How Intergenerational Trauma Creates Lasting Challenges In Divided Societies
Foreign aid to post-conflict countries usually focuses on rebuilding physical infrastructure. Peter Weinberger says in countries where there are deep divisions between religious, ethnic, or tribal groups, social reconstruction is more important, and can be much more difficult to achieve, than physical reconstruction.
Weinberger is a Senior Program Officer at the United States Institute of Peace. He now teaches at USIP’s Academy for International Conflict Management and Peacebuilding after working with various non-governmental organizations in Israel, the Palestinian Territories, Northern Ireland, Bosnia, and the western Balkans. Weinberger says in “divided societies” like these, group identities are salient and cause a lot of conflict between people – even decades after the immediate violence ends.
“If people have survived ethnic cleansing or attempts to exterminate them through genocide, this does not simply go away after the initial act has come to cessation,” Weinberger says. “It manifests over the second and third generations in all sorts of collective fears of the other community, for example, fear of annihilation.”
Weinberger says overcoming these deeply-entrenched fears is difficult, but possible. The key is to create common ground between the two groups.
“When we talk about narratives, we're really talking about a people's fundamental world view and understanding of how reality has unfolded,” Weinberger says. “What we see in a lot of divided societies is that you have two peoples with completely parallel realities and parallel narratives. We often try to build a secondary identity.”
This could be as parents, women, grieving family members, or professionals. Weinberger says the next step is to use that secondary identity to build a "zone of agreement" or "area of cooperation" between the two groups. But this doesn’t always lead to successful reconciliation.
“Sometimes we can talk about functional trust, meaning that two communities may agree to cooperate over issues of infrastructure, sharing electricity, for example, or clean water, because there's no alternative,” Weinberger says. “At the same time, they can come to no agreement on a shared educational curriculum beyond some things like math and science because they don't agree on history.”
Even in communities like Northern Ireland where peace building has successfully ended violence and resolved political conflict, problems continue.
“It has to be success with an asterisk,” Weinberger says. “There may not have been violence for many years, but there was prolonged conflict, there continues in some instances to be intergenerational trauma, and many people don't necessarily believe that the country is operating in what we would call a healthy way.”
Weinberger says peace building efforts can help divided societies reach a new, nonviolent normal. But it may take decades for intergenerational trauma to fully heal.
“I've been told by people, ‘I'll never agree with their view of the world, but I don't feel threatened by it anymore.’ This, in some sense, is moving forward,” Weinberger says. “It creates new problems. It creates new difficulties. But it makes an opportunity space whereby communities can try to find new ways to move forward.”
SUZETTE GRILLOT, HOST: Peter Weinberger, welcome to World Views.
WEINBERGER: Thank you very much.
GRILLOT: So as a senior program officer at the U.S. Institute of Peace, much of your work focuses on ethnic-religious conflict, divided societies, and how to rebuild societies in post-conflict spaces. What, first of all, drew you to work on issues of violence and conflict and what are some of the most striking things that you really deal with in that area?
WEINBERGER: My focus at the USIP Academy is on working with religious, ethnic, and tribal groups when rebuilding countries after war and conflict. A lot of people who work in post-conflict environments will say things like, "I'm a specialist on rule of law," for example, writing constitutions. Or, "I'm actually an expert on some functional thing like training police forces," for example. Or, in other words, they may be working on rebuilding the physical infrastructure of a country after war and conflict. And often I'm told things like, "I don't really care about these, what we call, identity-based differences, religious, ethnic, or tribal differences. I have a real specific task. That's not really part of my job." And what I have always tried to convey to my students is I'm not expecting you to become an expert in this subject, but you have to understand that in countries that are what we call “divided societies” where these aspects of identity are really salient and are causing a lot of conflict between people, we have to be aware that it affects all aspects of rebuilding countries after war and conflict, what is broadly known as peace building. I got into this particular field, which is sort of conflict resolution and applied peace work, after having worked on the ground in a few places like Israel and the Palestinian Territories, Bosnia, in the western Balkans, Northern Ireland, and I had noticed a lot of commonalities between these countries which were very different in terms of religious identity and ethnicity. But I started to notice broad threads that were linking them. And that drew me to the work of the United States Institute of Peace, which is really perhaps the most respected in the world for this kind of applied work. And when I found out that the Institute was going to be starting a school for professionals, I decided to leave my last position, which was as a professor, and take on this new aspect of teaching.
GRILLOT: So when you talk about the commonalities that you noticed in some of these very diverse locations, what are some of those commonalities? What are some of the primary obstacles to resolving conflict or to reconciling divided societies in a post-conflict space?
WEINBERGER: Well, there are no modular solutions, or what we call "cookie-cutter approaches." An analogy that I like to sometimes talk about is, if you went to a doctor, a medical professional, and she or he told you, "I do the same thing which each patient," then most people would be running for the door. But at the same time, if you met a doctor and she or he told you, you know, "I have a lot of experience. I've worked with a lot of patients." Then that's a good thing. So one can never really overly generalize about countries and cultures that are vastly different, but one can try.
So, some of the things that we focus on are things like trauma. When we talk about trauma here in the United States, people are familiar with things like PTSD, Post Traumatic Stress. But in a lot of the countries that I am working on and my colleagues are working on, we're dealing with what we call intergenerational trauma. We've seen this to some extent in countries like the United States if we're looking at marginalized communities, for example ethnic minority communities. But in these societies in a global setting it's slightly different. If people have survived ethnic cleansing or attempts to exterminate them through genocide, this does not simply go away after the initial act has come to cessation. It manifests over the second and third generations in all sorts of collective fears of the other community, for example, and fear of annihilation. And so if you look at a lot of countries in the world where there is protracted conflict, this is often the case. So you have intergenerational trauma, and it often occurs in more than one community.
