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ETHNIC CONFLICT AND MENTAL HEALTH: AN AGENDA FOR THE FUTURE

by Toma Tomov

This paper is concerned with politicized ethnicity and conflict ensuing from it.

Ethnicity is a curious construction of the mind. It is built around such primordial givens as kinship, race, language, religion or customary mode of livelihood. Normally people are happy to accept all of these primordial markers, or any combination of them, as part of the world's richness and bounty. But at given times, among certain groups these characteristics take on special meanings. As a result of it they acquire such a degree of dominance in the way people construe their relationships, that they find themselves deeply involved in matters of distinctions, cleavages and rigidity of boundaries which bring into the open organized primitive hatred and cruelty of unbelievable intensity.

The social and economic conditions which unleash the processes of politicization of ethnicity, the dynamics involved in these processes, as well as their recorded history and the attempts made at assuaging the conflicts that had resulted from them, have been subject to numerous studies and have been well presented in the literature (Rothschild, J., 1981). What this research has produced I will consider only briefly at the first part of my presentation in order to provide a framework within which I will discuss at some length later on the association between mental health and ethnic conflict in terms of psychological characteristics such as splitting, violent projective identification, stereotyping and scapegoating (Young, R.., 1994).

I will begin with an outline of two apparently opposing views on the effect of historical progress on ethnicity. One view maintains that in Western civilization differences between ethnic groups become less pronounced and will eventually disappear. With time all people will embrace a universal culture at the core of which will be modern technology and science. Development and progress are thus regarded as a process of homogenization. Differences, that exist between ethnic groups now, will level off and humans will grow out of the habit to look back to their ancestors in search of identity and meaning.

The opposing view maintains that progress comes by way of sharpening distinctions between people and as a result of their becoming more aware of their uniqueness and more capable of utilizing it to practical ends. The temptation to hold onto the past of one's family or tribe comes with the need to legitimate the distinctions one has brought forth between oneself and the rest. By producing explanations about one's uniqueness which are based on facts of history, uniqueness becomes more substantiated and difficult to deny. Individuation that comes with historical progress, therefore, is bound to diversify, rather than homogenize, human kind and to stimulate quests for belonging to specific ethnic communities.

Both types of dynamics described above have been found to work in real life. Examples are close at hand. The October revolution in Russia in 1917, with the civil war thereafter and the first years of socialist Russia is a stark example of millions transcending their parochial identities and embracing the values of an egalitarian world, of actually bringing forth such a world for a fleeting moment of history. Every nation can search successfully its history for similar occurrences of temporary abeyance of the issues and controversies stemming from the ethnic heterogeneity of its composition. These moments are usually recorded in terms of nationalist rhetorics and are pointed to as periods of national upheaval and renaissance. The Unification of Bulgaria in 1885, which brought this country approximately to its present-day boundaries, is the one episode of my country's history which is glorified to that end.

You can take, on the other hand, the case of former Yugoslavia and Bosnia in particular. The lines of cleavage, which are being drawn there with such unparalleled vehemence, claim their legitimacy on facts of ethnic history, and yet, they constitute a development in the context of what everybody (including the Bosnians themselves) believes to be the European process, which supposedly leads in the direction of the universally prized democratic values of individual freedom and human rights.

These two and many other examples show that ethnicity cannot be take lightly. Indeed science, natural science including, has taken ethnicity very seriously at times. Thus, for example researchers have convincingly demonstrated with the methods of the natural sciences that ethnicity does not derive from facts of nature (Gould, S.J., 1981), that ethnicity is a social construct. Yet, this knowledge has contributed very little, if at all, to the dissuasion of humans to fall back directly or indirectly on arguments deriving from ethnicity, disguised ethnicity or negated ethnicity in raising support for political practices such as ethnic cleansing, political terrorism or socialist internationalism, all of them legitimating violence, aggression, murder.

And by saying "humans" above I refer to all categories of members of our species, including those who identify themselves and who are identified by others as scientists and who in true fact are deeply cognizant of the scientific method. Being conversant with science does not render them immune to the grip of politicized ethnicity. It will suffice here to mention that the writings of such men as Charles Darwin or Konrad Lorenz often betray lack of awareness that ethnicity and related issues, like race, are social constructs.

