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Addressing Corporate Ties to Slavery: Corporate Apologia in a Discourse of Reconciliation

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Full text: https://works.bepress.com/claudia_janssen/ Pressured by activists to take responsibility, American corporations recently found themselves in the spotlight for their past ties to slavery. Responding to the issue, they stepped into a complex discourse of reconciliation. Taking a rhetorical approach, this article analyzes the response of Aetna Inc. It explores how corporate rhetoric functions within present discourses about historical injustices and illustrates that Aetna's response informed by common strategies of corporate apologia inhibited meaningful reconciliation. The article thus furthers criticisms of (corporate) apologia in the context of historical injustice and raises questions about the potentialities and limitations of corporate rhetoric for reconciliation. Key words: crisis communication, corporate historical responsibility (CHR), historic corporate social responsibility, reconciliation, corporate discourse, apology, slavery, insurance, corporate apologia

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... For example, a number of firms, including Bertelsmann and Volkswagen, that were associated with the Nazi regime, both intentionally and unintentionally downplayed some aspects of their involvement with the regime at one point in time or another (Booth, Clark, Delahaye, Procter, & Rowlinson, 2007;Janssen, 2013). Similarly, instances of irresponsibility are often buried by managers, intentionally or not, as in cases of oil spills, waste dumping or involvement in the slave trade (Janssen, 2012;Mena et al., 2016;Rowlinson, 2002). ...
... Not only strictly symbolic or cognitive traces, but also material ones may subsist as a result of previous manager-stakeholder interactions that sustain a particular version of the past regarding what is responsible and what is not. This brings to mind written accords in response to an incident like a strike or an accident (such as those following the Rana Plaza factory collapse, see Donaghey & Reinecke, 2018), corporate museums or archives (such as the 'Place of Remembrance' for Jewish forced labor by Volkswagen, see Janssen, 2012) and webpages or other publications that recount past behavior and re-tell the tales of businesspersons, companies or industries and their practices. In this way, these traces influence subsequent interpretations of responsibility on the part of stakeholders. ...
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... Railroad companies relied on slave labor to build and maintain their operations (Striplin, 1997). Insurance companies profited from slavery by insuring the lives of black people as property, not human beings (Biondi, 2003;Janssen, 2012). Slave-picked cotton from the South fueled the economic success of many Northern textile mills (Ray, 2019). ...
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... Organizational memory can be used to create identity both with internal and external stakeholders (Foster et al., 2011;Suddaby & Foster, 2016;Ybema, 2010), it can be used strategically to manage change (e.g., Anteby & Molnár, 2012;Maclean et al., 2014;Schultz & Hernes, 2013), and can facilitate or hamper processes of negotiation and renegotiation of the past (Booth, Clark, Delahaye, Procter, & Rowlinson, 2007;Janssen, 2012a;Ybema, 2014), and dynamics of (re)appropriation and (re)interpretation (Schwartz, 1997). ...
