01When large groups (i.e., ethnic, national, religious and political ideological groups) are in conflict, most of their political, economic, legal, or military concerns are also contaminated with psychological issues. People assigned to deal with these conflicts on an official level establish short and long-term strategies and mobilize resources to implement them. In so doing they develop assumptions for psychological advantages over the “other.”
In answering this question, I focus on another type of psychology that triggers more hidden, mostly unconscious, resistances that thwart peaceful, adaptive solutions to large-group conflicts. At the core of this psychology lies the concept of large-group identity which is articulated in terms of commonality such as “we are Polish, we are Arab, we are Muslim, we are Communist.” Large-group identity can be defined as a subjective feeling of sameness shared among thousands or millions of people, most of whom will never know or see each other. Yet a simple definition of this abstract concept is not sufficient to explain the power it has to influence political, economic, legal, and military initiatives and to induce seemingly irrational resistances to change.
Using an analogy to explain large-group identity, think in terms of how we learn to wear two layers of fabric from the time we are children. The first layer, the individual layer, fits each of us snugly, like clothing. It is one’s core personal identity that provides an inner sense of persistent sameness for the individual. The second layer is the canvas of the tent, which is loose fitting, but allows us to share a sense of sameness with others under the same large-group tent. The canvas of the tent refers to one’s core large-group identity. Some common threads, such as identifications with intimate others in one’s environment, are used in the construction of the two layers, the individual garment as well as the canvas of the tent. Thus the core individual identity and the core large-group identity, psychologically speaking, are interconnected. While it is the tent pole—the political leader—that holds the tent erect, the tent’s canvas (large-group identity) protects both the leader and the group.
Under a huge large-group tent there are subgroups and subgroup identities, such as professional identities. A person can change a subgroup identity without much anxiety, unless such a change unconsciously becomes connected with a personal psychic danger. For practical purposes, an individual cannot change his or her core large-group identity, especially after the adolescence passage, since by then the core identity is crystallized. I am referring to general and typical situations here and not considering unusual individuals in a society, such as immigrants or dissenters or those who may be products of parents from more than one ethnic group. Think of a man—let us say he is Italian—who is an amateur photographer. If he decides to stop practicing photography and take up carpentry, he may call himself a carpenter instead of a photographer, but he cannot stop being an Italian and become an Englishman. His Italianness is part of his core large-group identity, which is interconnected with his core individual identity. Both core identities evolve in childhood and become intertwined and crystallized during the adolescent passage. A group may evolve a new large-group identity only through the influence of some very long-lasting historical events. For example, a large group of South Slavs became Bosniaks while under the rule of the Ottoman Empire.
The more the members of a large group are traumatized by an enemy group, the more they hold on to their large-group identities at the expense of their investments in their individual identities. They become preoccupied with “we-ness,” the wear and tear on the canvas of their large-group tent, and emotionally become ready to do anything to protect their large-group identity, which they differentiate clearly from the identity of the “other,” even if this necessitates an increased tolerance for shared masochism and sadism. What I described here is easily observable in refugee or internally displaced person’s (IDP’s) camps or settlements.
Large-group identity has various components. For example, shared mental representations of ancestors’ historical glories and defeats may evolve as significant markers of large-group identity. Such mental representations—I refer to them as “chosen glories” and “chosen traumas”—are reactivated when representatives of opposing sides are involved in a process of reconciliation. This results in a time collapse. Perceptions, feelings and thoughts about past glories or traumas become condensed in the perceptions, feeling and thoughts about current conflicts. This makes negotiations difficult. Furthermore, some political leaders can manipulate various components of large-group identity, leading to killing in the name of identity. Studying large-group psychology in its own right, bringing the hidden psychological resistances against peaceful co-existence into the open and developing psychopolitical strategies to deal with such elements will help elucidate some of the seemingly irrational aspects of conflicts and help to create an atmosphere for more genuine efforts toward reconciliation.
01My colleagues and I from the University of Virginia’s Center for the Study of Mind and Human Interaction (CSMHI) (closed in 2006) developed and experimented with a method that touches deeper and more genuine aspects of reconciliation and that is centered on a sense of fairness and dignity. It involves a “neutral” and interdisciplinary third-party team (including psychoanalysts, political scientist, historians and former diplomats) that seeks to remove the resistances for peaceful co-existence, help the opposing parties have more realistic discussions and develop more adaptive strategies for dealing with their conflict. This methodology, named “the Tree Model,” has three basic phases: (1) psychopolitical assessment of the situation (representing the roots of a tree), (2) psychopolitical dialogues between members of opposing groups (representing the trunk of a tree), and (3) collaborative actions and institutions that grow out of the dialogue process (representing the branches of a tree).
