by Didem Buhari-Gulmez (PhD candidate at Royal Holloway, University of London)
Apart from the studies on the origination of social conflicts, an important part of the contemporary conflict studies try to understand why conflicts persist. Take the example of Cyprus, where the United Nations’ peace keeping force has been present since 1964. Another infamous example is the Palestinian question, which still haunts the world. The role of several factors in the perpetuation of conflicts is widely known. For instance, the existence of diaspora contributes to sustaining conflicts by providing financial assistance and the repercussions of external low-intensity interventions by neighbouring states (see Salehyan et al. 2008). However, these variables are limited in the sense that they stay within the materialistic realm and overlook the systemic processes underlying the self-activation of social conflicts. In this essay, I will particularly focus on three systemic processes that contribute to the perpetuation of social conflicts. To do this, I will benefit from Luhmann’s Modern Systems Theory and its interpretation by the World Society Research Group. Accordingly, I will try to understand how the ‘dialogue of the deaf’ becomes prevalent in a social context. The three paradoxical processes I want to emphasize could be summarized as:
1- A conflict creates its own actors whose survival relies upon the perpetuation of the conflict.
2- The ‘Paradox of Victimization’ implies a vicious circle that allows all conflicting parties to pursue politics of victimization.
3- Independently from its original intention, an external intervention becomes part of the conflict.
Construction of the ‘Deaf’ by the Conflict
The first systemic process implies that conflict is not the outcome of the conflicting interests, but rather a social conflict precedes the motives, interests, actions, and identities of the conflicting parties (Messmer 2007:102). This is a substantial critique of the realist account which sees social conflicts as the ultimate outcome of a clash between actors who are assumed to hold pre-determined interests. Two significant criticisms to this realist account can be made. First, the homogeneity of the conflicting camps is often contestable. So, people with ‘hybrid identities’ or those who try to avoid polarizations, should not be ignored (For the case of Cyprus, see Constantinou 2007:266). Moreover, realist approach cannot explain why a certain motive provokes a conflict in one context but not in another one (Messmer 2007:102).
In order to understand why conflicts last long, there is a need to shift the focus from an actor-oriented approach that only considers the individual motives and interests of the conflicting parties as the independent/explanatory variables, to a systemic perspective that sees conflict itself as a social system à la Luhmann, which constructs its own semantics, elements, actors and properties as well as boundaries (Messmer 2007). In simple terms, there are actors which are the by-products or ‘constructions’ (not the creators) of the problem. Accordingly, the agenda of these ‘constructed actors’ is to sustain the conflict (not to solve it) as their survival is based upon the continuation of the conflictual system.
Therefore, the main strategy (and ‘ontological security’) of these constructed actors relies upon the establishment/strengthening of homogenous camps that antagonize in a typically zero-sum game. So, they often ignore/reject the arguments which are not reinforcing the hostile image of the other camp. For instance, when one looks at several websites established in defence of a particular cause, s/he will often notice that the moderators of pro-X camps publish wholeheartedly the aggressive/provoking messages targeting their own group but avoid to publish the messages involving self-criticisms and calls for compromise. I argue that this tactic serves the best interests of these pro-conflict actors as the provoking messages from the ‘other camp’ help them to homogenize/mobilize their own camp. Similarly, the assassination of Hrant Dink, a Turkish-Armenian journalist who was openly criticizing the hostile attitude of both camps, could be read as an attempt to eliminate the third group who rejects polarization. At the end of the day, the degree of the constructed homogeneity of the antagonistic camps determines the length of the conflict.
Content of the ‘Dialogue of the Deaf’: Paradox of Victimization
The second process, which is also strengthening the hand of the ‘constructed pro-conflict actors’, is derived from a psychoanalytical process called ‘egoism of victimization’, which implies “the incapacity of an ethno-national group, as a direct result of its own historical traumas, to empathise with the suffering of another group” (Mack 1990:58 cited in Cunningham 1998). This “enables a terrorised victim to become a terrorist, with little guilt about committing violence” (Cunningham 1998). For instance, ASALA terrorism killing 35 Turkish diplomats between 1970s-80s could have been seen as justifiable for both some pro-Armenian groups and pro-IRA groups that construct parallels between Armenian and IRA causes. As an another example of ‘egoism of victimization’, it is possible to see some segments of the Israeli population trapped into a victimization discourse since the holocaust, might have considered as legitimate the anti-Palestinian military campaigns (demonstrating a clearly unequal distribution of military might) despite contestations from the international community.
