titled, ‘A curriculum for peace studies’, published by WCC, ISBN: 978-93- 5288-704-
0, October, 2017
Title: Identity and conflict as obstruction to peace
“In the social jungle of human existence, there is no feeling of being alive without a sense of identity.” Erik Homburger Erikson, Psychologist and proponent of the Psycho-Social Theory of Development
Identity as a multi-dimensional concept may be understood at a psycho-social level in which a person takes up his/her chances to relate with the characteristics of a group or certain groups - more as an attribute to choice than any that can be contributed to discovery. Conflict, on the other hand, is described as a serious disagreement or argument, a clash, a strike, a confrontation, a collision, a fight or perhaps a struggle that can break instantly or over a period of time. Either way, identity and conflict stem from an emerging tryst of violence and parts connected therewith that this essay shall attempt to elucidate.
This essay aims at deconstructing the conceptual framework of identity and conflict to understand the disenfranchisement and breach of rights and its process continuum leading to inequality, injustice and exclusion that has moved through history and has found its place in the contemporary scenario as obstruction to peace.
“The identity of an individual is essentially a function of his/her choices, rather than the discovery of an immutable attribute” Amartya Sen, Economist, in The Argumentative Indian: Writings on Indian History, Culture and Identity
The challenge for humanity to find an order to set right a few basic needs for survival by hunting, gathering or searching for better grazing pastures, finding a place to safely rest before one could set forth to explore the very purpose of life - was the natural and normal sequence of life… once upon a time.
Over time, things have changed. We have others doing things for us - from the past to the present - with the pretext of making life easy for the next generation to continue, we have others who have thought for us, who have carefully documented for us what they thought, others who have taken care to even warn us of what to do and more of what not to; the ‘others’ from various spheres of life who have discovered and invented things that have influenced us that we have incorporated into our daily use and life - from religious notes to philosophies, from paradigms to theories, from materials to food - that flood through art, science and business that the generation to follow has to only improvise or customize to make life easier. All that one needs to do now is decide from a plethora of choices presented in front of them - from audio, visual medium to communication devices, from religion to political parties, from automobiles to even life partners - all made available to ‘surf, click and grab’ and that too with the best offer available being added to the tag.
As we decide what to take and what to let go, what to use and what not to, what to follow and who not to, we consequently choose a few as we set aside the rest and set on to proclaim (even if we are not called to do so) what defines us - an ‘identity’ we create in this trail of choices we make or forego. Subsequently, the one element that we have managed to save in this due process of attempting to make life easy is ‘time’; from the time saved through the development and use of better and quicker equipments and gadgets that perform with optimal efficiency to the availability of solutions to some of the most complex problems confronting life itself, everything available at our finger tips that calls for just a quick reference, we have saved a lot of time indeed - so much of it that we have enough time to think of problems and ways to create new ones in the meantime.
We have successfully moved our natural selection of settlements from an ‘egalitarian society’ - centered around ecology, humanity and a need that aimed at cooperation and unconditional support for peaceful coexistence to a ‘profitarian society’ - centered around economics, money and greed filled with expectations, conditions, stress and hypocrisy.
This movement nevertheless has had an impact especially in three dominant areas:
· our choice of values
· our idea of equal distribution of resources, services and justice and
· our way of life
The clash of systems
“The increasing tendency towards seeing people in terms of one dominant ‘identity’ (‘this is your duty as an American’, ‘you must commit these acts as a Muslim’, or ‘as a Chinese you should give priority to this national engagement’) is not only an imposition of an external and arbitrary priority, but also the denial of an important liberty of a person who can decide on their respective loyalties to different groups (to all of which he or she belongs).” Amartya Sen, Economist, in The Idea Of Justice
From the age-old hunter and gatherer groups to the modern white and blue collar groups, for centuries, humanity has learnt to stratify, divide and rule to exist - nevertheless survive. The existence of groups co-depended on establishing a ‘me-we’ bond with a group with what one saw familiar while at the same time excluding another by what it saw as unfamiliar or what it could not understand at that point of time; thus finding a reasonable justification to avoid, refrain, hate and eventually differentiate by labelling a group as ‘they’ or ‘the others’ breeding contempt, prejudice, bigotry and dogmatism established on the foundation of personal bias and shallow opinions in the process.
