After Violence

by Kevin Avruch

Whatever the underlying causes, many serious social conflicts are characterized by violence, and once violence has occurred everything changes. All of our responses and remedies to conflict, including development, become more difficult to implement when the conflict has left in its wake victims and victimizers, traumatized individuals and collectivities.

Violence produces profound effects on three levels: the individual, the local society, and the larger context, or system, in which the individual and society are nested. The responses we craft have to work at all three levels, and because of this there is no one set of responses, no single remedy, that can address all.

Violence transforms individuals. Research in the neurosciences shows that violence can reconfigure the brain, changing everything from brain chemistry to neurological structures to cognitive functioning. This transformation at the most basic biological level happens not only to the direct victims of violence but also to those who were witnesses and bystanders. Violence transforms the brains of the perpetrators as well. The killers emerge as damaged psychological goods in the aftermath of these conflicts (though they may not know it, and others may refuse to recognize it). Beyond biology, new identities and new subjectivities follow violent social conflict. These identities sharpen the boundaries between self and others. Survivors of violence experience and respond to the world differently. For the most part, the world narrows and horizons shrink. Many observers, social scientists among them, argue that “identity” — national, religious, racial, and so on — causes conflict. But we lose sight of the powerful ways in which conflict also “causes” identity.

These transformations of identity and self reverberate at the level of the collectivity. Social groups become struggle groups, and resources — material, social, and human — are mobilized. Social horizons shrink: the tunnel vision of individuals translates to the narrowness of the social groups that include them, and group boundaries become more rigid. An “us vs. them” dynamic resonates with the exclusionary criteria of group membership, to the mantra of “you are either with us or against us, and if against us you are the enemy.” A prime casualty of this is the “civility” of civil society, much as the first casualty of war is truth.

KevinAvruch - by PKMcCary
Graphic by P.K. McCary

Groups require leadership. The leadership that emerges strives to mobilize resources, and articulates an ideology of exclusion in order to convince reluctant potential members that safety lies only within the boundaries of the group. Those who remain reluctant suffer the consequences of being labeled traitors, especially so-called moderate leaders, those who in other times flourish in and enrich the civil society of collectivities at peace. Insocieties wracked by violent conflict, political groups and parties are pushed to the margins — or become merely “front-men” — and armed groups fill the political space. Much as the world of the individual shrinks in the face of violent social conflict, so too does the social world of the collectivity. Political options (including peaceful or nonviolent ones) seem to disappear as the political middle is squeezed out, or delegitimized, by the extremes.

As violent conflict continues or intensifies, changes at the third and broadest level take place. This is the level of context or system, including the global system. Often these changes occur at the level of political economy, of capital and human flows. Others, not directly party to the conflict, become partners to it. This happens when the national interests of other countries can be furthered through making sure that the conflict continues, or when profit can be made. These interests are served and these profits accrue in places far away from the actual site of the fighting or suffering, often accumulating in world political and financial capitals.

As for remedies: where do we go from here? In a sense, we must go everywhere that the effects are, and we must go there simultaneously. This is what many in the field of conflict resolution/transformation understand by peacebuilding. First, we have to find some way to stop the direct violence and ensure the foundation for human security, for very little can be accomplished while violence continues and before individuals can (actually and metaphorically) safely leave their houses for the wider world outside. Then we can address our three levels.

At the level of the individual we address the trauma that violence (suffering it, witnessing it, or inflicting it) brings about. We find ways to tap the remarkable reservoir of resilience that humans possess, and direct it toward healing. At the same time that we attend to the psychological and the spiritual, we must also attend to the material privation that follows serious and long-standing conflict. With some measure of security, healing, and the satisfaction of material needs, we can begin to engage in the sort of “social identity expanding” exercises that counteract the constrictions of self that inevitably occur during conflict. Such exercises include dialogue and intergroup encounters, all aimed toward some measure of reconciliation, to re-humanize former enemies and reduce — or at least revalorize — the distance between “us and them.” In the medium and long run, peace education plays a crucial role, as does coming to grips with the very different versions of history that the collective memories of antagonistic groups come to hold as sacred. In a divided society trying to accept a past with serious intergroup violence, there are few tasks more daunting than writing a junior high school history textbook.

At the middle level of the local society or collectivity, struggle groups need not disappear (after all, “struggle groups” populate democracies as well), but must be transformed from armed paramilitaries and militias into political parties, turning the pursuit of their goals from bullets to ballots. Resources should be acquired and mobilized toward rebuilding the social institutions of civil society. Politicians replace warlords as leaders (sometimes a former warlord can make the transition himself). These politicians should be committed to what some have called “constructive conflict,” that is, conflict without the specter of violence and the fomenting of intergroup enmity.

At the broadest systemic level, the political economy of a globalized world needs to be addressed. Countries or states outside the immediate conflict should commit to encouraging its resolution, or at least to keeping out. Illegal trade in exportable commodities (opium, diamonds, coltan, timber), in human beings, or in lethal imports (small and medium sized arms, landmines) needs to be controlled by those outside countries (some of whose citizens benefit from such trade). The problem of global environmental concerns, or the local environmental degradation that extractive industries (coal, timber, petroleum) engender, also resides at the
systemic level.

When we think about how to address problems at all three levels simultaneously it should become clear there is no one solution, no one technique or protocol, specialist or institution, that can do all of the work. At the systemic level, world leaders and governments, international nongovernmental organizations, and corporations committed to ethical commerce and fair trade all must play a role. At the level of the local collectivity, local elites (politicians, religious leaders, students and educators, trade unionists and businessmen, women as well as men) must play a role. If people at these levels can work toward the goals of
peacebuilding, then perhaps at the level of individuals (where violence is first and ultimately inscribed) identities and selves can extend to include social others, and even reconciliation can be imagined.

Kevin Avruch is the Henry Hart Rice Professor of Conflict Resolution and Professor of Anthropology in the School for Conflict Analysis and Resolution (S-CAR), and faculty and senior fellow in the Peace Operations Policy Program (School of Public Policy) at George Mason University. He received his B.A. from the University of Chicago and M.A. and Ph.D. from the University of California at San Diego. He has taught at UCSD, the University of Illinois at Chicago, and, since 1980, at GMU, where he served as Coordinator of the Anthropology Program in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology from 1990-1996. From 2005-2008 he served as Associate Director of S-CAR. Professor Avruch has published more than sixty articles and essays and is the author or editor of six books, including Critical Essays on Israeli Society, Religion, and Government (1997), Culture and Conflict Resolution (1998), Information Campaigns for Peace Operations (2000), and Context and Pretext in Conflict Resolution: Essays on Culture, Identity, Power and Practice (forthcoming). His other writings include articles and essays on culture theory and conflict analysis and resolution, third party processes, cross-cultural negotiation, nationalist and ethnoreligious social movements, human rights, and politics and society in contemporary Israel. Professor Avruch has lectured widely in the United States and abroad.

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