sky while we await a thaw.
A version of this piece originally appeared on Practical Ethics.