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No justificatory discourse could or should insure the role of metalanguage in relation to the performativity of institutive language or to its dominant interpretation. The words that are a "riddle" from the outset contain a symbolic core, beyond the meaning communicated in it, a core that is the symbol of noncommunicability. For this reason many riddles can be solved simply through an image, but they can be redeemed only through the word. In a beginning that strives to constitute the grounds for understanding from the terms of fate's violence, the promise of the word is not (self) fulfilling. Caught within those conflicts that ban the self from its own voice and which use the codicils of law's precedent to deter expression and collective (inter)action, the power of language is simultaneously rendered absolute and suspect. As such "signs of the times" strive less to negate resistance than to ensure that it replicates and thus confirms the legitimacy of their logic, the "gift" of the word that claims to interrupt this cycle and make human relationships anew can be "taken" only as its potential is turned against itself. A hinge in which we are called to create a beginning in the light of its own cost, the experience of this contingency is a moment in which we are confronted with the question of whether the word('s) power to invent (or discover) unity in the midst but not at the expense of difference inaugurates the productive opposition of reconciliation's promise or marks the onset of recognition's struggle. In the name of beginning that which cannot be dirempted from a beginning named, we have come to speak a great deal about reconciliation and recognition. In the violence from which we seek exception, we have come to place significant faith in the power of their words. (Re)presenting the hope of a new beginning, reconciliation and recognition promise something basic if not fundamental, a (trans)formative event that beckons the subject from the bindings of mastery and slavery and which crosses the isolating corners of enmity in order to fashion the subjectivating bonds of friendship. This work appears in a variety of places and contexts. It may, for instance, be held in the very name of this journal, at least insofar as Henry Johnstone's tremendous initiative in 1968 provokes the question of whether its (transgressive) conjunction between philosophy and rhetoric expresses a conciliatory interest or opens a space for the mutual acknowledgement of (inter)dependence. Very close by, at least if we are receptive to Adorno's claim that the divorce of philosophy from rhetoric is a division "leagued with barbarism," reconciliation and recognition are concepts that both ground and focus contemporary debates over how to best promote democratic pluralism, foster democratization, and repair the wounds wrought by gross violations of human rights. Does it matter if we speak of reconciliation or recognition? Whether in the halls of the academy, the public square, or the killing fields, the appearance of deep historical division beckons this question. It is a question not just of value but of relation. In the midst of certain conflicts, we are sometimes called to the language of reconciliation. At other times, we turn to words of recognition. In still other moments, we compose and rely on a vocabulary that sets these ideas into an unsteady play, a connectivity that can be seen to variously blur and codify their difference. In all cases, it is frequently difficult to discern the rhyme of our reasoning. Consider that on the first page of its first issue, this journal's editorial vision appeared just above the listing of an editorial board that was strictly divided between those in "philosophy" and those hailing from "Speech and English." Does the tension between these "announcements" hint that recognition more than reconciliation was the order of the day? The matter can be debated. It is debated by those concerned with dynamics of democratic politics and transitional justice. In the name of making a timely future from the wreckage of authoritarian rule, the pragmatic need to build peace and displace standing justifications for violence has been set out as...
Article
Rhetoric & Public Affairs 7.3 (2004) 378-390 The question of reconciliation remains. In the name of a beginning, it offers if not waits for a reply, a reply within which there appears time to begin (again). As such, reconciliation's reply is less a response in kind than a tenuous and frequently asymmetrical (ex)change in the midst of an incomplete aftermath, an unstable and frequently violent moment that holds the question of what to do (now) with history's future. In this transition, the reconciling reply endeavors to constitute (itself) in the midst of absence if not far worse. Confronting betrayal and atrocity, it performs and advocates a struggle to make do, or better, a fragile attempt to make the grounds for doing. The potential of such a reply is ambiguous. It is a response that has not yet (been) made, an attentiveness to an invitation that can (yet) be refused, a movement between the times that risks repetition for (trans)formation, a folding-back for the promise of a (new) difference. Thus, reconciliation's reply is tasked to figure the terms of becoming from within the limit of being, an operation that requires the reply to compose with words on which it cannot depend. Exceeding form, reconciliation makes a reply that cannot say that it is doing the right thing. Addressed to the question of how to make "unity in difference," reconciliation's reply is a praxis that hinges on the potential of the word's (re)turn, a poiesis that begins without the assumption or perhaps even the aspiration of a definitive answer. The question of reconciliation is never far from the potential (dumanis) of its reply. Admitting to better and worse forms, such power does not fate the good faith that it claims to create and serve. With(in) the "intermediate phenomenon" of the letter, Paul's reply to the Corinthians fashioned the potential for reconciliation with an indirect call, an appeal to the gift of that Word that could make words capable of a peace-building in which the weaker would be(come) the stronger. To its critics, the South African Dutch Reformed Church replied that reconciliation (in the next life) was a compelling "reason" for separate development. Against the violence of this endless promise if not heresy, Nelson Mandela replied to P. W. Botha's offer of conditional release in a time of near civil war by claiming that reconciliation held the potential for constitutive dialogue. Neither "always already" nor "not yet born," reconciliation's potential cuts both ways, sometimes deeply. When is there time for the potential of reconciliation's reply? If provoked by violence, what is reconciliation's potential to exceed its "founding" referent, its capacity to turn conflict toward understanding or to bridge deep division with words that constitute a unifying difference? What is the potency of this "making" reply, a mode of creativity that appears to enable the activity of beginning? With a "call to rhetoric(ians)" that aims to "help prepare the way for principled practices and constructive critiques," John B. Hatch comes to the question of "racial reconciliation in the United States" through the language and language game of its potential. In partial reply to McPhail, Hatch's case for "discovering, managing, and synthesizing" the realities of race relations appears to depend on a claim that works both from and toward a sense of reconciliation's potentiality: This position is important and provocative. Over the course of a rich essay, Hatch gathers reconciliation's "inventional potential" in order to demonstrate that reconciliation is a "tragicomic praxis." Here, I want to ask after this relationship between reconciliation's making and doing, considering whether and more importantly how reconciliation's potential (re)sets the stage for its action. In this...
