Looking for a little forgiveness

In 9/11’s wake, Jill Scott is examining our emotional resposes to tragedy—and how that helps us resolve conflicts

In 2005 Jill Scott was awarded the Aurora Prize for her research project, an ongoing book titled A Poetics of Forgiveness: Creativity and Conflict Resolution.
In 2005 Jill Scott was awarded the Aurora Prize for her research project, an ongoing book titled A Poetics of Forgiveness: Creativity and Conflict Resolution.

In the aftermath of Sept. 11, 2001, Queen’s professor Jill Scott began seeking forgiveness.

“The response to 9/11 was generally about mourning. There’s this collective trauma, and it seemed to me in the media and the common popular response was, ‘Oh, how tragic, we all have to mourn this, and we should mourn this as if it was own our tragedy.’ … When mourning happens like that, people are very vulnerable,” she said. “It’s easy to turn that emotion into revenge. Look how that pain turns into hatred for the person who perpetrated the act.

“What I was interested in was if there was room for forgiveness after 9/11. Alongside clear important practices of mourning, is there room for forgiveness?”

Scott said she wanted to examine emotional responses to tragedy.

“What I was interested in was thinking about if there was another response to thinking about this tragic event other than this traumatic outpouring of a narcissistic emotional response. For the people who lost someone close to them I understand, but it’s like when Princess Diana died. People identify with her, but it’s also just a moment to have this collective cathartic moment. It doesn’t really move things forward culturally or politically.” Scott said research in forgiveness comes from many different places, including existing social theories and the portrayal of forgiveness in the arts, adding that her examination of forgiveness does not involve spiritual factors.

“I’m using standard theories of forgiveness in philosophy and social sciences,” she said. “It’s not like I’m digging through archives. The research involves thinking about different ways of applying existing models, a secular forgiveness.”

Scott, a professor with the German studies department, won the prestigious 2005 Aurora Prize after submitting a grant application to fund her ongoing research project, a book tentatively titled, A Poetics of Forgiveness: Creativity and Conflict Resolution.

The Aurora Prize is handed out by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC). According to its website, the Aurora Prize “recognizes an outstanding new researcher who is building a reputation for exciting and original research in the social sciences or humanities.” Fluent in German and French and able to read in Spanish, Scott said her interest in the topic of forgiveness began at an early age, when she went on a high school exchange to Germany.

Scott said her early exposure to Germany and its guilt complex after the Second World War inspired her interest in how we forgive, as well as the impact forgiveness can have on the forgiven. Her book focuses on interpretations of forgiveness in various texts, but Scott said it ultimately deals with larger issues.

“I’m fundamentally interested in the connection between creativity and conflict resolution,” she said. “What can creative or cultural expressions and also our interpretations of those creative works contribute to our understanding of conflict and its resolution?”

In 1998, Scott received her PhD in Comparative Literature from the University of Toronto, a degree she said she constantly uses in her research.

“I’m a comparatist, so I will always want to work with more than just German literature,” she said.

Scott said one of the aspects of her work that especially interested the SSHRC was her innovative approach to creative analysis.

“When I talk about creativity, I don’t mean just works of literature and art. I think that all human expression is creative,” she said.

Scott said she was thrilled to win the Aurora prize.

“I was … overwhelmed,” she said. “Having said that, I have yet to encounter somebody at this University who’s not doing exciting research.”

Scott said she finds the interplay of ideas in a classroom as exciting as her research.

“I feel so incredibly grateful for the opportunity to work with students,” she said. “My teaching is often not in any way obviously related to my research and yet I make no distinction, because it’s all part of the same project to me.”

After completing this project, Scott has no plans to slow down.

“I have a list of ideas as long as my arm for future research projects,” she said.

“If you’re really interested in something, then you’re always thinking about it, and you’re always bringing other parts of your job to that. … I just love all of it.

“Life is research. Research is curiosity, and I don’t think there’s anybody that can’t relate to that on some level.”

—With files from Jane Switzer

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