Ethnicity has to be taken very seriously by all, including science, even though it is not a fact of nature. Ethnicity has to be taken seriously by scientists exactly because it is not a fact of nature and cannot, therefore, be dealt, or explained away with the methods of science. Scientists are susceptible to the politicization of ethnicity like everybody else. The problem with ethnicity is part of the problem of the social construction of knowledge. To quote Robert Young on this (p. 96): "...groups seek legitimacy in nature... for their social views and beliefs." And he proceeds to elaborate that scientific research and writing is a social process which involves naturalization, i.e. "the embodiment of belief systems in the agendas and "findings" of science". Thinking of science in this way, i.e. as a social and cultural process, helps to understand how conceptions of human nature are in fact made, not found.

I am trying to say here why it is fallacious to regard science as the external, and, therefore, impartial authority on ethnicity; the reason being that science and scientific facts are made by scientists who by virtue of being humans are not exempt from ethnic origins. A fact, which may, or may not, interfere with their reasoning in ways that they may, or may not, be aware of.

The scholarly attempts at ethnicity have about a century long history. This is approximately how long social science and anthropology have been around. But ethnicity has not constituted until recently a core interest for these sciences. Social class had always managed to attract more attention, mainly because the research on class difference had always seemed more pertinent and rewarding. The gaining of understanding about how social class worked was tempting, because it held the implied promise to empower scientists to advise on social action and conflict. Historical and political events in the course of the past several decades appear to have fed this fantasy of social science playing the role of the architect of society. I refer here to the preoccupation with class struggle, which tended to belittle all other divisions between human groups for so long; to the cold war, which made conflict in the world appear carved in stone; to the experience with socialism in Eastern Europe, which demonstrated the ease with which social class differences appeared to be amenable to control, for example, by the simple abolition of private ownership.

As a potential focus of research for the social sciences ethnicity did not seem to hold such promises at all as social class did. For a long time scientists and schools of thought used to invest or project onto ethnicity divergent expectations and meanings. Ethnicity for some was an authentic, organic feature; for others, an obsolete, vestigial characteristic, "destined to be dissolved and transcended by the inevitably cosmopolitan, enlightened, scientific values of modernity (Rothschild, J., p. 20); and for still others, a trait, subversive of modernization and science.

It should not be surprising, therefore, that much research on ethnicity abounds in errors of analysis and interpretation resulting from lack of caution about the implications of approaching ethnicity as a fact of nature. Only relatively recently ethnicity has begun to acquire the status of a variable worthy of serious investigation. The failure of social class to account for the type of conflict that plagues the world today has been the item on the social agenda of science, that triggered this change.

Operationally ethnicity is construed variously as a combination of any number of a set of characteristics such as language, kinship, race, religion, customs, or culture. The mobilization of ethnicity is always contextually determined and it is the context which sets which ethnic markers will be sacralized by way of ideologization on the part of leaders and elites in order to mobilize their sharers for political ends.

I want to draw here on examples from my country. In Bulgaria Turkish ethnicity was construed in terms of Arabic and Islamic names, as opposed to Bulgarian and Christian names, in the middle of the Eighties, and in terms of Turkish mother tongue, as opposed to official Bulgarian language now, a decade later. The political context of the Eighties was dominated by a move to boost support for the declining communist regime by forceful ethnic homogenization through the elimination from use of any names that did not have a national Bulgarian ring about them. This year political interest groups took issue with a new legislation for the armed forces, in an attempt to recruit potential voters from the Turkish speaking minority.

They requested acceptance of the use of Turkish language by conscripts. The two different definitions of Turkish ethnicity mobilized different population groups, which though overlapping were not identical. The definition in terms of names included a group of Bulgarian speakers with Arabic names, known as Bulgarian Muslims, the definition in terms of mother tongue excluded them.

