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Conflicting Historical Narratives and the Perpetuation of Trauma

By Reuven Firestone

When children get into a schoolyard fight, they always seem to offer the same excuse: “He hit me first!” It must be obvious that one child began swinging before the other. Is it simple childhood invention that we are observing in these blame-the-other scenarios, or may there be something deeper behind the inevitable contradictory claim?

Let’s consider a typical playground battle between two children. One of them certainly swung the first punch. Let’s call the puncher Child A. But perhaps Child B pushed Child A before he began swinging, and perhaps Child A called Child B names or purloined his lunch before Child B pushed him. And that behavior too, may have been triggered by something else that Child B did to Child A the day before. One question of interest when trying to determine “who started it” is, how far back into history can one (or should one) go when probing the origin of a conflict. This is a major issue when considering the problem of conflicting narratives. How far back must one go in the search for truth?

It is also possible that Child A did nothing intentionally to provoke Child B. He may have done nothing “wrong” according to his personal playbook of actions. Nevertheless, it could be perceived as an injustice by Child B.

Who is guilty of starting the conflict? Who is guilty of escalating it?

And of great theoretical importance for this conference, even in relation to this schoolyard fight and in fact for all cases of mass violence, is the deeper background. What in an individual’s history might trigger, sanction, enable or even encourage recourse to violence in settling perceived hurt or injustice? Mistreatment from an abusive parent can trigger a response in a child that directs violence outward onto another. Many other possible triggers can prompt acts of violence.

A corollary exists between individual and communal violence that has been taken up in the past decades by psychologists. One researcher, Vamik Volkan, has applied psychoanalytic theory to mass violence undertaken by large groups. I use Volkan’s term, “large group violence” rather than “mass violence,” because I am concerned with issues of large group identity and communal perceptions of grievance, victimization and humiliation that are often at the core of groups’ recourse to mass violence.

Large-Group Identity and Historical Narrative

Vamik Volkan is a Turkish-Cypriot American psychiatrist and founder of the Center for the Study of Mind and Human Interaction (CSMHI) at the University of Virginia School of Medicine. He does not often use the term “historical narrative” in his work, but he works with the same issues when he treats a large-group’s dedication to what he calls “chosen trauma” and “chosen glories.” These are core aspects of a group’s constructed historical narrative, which are often at odds or deeply clash with the historical narratives of neighboring communities. In fact, one community’s “chosen trauma” may be another’s “chosen glory.” A most obvious case in point would be the Israelis’ Yom Ha`atzma’ut or “Independence Day,” which coincides exactly with Palestinians’ Yawm al-Nakba or “Day of Disaster” that marks the trauma of Palestinian victimhood and displacement with the establishment of the modern State of Israel in 1948.

What we are considering here is large-group identity-related conflicts. The pivots of large-group identity can be ethnic, religious, national or ideological.[1] It is not any particular aspect of national culture that promotes large-group violence. Neither is it some feature of a particular religion (or of religion in general). It is, rather, the notion of distinction between in-group and out-group, and the particular manner in which the large-group responds to its own collective pain, triumph and trauma. Most communities experience collective pain and trauma sometime in their history. In many cases, they are able to heal from it. When they are not able to heal, however, the collective pain can be directed outward and released through mass violence against absolutely innocent victims.

Volkan refers to the relationship between an individual and the group with which s/he identifies through an analogy of protective clothing. Every individual has two layers of clothing. The first fits snugly. This is one’s personal identity. The second layer is an ethnic or religious layer that binds the individual to a large group. That second layer is a loose covering that protects the individual in the way that a parent, close family member or other caregiver protects a member of the family. “Because this garment is not formfitting, it also shelters other members of the group and resembles, in a sense, a large canvas tent.”[2] Volkan goes on to describe the leader of the community as the tent pole that holds the tent erect and the community together under his leadership and protection.

What Volkan does not note in his schema is that an individual usually fits into a number of different “tents” determined by religion, region, dialect, culture, age, gender, etc. One can belong to different groups and overlap with many different people through sharing particular perceived commonalities. For example, individuals adhering to different religions can be a part of the same “national tent,” or individuals with different skin color can be a part of the same “religious tent,” etc. In the cosmopolitan world we inhabit today, all of us who live anywhere but in a totally isolated village travel in our “individualness” between multiple variations of “tentedness,” and these overlapping tents (or identities) can allow us to live in multi-cultural, multi-religious, and multi-ethnic communities.

Large-Group Identity in Times of Stress

Under certain conditions, this multi-group flexibility can become static. Times of stress can encourage regression to a single tent of identity. This is especially true when anxiety or trauma causes individuals who once felt an aspect of shared identity with a variety of groups to regress to a single identity tent in which they can feel safe because they experience being surrounded protected in the tent of a single, secure community. This kind of regression can be encouraged by certain types of tent-pole leaders who identify other tents as threatening and dangerous. Those now dangerous and foreboding tents may have once been shared by the individuals who have since regressed into their single, large-group tents of opposition.

