Cover image for The Political Responsibilities of Everyday Bystanders By Stephen L. Esquith

The Political Responsibilities of Everyday Bystanders

Stephen L. Esquith


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256 pages
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9 b&w illustrations

The Political Responsibilities of Everyday Bystanders

Stephen L. Esquith

The Political Responsibilities of Everyday Bystanders is an imaginative, practical, well-argued, and wonderfully written work of moral philosophy, political theory, and democratic education, all at once. It somehow—to its great credit—exudes both calmness and urgency. Its moral and political judgments are balanced and moving, in places wise. It is eminently thoughtful, and it promises, in the hands of citizen teachers, to help inculcate or evince the political responsibilities that ‘everyday bystanders’ (including students and citizen teachers themselves) have in the face of political challenges and even ‘severe violence.’”


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  • Table of Contents
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In a world where every person is exposed daily through the mass media to images of violence and suffering, as most dramatically exemplified in recent years by the ongoing tragedy in Darfur, the question naturally arises: What responsibilities do we, as bystanders to such social injustice, bear in holding accountable those who have created the conditions for this suffering? And what is our own complicity in the continuance of such violence—indeed, how do we contribute to and benefit from it? How is our responsibility as individuals connected to our collective responsibility as members of a society? Such questions underlie Stephen Esquith’s investigation in this book. For Esquith, being responsible means holding ourselves accountable as a people for the institutions we have built or tolerated and the choices we have made individually and collectively within these institutional constraints. It is thus more than just acknowledgment; it involves settling accounts as well as recognizing our own complicity even as bystanders.
The Political Responsibilities of Everyday Bystanders is an imaginative, practical, well-argued, and wonderfully written work of moral philosophy, political theory, and democratic education, all at once. It somehow—to its great credit—exudes both calmness and urgency. Its moral and political judgments are balanced and moving, in places wise. It is eminently thoughtful, and it promises, in the hands of citizen teachers, to help inculcate or evince the political responsibilities that ‘everyday bystanders’ (including students and citizen teachers themselves) have in the face of political challenges and even ‘severe violence.’”

Stephen L. Esquith is Professor of Philosophy and Dean of the Residential College in the Arts and Humanities at Michigan State University.


List of Illustrations



Part 1 Grounding Responsibility

1. Teaching as a Political Vocation

2. Citizenship

3. Political Responsibility

Part 2 Recognizing Complicity

4. Beyond Sympathy

5. Bystander Allegories

6. Bystander Stories

Part 3 Making Acquaintances

7. Culture of Simulation

8. Critical Reenactment

9. Democratic Acquaintanceship






There are many questions we could ask about the duties and responsibilities of everyday bystanders. The one I am most interested in is downstream: how can everyday bystanders learn to recognize and meet their shared and institutional political responsibilities for severe violence—the hunger, poverty, famine, civil war, wars of conquest and invasion, epidemics and pandemics, and genocide in which more than 1.4 out of 6.7 billion people are trapped? It is a question about political education, and one that I believe should be answered from a democratic point of view.

While there are no bright lines dividing political responsibility and democratic political education from their moral and legal correlates, there are important differences between the former political categories and the growing concern about the need for greater moral literacy and legal accountability. This distinction between politics on one side and law and morality on the other is not something that can be established a priori. Whether it makes sense to label certain responsibilities for severe violence as political, not just moral or legal, and certain ways of motivating citizens to recognize and meet their political responsibilities as political education, education will depend on the coherence and practical worth of the argument as a whole. It is not something that can be defended in advance.

Before addressing the question of democratic political education, however, something must be said upstream about what everyday bystanders are responsible for doing or neglecting. Without some idea of what they allegedly are responsible for politically, it is impossible to help them recognize and meet their responsibilities for it democratically.

This kind of what question is usually about cause and effect. What causes or more generally contributes to severe violence? While much has been said about what perpetrators and collaborators have done to cause harm and what their victims have suffered, relatively little has been said about the political responsibilities of bystanders who stand outside this causal nexus. The political responsibilities of bystanders stem from their roles as beneficiaries not quite as far upstream. The key what question for these bystanders is what benefits they have received, not whether they have caused or otherwise contributed to severe violence.

The practical link between the benefits enjoyed by everyday bystanders (the what in this study) and their recognition of these benefits is the citizen-teacher. It is this figure, I will argue, who can help everyday bystanders see where they stand within a complicated network of moral duties and legal and political responsibilities.

