Identity and History


By Dogu Ergil

After a few year of High School education I came to believe that history was a legend based on selected facts. With that reasoning "national history" was a fact based selected legends. Never-the-less, history as a collective experience or the impressions thereof, has a role in the constitution of individual, social and cultural identities. History tells us who we are with a covert intantion of what we ought to be, which means loading history with ideology. And all ideologies are spiritual arsenal or shields of contemporary fights.

That is why, the historical narrative about our selfs is so very important. We are all chapters in the collective or grand national narrative that is either our telling or that is handed down to us by our elders as (if it is) the sole correct story. In this sense we are the stories we tell about ourselves. These stories may be true or false or a mixture of both. But as long as we believe them and act as if they are the reflections of truth, they have the power of influencing, or even guiding our lives, individually or collectively. So self and/or collective deception is always close home.

It does not come to us scholars as surprise that we sort, categorize and periodize events that has happened in the past and load meaning to them. So, who we are is vitally important to the sorting and categorization process that we call "constructing the narrative". However, this process ends up in a differential understanding of history that means emphasizing as well periodization some of those events. As we do so some of the real or imaginary phenomena becomes central and others are trivialized in "our" history.

This is often the case because history is generally written by dominant groups or power holders in hindsight from their own time and standpoint that validates their power, privilige or social order as they see best. So we have a serious problem as to the author, or better "maker" of history. The second important problem is the fact that history is a collective phenomenon that involve multiple actors. But historiagrophy may yield a particular narrative glorifying only one of the actors because of the hegemony of that actor in one particular time and geography. So all historical narratives written or constructed by the excluded may be against the dominant actor that has distorted their common history. If such a thing happens, as it often does, common recollections turn into particular collections of legitimizations and glorifications shattering a common history and distorts the truth for all. The "grand narrative" crumbles into particularistic and antagonistic group stories full of hate and accusations.

Problem of Particularism

Every group (people, nation etc.) creates a procedure for memorialization of real or imagined facts. This is for keeping the group (or its consciousness) "in perspective." The "unwanted" or the unsavory are filtered, the remaning facts and deeds are afforded "validity". So the concerned people/group can build a collective identity enriched with emotions like belonging, allegience, dedication and sacrifice. The validity afforded to the historical narrative provides a collective frame of reference that "marks the land". The focal points or the highlights of the historical narrative are both the victories and the traumas that makes the members of the group value the present. So history is not only the depository of the past events, but a "below- the-surface value scale that weigh and give meaning to the present."

It is in this context that our identities are formed and sustained. If a historical narrative discriminates and exclude others who have shared it, obviously there will be a heavy dose of antagonism and aggressive feelings manifested when it is presented as the sole truth. In this occasion bringing differing/conflicting groups together in real life situations is rather hard. The main reason for this is the fact that such an effort will threaten each party's collective identity. The groups have a need to preserve their identity as a separate, even as contrary to their enemies.

Identity and the Need for Mourning

What is the way out then? To simplify a complex phenomenon, we may say, "concluding the mourning" over loss of people, land, prestige, and so on (crucial valuables) that make up a "trauma". People invest considerable emotion to traumas because of the loss of crucial valuables. Mourning becomes an important and integral part of their identity (Volkan, 1981; Volkan and Zintl, 1993). It may be equally informative to know that people do not only mourn the loss of their "valuables" but also for the loss of material or human elements that serve as the target of their hate: the enemy, for example. The enemy becomes an integral part of group identity especially if history is built on traumas.

Mourning occurs because the human mind can only deal with a traumatic loss by emotionally accepting it. This is an internal (psychological) process that builds bridges with the lost persons or material valuables, like land. The mourning process comes to a healthy end when the person or group acknowledges the loss and lays the lost valuable to rest. In fact this process is a mechanism whereby the individual or the group rests its mind over the agony of loss. Only then the lost valuables (persons or objects) become "futureless" (Tähkä, 1984), meaning they do not keep the mind and the soul of the grieving person or group captive any more. When completed, the mourning process allows the initiation of adaptive liberation from old burdens of history that no more caters for psychological needs. The image of a lost person or thing thus becomes a "memory" (Tähkä,1984) and we become ready to accept changes or losses. From then on persons and groups can invest into new persons things or projects that will be part of their post- mourning identity.

On the other hand the mourning process may become complicated because the person or group can not get over its agony of lost valuables (Volkan, 1981; Volkan and Zintl, 1993). In this instance a mourner cannot accept an apology from another person or group that is perceived as the cause of its loss. The anger and hostility that the mourner harbors are reinforced with a sense of victimization that becomes part of her/his identity as time goes by. To accept a perpetrator's apology means to alter the post-traumatic identity of the mourner, which itself will be a new loss. So it is very hard to accept apologies for those who have not concluded their mourning or who do not want to do so. The humiliation associated with the trauma and ensuing loss prevents the mourner to complete the process and forgive the perpetrator.

