Why is it so difficult to resolve intractable conflicts peacefully?15 A socio-psychological perspective

Socio-psychological theory posits that an individual’s thoughts and emotions are impacted by social factors or society. In the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, a societal culture of conflict serves to increase an individual’s socio-psychological barriers to resolution of this long-standing conflict. This section will first highlight barriers at the societal level. I will then focus on an individual’s cognitive, emotional, and motivational barriers. Later in this chapter, I will very briefly detail what psychoanalytic and socio-psychological perspectives, from a vast reservoir of research, offer in the way of interventions that could overcome aspects of this conflict. In very modest ways, Healing Across the Divides engages with these interventions as part of its grant-giving process.

Starting with barriers from a societal perspective, intractable conflicts such as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, because of their lasting bloody severity, have a negative or even “imprinting” effect on most individual members of the entire society.16 These effects can include severe and continuous negative psychological symptoms such as “chronic threat, stress, pain, uncertainty, exhaustion, suffering, grief, trauma, misery, and hardship.”17 Inevitably, people adapt to this stress in order to satisfy basic human needs. As part of this process, people develop a psychological infrastructure that enables them to cope with the challenges of intractable conflict. Thus, individual members of both Israeli and Palestinian societies, according to Daniel Bar-Tai, a leader in the socio-psychological study of conflicts, in general, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, in particular, have developed a set of

functional beliefs, attitudes, emotions, values, motivations, norms, and practices. This repertoire provides a meaningful picture of the conflict situation, justifies the society’s behavior, facilitates wide mobilization for participation in the conflict, effectively differentiates between the in-group and the rival, and enables the maintenance of a positive social identity and collective self-image. These elements of the socio-psychological repertoire, on both the individual and collective levels, gradually crystallize into a well-organized system of shared societal beliefs, attitudes, and emotions that penetrates into the society’s institutions and communication channels and become part of its socio-psychological infrastructure.18

There are three interrelated parts, explained in more detail below, to this psychic infrastructure, according to Bar-Tai: “collective memories, an ethos of conflict, and collective emotional orientation.”19 These three parts, from a socio-psychological perspective, provide the necessary cognitive-emotional ingredients for members of society to continue with their lives. Paradoxically, these same ingredients also feed continuation of the conflict.

The first of the three parts of this psychic infrastructure—collective memories—describes, for all members of society, the outbreak of the conflict and its course in a systematic and meaningful manner. The second part, ethos of conflict, sets out the shared societal beliefs (such as the justness of one’s goals, need for security, and sense of victimization) that become the central societal orientation to the conflict. Finally, just as individuals have emotions, societies can facilitate the development in individuals of a third part of the psychic infrastructure, a “collective emotional orientation.” This state is a “result of particular societal conditions, common experiences, shared norms, and socialization in a society.”20 An example of these shared norms is participation in ceremonies that in turn become part of an individual’s psychic infrastructure.

These three aspects of psychic infrastructure come to be embedded together and provide rationale for the continuation of the conflict. It is these three aspects (collective memory, ethos of conflict, and collective emotional orientation) that, from a socio-psychological perspective, dominate societies engaged in intractable conflicts. Once these three aspects become institutionalized and disseminated throughout society, they serve as the pillars of the “culture of conflict.” This culture of conflict “provides the dominant meaning about the present reality, about the past, and about future goals and serves as a guide for individual action.”21

Tragically, it is these same aspects of psychic infrastructure that “freeze,” using Bar-Tal’s and other sociopsychologists’ term, giving rise to a refusal to absorb any alternative knowledge that may facilitate willingness to compromise and to resolve the conflict.22 Because of this freezing, individuals ignore any information that might provide a different narrative that could, in turn, result in an opening toward resolution of the conflict. Cognitive, motivational, emotional, and other processes complement each other to freeze, in particular, the psychic infrastructure’s culture of conflict aspect. The next section defines and expands on these three components of freezing.