The story of the citizen-teacher is not a story of sacrifice. Tales of heroic individuals who have committed their lives to helping the poor already exist, and they sometimes inspire others to do the same, at least for a short time. This is not that kind of story. There also have been cases of nearly anonymous rescuers working to protect their neighbors despite great odds against them. This is not that kind of story either. Nor is it a story about courageous humanitarian aid workers risking their lives in refugee camps and war zones.

It is a more commonplace story about mapping the rivers and roads of a new territory. This does not mean that there are no existing landmarks to help citizen-teachers guide everyday bystanders. But it does mean that we must be prepared to look in some unfamiliar places, and then step out onto the road before it has been fully paved. This is how Jane Addams, the 1931 Nobel Peace Prize laureate and founder of Hull-House, characterized the challenge of “social ethics”: “We are learning that a standard of social ethics is not attained by traveling a sequestered byway, but by mixing on the thronged and common road where all must turn out for one another, and at least see the size of one another’s burdens. To follow the path of social morality results perforce in the term if not the practice of the democratic spirit, for it implies that diversified human experience and resultant sympathy which are the foundation and guarantee of Democracy.”

By “mixing on the thronged and common road,” Addams argued, we can begin to understand our shared and institutional political responsibilities for the suffering of others and the benefits that come our way. This is a story of how to move people off their familiar “sequestered byways” (the anachronistic liberal map of citizenship) and onto a yet-unfinished common road. It is not a matter of hypothetically projecting ourselves into the place of another, but making their actual acquaintance in a language both parties understand. Only then will we be able accurately to judge the “size of one another’s burdens.”

Addams’s approach to democratic political education is also not a matter of vicariously sharing in the pain of those who endure severe violence by temporarily living among them. This kind of sentimental journey is to be avoided at all costs, and one way to do this is to remember that as we encounter one another on this common road we bring different skills, orientations, and sensibilities that have to be shared in an atmosphere of mutual respect.

Violence can take many forms, from physical injury and property damage to psychological trauma. Its causes can be direct and intentional, but it also can be the result of unforeseen, unintended, and catastrophic occurrences. Some would prefer that we restrict the definition of violence to injury and damage done by clearly identifiable agents or sources such as a violent individual or storm. Others widen the definition of violence to include both its background conditions (e.g., structural violence, cultural violence) that indirectly can lead to equally harmful consequences over a period of time, as well as its symbolic manifestations in language and art. They argue that the denial of opportunity, the destruction of cultural heritage, the humiliation of minorities (intentional or not), and the manipulation of ideas and symbols can be just as injurious and damaging as a direct assault or a hurricane.

Both the restricted and wide definitions of violence pick out important features of unwanted and harmful suffering. What makes some forms of violence, whether widely or narrowly defined, more severe than others? One answer is the intensity of the pain they cause. Surely, torture is severe violence even though the pain experienced by the victim is not easy to describe. But pain is not the only manifestation of severe violence; the political element alluded to above is more important for my purposes. What do being dispossessed, being disenfranchised, and being “disappeared” have in common that makes them politically severe?

There are actually two senses in which severe violence is political: what we might call its material and its semantic senses. First, severe violence is materially political because of the decisions and actions, sometimes proximate and sometimes remote, that create it. Second, it is political because of the ways in which responsibilities for the benefits and burdens that flow from such violence are shirked, shouldered, or shared; whether violence rises to the level of severe violence depends on a political struggle over the meaning of these responsibilities. These material and semantic political senses of severe violence are clearly visible in the three forms of severe violence I have in mind—famine, civil war, and genocide—when discussing how some everyday bystanders have benefited from displacement, dispossession, disenfranchisement, and disappearance.

Famine is not a chronic food shortage exacerbated by deteriorating climate conditions. In a material sense famine is an economic and political process of exclusion. Segments of the population lose their ability to purchase food for a variety of reasons; falling wages, lack of adequate disposable income, rising food prices due to the policies of other countries, and the intentional destruction of the economic infrastructure can all play a part in this. These are not natural processes. They depend on political choices and political power.

Famine is also political in a semantic sense. While some aid organizations would prefer to define famine solely in terms of mortality rates and malnutrition, it has become clear that defining any particular situation as a famine is politically controversial. For example, to avoid so defining the situation in Niger in 2005, Nigerian president Mamadou Tandja is reported to have said that there are three signs of a famine: when people are leaving the countryside and going to live in shantytowns; when people are leaving the country; and when beggars are widely prevalent. Those three things, he asserted, did not exist in Niger at the time. As self-serving and politically ineffective as this definition of famine is, it underlines the fact that where one draws the line semantically and who can draw it will unavoidably be influenced by political considerations. In this case Tandja was no match for the World Food Programme, and he was not able to make those suffering from famine disappear.