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Beginning in the 1830s and continuing throughout the antebellum period, life insurance expanded rapidly among the urban middle class of the Northeast as a means of protecting families against the loss of their primary breadwinner. As life insurance spread to the South, it was most strongly embraced by slaveholders. Creative southerners of both races adopted insurance to alleviate some of the most evil consequences of the slave trade, while urbanites of the South promoted insurance as a means of mitigating the untimely loss of their slave property. By the 1850s, the industry was firmly established in Richmond–underwriting the lives of slaves engaged in dangerous occupations, valued as artisans or house slaves, or hired out for work in factories and railroads–and was expanding rapidly into the other industrialized areas of Virginia. Indeed, life insurance was fast becoming a key component of industrialization in the Upper South. With the purchase of insurance, urban slaveholders demonstrated their confidence in both the longevity of the slave system itself and the value of slavery for the future of southern industrialization.
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Rhetoric & Public Affairs 6.4 (2003) 737-764 One hundred years after W. E. B. Du Bois identified America's greatest challenge as "the problem of the colorline," that problem appears as intransigent as ever. Although many members of our society wish it away or deny its continued relevance, racial inequality and antagonism are alive and well, as attested most recently by the controversy over African American voter access in Florida in the 2000 presidential election and by the recent lawsuits seeking reparations for slaves' descendents. Accusations of white racism or black "reverse racism" fly freely in the Land of the Free, and affirmative action for equal opportunity generates heated debates in this nation dedicated to the proposition that "all men are created equal." As sociologist Orlando Patterson puts it, discussions about race in the United States today resemble a "dialogue of the deaf." Tragically, it appears that the present generation is destined to pass on the problem of race to still another generation. Yet this generation also bears another legacy from the twentieth century—one that emerged only in its final decade: an international trend toward interethnic and interracial reconciliation. Since the early 1990s, political and religious entities in South Africa, Australia, Ireland, and other nations have taken significant steps to overcome long-intractable conflicts between ethnic and racial groups in their societies. These initiatives have included such measures as public confession, apology, forgiveness, and, in some cases, attempts at reparation. In his recent and groundbreaking work Interracial Justice, Eric K. Yamamoto observes that "race apologies among groups apparently trying to restore broken relationships exploded as a worldwide phenomenon in the 1990s. . . . Those recently apologizing for historic and contemporary racial wounds are national, state, and local governments; religious denominations and missionary groups; businesses, politicians, and entertainers." One of the leading rhetoricians on the subject of race, Mark Lawrence McPhail, has briefly noted the potential value and validity of racial reconciliation in light of his theory of "rhetoric as coherence." However, he has not explored the nexus between reconciliation and coherence in depth. Rather, McPhail has come to express doubt regarding the applicability of his rhetorical theory, and of rhetoric itself, to the problem of race in America. This essay is a response to that doubt. I aim to show that public intergroup reconciliation—a phenomenon that has been largely neglected (in practice) and ignored (in scholarship) until recently—can constitute a substantial rhetorical bridge between the reality of racism and McPhail's ideal of coherence in race relations, and thus merits greater attention. Certainly, such a bridge must be well designed to bear the weight of racial differences and offenses; it cannot be a mere façade without solid grounding or robust structural support. When I refer to reconciliation, I mean not to connote a rhetorical sleight of hand in which an appearance of unity is suspended from thin air by empty words of apology and forgiveness, while history is conjured away and the unfinished business of justice is abandoned to the rushing currents of economic expedience. To the contrary, I have in mind a coherent reconciliation that works to build a solidly groundedbridge from the racist past (and present) to a more just and harmonious interracial future amid the contingencies of racial history. Applying McPhail's definition of rhetorical coherence, this reconciliation would entail "discovering, managing, and synthesizing" the diverse social realities constructed and experienced, imposed, and suffered by racial groups in relation to one another. Too often, perhaps, public gestures of reconciliation fail to meet this criterion of coherence, falling more into the category of rhetorical legerdemain—"mere rhetoric." Conversely, I argue, McPhail's rhetorical praxis of interracial coherence lacks something that recent scholarly analyses of reconciliation (mostly outside the discipline) can contribute to his project: substantially developed conceptualizations of rhetorical actions that work sociopsychologically to move groups plagued by a historical victimizer/victim relationship toward involvement in dialogic coherence. If reconciliation is potentially the construction of a bridge from denying to facing racial responsibility, and from racial complicity to coherence, then it behooves rhetoricians to explore that possibility, both to recommend praxis and to critique actual or proposed practices of reconciliation. Reconciliation isa complex rhetorical process...
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Discusses the establishment of collective memory studies. Addresses six premises for collective remembering that are basic to contemporary scholarship: that collective memory is processual, unpredictable, partial, useable, both particular and universal, and material. Discusses the future of collective memory studies. (SR)
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This essay examines the ways in which the rhetoric of the reparations debate elucidates the varying accounts of history favored by Americans of different backgrounds, the political and ideological foundations underlying different perspectives on the nature and uses of history, and the norms guiding public deliberation in the contemporary U.S. about how to remember the past. Because the controversy explicitly connects questions about race and cultural memory, it has generated positions that seem irresolvable; yet, ironically, the debate suggests ways in which rhetoric about race in the U.S. might begin to move beyond current impasses.
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Reconciliation apologies such as Representative Tony Hall's proposed congressional apology for slavery and his own apology at a reconciliation conference in Benin, West Africa raise questions about the means and standards by which representative apologies for historic group offenses may prove satisfactory. This essay explores such questions in light of John Hatch's theory of reconciliation and an analysis of Hall's apology in the context of the Benin conference. In conversation with the work of Erik Doxtader, Mark McPhail, Aaron Gresson, and Nicholas Tavuchis, the essay clarifies ways in which a public reconciliation apology differs from traditional apologia and the unique challenges confronting public discourse for racial reconciliation in the US.
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This essay explores the intimate relationship that exists between rhetoric, history, and collective memory. Using the Goldhagen debate as a case study, the authors contend that both “histories” and “collective memories” are discursive constructs that should not be viewed as antithetical concepts; rather, they argue that each involves questions of identity, tradition, and forgetfulness. Furthermore, the authors argue that the polysemic nature of salient historical events brings with it competing nationalistic narratives. They conclude that the Goldhagen controversy created an international furor because the claim that “ordinary” Germans voluntarily perpetrated the Holocaust tapped into an assortment of collective memories.
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W. E. B. Du Bois's observations about the links between Americans' unwillingness to acknowledge the legacies of slavery and the shortcomings of formal equality in the post-Reconstruction era anticipate the obstacles to racial justice in the “post-civil rights” era. His study of the “splendid failure” of Reconstruction indicates how a kind of willful national amnesia prevented black citizens from enjoying in fact the freedom and equality they were guaranteed by law. Arguing that the story of racial injustice is still importantly a story about memory's suppression, I use Du Bois's writings to explore the case for reparations as one element of a larger effort to expose the presence of the slave past and to undermine the continuing effects of slavery and Jim Crow. Memory—of what has been, of acts of commission or omission, of a responsibility abdicated—affects the future conduct of power in any form. Failure to adopt some imaginative recognition of such a principle merely results in the enthronement of a political culture that appears to know no boundaries—the culture of impunity.
