Cartoons and cultural clashes

2006-02-07

in Books and literature, Politics, Writing

A quick comment regarding the continuing row about the Danish cartoon depictions of Mohammed. No collective response to an incident becomes this big or carries on this long without some kind of coordination and organization. While the whole situation is clearly based on a great deal of legitimate anger, it is nonetheless sentiment that is being excited and manipulated. That’s not to imply that some kind of global conspiracy is at work, but simply to say that I don’t accept that these protests are spontaneous or free of manipulation. Given their destructive nature, I think it will be instructive to eventually determine what forces have been trying to exploit this issue, through what means, and to what level of success.

As I was discussing with Tristan earlier today, the symbolic character of conflict is an essential dimension for understanding it. It’s one that requires examination both of individual psychology and the ways in which groups of people think. One excellent book I can recall from Brian Job’s security studies class at UBC is Kaufman’s Modern hatreds: the symbolic politics of ethnic war. Those wanting a far better explanation of some of these issues than I can provide should have a look.

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Anonymous February 8, 2006 at 12:44 am

A good summary of Kaufman’s book:

“In years to come, what looks today like a disconnected string of small, brutish wars across southeastern Europe and Eurasia — five in the former Yugoslavia and six in the former Soviet Union — is more likely to be considered by historians to be part of one process: the wars of communist succession. Most of these battles pitted newly independent governments against territorial separatists, but all sprang from a range of disparate causes: the collapse of federations, the end of authoritarianism, the reemergence of old quarrels, the meddling of outside powers, political demagoguery, and — a major catalyst of organized violence everywhere — plain old thuggery.

The puzzle is not why there were so many recent wars in this region, but why there were not more. Given the fact that every ethnic group in the area has been hard done by at some point in its history, why have only some of the aggrieved become aggressors? Kaufman assays four possible explanations. One is the ancient hatreds view, the idea that some of these ethnic groups have been at each other’s throats for centuries and thus conflicts between them are likely to continue. A second answer is based on the power of unscrupulous and manipulative politicians who profit from communal rivalries. A third looks to economics, arguing that contests over resources can quickly turn poor communities against perceived exploiters and rich ones against freeloaders. And a fourth answer is based on what scholars call a security dilemma. With no overarching institutions left in the region to ensure law and order, survival became a self-help game. But one group’s effort to increase its own security — by stockpiling Kalashnikovs, say — automatically reduces the security of its rivals, thereby setting off a spiral toward war.

Yet as Kaufman shows, each of these explanations for why war occurred is insufficient on its own. People do feel strongly about their ethnicity, but very few convinced nationalists actually go so far as to exterminate their neighbors. Maniacal leaders clearly play an important role in civil wars, but simply saying so does not explain why some end up as powerful demagogues while others simply rant in obscurity. Economic grievances and security dilemmas can also push groups toward violence, but such explanations predict far more conflict than actually occurs in the world.

Kaufman’s solution to this conundrum is to focus on what he calls the “symbolic politics” of conflicts — that is, how existing beliefs about neighboring ethnic groups are used to justify violence, and how these beliefs then seem to be confirmed once violence breaks out. Kaufman focuses on several wars that broke out during the collapse of communism: in the Dniester region of Moldova, in Georgia’s South Ossetia and Abkhazia, in the Nagorno-Karabakh enclave inside Azerbaijan, and in the former Yugoslavia. These conflicts all raged from the early to the mid-1990s and left hundreds of thousands dead and millions displaced.

In a series of lucidly written case studies, Kaufman argues that each of these wars displayed three conditions essential for communal violence. First, in each case politicians used a preexisting reservoir of myths about rival ethnic populations to mobilize the public along cultural lines. Second, in every instance particular ethnic groups feared being swamped — economically, politically, and demographically — by other groups. And third, in each of these wars the communities involved had plenty of time to mobilize and shore up their own security before their neighbors got the upper hand. Without any one of these ingredients, Kaufman says, these postcommunist conflicts would never have occurred.”

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