Similarly, as civil wars became more prevalent than wars of conquest in the twentieth century, civilians have been threatened by violence from one side or the other without recourse to a political system that can provide some buffer. This not only can contribute to famine conditions inside refugee camps but also can lead to a reign of terror (often described metaphorically as an epidemic), sometimes at the hands of peacekeeping authorities themselves. Civil wars invariably cross state boundaries and spread throughout whole regions, weakening economies, corrupting governments, and poisoning large populations. They are political hurricanes, not localized and entrenched blood feuds.

Like the word “famine,” the meaning of the term “civil war” is vehemently contested because of the implications it has for political responsibility. For example, the United States refused to intervene in the violence in Liberia in the early 1990s by characterizing it as a civil war. Madeleine Albright, then secretary of state, lectured the Liberians in language that foreshadowed the sophistic distinction the Clinton administration later would make between “acts of genocide” and “genocide” in reference to Rwanda. By misdescribing severe violence as an ethnic conflict contained within one country, Albright was able to understate both the impact of the severe violence emanating from Liberia as well as U.S. responsibility for it.

Critics of the invasion and occupation of Iraq by U.S.-led forces beginning in 2003 have argued that the action triggered a civil war, while defenders of the invasion and occupation have argued until recently that the situation is more accurately described as an unpopular insurgency against the new legitimate Iraqi government and its supporters. A similar debate occurred during the U.S. war in Vietnam: some critics of the war argued for withdrawal because it was an internal affair that ought to be left to the opposing parties, while defenders of the war characterized it as a defensive action on behalf of South Vietnam against North Vietnamese aggression.

Even more than famine and civil war, the definition of genocide indicates just how political a phenomenon severe violence is. In cases of genocide, according to international humanitarian law, groups are intentionally targeted for extinction and humiliation because of who they are. Recent attempts, such as the 2007 Genocide Prevention Task Force cochaired by Madeleine Albright and former U.S. secretary of defense William S. Cohen, have attempted to define genocide as “large-scale and deliberate attacks on civilians” instead of as directed against the identity of the targeted population. The hope has been that this would make it less political and thus more preventable by multilateral forces, including the United States.

What makes genocide especially cruel and humiliating to a people is not so much the vicious intentions of the génocidaires as the fact that it is done by the very political authorities responsible for protecting them: the victims have no recourse to the political body to which they belong, and often they must struggle to peel away state-sanctioned euphemisms such as “ethnic cleansing.”

In many cases, famine, civil war, and genocide converge. The current situation in Darfur illustrates how civil war can escalate into famine and charges of genocide. The violence that dominated the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s and the violence that continues to spread from Rwanda throughout the Democratic Republic of Congo and neighboring countries in central Africa also illustrate how famine, civil war, and genocide can feed on one another. That does not mean that they always occur together; not all famines result from or lead to civil war and then genocide. But there are enough cases in which they do appear together to warrant asking questions about what they have in common as forms of severe violence.

In short, severe violence is political violence perpetrated against groups of persons who are sometimes exiles or immigrants, sometimes powerless, displaced minorities within an oppressive state, and sometimes groups left in political limbo to fend for themselves when their state has failed. What groups like these have in common is the cruel way they have lost their political voice and have no legitimate political way to regain it. They have been geographically displaced, legally dispossessed, politically disenfranchised, or militarily “disappeared.” Those individuals and institutions that have caused and contributed to this radical depoliticization certainly bear a wide range of moral duties and legal and political responsibilities. They are the perpetrators of severe violence and their collaborators. Those bystanders who have benefited from severe violence bear a different kind of responsibility, which I describe as shared and institutional political responsibility.

The examples of severe violence that I use are not controversial: the Nazi Holocaust, apartheid in South Africa, legalized segregation and forced labor in the United States, the civil war and genocide in the former Yugoslavia, and the Rwandan genocide of the Tutsis. My purpose is not to prove that these are forms of severe violence as I define it; I assume that they are. My purpose is to explore how those of us who accept this description of these events can learn to broaden our understanding of political responsibility for severe violence and teach others to do the same.