From the ‘master-slave’ relationship in the past to the ‘king-subject’ relationship a few decades back, to what we call the ‘state-citizen’ relationship that we claim to have now, we have always had the need to have the ruler and the ruled - a prerogative than a conditional clause for claiming our existence and a reclaim to understand the shifts in our economic and political systems as well. With more and more emerging trends of violence, betrayal and conflicts happening globally and regularly - combined with peoples’ apathy and display of the bystander effect, along emerges a pattern of people being connected on grounds of sharing a common enemy and a common target for hatred rather than a bond established on the grounds of peace and love.
At the political front, the concept of absolute freedom (Laissez Faire) gets criticized for the idea of self-exercised conscience that it relies on rather than a solid and tangible set of agreement collected from common conscience - Gandhi, a promoter of peace and non-violence had a conscience and so did Godse who killed him - the idea of conscience left to itself begs for clarity as to ‘whose idea of conscience is it anyway?!’ that we would follow as the very idea of conscience melts down to just a suggestion and nothing more and nothing less; while on the other hand, at the other extreme end lies the idea of ‘Absolute Control’ left to the hands of an individual or a group to decide that also suffocates people midway and corrupts the people in power and others around eventually as incidents from history like the inhuman atrocities that happened at UT 731 in China, the Concentration Camps in Germany or at the Abu Ghraib Prison in the US of A-occupied oil fields of the Middle East may point out.
While these incidents of power, corruption and violence strike a chord with similar results demonstrated through most psycho-social experiments conducted earlier like Philip Zimbardo’s Stanford Prison Experiment, Muzafer Sherif’s Robber’s Cave Experiment, Stanley Milgram’s Milgram Experiment, Hofling’s Hospital Experiment or Solomon Asch’s Conformity Experiment, the final learning still remains the same - power corrupts, good people are capable of doing the most evil things and people who must have stopped them usually allow violence to exist by conforming to authority and/or display the ‘Bystander Effect’ by which most watch incidents of violence sans response thereby promoting violence and submersing peace in the process.
Over time, grouping has been made a forced choice to be endured by many - forced ideas, forced mores and stricter codes of conduct, forced restrictions, forced choices, forced lifestyles and a life of forced conformity to authority and standards set forth by those who claim to be the guardians and the sitting elite of the group to monitor and control the rest and others according to their whims and fancies.
The Etic (external) and the Emic (internal) motivational factors that establish one’s identity emerge, operate and configure conformity to authority and the reasonable justification that helps one to understand ‘why so?’ is unclear until ‘I become one with the affected’ or usually never until ‘I am the affected.’ This violence that destroys the very fabric of our social connections, ironically, also plays a role in reconnecting at a closer yet closed level victims of hatred, violence, betrayal, inequality, poverty, exclusion and injustice with yet another group and yet another established identity.
Meeting midway and accepting the decision of the majority as binding and normal by implementing the idea of democracy is also seen having its own flaw – filth doesn’t become food just because we would consider that by statistical majority a million flies who devour it can’t be wrong - perhaps this analogy must resonate to draw a parallel to help us understand why many of the democratically-run countries have such lousy leaders though supposedly chosen by the majority in the most democratic way. So, ‘what do we have left if democracy - the suggested remedy for all world disorder - is out?!’ still remains a favourite topic for intellectual brainstorming during coffee-table conversations.
Instability of congruence
"Poverty too, like feminism, is often framed as an identity problem. As though the poor had not been created by injustice but are a lost tribe who just happen to exist, and can be rescued in the short term by a system of grievance redressal (administered by NGOs on an individual, person-to-person basis), and whose long-term resurrection will come from Good Governance — under the regime of Global Corporate Capitalism, it goes without saying." Arundhati Roy, Writer and Activist, in Capitalism: A Ghost Story
We are simple creatures vulnerable to suggestions and a clever manipulator works these suggestions at the right time in a right situation for every wrong reason. We become vulnerable to suggestions to take up an identity imposed upon us, especially in troubled and testing times in situations like trauma and grief especially if it is in mass scale - times that are carefully monitored and optimally used by people with cleverly masked identities - from the religious fanatic to the local politician who count their existence through the communal divide they are able to instil by tickling the most susceptible human emotions - fear, guilt and shame - as a means to an end to fulfil their own personal wants and vote banks. Many wars - from the Spanish inquisition to the one’s fought in Kashmir or Syria - have been fought for an imaginary friend over imaginary lines - visual and auditory hallucinations combined with persecutory and grandiose delusions indicative of madness.