Even more telling about the social construction of ethnicity is the example with the Macedonian language, a sacralized ethnic marker developed by the communist regime of former Yugoslavia, which is so close to literary Bulgarian that talks conducted between Bulgarian and Macedonian officials with the help of interpreters provoke hilarious laughter, no matter how grave the topics discussed. A previous, even more pathetic attempt to naturalize the Macedonian ethnicity involved the science of history, not linguistics, which produced "historical proof" for the descent of the present-day inhabitants of Macedonia directly from Alexander of Macedonia. This one though, failed to convince the world, the Greeks in particular, as you can imagine.

Other examples are those of Ireland and Serbia-and-Croatia where, in both instances, the language being the same, religion had come handy as an ethnic marker.

The process of politicized ethnicity has been shown to serve a variety of causes, both conservative and progressive. It thrives particularly at times of social strain, competition, and confrontation in contexts of economic hardships faced by ethnocentric cultures: scarcity of resources is experienced by such cultures as a threat to the survival of the group, rather than the individual.

Politicized ethnicity feeds on sustained contact between interest groups with well formed elites, which hold world views organized around goals that they share in valuing highly, such as attaining social, economic and political dominance, and when other lines of cleavage or solidarity, such as socioeconomic class for instance, are not as easily available.

The process of politicized ethnicity is most often triggered by signals ofdeclining self-confidence, lowered legitimacy, and internal division in the ranks of the dominant group (P. Kecskemeti, 1961).

This brief outline of the usual topics associated with ethnicity in the literature reveals that analyses usually leave aside the question about the tenacity, the extremeness, the intractability, the irreversibility of conflict that involves politicized ethnicity. What is usually said on this does not go beyond such words (and here I quote Rothschild, J., p. 27): "The emotional gratification and support that individuals draw from their membership in such a special community of shared sacred ethnic values and customs can be quite profound. Self-esteem is sustained and enhanced by the resultant sense of belonging. And this deeply felt and deeply rooted personal ethnic identity can be an important political and psychological datum in an era of mass society, otherwise often characterized by shallow and intermittent attachments to transient people, volatile values, and insular functional-interest groups".

Clearly present in the above words, as in many other written on the topic, is the experience, that the psychological aspects of ethnicity bring one dangerously close to the elemental and awe inspiring beginnings of human nature. These words betray the deeply felt precariousness that humans harbour about their existence. They expose the awareness, lurking in each of us, of a timeless experience, phantasized or real, of being unwelcome or disliked, and scared by it, and therefore lost and in need of identity by belonging. What this text does not suggest though is that out of such primitive (or infantile, as object relations theory would claim) experiences we build up a pattern - individually, and as communities, and as a mankind - of a world which is primarily and fundamentally unfriendly. A world, which, no matter when we arrive to, is always fully occupied by others, against whom we have to push in order to secure a hold for ourselves, a world, in which we have to carve our own niche, making everybody else feel annoyed, vexed, harassed by us.

It should be clear by now that I am describing a world of conflict, a world built on conflict, the world construed by Freud and psychoanalysis. Politicized ethnicity belongs to this world. Going back to the argument, set out in the first part of this paper, concerning the social construction of knowledge, the question arises: Is this world of conflict "made", or is it "found"?.

Freud certainly thought that it was found. Melanie Klein believed it was phantasized. Neither suggested that conflict could be seen as welcome or be tolerated. Both worked hard to develop approaches to coping with conflict that were feasible, not wasteful of human life and considerate to human suffering. They and their followers created a special space in the world, the psychotherapeutic space, to which all in this hall belong in one way or another, and which, no matter how tiny and vulnerable, demonstrated that conflict can be resolved in the inner territories of the mind, rather than be acted out in devastating ways in the interactions between individuals, groups, nations, and states.

This preoccupation with the solution, the avoidance, and the coping with conflict in various other, less acclaimed or mature ways, (involving splitting and projection), has been developed, nurtured and handed down to the culture of today by a generation conceived in the quest for equilibrium in a world divided, seemingly incorrigibly, into nation-states involved in endless quibbling for the domination over the other less clear-cut, pure, or developed parts of mankind. It was a world of wars, fascism, the holocaust, gulags and aparatchics. This was the context that saw the birth of politicized ethnicity and the emergence of the exclusively negative connotation of conflict, one that was handed down to us to live and work with.