It would be irresponsible to place anyone, and especially students, in a situation of severe violence in order to teach them about political responsibility. That is the obvious reason why the community service-learning and study abroad programs I use to illustrate the work of a citizen-teacher are not held in refugee camps or war zones. But there are ways students and teachers can become better acquainted with those who have lived in conditions of severe violence without necessarily experiencing it themselves. Simulations provide one way of doing this, but I argue that these representations of severe violence usually do not encourage empathy and self-understanding. Alternatively, refugee resettlement and support programs exist throughout the developed world, not just in war zones. Deep pockets of suffering exist within relatively rich countries as well as in very poor countries that have managed to avoid outbreaks of severe violence. There are ways of representing these sites of severe violence, both through critical reenactments and interpretations of these reenactments that encourage empathy and greater awareness of political responsibility.

Reenactment can refer to a wide range of performances, dramatic renditions, and other symbolic representations that replay key events and moments in history. In the United States, the most well-known form is the make-believe Civil War reenactment performed by volunteers, not professional actors. Reenactments of this type have a celebratory if not always patriotic purpose. In contrast, a critical reenactment, as I will be using this term, can be an embodied performance, an abstract representation, or some combination of the two. For example, modern dance can abstractly reenact a violent event in a critical fashion, and so can a poetry reading. The most defining characteristic of a critical reenactment is its purpose: to raise difficult questions about the shared political responsibilities of bystanders who are neither perpetrators nor victims of severe violence, and to raise these questions in a voice that can motivate these bystanders to reconsider their institutional roles, not just their personal moral duties.

Critical reenactors can be stand-ins for the original subjects or they can be the original subjects retracing their steps literally or figuratively. Plato’s Apology is a critical reenactment of the trial of the historical Socrates. Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah is a critical reenactment of one chapter of the Nazi Holocaust. William Kentridge’s Ubu and the Truth Commission (pictured on the cover of this book) is a critical reenactment of one aspect of life in South Africa in the early 1990s. In Kentridge’s case, he chooses to use puppets to reenact the brutal exploitation that connects apartheid and postapartheid South Africa to avoid further complicity on his own part. White South Africans, whether they actively opposed or tacitly supported apartheid, may have still been indirectly responsible for the violence done to street peddlers like the one represented by this trader puppet. This abstract reenactment allows Kentridge to raise the question of his own complicity and the possible indirect responsibility of others without forcing victims of apartheid to repeat their experience in a literal sense. The trader puppet bears witness to his own past suffering and demands that the audience, the actors, and the director ask who these two handlers represent. The purpose of critical reenactment is to help us see for ourselves the expanding boundaries of severe violence, the hand we may have in this process, and the voice we may have in its democratic reconstitution.

There are certainly other forms of violence besides famine, civil war, and genocide, and other political ways of responding to them. I do not mean to depreciate the importance of these other forms of violence or the importance of other responses by not including them in this discussion. For example, some have argued that terror, including state terror, will be the most serious threat to political societies in the twenty-first century. I do not address this threat or the more abstract notion of terrorism, but not because I believe that its importance is overstated; its relationship to famine, civil war, and genocide indeed may prove to be a very close one.

Recognizing and accepting shared and institutional political responsibilities as beneficiaries of severe violence will require a process very different from moral argument or legal prosecution. It must begin with something like what South African Breyten Breytenbach has called spiking the self and pickling the heart.

Writers, poets, filmmakers, and artists such as Breytenbach, Claude Lanzmann, William Kentridge, Mandy Jacobson, Alfredo Jaar, Antjie Krog, Carolyn Forché, Wisława Szymborska, and W. G. Sebald have tried to do just that: prompt us to recognize our shared and institutional political responsibilities as everyday bystanders to severe violence. I describe their work as critical reenactment, a term I explain in more detail below. But these sharp reminders by themselves are not enough: They reach only a small audience able to decipher their complex messages. Another layer of interpretation is needed if these reenactments are to move a larger audience. I refer to the secondary interpreters of critical reenactments as citizen-teachers, and I call this two-staged practice of critical reenactment and interpretation democratic political education.

The argument for this particular conception of democratic political education is divided into four sections. Part 1 contrasts the vocation of citizen-teachers with liberal and neoliberal conceptions of citizenship in order to understand one particular set of institutional political responsibilities for the severe violence of forced labor and slavery. Part 2 describes why everyday bystanders to severe violence have difficulty recognizing their shared and institutional political responsibilities, and how this can be changed through critical reenactments. Part 3 presents several examples from my own experience of how citizen-teachers as interpreters of critical reenactments can help everyday bystanders recognize and meet these political responsibilities for severe violence. The conclusion locates the work of citizen-teachers as interpreters of critical reenactments within the context of contemporary theories of development, justice, care, and democracy.