The first phase of the Tree Model includes in-depth psychodynamically informed interviews with a wide range of people who represent the large groups involved, through which an understanding begins to emerge concerning the main aspects, including unconscious ones that surround the situation that needs to be addressed. The psychopolitical dialogues between influential representatives of opposing large groups are conducted under the guidance of the interdisciplinary facilitating team and take place in a series of multi-day meetings, as often as possible, over several years. As these dialogues progress, resistances against changing the large group’s irrational ways of protecting its large-group identity are brought to the surface and articulated, so that fantasized threats to large-group identity can be understood and realistic communication can take place. In order for the newly gained insights to have an impact on political and social policy, as well as on the populace at large, the final phase requires the collaborative development of concrete actions, programs, and institutions with official governmental and grassroots support. What is learned is then operationalized so that more peaceful coexistence between the large groups can be achieved, and threats (especially the fantasized ones) to large-group identity coming from the “other” can be tamed. This leads to a progression within the large group.
The signs of a large-group progression include preserving individuality while stabilizing family, clan and professional subgroups, and having a society where individuals and professional organizations establish a capacity for compromise without damaging integrity, and an ability to question what is “moral.” When a society becomes stabilized there is an increased emphasis on freedom of speech, an end to the devaluation of women and children, just and functioning civil institutions, especially a fair legal system, mental hospitals with humane care, and religious freedom. Its members (in general) can wonder about the former enemy’s “psychic reality,” the shared mental representation of the enemy. To understand why the “other” behaved in malignant ways does not mean forgetting past wrongs. It means performing the difficult task of “humanizing” even the most destructive perpetrators. Horrible large-scale acts are not performed by “devils,” but by humans under the specific influence of large-group psychology. By studying the “psychic reality” of the enemy as a large group, the attacked group can explore new ways of dealing with the enemy and its threat instead of responding to the enemy and the threat in destructive ways.
The Tree Model has successfully been tested at locations where large-group tensions prevented peaceful collaborations. It has never been applied to a situation where the external dangers are extreme and acute. However, it contains concepts that can be modified for thinking of, and even starting, strategies for acute and very deadly situations.
03There is a place for apology and forgiveness in establishing reconciliation between former enemies. While simple acts of offering apology and forgiveness may be essential dimensions of reconciliation between individuals utilizing their personal spiritual heritage, in my experience such acts by themselves alone, are not effective in securing a peaceful co-existence between former enemy large groups. Before offering as well as accepting forgiveness, societies need to be carefully prepared, for example by the application of the Tree Model and by providing societal progress as described in my second answer,
Different religions place different emphasis on the role of forgiveness and repentance in human affairs. If the conflict is between large groups who are followers of different religions, the facilitators for reconciliation must gain knowledge of the essential differences regarding forgiveness in the religions involved in order to be models for emphatic communications between the parties in conflict.
04Massive societal catastrophes can occur for any number of reasons, including natural or man-made disasters, political oppression, economic collapse, or death of a leader, but tragedies, deaths, and brutalities that result from the deliberate actions of other ethnic, national, religious or ideological groups called “enemies,” must be differentiated from other types of massive shared trauma. This is because they involve large-group identity issues. When “others” who posses a different large-group identity than the victims humiliate and oppress a group, the victimized group’s identity is threatened.
When a society becomes the deliberate target of other people’s aggression, the victimized large group has first to deal with five interrelated psychological phenomena, namely: (1) a shared sense of shame and humiliation, (2) a shared investment in survival guilt, (3) a shared inability to be assertive, (4) a shared identification with the oppressor, (5) a shared difficulty or even inability to mourn losses such as people, land and prestige. If the trauma is big, the society cannot work through the above shared psychological dilemmas satisfactorily and a new phenomena takes place: (6) a shared transgenerational transmission of trauma.
The success of offering and accepting forgiveness by large groups, besides the influence of the shared spiritual heritage, will depend on how much work has been done within the traumatized large group on the six psychological phenomena described above. It also depends on how successfully the perpetrator large group has accepted its own responsibility and mourned its own losses.
What can I offer
Based on my experiences of bringing various enemy representatives (Israelis-Arabs, Americans-Soviets, Russians-Estonians, Serbians-Croats, Georgians-South Ossetians, Turks-Greeks) together for psychopolitical dialogues, and my involvement in the application of the Tree Model during the last 30 years, I can illustrate the role large-group psychology plays in preventing or supporting reconciliation and the importance of creating an atmosphere where concepts such as repentance and forgiveness can be considered to be effective. (For further details, see the papers on large-group psychology and methods on reconciliation and co-existence: www.austenriggs.org/Senior_Erikson_Scholar/)
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