11 Identity-Based Conflicts

John Ungerleider

News media brim every day with the trials and pressures of conflict involving identity groups, and governments and ethnic minorities, natives and immigrants, urban gangs… Identity-based conflicts are more complex and more deeply personal than disputes over tangible issues, such as resources, property, money, etc.

Social identity differences may never disappear; they don’t even have to disappear to make successful conflict transformation strategies work. We can work with identities and capitalize on recognition of real diversity. In one of our peacebuilding programs, Catholic and Protestant teenagers from Northern Ireland who participated in dialogue reported that they felt a stronger sense of their own identity even as they came to appreciate differences and similarities in relation to members of the other community.

People have a variety of psychological defense mechanisms that work to protect the safety of the ego when it feels threatened. One of these defense mechanisms is projection, in which I project my own faults onto others in order to make myself look better and preserve my self-esteem. Though these thoughts may begin unconsciously, they can lead to blaming; sometimes one member of a group is isolated and made into a scapegoat for collective problems.

Scapegoating those outside can reinforce membership within a community. We contrast positive images or ideals of belonging to an in-group with negative stereotypes and enemy images of an out-group. We may even build a wall. In-group reinforcement by the people on the “right” side of the wall will protect members from seeing their behavior as intolerant.

Ethnic or national groups maintain traditional scapegoats. When people from different cultures work or live together, even mild criticisms or pointed jokes can escalate tensions. If there is a power imbalance in a relationship between members of different identity groups, an actual or perceived one up/one down relationship may develop. Open dialogue—based on nonviolent, authentic speech and active, compassionate listening—can address this potentially divisive pressure in a proactive manner by building trust and communication.

Within my group (on my side of the wall), socialization is an identity factor. The pressure to conform to dominant social norms and mores, for example gender role stereotypes, can lead to fear that I will be rejected if I’m not “normal.” This internalized fear of my own difference, translated to guilt, shame, or anxiety, is projected and enforced on others who diverge from group norms. This projection of socially unacceptable qualities translates into enemy images, then to fears of victimization and reactive attacks. We are always the innocent victims and we always see the other as the aggressive perpetrator. Herb Kelman calls this making a mirror image. Tensions between Muslim immigrants and European natives have erupted into riots, with each group seeing the other as culturally different and threatening its security.

The issue of security is central to both personal and political conflict behaviors. Where there is perceived insecurity—either personally or politically—irrational reactions and defensive attitudes escalate potential differences into aggressive behaviors in a pattern of self-fulfilling prophecy: which Thomas Merton defined as “a false definition of the situation evoking a new behavior which makes the originally false conception come true.” Israelis and Palestinians, by seeing each other as a threat, have implemented aggressive and violent practices towards each other, which have in turn confirmed their respective fears.

We have often sought security through power and force, as when we form collective security alliances, i.e., ganging up with allies to intimidate opponents. Conflict transformation principles suggest that we can build cooperative security relationships, where people work together to reduce  the causes of conflict and create more just socio-economic systems that promote harmony.

To prevent violence and heal historic wounds, sharing openly about one’s own perspective helps to reduce potential misunderstanding, lay the groundwork for relationship-building, and increase trust between members of historically conflicting groups. Uniting in a common, transcendent identity can override the divisive potential of identity-based differences. We can build trust and common identity through working towards common objectives­—this has happened, for instance, after an earthquake, as Greece and Turkey worked together in rescue and clean-up, and as a result improved their historically adversarial relationship.

We can transform identity-based conflicts by healing the socio-economic systems, group psychologies, and historical relationships that have held animosities in place from generation to generation.



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The Inner Peace Outer Peace Reader by Peter Gould & John Ungerleider is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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