I do not mean to suggest that intellectuals and educators should not be strong advocates for political causes. The vocation of the citizen-teacher is not the only role that intellectuals can or should play to heighten awareness of and lessen severe violence. Some intellectuals have spoken in a prophetic voice from within their own community of suffering and oppression for just these reasons. The vocation of the citizen-teacher, however, is not a prophetic one in the sense of calling back those who have strayed from the path of righteousness. The challenge for the citizen-teacher is to help those who do not belong to communities of suffering and oppression to recognize how they have benefited unjustly from the suffering and oppression of others.

The goal of this book is to help citizen-teachers—and through them, everyday bystanders to severe violence—see themselves within a more democratic frame of reference. This is why suggestive figures of speech, visual images, and poetic voices occupy a central place in the stories I tell. I already have distinguished upstream contributions, causes, effects, and benefits from downstream recognition, and this mapping metaphor will be expanded. The political responsibilities of everyday bystanders will be presented in terms of contrasting allegories and stories that influence (not merely illustrate) how recognition may be blocked or enhanced. Political education’s reliance on language and innovation is hardly new. What may be new are the global challenges that recognition faces and the speed at which citizens are losing their ability to respond democratically to them.

Riparian metaphors of upstream causes, contributions, effects, and benefits and downstream political education and recognition can be complicated. Unlike products in the “flow of commerce,” responsibilities are not always either in or out of the stream of harm and suffering. Some bystanders feel morally obligated to save an innocent victim (e.g., the proverbial drowning child; more on this in chapter 5), and in some of these cases they are criminally negligent if they don’t. Sometimes their mere marginal presence, even downstream, makes the harm worse; and if they try to mitigate that harm, they may exacerbate it and increase their responsibilities.

Consider the complicated case of Specialist Sabrina Harman, a member of the 372nd Military Police reserve unit of the U.S. Army, a bystander in 2003 during the torture and humiliation of prisoners in the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. I will return to the way that allegories of rescue and more unusual stories like Abu Ghraib are photographed, filmed, reenacted, and interpreted downstream to hinder or help bystanders recognize and meet their responsibilities. For the moment, I want to use Harman’s case as a counterexample to underscore how the political responsibilities that everyday bystanders incur as beneficiaries differ from the political responsibilities of Harman’s superiors and her own extraordinary but apolitical responsibilities in this case.

The following description, based on interviews with Harman and other military and civilian personnel serving in the Iraq war, comes from the book Standard Operating Procedure by Philip Gourevitch and Errol Morris:

The MPs knew very little about their prisoners or the culture they came from, and they understood less. But at Fort Lee, before they deployed, they were given a session of “cultural awareness training,” from which they’d taken away the understanding—constantly reinforced by MI [Military Intelligence] handlers—that Arab men were sexual prudes, with a particular hang-up about being seen naked in public, especially by women. . . . Harman understood. She didn’t like being naked in public herself. To the prisoners, being photographed may have seemed an added dash of mortification, but to Harman, taking pictures was a way of deflecting her own humiliation in the transaction—by taking ownership of her position as spectator.

As Gourevitch and Morris suggest, Sabrina Harman played an unusual role in a situation in which torture had become a standard operating procedure: “She did not pretend to be a whistle-blower-in-waiting; rather, she wished to unburden herself of complicity in conduct that she considered wrong, and in its cover-up, without ascribing blame or making trouble for anyone in particular.” By photographing these scenes of torture, she hoped to partially exculpate herself. She was willing to document human rights abuses at the same time that she realized her presence as a woman documenting the abuses added to the suffering of the victims. Harman was extraordinary in what she hoped to accomplish as a bystander, not because the torture was extraordinary. In fact, at Abu Ghraib events like those she participated in were not at all out of the ordinary. One might say she contributed to the harm but didn’t plan or instigate it.

Harman’s role as a “spectator,” however, was not political. She and other low-ranking soldiers were convenient scapegoats for their superiors and politicians precisely because she had one foot in the stream of harm and suffering. The responsibilities of the politicians and officers who encouraged and then lied about these practices are political because of the decisions they made and the orders they gave, and therefore they ought to be held accountable politically. Harman’s responsibility was not political in this causal sense: She took orders; she didn’t give them. She made bad moral judgments, but she did not make any political decisions.

