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A recent symposium at Penn probed the causes, symptoms
and solutions of ethnic warfare.
By Samuel Hughes


“Surely, we say, there is no human instinct for intergroup violence,” Dr. Melvin Konner was saying during the opening session of the Merriam Symposium on ethnopolitical conflict. “Maybe not—but here is what there is: Hunger, greed and lust bring groups into competition with one another. Desire expands human numbers, intensifying competition. Fear of violence stimulates violence. Frustration induces rage. Mimesis causes mirror-image negative emotions. Stereotype dualities dichotomize the social world. Individual will and consciousness submerge in crowd-psychology emotional contagion. Obedience to authority takes the place of conscience. Insular groups exhibit fierce internal cohesion. Positive ideals—loyalty, sacrifice, heroism—serve the worst possible ends.”
    Konner, the Samuel Chandler Dobbs Professor of Anthropology and associate professor of psychiatry and neurology at Emory University, paused for a moment. “If we want to decline to call this instinct, fine,” he concluded. “Call it what you will, but recognize that as a partial answer to the question posed at the outset: If we are not by nature violent creatures, why do we seem continually to create situations that lead to violence?”

The question hanging over the symposium was: Can the world cope? The answers were complex, measured and often sobering. It lasted all day and featured six panels, each made up of leading thinkers on the issue at hand. The opening session probed the larger questions of ethnopolitical conflict through the perspectives of anthropology, political science and psychology. Four panels focused on Jerusalem, Kosovo, Kashmir and Rwanda. The closing one examined ways to build peace and speed the process of reconciliation.
    Even as the opening panel convened in the “safe confines” of Houston Hall, “conflicts between peoples of different linguistic, religious and spatial backgrounds persist,” noted Dr. Walter Licht, the professor of history and associate dean of SAS who chaired the opening panel. Where, he asked rhetorically, “can we find the seeds of this hostility?”
    Some can be found in the structures of political institutions. The desire for a nation-state of one’s own ethnic group is, as one panelist noted, at least as old as the Old Testament. But very few nations are comprised of just one ethnic group or nationality, and that multiplicity usually leads to some form of federal political system. For Dr. Brendan O’Leary, the key question is whether the existence of “apparently stable, multi-national and poly-ethnic federal democratic states” proves that the strong pressure for each nation to have its own state is “not overwhelming.”
    Federalism and nationalism are not necessarily incompatible in principle, said O’Leary, professor of political science at the London School of Economics and co-author of The Politics of Antagonism: Understanding Northern Ireland. The fact that people might be “governed by members of other nationalities does not violate the nationalist principle as long as the institutional arrangements are a byproduct of genuine consent of some form.”
    But certain brands of nationalism and federalism are indeed incompatible, especially if there is a struggle for power among different ethnic peoples. Acknowledging that it “will sound Nazi,” O’Leary laid out his theory: that a “stable, democratic, procedurally majoritarian federation must have a Staatsvolk: a national or ethnic people who are demographically and electorally dominant.” After showing a slide of democratic federations around the world in 1998, complete with their relevant Staatsvolk, O’Leary said that “all of the democratic federations which have lasted over 30 years appear to have a Staatsvolk on this definition” (though he acknowledged that, “to use a horribly fashionable term, a Staatsvolk is a social construct”). The United States, he noted, was the “first national federation” in world history, having been “built around a White Anglo-Saxon Protestant core of former British sectors” who “had to be a majority in all states before the federation could expand.” Its history, he stressed, is not one of multinational federalism.
    “The implicit micro-foundations of this theory is that dominant people can afford to be more generous and they can afford to be relaxed about the form of territorial government,” he added. And where a Staatsvolk does not exist, “things may appear to be more precarious.”
    According to his data, most stable majoritarian federations have fewer than two effective ethnic groups, meaning that one ethnic group is clearly predominant. But there are, he pointed out, some stable federations (such as Switzerland and Canada) “which hover close to two and above,” meaning that power is shared by two or more ethnic groups of relatively equal size, and that those federations thus lack a Staatsvolk. That they are also relatively stable is owing to their use of consociational (power-sharing) institutions “based upon proportional representation of groups with group autonomy in culture and veto rights.”
    For all its flaws, O’Leary held up the European Union and its consociational arrangements as a successful model of a federation. It “preserves national autonomy for members; gives national members veto rights; insists on proportional representation of national citizens in all of the key institutions of the European Union; and operates with a system of highly slow and painful consensual executive decision-making.”
    If his Staatsvolk theory is correct, he noted, “it has implications for what we should prescribe to other parts of the world,” he warned. “By and large, when Americans go abroad to prescribe how to manage national and ethnic questions, they say you should integrate peoples; you should let them voluntarily assimilate if you respect our best historic practice; but you should also think of federal forms. And my argument is that the export of federalism, without careful attention to the nature of the demographic and electoral balance between ethnic groups, may well lead to erroneous prescriptions.”
    For Dr. Clark McCauley Gr’67, professor of psychology at Bryn Mawr College and co-director of the Solomon Asch Center for Study of Ethnopolitical Conflict at Penn, the horrific “big killing” that sometimes characterizes ethnic violence is seldom the result of “impulse or hate” suddenly boiling over at a despised ethnic group. It requires something more chilling: organization and government support.
    “With organization, big killing does not require large numbers of killers,” he said. Nor are the killers “abnormal” personalities: “Big killing depends on recruiting normal people to kill and kill indiscriminately.”
    Rather, McCauley said, the psychology of killing involves “individual-level mechanisms of desensitization, dehumanization of the enemy, and intense group dynamics among the killers that creates a social reality in which killing is morally acceptable and necessary.”
    A “considerably more mysterious” phenomenon, he added, is the “psychology of the pyramid,” in that the “apex of the killers in ethnic conflict requires the sympathy and support of a much larger number. The psychology of the pyramid is, I think, the psychology of group identification, which I understand to be caring about the outcomes of a group.”
    Ethnic nationalism is “positive identification with an ethnic group combined with the idea that ethnic groups should have a state for other political rights,” McCauley explained. And the “five political characteristics of ethnic conflict” that a psychology of ethnic identification should examine are that:
    People are willing to sacrifice their lives, money and almost everything else for something as “faceless as an ethnic or national group.”
    Much violence is directed not just at members of other ethnic groups but at “deviants within ethnic groups” when there is conflict.
    The “perceived threat to the ethnic group” may well be the “big mobilizer of ethnic identification,” which is why the conflict is “the most intractable” in places that have “double minorities”— such as Sri Lanka, Northern Ireland and Israel—where “both sides can realistically see themselves as an endangered minority.” In his opinion, “fear rather than hate is the dominant emotion in ethnic group conflict.”
    “Politically, ethnicity seems to be especially powerful,” and one of the “great surprises of the 20th century” is that it’s “easier to mobilize people with ethnicity than other kinds of identities.”
    “History is somehow crucial to people involved in mobilizing for ethnic conflict. Nations care about their history, however mythical the history might be.”

