Saltman Center Events: Getting to Know Harvard Professor Martha Minow

Tuesday, November 24, 2020
Martha Minow, Harvard’s 300th Anniversary University Professor

Martha Minow, Harvard’s 300th Anniversary University Professor and former Dean of the Harvard Law School, will give the annual Memorial Beecroft Lecture on Conflict Resolution on March 8 at 5:30 p.m. Pacific Time. Minow’s lecture is titled “Restorative Justice and Anti-Racism” and will be presented virtually.

Saltman Center Director Lydia Nussbaum recently caught up with Minow to discuss her vast scholarship, her passion for justice, and the importance of forgiveness. 

Lydia Nussbaum: You have written 15 books and countless articles in your career. This scholarship has covered a wide range of issues, including responses to genocide, civil procedure, disability rights, criminal law, discrimination, religious freedom, freedom of the press, and artificial intelligence. Is there any connection or pattern across your work?

Martha Minow: Well, the great privilege of being a law professor is it provides the opportunity to bridge theory and practice and to exercise the freedom to follow what seems of interest— without needing to please a client or boss. But looking back on my work so far, I see two common threads: The first is to advance directly and indirectly respect for the dignity and equality of each individual—to fight against oppression and all that can dehumanize any individual or group, or deny any individual their rights simply because of their race, gender, identities, or other circumstances. Secondly, in my scholarship, I also resist framing issues as two stark options of either-or; instead, I look for alternative ways to reframe problems to identify new paths forward.

Nussbaum: Speaking of reframing problems, your upcoming lecture at Boyd will argue that restorative justice work, traditionally used in connection with criminal and juvenile systems, can also play a role in combatting racial injustice in the United States. Can you provide a sneak peak of what you will be discussing?

Minow: Restorative justice approaches have been used in criminal and juvenile settings to bring together victims seeking restoration and offenders seeking forgiveness to find less punitive resolutions. In my lecture, I will examine how we can potentially use these same insights to combat racial injustice in America—specifically, how should restorative justice practices change when embracing anti-racism work? When we use these approaches to halt the school-to-prison pipeline or address contemporary social movements, including the relationship between communities and police forces, what are the challenges and what are the promises?  

Nussbaum: With regard to potential forgiveness, two of your books—When Should Law Forgive? (2019) and Between Vengeance and Forgiveness: Facing History After Genocide and Mass Violence (1998)—have wrestled with the relationship between forgiveness, law, and justice. Given our ongoing cultural and political conflicts, how are you currently thinking about forgiveness?  

Minow: I see forgiveness between people as a resource for dealing with conflict and pain, but it’s not something that should ever be forced or imposed. I also believe the legal system could much more frequently apply forgiveness, and recent events underscore the need. For example, because of the pandemic, many people are struggling to pay their rent, and courts rightly have suspended evictions. But some forgiveness of rent payments should also be explored. In Florida, despite a referendum restoring the right vote to ex-felons who have served their sentences, unpaid fines and fees still stand in the way. At least for the purposes of voting, those punishments should be forgiven. At the same time, corruption and misconduct by those who wield great power still should require accountability. 

Note: The 2021 Memorial Beecroft Lecture on Conflict Resolution will be conducted virtually on March 8, but registration is required.