Such "emotional freezing" in time exhibit itself in political ideologies. This happens especially when losses are caused deliberately by others. The vicious circle can only be broken through a reconciliation process with the perpetrator or by membership to comprehensive (international) organizations that could alleviate the security anxiety of the victim. For example, since Greece's membership in the European Union, its investment in anti-Turkish ideology has been reduced considerably. However, this is not so with the Serbians and Armenians, that have assimilated victimhood into their group identity as a response to their past losses which they still mourn for ( Emmert, 1990, and Markovic, 1983, and Libaridian, 1991).

If a group that is fundamentally traumatized by others (who have become the "enemy" despite a long life together) cannot conclude its mourning in an adaptive way, it can cannot successfully reverse helplessness and humiliation. In this instance, the unfinished task of morning leads to "transgenerational transmission" (Kestenberg and Brenner, 1996; Kogan, 1995; Volkan, Ast and Greer, 2002) and are passed on from one generation to the other.

The person or group becomes perennial mourners like the Shia and the Jews. They begin to produce antagonistic ideologies and revengeful strategies against the perpetrator (that can change in time), its heirs or its symbolic substitutes. The "enemy" (object/subject of hate) becomes an integral part of their collective identity. Perennial mourners on the whole do not wish to give up the hope of recovering what has been lost and hatred becomes the fuel of their "long wait" in history. This how they cope with the helplessness and humiliation suffered during or because of the massive trauma they have undergone. But then, they cannot go through a "normal" mourning process. We see this happen to people living during wars and in war- like conditions.

Transgenerational Transmission as Identity

When a traumatized group cannot reverse its feelings of resentment, helplessness and humiliation and cannot effectively go through the work of mourning, it transfers these unfinished psychological tasks to future generations. Such transmissions may take place through deliberate official policies and formal education or it may take place unconsciously in family environment during child rearing. When the group's historical narrative is passed onto the child with the stories of ancestors that have experienced a massive trauma and severe losses, children of the next generation(s) are given a serious tasks that link them up with the group's history that is learned as the sole truth. They are obligated to complete the mourning by reversing pain, shame and humiliation. This is done by turning humiliation into accusation; helplessness into assertion and hatred into lasting political and diplomatic strategies that would harm the "enemy". This transgenerational transmission connects the members of the group mentally and emotionally and carves out an identity out of a traumatic reading of history.

Traumatized groups, who may not have the "power" to turn their passivity into assertiveness, may idealize victimhood. Joe Montville defines victimhood as "...a state of individual and collective ethnic mind that occurs when the traditional structures that provide an individual sense of security and self-worth through membership in a group are shattered by aggressive, violent political outsiders. Victimhood can be characterized by either an extreme or persistent sense of mortal vulnerability".

When victimhood is acquired as a state of mind, not only it becomes the foundation of group identity but deafens the traumatized group to the apology offered by the perpetrators or their descendents. In order to accept such an apology and to forgive the descendents of their ancestors' enemy, the group would have to abandon its shared sense of "idealized victimhood". But then, this is also a traumatic process because its identity is shaped by victimhood.

A chosen trauma may assume new functions as it passes from one generation to the next. In some generations when; 1- the perpetrator or its descendents insist in denying their past wrongdoings; 2- the group is still under domination; 3- the group has not acquired enough power and leverage to overcome its helplessness and humiliation, it may sustain its shared and idealized victimhood (Libaridian, 1991). Or a subgroup may appear amongst the wider traumatized group that may be called "avengers". Avengers carry no guilt feeling for the wrongdoings and brutalities they commit against the perpetrator or better, their descendents because their victims are the source of the "original sin".

Fundamental Human Needs: What is to be Done?

The heeling process between antagonistic parties that are linked with a trauma that they differentially interpret and emotionally invest in must begin with "humanizing" the "other" or the "enemy". This needs reconstructing the relationship between the two parties. The process may be a totally rational choice and a deliberate act of both parties or an occasion offered by another trauma (like an earthquake or draught or war with a neighbor). The helping hand and care extended by the old "enemy" may soften hard feelings (by sublimating them) and usher in more positive ones.

In other words, the need to sustain victimhood may be transformed when these needs may be met by the positive approach of the old "enemy".

