is difficult to talk about how to deal with trauma when addressing
an audience of people who work with its consequences daily. There
is a great deal of depth and breadth of work represented here, all
of it essential to meeting the needs of those most victimised in
the conflict in and about Northern Ireland. As such, I have decided
to talk at a different level, i.e. less at an academic or therapeutic
level and more at the so-called personal level. I will
address the subtle, individual and insidious impact of political
conflict on all those living in societies in conflict. I will take
time to recall the positive aspects of change; the slow pace of
change; the pain of change; the challenge of change and the relief
change can bring.
way to think about trauma following political violence is within
a so-called psychosocial framework. This framework stresses the
importance of thinking about political trauma from both psychological
and social perspectives. The term psychosocial attempts to
express the recognition that there is always a close, ongoing circular
interaction between an individual's psychological state and his
or her social environment (Bergh & Jareg cited in Agger,
2001, p.307). It demands that we think about how social conditions
relate to mental health. In terms of political violence this means
we have to think about the social context of violence and not only
its individual consequences, but also how the social context influences
violence does not necessarily have the same consequences for individuals
as other types of violence (e.g. being a survivor of a car crash
or a natural disaster). It is unique in so far as it not only targets
individuals, but political violence impacts on whole communities
and often society at large. In addition to inflicting psychological
and physical harm, political violence often aims to undermine the
social relationships between individuals, as well as between individuals
and society at large. In Chile, for example, it has been argued
that political violence during the dictatorship (1973-1990) undermined
individuals' sense of belonging to society (Becker, 2001). Political
violence is laden with social meaning. It tells victims how others
value (or devalue) them as human beings and it communicates to them
their place in society.
is important to bear in mind therefore that political trauma is
not simply a collection of symptoms, as it is often portrayedin
fact symptoms may not follow all traumatic situations. Rather, trauma
associated with political conflict is largely about the destruction
of individual and/or the social and political structures of a society.
In this sense, it is important to help victims and survivors deal
with the impact of the conflict on them (e.g. to help them through
a grieving process in a constructive way), but trauma work also
demands transformation of society, mending of relationships and
the changing of social conditions.
Legacy of Conflict
considering the legacy of political conflict we need to look for
its impact in a multitude of ways. One method is to look at so-called
victims and to ask how they have been psychologically affected by
the conflict. This is crucial. Work is continually needed in this
area and many of you in this room are experts in this sort of assistance.
However, we also need to look a bit deeper. We need to interrogate
the social and psychological impact of conflict in a much more profound
way. To illustrate this I would like to use two examples, i.e. what
can be termed (a) the politicisation of everyday life, and (b) the
legacy of authoritarianism.
Politicisation of everyday life
politicisation of everyday life is a term and concept developed
by colleagues at the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation
in Johannesburg (see Simpson & Rauch, 1991). It is a concept
we used in South Africa to think about the consequences of political
violence. Basically, I understand it to mean that no matter who
we think was right and/or who we think was wrong in a conflictual
situation, one of the cumulative consequences of conflict is that
often all sides of the political divide end up sanctioning violence.
Violence is legitimised as a means of either maintaining the status
quo, sustaining power or achieving change, irrespective of its origins.
When the use of violence as a legitimate way to solve
problems permeates a society, a culture of violence
can be said to have developed.
largely occurred in South Africa because of the pervasive nature
of apartheid. Apartheid permeated all aspects of South Africans'
lives. Where you went to the toilet, which bus you went on and which
beach you swam on, were allas a result of enforced racial
issues. So it is no wonder that when the conflict became more violent
it affected all aspects of society. For example, buses and trains,
an ordinary aspect of life in most societies, became a theatre for
violence and at times a place of protest. The result was that a
culture of violence quickly bled into all aspects of
the social and civic arena of South African society (Simpson &
violence seeps into everyday life, then there is always the possibility
that as a society comes out of conflict the residue of violence
will remain. Violence generally continues to exist within the social
fabric of societies coming out of conflict for decades to come.
For example, some argue that the extensive violence of South Africa's
past has contributed to a climate of violence against women in the
country today. This is captured by Goldblatt and Meintjies when
we feel it appropriate to describe South African society today as
a society living in an aftermath. The victims and the perpetrators
of terrible violence are still living together in the same society.
