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

Amid Ethnic Wars, Psychiatrists Seek Roots of Conflicts
Daniel Goleman
When Vamık D. Volkan was growing up in a Turkish family on the island of Cyprus, he heard rumors that each knot in the local Greek priest's cincture stood for a Turkish child the priest had strangled. Young Vamık also heard, in tones of dismay, that his Greek Cypriot neighbors ate pigs, considered too dirty to eat in Islamic culture.
Now a psychiatrist at the University of Virginia, Dr. Volkan, who came to the United States in 1957, cites these Turkish Cypriot attitudes as examples of how ethnic hatreds can be kept simmering from generation to generation. Dr. Volkan proposes that a reservoir of hostile biases like these, as well as bitter memories of historical grievances, are shared by members of an ethnic group, and can set off active antagonism in times of group hardship or under the prodding of ambitious leaders.
Dr. Volkan's theory of the roots of ethnic conflicts is part of a concerted effort by psychiatrists, anthropologists and political scientists to find the common patterns that might help explain why ethnic identities have become ascendant in the post-cold war world, and how those identities can lead to brutal battles between neighbors.
That question is more compelling than ever at a time when Hutus battle Tutsis in Rwanda, Bosnians struggle with Serbs, Azerbaijanis fight Armenians, and new ethnic tensions seem to flare up weekly around the world.
"These conflicts have always been there -- history can document them wound by wound," said Joseph Montville, director of a conflict resolution project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. "But the cold war was a containing structure. With its collapse, people are freer to act on these ancient grievances. It's as though the cops had gone home, and there's no one to answer at 9/11."
Ethnicity, unlike race, is less a matter of a common gene pool than of shared history, perceptions and group identity. Some of the strongest ethnic divides run between people of the same stock, whether in Bosnia or Northern Ireland, where there are telling differences in history on the two sides.
The dislike of people from other ethnic groups is a byproduct of investment in one's own ethnic identity, Dr. Volkan and others have proposed. When the difference between groups are small, that means greater importance is placed on minor distinguishing features, a phenomenon Freud called the "narcissism of minor differences."
"The closer the resemblance between neighboring groups, the greater the emotion they invest in maintaining small differences," Dr. Volkan said. Thus although on Cyprus both Turkish and Greek men wore identical black baggy pants and shirts, the Turks always wore red sashes and smoked cigarettes from a red pack, while the Greeks wore blue sashes and their cigarettes came in blue packages, a nod to the colors associated with each group. Role of Collective Memory.
A potent source of a people's ethnic identity is a collective memory of their past glories and traumas, Dr. Volkan said. Passing on these memories to the next generation feeds ethnic animosity but helps keep the group's identity alive. "The Greeks remember the fall of Constantinopole to the Turks in 1453; the Jews remember the Maccabees," Dr. Volkan said.
"Past oppression by another ethnic group is remembered mythically, as though the past were the present," said Dr. Eugene Hammel, an anthropologist at the University of California at Berkeley, who specializes in the Balkans.
For the Serbs, one historical trauma that has persisted with freshness in the collective memory is the 1389 defeat of the Serbs and their Christian allies at the hands of the Muslim Turks in the Battle of Kosovo. "Every Serbian child learns about Kosovo," Dr. Hammel said. "It was the beginning of 500 years of Turkish occupation, which the Serbs remember as oppression." Likewise, the Muslims of Bosnia remember "the massacres of Muslims by Serbs in World War II, and dating back to the 19th century."
These memories persist with such power because "it's a sign of allegiance to share these hatreds of the other group," Dr. Hammel said. "If you don't share the myths that breed suspicion of the others, you're a traitor to your own group."
The bitter memory of the Battle of Kosovo was played on by Bosnian Serbs' political leaders who, early in the current conflict, disinterred the remains of King Lazar, who was killed by the Turks at the Battle of Kosovo, and took them to Serbian villages to stir resentment toward Muslims, Dr. Volkan said, "to reaffirm their shared history and identity."
"The present fight is seen by the Serbs as revenge for a 500-year-old defeat, and the Bosnian Muslims are seen as the Ottoman Turks," he said. "The shared reservoir of resentment and past hurts is like an emotional fuel that gets ignited by present problems." Need for Scapegoat.
The immediate spark for ethnic conflict is typically a sudden hardship for a group, often caused by larger events like economic hard times. "When there is great external stress and a sense you are losing control over your own security, you have the urge to strike out at a scapegoat to try to assert some sense of control," Dr. Montville said.