Individuals and groups have undeniable needs and rights for recognition, dignity and security in both physical and psychological terms. This involves the right to the identity they aspire (that they attribute to themselves) acknowledgement as a group that is worthy of respect and participation in the decisions and policies that are carried out concerning their well being. A group suffers and feels insecure (victimized) when these human needs are absent or threatened. So contending parties must be sensitive to these needs of the "other" to normalize and humanize relations.

Effective communication is equally important to pass on the cooperative and peaceful intentions of one party to the other. If one party feels that they are on the loosing end of a relationship, this will affect the way the group thinks and interacts with the other. So, a heeling process must entail deconstructing unequal power perceptions. No party must feel itself as a continual victim of the actual or imagined aggression of the other party. There can be no solution until that relationship is transformed and both parties feel more empowered and less likely to be victimized again.

There are situations where sometimes both groups in a conflict see themselves as the "victim" and their opponent as the aggressor. This is a very complicated phenomenon whereby parties compete over who has suffered more and who has been more victimized by the other. They may initiate crusades to persuade third parties of who the real victim and aggressor is. Their efforts may reach the dimensions of global campaigns that drain most of their energy that may have been invested into more productive aims.

In order to move beyond these deep-rooted conflicts, each group must realize that they have had a shared history. This means a long walk in history together. Somewhere along the line, different interests, expectations; misunderstandings and misdeeds ensuing from them separated them that may have reached the dimensions of massive atrocities and massacres. The reasons why this separation and following tragedies have occurred must be analyzed to understand what went wrong and why both groups went onto their own way interpreting past events (history) differentially. Without reconstructing the past that include the roles and stories of both of the concerned parties and analyzing what really happened objectively is a colossal task that must be done by demystifying and de-emotionalizing the past. Nationalism does not allow it. Victimhood poisons it. Vengeance kills it.

It is indeed very hard to accept that their "enemies" may feel victimized as well. For, victimhood is not only a matter of self perception, but of self in a system of relations with others. Victimhood is a state from which all individuals and groups need to recover in order to rid the "burden of history" and to lead normal lives in today's world. Acknowledging victimhood as a problem is the first step toward recovery. Part of the healing process for victims is regaining self-esteem by learning that the "other" is also human and has suffered through the same traumatic events. This process allows the groups to begin transforming their (antagonistic) relationship in which victimization was made possible into something much more positive and constructive like cooperation in ridding them from the differential interpretation of history.

This purging process must be done in order to set the record right. Then contending sides may come together once again in a history lost for both of them. This is difficult but can be done for the sole reason that any group harbors the gut feeling of getting rid of the stigma of "victim." For, victimhood entails defeat, helplessness and inability to defend their valuables. Reconciliation between adversaries must aim to restore the self-esteem of the "victim(s)". Low self-esteem distorts a group's perception of others. When a group perceives a large distinction between the power, prestige and self-esteem of itself and others, the "others" can be seen as less human. Then, it becomes morally acceptable to humiliate and even kill the other.

Basic elements for healing from the victimizing trauma include the following:

  • Safety from violence and humiliation. Both groups would assure the other side that they would no more pose a danger to their life, freedom and well being.
  • Unearthing the common past (history) and a general agreement on the history of the conflict that would yield new information and new interpretations of the past. This means "deconstructing the trauma" and associated identities.
  • Acknowledgment from the other side of their suffering. Public expressions by respected representatives of each group that voice or demonstrate the new relationship and understanding born out of a new understanding of history.
  • Mutual acceptance of responsibility, recognizing one's own wrongdoings and accepting responsibility for them. Ideally these processes should be mutual and reciprocal.
  • Contrition and forgiveness for the past and demonstration of willingness in future cooperation and possibly co-existence.
  • Changing group members' negative perceptions about the "enemy" and reestablishing trust by school and adult education utilizing the concept of "confirming" or "removing doubt" through dialogue, and changing the content of history books. Transformation also requires negotiations on the future relationships of the former enemies. Thus each other's humanity is recognized together with its psychological needs, beliefs and values.
  • Transforming public consciousness by utilizing mass media after the leadership of both groups agrees on how to resolve the conflict. This would involve a belief system of common humanity with the adversary. After mass media does its work in disseminating new ideas/interpretations, more informal (civil societal) networks must get involved in altering people's attitudes and persuading them. The change should start from altering perceptions of the opinion leaders who would in turn influence their entourage. Social scientific findings indicate that if new attitudes are adopted by 15-17% of the population, this can start a defusion process that can affect the whole society and start fundamental change. Then the "identirati" (that is, those of us obsessed with identity) and the demagogues leave the stage to true leaders and peacemakers that would look to the future rather than the past that is no more.

The contents of this publication is the sole responsibility of the author and can in no way be taken to reflect the views of the International Center for Human Development.



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