Many of the same policemen are still policing. Communities are still
crippled by poverty, unemployment, lack of education, health, welfare
and inadequate resources to improve their situation, which particularly
affect black women who are among the poorest and most disadvantaged
sector of our society. This too is the legacy of apartheid and the
socio-economic violence it wrought on our country. This legacy means
that social injustice and a generation of desperate youth remain
a reality in our society. Within this environment of physical and
emotional damage, millions of men still believe that women deserve
to be beaten and violated and many women believe this to be their
lot in life (Goldblatt & Meintjies, 1997).
can transform itself following political conflict. It can continue
to exist in different forms, such as violence in the home. There
is evidence to suggest, for example, that gender violence experienced
by women often increases when the fighting dies down (Turshen, Meintjies,
& Pillay, 2001). This is not to say that I think there is a
simple or direct correlation between political violence and other
types of violence in the post-conflict phase. Sometimes political
violence can mask other types of violence that have always been
therethis is frequently the case with regard to domestic violence.
it is certainly true that political violence seems to have transformed
itself into criminal violence fairly rapidly in South Africa. There
are many reasons for this with dire social conditions being a major
contributing factor. That said, I do not think the link between
political violence and criminal violence in the post-conflict phase
is inevitable. I do not see crime as a linear result of transition.
As Turshen (cited in Meintjies, Pillay, & Turshen, 2001) observes,
there are many different aftermaths to a conflict, and the scenarios
following war can be as diverse as the conflict itself.
cannot make straightforward comparisons between contexts. However,
there is sufficient evidence to suggest that we need to be fully
aware of the dangers a culture of violence may bring
in the post-conflict period. Societies coming out of violence are
seriously at risk. Clearly, dealing with the politicisation of everyday
life requires psychological, structural and social interventions.
We also need to take note of the gender dimensions of conflict and
youth will require special attention. In addition, the more subtle
impact of conflict requires consideration. It is to this I turn
Legacy of authoritarianism
is generally defined as a form of government in which the ruler
is an absolute dictator. I do not use the term here in this literal
way. Rather, I use the term authoritarianism to explain the way
societies in conflict have a tendency to develop a range of controlling,
rigid processes and structures. These become embedded over time
in its cultural, political and social landscape, sometimes building
on pre-existing cultural and social norms. Many of these practices
continue after large-scale political violence abates.
authoritarianism can manifest itself in a number of ways in societies
coming out of conflict. It can take the form of violence, for example,
ongoing torture, violent crime or high levels of social violence.
However, authoritarianism as I conceptualise it, can also take on
less obvious forms. It can be seen in day-to-day relationships and
in the way people interact. It can manifest in other diverse forms
such as political opinions that preach violence or the exclusion
of others, inter-personal aggression, the demonisation of those
perceived as 'other', discrimination, intolerance of the views of
others, undemocratic forms of social control, and even psychological
bullying in the work place or elsewhere.
in the way I have used it above, is generally detectable at three
levels, i.e. at the level of the state, at the social level or in
communities, and within individuals.
the state level, it is commonplace for governments to take on an
authoritarian role in societies during the conflict (sometimes they
are the cause of the conflict too, as in South Africa). This is
typified in some societies by the abuse of power by state officials
and security forces. State violence and its use by state officials
is often yet another form of socially sanctioned violence. State
violence can linger especially at the institutional level. This
is certainly a dominant view in Latin American, for example. In
many Latin American societies (and South Africa for that matter)
we have seen ongoing police brutality even after formal peace agreements
and the end of dictatorships. In some of these societies the ordinary
criminal, and sometimes the asylum seeker or foreigner, quickly
replaces the political dissident as the enemy, many of whom are
subject to similar institutional abuses previously reserved for
former political enemies during the conflict.
Brazil, for example, several Brazilian academics (Pinheiro, 1994;
Adorno, 1995; Cardia, 1996) use the term socially rooted authoritarianism.
They argue that despite the return to democratic constitutionalism
in Brazil following the dictatorship (1964-1985) authoritarian practices
embedded in the state and society have not been eradicated (Pinheiro,
For example, although there has been a rise in crime rates, and
there is a diverse pattern of violence in Brazil today, the public
penal policies seem to differ little from those adopted during the
authoritarian regime (Adorno, 1995).
second level of authoritarianism is the social type.
This is where we see absolute rule or control
by various individuals and groups taking place at a social and community
level. Communities can become dominated by a specific group of individuals
whose behaviour can come to direct and influence the ordinary lives
of inhabitants in a multitude of ways. This type of authoritarianism
can leave a legacy - (deep in the heart of the social fabric) -
of socially entrenched, high level intra-community violence, as
well as distrust and fear that can permeate many aspects of ordinary
life. This has long-term consequences. In South Africa we see it,
for example, in the growth of xenophobia at a community level and
a disproportionately violent response from across the society to
foreigners in general, particularly those from other African countries.
