Vamık D. Volkan, M.D., DLFAPA, FACPsa.

Psychopolitical explanations will be part of
the development of strategies for a peaceful world.
Blind Trust Author: Leaders' actions in crises impel conflict, peace.

Betty Brooker 


First, credentials: Dr. Vamık Volkan, a University of Virginia professor emeritus of psychiatry, pioneered using psychoanalytic insights to understand international conflicts.For more than 30 years, he and his team have roamed the world studying national, ethnic and religious groups in serious conflict. They listened to leaders and taught some long-fractious groups how to talk and understand instead of kill each other.

Volkan is a founder of the Center for the Study of Mind and Human Interaction, a much-published author with an interest in analyzing historical leaders and the recipient of some of his profession's highest awards, most recently Vienna's Sigmund Freud Award for his contributions to psychiatry in international relations.

He has consulted with leaders of Arabs, Israelis, Palestinians, Estonians, Turks, Greeks, Protestant and Catholic Irish, British, South Ossetians, Georgians, Russians, Serbs, Croatians, Cyprians, Nigerians, Armenians and Americans.

Last week, he sat on a foyer bench at the University of Virginia to talk about his latest book, "Blind Trust: Large Groups and Their Leaders in Times of Crisis and Terror" (Pitchstone Publishing).

Its message is culled from the experiences of his 71 years of life, which began on the divided island of Cyprus off the coasts of Greece and Turkey and included 43 years as a psychoanalyst and medical school professor and more than 33 years as a researcher, observer and consultant to leaders in conflict-prone cultures.

He doesn't, he carefully notes, take political or ideological sides: He is a trained observer. His research is nonpartisan. Most of the time, he says, members of nations, regions and ethnic groups go about their daily lives without paying much attention to the larger definition of themselves as members of a specific group.

It's as if the large group were under an overarching tent that gives it definition as a group: Those under the "tent" share a particular history, culture and group identity. But "when a large group's tent-canvas is shaken by conflict or humiliation or begins to show wear, the members become keenly aware of their group identity and of their collective efforts to maintain, repair and stabilize it" using their shared "rituals of identity," he explains.

Flag-waving, militaristic and patriotic parades, religiosity, reminders of historical triumphs and defeats, erection of statues and even reviving racism and ethnicity are familiar examples across the globe.

Such symbols and rituals are called forth to make the group feel stable again. But when "the past is collapsed into the present," people can become confused about what is past and what is present. The way toward clarity is healthy negotiations that focus on the present.

These ancient, familiar symbols and rituals also give tremendous power to "political propaganda and political decision-making, whether used for poisoning or healing," he explains. There are certain times in which "large groups" - especially nations, ethnic groups and religious groups - "become susceptible to political propaganda, maladaptive political decision-making and massive destructive behavior," he continues. Large groups are most susceptible to such manipulation at times when many citizens "regress," a psychological term for the natural process of returning to a pre-adult state to avoid the unpleasant feeling of anxiety.

The difference between anxiety and fear is important in understanding how people can be abused by leaders. "Anxiety is an internal signal that something dangerous is about to happen" while fear "is what one experiences when one faces an actual danger."

"Fear doesn't generalize"; it can be honestly assessed and maturely combated despite the horror of the situation. But anxiety is unfocused; it swirls continuously around in the mind without definition and, therefore, can't be resolved through adult assessment or action. To escape this unpleasant feeling, people regress.Regression, he notes, is neither good nor bad. Who doesn't want a snuggle at the end of an anxious day to get nurturing for the next morning's progress toward solving adult problems?

But progress is stymied when ethnic, national or religious groups get stuck in regression born of anxiety. The group members might carry on with some aspects of their adult lives but remain anxious about others.

Remember the "tent" concept? "Large-group regression after a society has faced a massive trauma - involving drastic loss of life, property or prestige and sometimes humiliation by another group - reflects efforts of a group and its leader to maintain, protect, modify or repair their shared group identity." And in crises such as these, the role of the leader is crucial, he says.

A strong, "reparative" leader and his entourage "tell the reality of the danger" and will help fellow members move from anxiety and regression to progressive problem-solving. But a "malignant" leader who uses the blurring of reality and fantasy makes for more "regression" - and such malignancy results in the ruined lives, or deaths, of many people.
Historical examples abound  

Reparative leaders include Winston Churchill rallying the British to fight despite fear during World War II and Franklin Roosevelt calling for hard work and developing remedies for widespread poverty during the Depression.

Destructive leaders include Adolph Hitler using Germany's humiliation after the Versailles Treaty to subjugate and murder many citizens scapegoated as defective or genetically "impure" and Slobodan Milosevic's vicious ethnic cleansing in post-communist Yugoslavia through deliberately reactivating the memory of a 1389 Serbian military defeat in order to create and inflame an atmosphere of hatred.

These malevolent leaders magnified a real danger and then blurred the difference between what was real and what was fantasy or paranoia.

As such state, ethnic or religious power increases, "people who don't follow the leader can get crushed."

Those in power feel increasingly entitled to stamp out dissenters in their own country and abroad. And to make entitlement even stronger, history is revised and presented as reality when, in fact, it is fantasy.

Typically, a beleaguered group will focus on "purifying" itself of others, shedding these unacceptable elements like a snake sheds its skin.

"What they don't realize is that under the shedded skin is the same snake." A simple example: French fries are still french fries even though some attempted to shed the name for "freedom fries."

At its worst, "purification" involves banishing, imprisoning or murdering members of the "other" racial, ethnic, immigrant or religious groups - often the same things the beleaguered group's attackers are perceived to have done to them.

What signs indicate that a national, ethnic or religious group is moving away from anxiety and regression toward progressive problem-solving?

Positive signals include:

  • Recognizing individuals who compromise without violating their integrity;
  • Rearing children with basic trust within families;
  • Stopping the devaluing of women;
  • Valuing freedom of speech and the ability to question what is moral and beautiful;
  • Separating fantasy from reality and past from present;
  • Restoring ties to families, clans and such groups as supportive unions and medical-providing sources, which are more important to reconnecting to reality than ideologies or on the personality of the leader;
  • Being curious about the humanity of enemy groups; and
  • Evaluating realistic dangers instead of dividing the world into "idealized 'us' and evil 'them.'"

To reach these healing stages, each group, its leader and humankind must display insight, honesty and a willingness to face what is real and to understand and resolve it.

His hope is that "psychopolitical explanations" will be part of "the development of strategies for a peaceful world."



Copyright © Vamık D. Volkan and Özler Aykan 2007.
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Last modified on: Apr 20, 2016