Cognitive processes, the first component of freezing, constitute the ways all individuals structure knowledge of themselves and of the world. Cognitive processes lead to freezing when the beliefs and narratives rigidly or unchangeably support the ongoing conflict. The second component of freezing is motivation. Individuals are motivated to have faith in the validity of their narrative of the “ethos of conflict and collective memory.” If it meets their needs (these are “inherent needs that would be pursued in all circumstances, except total individual despair and apathy”23), then individuals are motivated to use cognitive strategies to reach conclusions consistent with these narratives. They are motivated to reject information that contradicts their conflict-supporting narratives and will readily accept information that supports their approach to the conflict. The emotional factor, consisting of “negative intergroup emotions,” is the third component that affects freezing. Each emotion is tied to an assessment of the emotional stimulus that can emerge from societal beliefs in a culture of conflict.24

Societal beliefs in a culture of conflict are strongly related to negative emotions such as fear, hatred, and anger, widely shared by societal members. Fear is an important example of an emotion that may have such a negative impact that it induces a collective angst, meaning fear of possible group extinction. Furthermore, fear can result in an active search for certain types of information; a preference for information that highlights threats to the group the individual belongs to; an overestimation of the threat; and limits on the emergence of alternative strategies to cope with the conflict. Possibly of greatest concern, fear negatively affects cognitive processing, and it encourages a preference for “normal daily routines” and the avoidance of thinking outside the box. Fear, being a primary emotion that has a physiological evolutionary basis, overcomes hope in general and, specifically, the possibility of new ideas emerging that could resolve the intractable conflict.

In summary, freezing, triggered by numerous factors, is the dominant reason why societal beliefs in a culture of conflict function as socio-psychological barriers. These barriers lead members of society to select certain types of information that validate their held societal beliefs while ignoring and omitting contradictory information. Even when ambiguous or contradictory information is absorbed, it is cognitively integrated using bias and distortion.

The socio-psychological factors discussed above feed into societal barriers to the entry of information that could serve as a counter narrative to the need for the intractable conflict. Making the possibilities for resolution of the intractable conflict even more discouraging, political leaders and societal institutions, in order to stay in power, very often have their own stake in maintaining the conflict and thus also prevent alternative information that doesn't support a narrative of the need for an intractable conflict. According to Bar-Tai, political leaders and societal institutions favoring the continuation of the conflict reinforce already existing perspectives of individual supporters using the following socio-psychological mechanisms:

Examples of such mechanisms are (a) control of information that refers to selective dissemination of information about the conflict within the society by formal and informal societal institutions (e.g., State Ministries, the Army, and the Media); (b) Censorship that refers to the prohibition on publication of information in various products (e.g., newspaper articles, cultural channels, and official publications) that challenge the themes of the dominant conflict-supportive narratives; (c) discrediting of counter information that portrays information that supports counter-narratives and/or its sources (individuals or entities) as unreliable and as damaging to the interests of the in-group; or (d) punishment that concerns use of sanctions against individuals who try to provide an alternative information. These mechanisms are constructed by the agents that are interested in the outbreak and continuation of the conflict.25

It is challenging for an organization like Healing Across the Divides to modify the freezing that political leaders and/or societal institutions encourage. However, that is exactly what we try to do with the partnerships that we form with other foundations, the successful transfer of a small number of programs to either governmental or quasi-governmental healthcare entities, and our attempts to engage with and strengthen local community-based organizations in an effort to maximize the success of their initiative.

It is also difficult to imagine a scenario in which a small nonprofit group such as Healing Across the Divides (HATD) could possibly affect, in particular, freezing of individuals. And yet it is exactly these mechanisms (an ethos of conflict and collective emotional orientation) that peace building through health, via organizations such as Healing Across the Divides, attempts to influence. Certainly, we do not imagine ever doing this work at a national or societal level. But, as discussed in the concluding chapter, our aim is to engage with both Israeli and Palestinian community-based organizations and to reinforce or to increase the capacity of the remarkable leaders of these groups. These organizations and these community leaders have the potential to alter the freezing process described in this chapter.

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