Of course, this is something not unfamiliar in Northern Ireland
I would also like to suggest that there is a third type of authoritarianism,
i.e. the authoritarianism that develops at the individual and personal
level. To expand: in the South African context, as the conflict
has moved to resolution (at least at the political level), it has
become increasingly clear that authoritarianism lives and continues
to live in the minds of many South Africans, regardless of their
colour or political persuasion. South Africans of all races still
overwhelmingly support the death penalty; many carry firearms and
advocate tougher dealings with criminals, whilst routinely calling
for vigilante action if the police do not act in time. Clearly the
idea of violence as the preferred solution to problems (in this
case crime) is deeply entrenched.
violence may be negotiated away, but readiness to see violence as
a solution to problems generally remains in societies where socially-rooted
authoritarianism has been present. This can happen at a state or
community levelbut it also exists within the minds of ordinary
people. This internalisation of the values of war and violence is
not surprising given the demands of growing up and living in a violently
divided society. It is commonplace to see those in conflict creating
rigid boundaries, whether physical or psychological, between themselves
and those perceived as 'the other'. Groups in conflict have a tendency
to externalize, project and displace certain unwanted elements onto
'the other', while maintaining unambiguous psychological borders
between themselves and other groups (Volkan, 2002). Those seen as
'the other' are continually devalued and viewed as less human than
those from your own perceived group.
fact, a form of this process is going on right now in another context.
In terms of the invasion of Iraq, for example, the deaths of Iraqi
civilians (estimated now as close to 10,000, see Iraqi Body Count,
2004) is increasingly being ignored and seen as being simply about
'others'. Seemingly, if column inches in local newspapers are anything
to go by, the lives of Iraqi civilians are not as valued as those
of British or American civilians or troops.
denial of another's humanity is one of the most severe consequences
of conflict. Each time the humanity of another is denied the legitimisation
of violence is subtly entrenched in our heads and in those of our
children. Political conflict breeds a type of absolutism of the
mind with boundaries between 'us' and 'them' firmly drawn. This
distorted thinking is not, however, reserved for those actively
involved in the fighting. It can equally affect those who like to
think the conflict is not about them. In fact, attempting to distance
yourself from the consequences and causes of a conflict going on
in your own society can in itself be a symptom of protracted conflict.
what I have loosely called authoritarianism (or on an individual
level the absolutism of the mind) from individuals and society is
a lengthy and demanding task. It is critical work for the post-conflict
phase and it is trauma work. If we are to address it, however, we
first need to acknowledge that it is there. By that I mean not just
noticing how authoritarianism lives in 'the other', but recognising
that it lives in all members of the society. It is the one thing
that those of us growing up in divided societies share.
way the past impacts on the present needs to be acknowledged as
societies attempt to move from conflict. This means we have to re-evaluate
our own absolute understandings. This can leave us feeling
uncertain and it can challenge our preconceived senses of identity.
But in societies coming out of conflict some re-evaluation of past
perspectives is necessary. The line between us and them
needs to be blurred if we are to develop an interdependent future.
This is not without its problems. The typical response when confronted
with inconsistencies in our world view is to withdraw and attempt
to reaffirm old divisions just as they were in the 'old' days of
the conflict. This is one reason why peace processes can take such
a long time, i.e. for each of the two steps we take forward there
is a tendency to want to take at least one step back.
challenge, however, is to walk into the blur and to see where that
process might lead us. One of the tasks of this process is to engage
with the 'truths' of others. The first step might be to simply recognise
that others are welcome to their view about the causes and nature
of a conflict. However, over time, we need also to use their truth
to re-evaluate our own truths. We need to not merely know other
people's positions or views, but acknowledge and understand them,
perhaps even getting to a point where we can constructively challenge
each other's perceptions and thinking.
we also need to challenge the sacred cows within our own communities
and to rethink our understandings of authority and how authoritarianism
operates. All the things we uncritically accepted during the conflict
as the law, as morally right, as our
way of doing things, or being beyond negotiation,
may need to be revisited. This challenging task is the basis of
building new relationships and mending previously damaged ones.
It is one of the fundamentals of peacebuilding. This acknowledgement
and relationship building are components of what constitutes trauma
work in post-conflict societies.