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Justice is, in part, a form of remembrance: Memory occupies a vital place at the heart of justice and its struggle to keep the victims, crimes, and perpetrators among the unforgotten. I argue that this memory-justice at once informs core judicial practices and ranges beyond them in a manner that leaves judicial closure incomplete. It reminds us of a duty to keep crimes and their victims from the oblivion of forgetting, of a duty to restore, preserve, and acknowledge the just order of the world. Yet, in the shadow of remembrance, other human goods can wither, goods located in the temporal registers of present and future. This latter lesson is important, but it is one with which we are familiar. I emphasize another, with which we are perhaps less at home: the intimacy of memory’s bond with justice, not as obsessional or as a syndrome, but as a face of justice itself.
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Much of our private and public ethical discourse occurs in the giving, receiving, or demanding of an apology, yet we suffer deep confusion regarding what an apology actually is. Most of us have never made explicit precisely what we expect from a full apology and therefore apologizing has become a vague and clumsy ritual. Full apologies can be morally and emotionally powerful, but, as with most valuable things, frauds masquerade as the genuine article. These semblances of apologies often deceive and manipulate, and such duplicity is common between lovers, families, litigants, and nations. In response to this, I propose nine elements that an apology must satisfy in order to be considered categorical. I believe we have such a categorical apology in mind when we seek a full apology. The standards for a categorical apology are rigorous and precise, and I hope to disentangle the distinct elements of apologies. A categorical apology is a rare and burdensome act, and under certain circumstances full apologies may not be possible regardless of how badly we may desire them. While the leading social science accounts by Aaron Lazare and Nicolas Tavuchis aptly demonstrate how apologies lubricate reciprocally egoist relationships, such theories ultimately prove unsatisfying because apologies achieve their highest meaning as morally rich acts. Both Tavuchis and Lazare offer merely descriptive accounts when a prescriptive argument seems necessary. No philosopher, however, has ever devoted a monograph to the topic and only a handful of papers on apologies have appeared in philosophy journals.
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The concept of reparations is the key to understanding the public policy aspects of the race problem, and fundamental to resolving them. The Restitution Principle says that whenever a social group, a nation or a race, decides that past behavior was wrong, and has made it illegal, then it is wrong to receive and retain the benefits produced by those actions.
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Over the last few years, the African American led campaign for Slavery Reparations has combined the project of historical excavation with the demand for recognition and redress by moving cultural memory directly into the adversarial sphere. Activists have brought a set of court actions that identify seventeen major international corporations whose predecessors were enriched via the profits amassed, directly or indirectly, through the transatlantic slave trade and slavery between 1619 and 1865. While the cases have been dismissed, a series of Slavery Era Bills have been passed in several states. These Bills require companies that do business in the vicinity to research their records and to disclose evidence of any involvement in slavery or the slave trade. This article presents a detailed analysis of one such report by the insurance corporation Royal Sun & Alliance, submitted in 2002. It demonstrates that the company disclosure opens up a hitherto occluded aspect of slave resistance. As the report confirms, eighteenth-century maritime insurance policies on slaves in transit to the Americas initially developed in relation to European kidnap and ransom policies. In the later part of the eighteenth century underwriters began to include clauses in their policies that compensated traders for losses in the event of insurrection. Insurrection was considered to be so predictable that policies also included an excess of five or ten per cent. In conclusion, the article argues that the Reparations movement is reactivating the history of slavery by facilitating the exposure of connections between the past and the present. As the history of insurance reveals, slavery and resistance are central to the development of key conceptual structures that govern the financial and legal parameters of contemporary global capital.
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