Everyday bystanders are not involved in harm and suffering in the extraordinary way that Harman was. Their responsibilities as beneficiaries are political, but not in the same sense that Harman’s superiors’ responsibilities were. Unlike Harman, who had one foot in the causal stream of violence, and her superiors, who were firmly anchored farther upstream giving orders, everyday bystanders stand on the banks, not as silent witnesses or frightened rescuers but as beneficiaries of the deposits and changing landscape left in the wake of this stream of harm and suffering.

Initially, unlike Harman, everyday bystanders fill the once-filled jobs, hold the once-held offices, occupy the once-occupied homes, farm the once-farmed land, and even parent the once-parented orphans of the disappeared. None of these benefits came Harman’s way. Later, everyday bystanders and their offspring attend the schools, cultivate the land, buy the products, and inherit the property made available to them by earlier displacements, disappearances, and less overt acts of ethnic cleansing. Everyday bystanders benefit from continuing harm and suffering through the decisions they make about property, parentage, and labor, even if they are not instigators or unapologetic profiteers. Sometimes these are shared decisions made by members of families or ethnic groups; sometimes they are decisions made by the governing bodies of institutions such as private corporations, public universities, or other international nongovernmental organizations. These decisions, whether they are made tacitly or explicitly, are political because they ratify the violence done to the displaced, the dispossessed, the disenfranchised, and the disappeared.

It would be a serious mistake to assume that all everyday bystanders are wealthy or powerful, or that they all benefit greatly from the severe violence endured by others. The corporations that opportunistically take advantage of the suffering of others certainly are often well-off and do profit. But the neighbors and small shopkeepers who step in to take over the homes, farms, and stores left behind by those who have fled or disappeared may be no more well-off than the victims themselves were beforehand. It would also be wrong to assume that everyday bystanders do not feel remorse for the way they and their descendants benefit from severe violence, any more than there is a simple way for them to make amends.

I was reminded of this recently when I received an e-mail from a former student who had taken a philosophy course of mine in spring 2007 dealing with the material in this book. As an undergraduate she was active in the Latino community on and off the Michigan State University campus, and she became disillusioned with the university’s commitment to its minority students. To her, the university was standing by as other students baited and harassed international and minority students under the banner of national identity and security. When the university acted, she believed, it did so to support the freedom of speech of those calling for anti-immigrant legislation.

She spent her last semester in fall 2007 on a study abroad program in Quito, Ecuador, and decided to stay on to teach English for another year. Her experience in Ecuador, she wrote, helped her to rethink her college education and the problems of injustice in the Latino communities in Michigan and her hometown, Los Angeles.

In the e-mail, she reflected on the philosophy course and on an incident that had occurred the summer before she left for Quito in fall 2007:

Actually, some of the ideas that were harder for me to grasp—ideas of citizenship and moral responsibility—helped me confront truths I learned later that same year. My grandfather—who took care of me my whole life—died during the last year of college, and so I spent the summer after spring 2007 mourning with my family in LA and learning more about his life. And I actually found out something that was very hard for me to accept. I learned that my grandparents, who had been very poor and struggling immigrants themselves, had actually lived in the house of Japanese immigrants who were taken to internment camps. I’ve always considered my family to be hardworking survivors, and people who were victims of so many inequalities. So learning this fact was VERY unsettling . . . and I just could not believe that MY family had benefited from other people’s injustice. But, I worked through it . . . and accepted it . . . but I really think that the themes we discussed in your class gave me the means to process and understand why my grandparents had done that, but also to recognize that it was not ok.

I have no reason to doubt this student’s sincerity and gratitude, and I am pleased that the course gave her “the means to process and understand” the complexity of her family’s relationship to the Japanese internment in the United States. But there is a general message here that is more significant. Discovering that her family had benefited from racist, anti-immigrant policies not only changed her view of her family, it affected how she understood her own education and the different groups she had encountered during that time.

A democratic political education that addresses the political responsibilities of everyday bystanders is not primarily about justifying official apologies or reparations. For some cases, such as the internment of Japanese American citizens in World War II, these may be appropriate, but by themselves they cannot sustain democratic dialogues between beneficiaries and victims, especially when some parties have both benefited and suffered from severe violence. Families and communities like those of my student, whether they inherit the property of the displaced and disenfranchised or earn their wages at a firm that historically has benefited from severe violence, must be included in these dialogues. Because we cannot be sure who falls into this ambiguous category, including ourselves (see §11), citizen-teachers ought to presume that some of us someday may. It is not such a remote possibility, and it may be the best way to help everyday bystanders recognize that they are not simply guilty (or innocent), and that they are not alone in their political responsibility for severe violence.