Another thing that we see is what we might call overlapping or parallel realities, or parallel narratives. Most people understand the word narrative to mean a story. Or, for example, if you apply for a job they might say, "Give us a narrative statement talking about yourself." But here when we talk about narratives, we're really talking about a people's fundamental world view and understanding of how reality has unfolded. And that can relate to a trauma, but what we see in a lot of divided societies is that you have two peoples with completely parallel realities and parallel narratives. So there's a core disagreement about some event that may have occurred 65 years ago, or 100 years ago, or 300 years ago. And this core disagreement really filters into everyday life. So people can't agree what happened about the main reason they have conflict, and this affects something that happened a day ago, or a week ago, or three weeks ago.
As an outsider who's trying to help, it can be confusing and be difficult because it's difficult to tell what has actually happened and what is happening. If you think of two circles that are overlapping, and sort of one circle is one group of people's world view and the other circle is the other's, where they overlap there's a commonality. So if I were, for example, a counselor, a marriage counselor, and two spouses came in and they told me two different views, two different stories of what happened, where they overlap is the commonality. And I can build on that to try to build trust. The problem, or the issue that we face, is there's often no overlap. So the role of those of us who are involved in what we call peace building is to try to create an overlap, to create some shared experiences. If people's core identities are so divergent, then we often try to build a secondary identity. That could be an identity as parents, as women, for example, as grieving members of family, as professionals, for example, teachers, environmental engineers, and to use those secondary identities to build what we might call "zones of agreement" or "areas of cooperation" to slowly begin the path of reconstruction. Not only physical reconstruction, but what's called social reconstruction, which is much harder and much more difficult.
GRILLOT: So on that note about social reconstruction. So peace building obviously goes well beyond ending the violence and rebuilding the society physically and engaging in, let's say, police training and establishing institutions for good governance. But is it a process by which we encourage and facilitate truth telling? Forgiveness? Reconciliation? Are those the kinds of things that you refer to when you talk about building trust and social reconstruction?
WEINBERGER: Those are definitely a part of the process, but it is layered and exceedingly complex. For example, sometimes we can talk about functional trust, meaning that two communities may agree to cooperate over issues of infrastructure, sharing electricity, for example, or clean water, because there's no alternative. At the same time, they can come to no agreement on a shared educational curriculum beyond some things like math and science because they don't agree on history. When we're talking about issues of reconciliation, that's also something that we have to be careful about: the language that we use. The field of conflict resolution is not a neutral field in the sense that a lot of the ideas are influenced by Western philosophy and religious traditions, particularly Christianity. And when we talk about reconciliation, for example, even amongst practitioners of international affairs who may be themselves secular, they are not aware that this has some Christian overtones. So if we're talking about truth and reconciliation, for example, in many societies this is understood differently. This is not to say that they don't have these values in a Buddhist majority or a Muslim majority setting, but they understand it differently.
I have colleagues who work on rule of law issues, for example, helping to write constitutions and helping to come up with new legal structures after war and conflict, and they faced the situation where they discussed a truth and reconciliation commission in Nepal, which is a country in south Asia and had civil conflict for many years. Now, the truth and reconciliation commission is an idea that was adopted in South Africa after the end of apartheid in 1994. It's the idea that you have an informal, or a formal in some instances, tribunal of respected individual who listen to people discuss about crimes that were committed in the course of the conflict, and, in so doing, they may receive a pardon or reduced sentence. The idea is that, by talking about what they've done, to get everything out on the table and allow the country to heal. It's a good idea in practice, but when my colleagues suggested it in the context of Nepal, they were told, "Why should we have a truth and reconciliation commission? We're a Hindu majority country. Our culture and our religious ideas are based in Hinduism. We believe in karma. We don't believe in reconciliation; this is a Christian idea." So we were able to help them. It was about reframing what was done to fit the local people's cultural understanding. But the point is it's not simply a rebranding issue in terms of coming up with a new name. It is about working with local partners who want your help, but also making sure that local resources and actual functional resources working on the ground, but also people's culture and identity are understood and are part and parcel to the process of healing.
GRILLOT: So, could you share with us some examples of successful peace building? Just places you mentioned you've been doing work, Israel, Palestine, Bosnia, Northern Ireland. Israel, Palestine, I don't know that we would put that in the success category, would we? But what about Bosnia? What about Northern Ireland? Are these successful cases of peace building?
WEINBERGER: It has to be success with an asterisk in the sense that there may not have been violence for many years, but there was prolonged conflict, there continues in some instances to be intergenerational trauma, and many people don't necessarily believe that the country is operating in what we would call a healthy way. You know, normal is, of course, a relative term. But, for example, I have been in Northern Ireland in the capitol city Belfast. It's still largely segregated by sectarian or religious identity. And I've been told by people, for example, "I don't want to live with the other people. I don't want my children to go to school with the other people. But I don't think we should go back to the way things were in the past, and I don't think our leaders should continue to negotiate with their leaders. I'll never agree with their narrative." They don't use that term, but that's essentially what they're saying. "I'll never agree with their view of the world, but I don't feel threatened by it anymore." This, in some sense, is moving forward. It creates new problems. It creates new difficulties. But it makes an opportunity space whereby communities can try to find new ways to move forward.
GRILLOT: Well, Dr. Weinberger, obviously peace building will remain a challenge, unfortunately, for the foreseeable future. But we thank you for joining us on World Views to talk about some of the possible strategies. Thank you.
WEINBERGER: Thank you for inviting me.
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