I do think we need to embark on a quest for the truth in relation
to the conflict in and about Northern Ireland. However, this does
not mean that there is one truth out there and that only in finding
it will peace and reconciliation be guaranteed. It is the process
of seeking the truth that is important. I am not, at this stage,
advocating necessarily that a truth commission is the best mechanism
for this quest. But the issues generally embodied by truth commissions
- such as trying to re-evaluate and investigate the causes, nature
and extent of a conflict - are essential to consider in relation
to conflict in and about Northern Ireland.
this early stage the first step is to acknowledge the importance
of seeking some sort of truth and to embark on the process of 'truth
recovery' at the community level and within ourselves, whatever
that comes to mean. But this is a delicate and difficult endeavour
because we all fear the truth. As Graham Hayes writes, talking about
resistance comes from many quarters: the perpetrators fear the truth
because of the guilt of their actions; the benefactors fear the
truth because of the silence of their complicity; some victims fear
the truth because of the apprehension of forgetting through the
process of forgiveness; and others fear the truth because it is
too painful to bear (Hayes, 1998, p.46).
not arguing here for a simplistic notion of uncovering of the past,
or for storytelling as the panacea to all problems. The cathartic
public revealing of truths is not in itself a miraculous social
cure to conflict. I am also not arguing for a simple process of
forgiveness. Rather, I am highlighting the importance of grappling
with the multiple histories, truths, complexities and inconsistencies
as well as resistances that a truth recovery process implies. One
of the tasks of community groups like yourselves is to lay the groundwork
for this. It is also to provide individuals with the support needed
to deal with all the ambivalences that dealing with past political
conflict will throw up. For example, as many of you know, trauma
work is not only about offering support or counselling, it can also
be about finding ways to allow victims to voice their legitimate
anger at perceived injustices committed in the past. We need to
find ways of making social space to hear these voices, no matter
what they are saying or reminding us of.
address the legacy of conflict requires an awareness of its psychological
and social dimensions. Addressing the social dimensions of conflict
is healing work. The social context of political trauma is important.
A psychosocial approach recognises that trauma work following political
violence requires the social and political context to be addressed
at the same time as individual psychological needs. The psychological
and the social are linked and constantly feed off one another. Ways
of reconnecting all victims with their sense of belonging in society
need to be sought.
is also important. We need to be aware that the movement of two
opposing large groups toward some kind of togetherness can lead
to large-group identity confusion, which can set in motion dangerous
social or political movements (Volkan, 2002). Change, therefore,
must be paced but also be deliberate and extensive, embodying a
vision of a better future as an ultimate goal. Structural and political
changes, backed hopefully by some attitudinal change, will be necessary
to stabilise the external context. Internationally it is recognised
that democratic 'software' (Lever & James, 2000) is generally
needed (i.e. the Human Rights Commissions, Constitutions, new equality
laws, Bills of Rights, laws to protect minority rights, etc.) to
assist in creating a conducive peacebuilding context. These, amongst
other initiatives, can partially offset any identity confusion
and resistances peacebuilding can bring. They have to be complemented,
however, by a range of work aimed at rooting such instruments and
structures within the social fabric so as to effect genuine social,
psychological and economic transformation.
the same time we need to be acutely aware of the way conflict perpetuates
itself within individuals and manifests in our values and behaviour
over time. We all have a responsibility in this regard. In reference
to the conflict in former Yugoslavia it has been noted, for example,
share in the responsibility of this war and its violence in the
way we let them grow inside of us, that is the way we shape 'our
feelings, our relationships, our values' according to the structures
and the values of war and violence (Kappeler cited in Hayes, 1998,
of your deliberations at this conference will focus on the youth.
To this end, I contend that youth are the barometers of change.
We need to ask if the values of war and violence are still growing
inside of them. Do they still walk in the shadow of the past? Do
we see legacies of authoritarianism and absolutism in their values,
actions and behaviour? If so, we have much work to do. Many of you
are already engaged in trying to address these issues, but if this
process is to be deepened and widened we need to also ask more fundamental
questions about our society as a whole. We need to acknowledge the
past in a profound and meaningful way, and each of us needs to begin
by rising to the challenge of tackling the legacy of the past within
ourselves and our communities.
Thoughts for the Times on War and Death (1915), Sigmund Freud wrote
strips us of the later accretions of civilization, and lays bare
the primal man (sic) in each of us. It compels us once more to be
heroes who cannot believe in their own death; it stamps strangers
as enemies, whose death is to be brought about or desired; it tells
us to disregard the death of those we love.
goes on to add that in war people do not sink so low as we
feared, because they had never risen so high as we believed...".
For Freud, violence is innate to human nature and finds easy expression
in times of conflict. During times of peace, therefore, the challenge
is to use our energies positively and create the social and psychological
environment that can help eliminate any impulse for destruction
that may still lurk deep inside.
It should be noted, however, they also share the view that in Brazil,
authoritarianism has its source before the dictatorship and is embodied
in a range of social, political and cultural practices. Back
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[2004, 9 May].
Brandon Hamber is an independent research and development consultant.
He is an Associate of Democratic Dialogue in Belfast and
the Centre for the Study of Violence
and Reconciliation in South Africa.
All correspondence to firstname.lastname@example.org.