    People who care about their ethnic group for economic or material gain may be less likely to sacrifice for the group than individuals who care about their group for its “social-reality value, for the moral culture that makes sense of the world and the individual’s place in it,” McCauley noted. And recent research has shown that “shared threat is a particularly potent source of group cohesion in face-to-face groups.”
    Some researchers have suggested that human brains have a “module for descent-based categories of people that interprets people in terms of categories defined by essence, race,” said McCauley. Ethnicity—or even culture—may thus be “essentialized” in such a way that “even members of a group who do not show group-typical characteristics are assumed to have, nevertheless, the hidden essence, the tendencies of their descent group.” And once a group is seen as descent-based, “then the perception of common essence can facilitate both positive identification with the in-group and negative identification with an out-group of a different essence. The out-group is not, after all, quite human in the way the in-group is.”
    He offered another observation from what is known as “terror-management theory.” Given that humans are the only animals that know they’re going to die, he said, “our defense against existential terror is our membership in and contribution to a group that will go on after our individual death.”

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“The Challenge of Ethnopolitical Conflict:
Can the World Cope?”

was sponsored by the School of Arts and Sciences, funded by the late John W. Merriam W’31 and held in the newly revamped Houston Hall on November 29. In a sense, it had its origins in 1997, when Dr. Martin E. P. Seligman Gr’67, the Fox Leadership Professor of Psychology who was then president of the American Psychological Association, announced an initiative to “create a profession for psychologists of devoting their lives to the prediction and understanding of ethnopolitical warfare,” as he put it recently.
    One result of that initiative was the Solomon Asch Center for Study of Ethnopolitical Conflict at Penn, which was founded two years ago to advance understanding of that conflict and to find ways to treat its effects. And according to Dr. Walter Licht, the professor of history who served as chair of the symposium’s faculty organizing committee, it was “the very creation” of the center that led to the symposium.