A plunge in world coffee prices indirectly led to a slaughter of Hutus by Tutsis in 1972 in Rwanda, next to Burundi. At the time 85 percent of Rwanda's foreign exchange was from coffee exports, and the drop was calamitous for the economy, said Mr. Montville, especially for Tutsis who worked on the coffee plantations. In April of that year a group of Hutus tried to overthrow the ruling Tutsis, who were suffering much less than Hutus from the country's depression. In retaliation the Tutsis killed 100,000 Hutus, particularly those who were educated, whom they saw as a political threat.
This and several similar episodes of massacre and retaliation between Hutus and Tutsis over the last century "were certainly alive in memory in feeding the current conflict," Mr. Montville said.
"It's wrong to ascribe ethnic conflict to ancient hatreds alone," said Dr. Robert Jay Lifton, a psychiatrist at the City University of New York. "What also needs to come into play is a new political force that fans antagonisms between people who may have lived together without violence." A group is most susceptible to such political forces "after they have suffered a major dislocation, a loss of their psychological bearings, with their old verities and meanings destroyed," Dr. Lifton said. "When I interviewed Nazi doctors, they recalled the despair of their fathers returning from World War I in abject defeat." Nazi Slaughter of Serbs.
The ideology of leaders who inflame old antagonisms is typically a vision of "revitalizing" their people, who usually have suffered some grave trauma, Dr. Lifton said. "The Serbs were subject to mass slaughter by the Nazis, sometimes with Croat help, and lost half their males in World War II," he said. "Their leaders promise of a 'Greater Serbia' is a way to revitalize themselves, at the expense of other ethnic groups -- the Croats and Muslims -- who are painted as a threat to their own survival."
Once inflammatory leaders egg on ethnic antagonisms, one force that might slow the momentum toward conflict is vocal opposition within their own ethnic group. But these potential opposing forces are sometimes held in check by a psychological tendency of people to overestimate the strength among their own ethnic group of antipathy toward another. This overestimation seems to weaken the resolve of those who might otherwise speak out against ethnic prejudices.
Just how widespread these overestimations are became clear in a 1991 study in four European countries, led by Dr. James S. Jackson, a sociologist at the University of Michigan. In each of the four --France, Britain, the Netherlands and Germany-- a random sample of citizens was asked their attitudes about working for or having a family member marry someone belonging to a foreign ethnic group. The British were polled about East Indians, Germans about Turks, the French about North Africans, and the Dutch about Surinamese.
While 54 percent of West Germans said they would not want to work for a Turkish boss, they estimated that 76 percent of West Germans held the same view. In France, 35 percent said they would not want to work for a North African, and estimated that 65 percent of French people felt the same. In Britain, 24 percent said they would object to working for an East Indian, and estimated that 53 percent of Britons held that attitude. Interpretation of Findings
While the larger estimates of bias that people gave for their countrymen could possibly signify their own prejudice in disguise, Dr. Jackson interprets it to mean that people perceive far more prejudice to exist toward ethnic groups than is actually the case. The net effect of this misperception is to suggest a stronger consensus than truly exists for actions against the ethnic group.
The reticence of people who do not hold the biased view to speak up against those who want to attack another ethnic group plays a major role in the escalation of bias to outright violence, said Dr. Ervin Staub, a psychologist at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst who has studied the rise of groups like the Nazis.
Their silence eggs on those who speak for an ideology that promises a brighter future if the group's enemies -- another ethnic group already remembered and resented for past wrongs -- are destroyed, said Dr. Staub.
Mr. Montville said: "These historic injuries stay with us. Time does not heal all wounds." Reducing Ethnic Conflict Ways to reduce ethnic conflicts are being explored by Dr. Montville and Dr. Volkan. Last year they organized an experimental weeklong workshop with leaders from the Baltic states and Russians living there; tensions between these groups have been high. Over the course of several days, the participants were encouraged to express frankly their grievances, fears and anger to those in the other group.
Once the resentments were expressed, the participants were able to develop a "working trust," partly because of the risk they had taken in being so open with each other, Dr. Montville said. This allowed them to suggest to members of the other group ways to deal effectively with the sensitivities of their own group, and to find confidence-building measures that build trust and overcome antagonism.
A Russian interpreter, for example, asked for a list of phrases and words that Baltic peoples found inflammatory or offensive, and offered to deliver the list to a friend who is a press spokesman for Russia's President, Boris S. Yeltsin. And a Russian academic suggested a joint commission to investigate Soviet war crimes in the Baltics so that Russia could acknowledge its moral responsibility and regret.
Copyright © Vamık D. Volkan and Özler Aykan 2007.
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Last modified on: Apr 20, 2016