Under certain conditions, groups that have been neighbors for generations may appear to have suddenly transformed into merciless enemies.[3] Individual ethical values can be entirely jettisoned and give way to a collective will in such a situation.

A classic example is the case of the former Yugoslavia, where Serbs, Croats and Bosnians share the same language (with some dialectical differences), the same ethnic attributes and the same basic migratory history. Yet they hold a major difference in large-group narrative that in this case is defined in terms of religion: Serbs are overwhelmingly Orthodox Christians, Croats are overwhelmingly Catholic, and Bosnians are mostly Muslim. In the 1995 Serbian genocide of Bosnian Muslims in Srebrenica,[4] the tents in conflict were defined in religious terms, but as I will show shortly, the Serbs were acting out a vengeful retribution for the loss of political sovereignty 500 years earlier to Turks, an entirely different community that was not defined at that time in religious terms.[5]

Large-group identities are, in the final analysis, constructed identities. Benedict Anderson has shown how national identities are constructed under conditions of need, when groups organize around certain perceived traits that may be centered on parochial issues or even dialect.[6] Often the actual organizing point of group identity is “not them.” Any number of constructed differences can be used to define borders between groups.

Community Loss and Community Mourning

Volkan notes that large-groups may experience trauma in ways that are similar to the experience of individuals. This is part of his view of layered identity in which individuals have, as it were, two layers of clothing: one personal, the other communal. Just as individuals mourn loss, so do large-groups.

When an individual mourns the loss of a loved-one, the mourning process heals as it advances in stages. The first stage is crisis grief, which occurs in the immediate aftermath of loss. “It includes shock, denial, bargaining, and the sadness and pain of losing access to the deceased. Feeling anger in the first stage is important…This anger is often displaced and directed toward others – relatives, for example, or a physician who treated the deceased person. Anger marks the [first] realization that what is lost will never come back.”[7]

The second stage, sometimes called the “work of mourning,” is a time when the mourner adapts to the change in his/her reality. The mourner engages in an internal review of memories along with their accompanying feelings. This period also includes painful feelings, but when it develops properly it is accompanied by a gradual acceptance of loss as the mourner “convert[s] the relationship with the dead person into a memory that no longer eclipses other thoughts.” This is part of a process “…like the healing of a wound: it takes time and it occurs gradually…If there are complications during any of the stages of the mourning process, they may prevent adaptive resolution of the loss.”[8]

If proper mourning does not occur, a person can become a “perennial mourner” who is unable to normalize. The natural anger at the early stages of mourning is retained and festers. It can then be directed inward resulting in self-destructive behaviors, or outward against innocent victims.

As with individuals, large groups also mourn. The unexpected killing of national heroes such as Mahatma Gandhi, John F. Kennedy, and Martin Luther King caused trauma in national communities that required community mourning in order to heal. Mourning in these situations took place through engagement in rituals and anniversaries that were repeated over time with decreasing intensity. When a national hero dies of natural causes, the mourning is easier than if the hero is assassinated.

Sometimes a national failure requires mourning. The Vietnam War is one example for Americans, and ambivalence among the American public regarding the war prevented full mourning from occurring. That left many individuals and parts of the American public in a state of incomplete mourning.

Mourners may have “linking objects” that serve to connect the mourner with the dead. A grave in a cemetery can be a positive linking object because it may allow a mourner to review one’s connection and love for the dead person while also reminding him that the deceased is now gone. But a grave can be a negative linking object if the mourner cannot get beyond the loss and returns obsessively to the graveside as if to resurrect the dead. In this case, the marker keeps the mourner from completing the process.

The construction of the Vietnam War Memorial in 1982 provides one example of a linking object that assisted the large group in mourning. It enabled the American public to move beyond the grief and humiliation associated with the war. But Volkan also cites examples where memorials, as linking objects, can block the mourning process. One such example is the Crying Father Monument in Tskhinvali, South Ossetia, which perpetuates a sense of victimization among South Ossetians by their Georgian neighbors.[9]

Severe calamities suffered by a large-group can arouse extensive feelings of helpless and a general breakdown of community. When severe calamities occur from natural or man-made disasters such as a typhoon or earthquake, or human failure in a dam-break or a nuclear plant such as Chernoble, there is often great suffering and loss. That loss may be accompanied by anger against those who are perceived as being responsible. In such cases, mourning may take some time, but it can generally play itself out in a manner that brings eventual healing, even if it takes some years.

In the case of a severe calamity caused by another group of people – an enemy, however, the suffering, loss and anger is often accompanied by deep humiliation and the loss of human dignity. These kinds of severe calamities can remain unhealed and can fester for generations and even centuries.

A classic example is our case of the Ottoman Turkish destruction of the Serbian kingdom in the 14th century at the Battle of Kosovo. The Battle of Kosovo was an important Battle, but it did not destroy the Serbian kingdom, which collapsed only later and because of internal conflicts among feuding Serbian groups as well as outside attack. But a complex historical narrative of heroism and loss was constructed through the chosen trauma of the Battle of Kosovo. It perpetuated a feeling of Serbian failure and humiliation through its regular retelling in epic poetry, song, literature, music, dance and the plastic arts. The loss was never fully mourned, and the deep wound that it left became embedded in Serbian culture. It kept alive a powerful identity, but it did so through the transmission of unresolved emotions from generation to generation.