Whenever we try to make sense of politicized ethnicity as expressed in behaviours like hating, destroying, and killing we tend to fall back on the notions of stereotyping and scapegoating. Stereotyping results from a selective perception of the other, the intended effect of the selection process being to strip the resultant image of all features that might render the other in any way appealing to positive attitude or feeling. Young (1994) suggests that cultures incorporate in their rearing practices special modules for programming selective perception that will enable in adulthood one to revert to stereotyping regime of the mind if need be. To quote him (p 115) "These people... acquired their horrid social attitudes by a process of tacit social learning, whereby their infantile psychotic anxieties, feelings all babies have, got channeled into particular forms of projective identification".

Scapegoating, or blaming the other in a habitual ritualized pattern for all negative developments, serves conservative ends, exactly in the way in which stereotyping does. Both are mechanisms employed by the individual and group mind to produce explanations and thus attenuate anxiety. The employment of both these mechanism preclude the possibility of coming to a decision to change your own stand or position as a potentially useful solution to a situation. Both selectively favour solutions of no-change and perpetuate the existing state of affairs.

The natural context in which these mechanisms arise and thrive is the all-pervading need to predict what lies ahead and thus reduce the anxiety experienced vis-a-vis the future. Both mechanism constitute fallacious ways of predicting, i.e ways, which by the mere act of predicting influence future developments. Stereotyping and scapegoating are forms of self-fulfilling prophecy and not genuine exercises in making the world a different place. And this is exactly why they serve conservative ends. This explains why people, communities and nations revert to them whenever they operate with a picture of the world on the basis of which they deduce, consciously or unconsciously, that no-change is their preferred choice.

In order to explain how one comes to be so pleased with oneself as to opt for a no-change solution, object relations theory employs the notions of splitting and projective identification. Splitting is a way of maintaining a positive self and improving it not by cultivating assets but by redrawing the territory of your self in ways that leave out the no-good parts. Projective identification is the mechanism whereby these no-good parts are forced into the territory of the other, relegating them onto his self. These mechanisms can be very violent and though they have been found to work in the transference situation they are believed to operate between all people at all times rendering possible phenomena like stereotyping and scapegoating.

They are mechanisms of the immature infantile self where they serve the useful purpose of warding off anxiety and ensuring survival. Distant, blurred, image- less memories of these experiences loom large at times of conflict and challenge the capacity of the mature self to contain anxiety in less primitive, potentially constructive ways.

This glimpse into the psychic dynamics of splitting and projective identification, onto stereotyping and scapegoating, to politicized ethnicity and conflict suggests a richness of processes that begins to explain the futility of intervention strategies which build on unimaginative subject-object picture accounts of ethnic conflict. The mental health field with its insights into man's healthy and deviant ways of construing his interpersonal world can contribute a lot to present-day practice of conflict mediation. Here is a tentative suggestion to begin with:

(i) A positive notion of conflict; one that will be more compatible with today's enthusiasm about non-equilibrium systems and the curiosity developed in conflict as a crossroads, holding a promise for growth and development, as well as for decline and devastation.

(ii) An enhanced capacity for containment; the containment of emotions, negative emotions in particular, projected by the parties in conflict onto the mediating agency, as a demand for more than mere presence; but also for experiencing the emotions.

(iii) A public space for conflict; a space, larger than the psychotherapy space and not necessitating entry into the patient role, but just as open to discourse on conflict and as immune to stereotyping and scapegoating.

I want to stop here by suggesting that this agenda is not as unrealistic as it might appear at first glance. What gives me hope is that the human rights process in Europe after overcoming the Berlin Wall has become irreversible. After the geography of Europe, this process is bound to change its bureaucracy (which might take longer), and eventually it will pick on human second nature, which is (and here I quote, Young, p. 25) "...deeply sedimented socialization, but it is not biology, not inherited genetically. It is profoundly refractory but acquired in experience".

Paper presented at Conference on 'Conflict and Mental Health' Belfast, Northern Ireland,1-4 September, 1994

The Author

Address for correspondence: Medical Academy. 15 Dim. Nestrov, 1431 Sofia, Bulgaria ttbb@sf.cit.bg (Mental Health Centre)


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