Politics of victimization do create unholy alliances amongst the ‘victimized’ groups, which paradoxically perpetuate the conflicts by creating new third-party victims. For instance, an anti-X alliance between pro-Y and pro-Z lobbies (not only in terms of financial support but also in terms of creating ‘discursive anti-X spaces’) would only complicate the existing conflicts and harm the prospects for a solution by allowing for new politics of victimization by the pro-X group. I call this vicious circle which perpetuates conflicts as ‘the paradox of victimization’ because rather than resolving the problem, such politics of victimization undermine all attempts for a healthy dialogue between the conflicting parties.
The Failure of the External Interventions Into the ‘Dialogue of the Deaf’
Finally, Modern Systems Theory of Niklas Luhmann suggests that conflict is a closed communication system, which has its own semantics or ‘basal codes’ that are self-referential (Schlichte 2007:65-66). Accordingly, external interventions become internal to the conflict communication system as they are immediately translated into the systemic semantics or ‘basal codes’ by the conflict communication agents (Albert et al. 2008). This implies that any intervention by third parties –even though they intend to be impartial- is doomed to be reinterpreted as partial within the conflict communication system. Consequently, interventions are likely to yield different results depending on the stage of the conflict communication or in other words, upon the reception/translation of the intervention by the conflicting parties.
This also renders difficult for ‘neutral’ actors to avoid becoming part of the ongoing polarization and conflict. Both the United Nations and the European Union have had to face this systemic trap in Cyprus. Parties to the conflict either perceived them as partial or instrumentalized their external interventions to further their antagonistic claims. For instance, the intention of the EU was to support the UN-led reunification plan known as Annan Plan but the Greek Cypriot administration connected its nationalistic agenda, particularly its political demands of unlimited mobility within the island, with the freedoms granted by the European Single Market and to the dismay of the EU, the majority of the Greek Cypriot voters vetoed the UN-reunification plan in 2004 (Diez et al. 2006).
To conclude, the ‘dialogue of the deaf’ is an expression that is often used to refer to long-lasting conflicts where despite significant efforts for mediation, the conflicting parties are described as unresponsive to each other’s claims, pains, and propositions. So, the dialogue does generally fail to convince the parties to find a compromisory solution. In this essay, my aim was to shift the emphasis from the origination of the conflicts where actors played their significant part, to the agency of the conflict itself. So, the conflict (1)creates its own ‘deaf’ as the constructed agents aiming to sustain the conflict, (2) provides ‘politics of victimization’ as the underlying content of the dialogue and (3) establishes a closed communicative system where external interventions fail to be seen as impartial and gain new (often unintended) meanings–at least in the eyes of the conflicting parties-, which often renders them counter-productive.
Albert, M., Stetter, S., & Diez, T. (2008) “Cycles of Intervention: The European Union and International Confl icts”, draft paper, [Online]: http://www.ies.be/node/416.
Constantinou, C. M., (2007) “Aporias of identity: Bicommunalism, Hybridity and the ‘Cyprus Problem’ ”, Cooperation and Conflict:Journal of the Nordic International Studies Association, 42(3), pp.247–270.
Cunningham, W. G. “Conflict Theory and Conflict in Northern Ireland”, unpublished thesis, University of Auckland, 1998. (Excerpt available at http://cain.ulst.ac.uk/conflict/cunningham.htm)
Diez, T., Stetter, S., & Albert, M. (2006) “The EU and Border Conflicts: The Transformative Power of Integration’, International Organization, 60, pp.563-93.
Messmer, H. (2007) “Contradiction, Confl ict and borders”, in Stetter (ed). Territorial Conflicts in World Society, Chapter 6, Routledge.
Mack, J. E. (1990) ‘The Enemy System’, in Vamik Volkan, et al (eds.), The Psychodynamics of International Relationships: Volume I: Concepts and Theories, Lexington, MA, Lexington Books.
Salehyan, I., Gleditsch, K. S., & Cunningham, D. (2008) “Transnational Linkages and Civil War Interactions”, Typescript, University of Essex. [Online]: privatewww.essex.ac.uk/~ksg/dscw2007/Gleditsch.pdf
Schlichte, K. (2007) ‘Theories of World Society and War : Luhmann and the Alternatives’ in Stetter (ed). Territorial Conflicts in World Society, Routledge, pp.54-69.
The opinions expressed here are solely those of the author/s who retain the copyright.