In these kinds of situations, the healing of mourning does not fully occur. As with individuals who experience personal abuse and humiliation, the trauma can become internalized – turned inward and result in self-punishment. In some large-group situations, such as among South Ossetians and African Americans, the internalization of trauma results in self-abuse thorough internal self-inflicted violence, what is sometimes called “Black-on-Black violence” in the American context. When it is unrelieved, it is passed onto the next generations, which are then expected to reverse the humiliation and feelings of helplessness associated with the trauma of the forebears.[10]

The memory of the past trauma can remain dormant for generations, “kept in the psychological DNA of the members of the group and silently acknowledged within the culture – in literature and art, for example – but it reemerges powerfully…under certain conditions…[N]ew enemies involved in current conflicts may be perceived as extensions of an old enemy from a historical event.”[11] The contemporary generation may then attempt to reverse their ancestors’ humiliation by taking revenge on people who represent for them the original perpetrators of the calamity generations or even centuries before. This is what occurred with the massacres of Bosnian Muslims by Serbs, who often referred to the victims as “Turks” despite the fact that they were south Slavs like the Serbs themselves.

Prior to the breakup of Yugoslavia, the power of the state was used to prevent such horrific actions from occurring. Attempts were punished severely, which succeeded in inhibiting expressions of large group violence. But while the state prevented actors from carrying out violent acts, it did nothing to resolve the underlying problems. Communities did not have the opportunity to mourn communal losses and learn to re-assign their neighbors acceptable roles in the world. Yugoslavia functioned under the ideological dream that socialist aspiration for the common good would cause ethnic and religious difference to fade away. This ideological position inhibited leaders from devoting resources to resolving the actual underlying problems. Unfortunately, this shortsightedness allowed deep perceived grievances to fester and lie dormant until the opportunity presented itself for release through violent revenge.

Some new tools have been found that have proven to release some of these tension in a positive way. One is the truth and reconciliation commissions carried out in South Africa.[12] The South African case provided a culturally-appropriate means of mourning and public statement of regret. But it has proven almost impossible to replicate in other contexts.[13] There may be other ways to enable mourning to take place so that people can get beyond the humiliation and rage that can be released generations hence. Non-governmental organizations are working on solutions in some contexts as Israel/Palestine, but they are often thwarted by short-sighted governments.

What we desperately need today are more tools that can enable communities to complete processes of mourning and reassign roles and identities to their feared neighbors. This can reduce or even eliminate the hurt and humiliation of group trauma and prevent them from being passed on for generations, only to explode when the stars line up just right. And we are equally in need of governments that will stop exploiting these tragic problems for political gain.

There is much work to be done. But this gives us a good reason to keep at it, doesn’t it?

Cover-Photo: Vamik Volkan

[1] Vamık D. Volkan, Bloodlines: From Ethnic Pride to Ethnic Terrorism (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1997), 17; ibid., “What Some Monuments Tell Us about Mourning and Forgiveness,” in Elazar Barkan and Alexander Karn (eds.), Taking Wrongs Seriously: Apologies and Reconciliation (Stanford, CA: Stanford University), 115-131.

[2] Bloodlines 27-28.

[3] Bloodlines 20.

[4] On this genocide, see Paul Mojzes, Balkan Genocides (New York: Roman and Littlefield, 2011), 163-195.

[5]Bloodlines, 60-80; Volkan, Enemies on the Couch: A Psychopolitical Journey through War and Peace (Durham, North Carolina: Pitchstone, 2013), 166-167

[6] Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities (London: Verso, 2006 [1981]).

[7] Bloodlines 36.

[8] Bloodlines 37.

[9] “What Some Monuments Tell Us…”

[10] Bloodlines 43.

[11] Bloodlines 46-7.

[12] Erik Doxtader, Truth and Reconciliation in South Africa: The Fundamental Documents (Cape Town: David Philip Publishers, 2007); Muhammad Haron, South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission: An Annotated Bibliography (Hauppauge, NY: Nova Science Publishers, 2009).

[13] Lyn S. Graybill, Truth and Reconciliation in South Africa: Miracle or Model? (Boulder: Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2002).

Professor Reuven Firestone
is Regenstein Professor in medieval Judaism and Islam at Hebrew Union College and professor of religion at the University of Southern California. Author of eight books and over one hundred scholarly articles on Judaism, Islam, their relationship with one another and with Christianity, and phenomenology of religion, Professor Firestone lectures at universities in Europe, Asia and the Middle East as well as throughout North America. He is active on the boards of numerous scholarly journals and boards and commissions treating interreligious relations and dialogue.  An ordained rabbi, Firestone received his Ph.D. in Arabic and Islamic Studies from New York University, served as Vice President for Program of the Association for Jewish Studies and President of the International Qur’anic Studies Association.


For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.

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