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Shattered Voices: Language, Violence, and the Work of Truth Commissions (Pennsylvania Studies in Human Rights) [Paperback]

Teresa Godwin Phelps
4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (4 customer reviews)

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Book Description

February 15, 2006 081221949X 978-0812219494

Following periods of mass atrocity and oppression, states are faced with a question of critical importance in the transition to democracy: how to offer redress to victims of the old regime without perpetuating cycles of revenge. Traditionally, balance has been restored through arrests, trials, and punishment, but in the last three decades, more than twenty countries have opted to have a truth commission investigate the crimes of the prior regime and publish a report about the investigation, often incorporating accounts from victims.

Although many praise the work of truth commissions for empowering and healing through words rather than violence, some condemn the practice as a poor substitute for traditional justice, achieved through trials and punishment. There has been until now little analysis of the unarticulated claim that underlies the truth commissions' very existence: that language—in this case narrative stories—can substitute for violence. Acknowledging revenge as a real and deep human need, Shattered Voices explores the benefits and problems inherent when a fragile country seeks to heal its victims without risking its own future.

In developing a theory about the role of language in retribution, Teresa Godwin Phelps takes an interdisciplinary approach, delving into sources from Greek tragedy to Hamlet, from Kant to contemporary theories about retribution, from the Babylonian law codes to the South African Truth and Reconciliation Report. She argues that, given the historical and psychological evidence about revenge, starting afresh by drawing a bright line between past crimes and a new government is both unrealistic and unwise.

When grievous harm happens, a rebalancing is bound to occur, whether it is orderly and lawful or disorderly and unlawful. Shattered Voices contends that language is requisite to any adequate balancing, and that a solution is viable only if it provides an atmosphere in which storytelling and subsequent dialogue can flourish. In the developing culture of ubiquitous truth reports, Phelps argues that we must become attentive to the form these reports take—the narrative structure, the use of victims' stories, and the way a political message is conveyed to the citizens of the emerging democracy.

By looking concretely at the work and responsibilities of truth commissions, Shattered Voices offers an important and thoughtful analysis of the efficacy of the ways human rights abuses are addressed.

Frequently Bought Together

Shattered Voices: Language, Violence, and the Work of Truth Commissions (Pennsylvania Studies in Human Rights) + The Ministry of Reconciliation: Spirituality & Strategies + No Future Without Forgiveness
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Editorial Reviews


"If you want peace, you must work for justice. Teresa Phelps presents challenging and provocative ideas of justice and explains what truth commissions can and cannot do as vital parts of the justice process. Building on works of literature, philosophy, psychology, and history, as well as on the language of the truth reports themselves, she breaks new ground for understanding what we must do in our continual quest for justice."—Theodore M. Hesburgh, author of The Humane Imperative

"This vivid and moving book will help shape the emerging form of truth commissions in many places around the world."—James Boyd White, author of The Edge of Meaning

From the Publisher

Teresa Godwin Phelps is Professor of Law and Director of the Legal Writing Program at the University of Notre Dame.

Product Details

  • Series: Pennsylvania Studies in Human Rights
  • Paperback: 192 pages
  • Publisher: University of Pennsylvania Press (February 15, 2006)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 081221949X
  • ISBN-13: 978-0812219494
  • Product Dimensions: 9.1 x 5.9 x 0.4 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 10.4 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (4 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,754,321 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

4.2 out of 5 stars
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars revenge and storytelling June 25, 2004
By A Customer
An excellent book. Phelps restores the desire for revenge to a natural place within the human psyche. But then she explores alternatives to violence as ways of accommodating this basic human need. She is remarkably adept at exploring storytelling as a means of satisfying the need for revenge, particularly in relationship to social justice. Her range of reference in these arguments is amazing. Relying on history, psychology, philosophy, and literature, she creates a very rich read, full of ideas and insights. You keep stopping to rethink things you thought you already knew.
If you think there's no reason for hope because of all the violence in the world, give this book a chance.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars healing words September 19, 2004
Phelps skillful conflation of an international history, philosophy, law, and literature persuasively argues that truth commissions contribute to personal and public healing and resist the cycle of retributive vengeance. Shattered Voices should be read by all who fear the consequences of existing hostilities in Bosnia, Iraq, and Sudan as well as those who consider language and storytelling as markers of civilization and essential to justice.
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5.0 out of 5 stars Concrete and thoughtfull ideas of the value of truth October 15, 2012
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
Drawing from Ariel Dorfman's play, "The Death and the Maiden", Phelps studies the value for victims of human rights violations of their lost voice, and of thier right to know the truth about the crimes suffered. She studies how those ideas had been made concrete by the work of four early truth commissions (Argentina, Chile, South Africa and El Salvador), in what could be seen as an early development of what has come to be known as the right to truth, recognized now by several UN documents and the UN Convention for the Protection of all persons from Enforced Disappearances. The book provides interesting conclusions about how to provide adequate opportunities for victims to exercise this right and for transitional justice policies to recognize it. As it was published in 2004, unfortunately, the book doesn't include how these ideas had been followed by later truth commissions that made great efforts in these areas, as Guatemala, Timor-Leste, Peru or Sierra Leone. An update including these experiences will be welcomed.
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2.0 out of 5 stars Review of Shattered Voices November 29, 2008
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
It is interesting but very intellectual and difficult to read. Amazon's review of it is not well done so I did not get what I thought I was getting - more of a review of of Reconciliation strategies. It wanders all over the place.
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