With moral and self-righteous idealism that humans quote to control and kill each other that unwritten social mores provide with authority than written civil codes of conduct, the unseen cause for jurisprudence often finds a tryst with the visible laws existing within the limits of a jurisdiction. This reasoned display of madness often results in the unreasonable madness that overlaps and is seen in the world today that is being entertained with equally seeming acceptance of violence displayed - often fought over invisible superpowers in the name of God(s) and Goddesses and over invisible territorial lines in the name of protecting national security and promoting democracy - especially in countries where minerals and oil can be found for the self-righteous and sacrosanct western world to loot.
It is always fear, guilt and shame that stress people and make them compromise on their freedom and rights; giving perpetrators as well as hypocritic saviours of the oppressed an opportunity to recognize these primal needs and optimize the same for their own personal gains. At this point, it is hard to say if identity begets violence or whether violence begets identity - at a time when we see that one complements the other. Even when a person tries to shed his/her identity to escape a label, through international migration, trans-cultural assimilation or through inter-racial/caste accommodation, it only indicates a transition from one labelled box to another - in this case, from the conditional orthodox box into an unorthodox box with a set of other conditions. Identity, like a shadow follows us stubbornly – through the darkest alleys to spotlights – hardly giving us a chance to escape throughout our life. People seem to have a need for identities to help establish prejudices based upon biases and baseless opinions to accept or reject us – and to find valid reasons to do so – to take us in or leave us out – with ruthless impunity while expecting acceptance with stoicism.
The usual process of taking over an identity - at least theoretically, happens as a person goes through:
1. Formation of an idea through group influence
2. Affirmation of an idea through personal experience
3. Transformation of a person upon reflection
4. Confirmation of the transformation by the group to which one chooses to belong
5. Until the identity takes over the person itself
Marking of identity, on the other hand, is usually condensed to a few grounds:
· Physical Trait: Distinguishable physical features like hair, eye and skin colour or the very shape of face and/or body or gender
· Socio-Economic Factors: Occupation, dressing, asset holding - including land, automobile, value of possessions and liabilities including loans and debts
· Social Affiliations: Religion, nationality, family background, place of birth, language spoken and accent and dialect used, caste, tribe, memberships in clubs and associations, awards and accolades received, domicile and quality of neighbourhood, educational qualification(s) and school(s) attended, criminal record and sexual orientation
Imagine being labelled as an ‘invalid’, a 'marginalized’, a ‘minority’, a ‘migrant’ or a ‘victim’ - constantly reaffirmed and reminded of a memory one wants to shred - identities forced even if one refuses to accept or wishes to shred. How would we feel if our rights are to be decided by labels pasted on us by another and the identity we carry is based upon the scars left behind by our oppressors?
Being compelled to take the label on oneself like it were an honour offered in the form of subsidies, scholarships and opportunities it may bring… if only we don’t bargain and if we would just accept what is thrust upon us as is. After all, ‘this is traditional, this is how the system works, this is how it has been, is and will be,’ we shall be told; and given the unasked for right to be stuck with an identity - silently yet systematically removing one’s right to live sans an identity - even if one wants to. We shall find a cap of identity available and wear the dunce cap silently to fit in with the rest of the careless crowd in our regular pursuit to belong to the majority and to make our way to the top of the normalcy curve of mediocrity as we are always taught to adhere.
With that, identity being confirmed, more by others than by oneself, here we are as part of a larger group - a group that feels or that is relentlessly made to feel as the marginalized, a part of the minority, a migrant, the oppressed, the victim and as the violated. And now having worn the cloak, the appetite for justice must match the voices of what others wearing similar cloak with rules and roles to match command – and we march along - even if we do not understand why we march with the crowd to a tune for a naked parade of the king.
From a slightly different perspective – perhaps the right perspective - we are in a way bribed and lured by means of scholarships, subsidies, waive-offs, freebies and other said opportunities available to a few that make us and keep us ’a part apart’ rather than claim to welfare such as these and more that must have been made a right available to all by bearing us as a ‘part of the whole’.
Invisibility of the visible
We often undermine our capacity to hate rather than our capability to do so. As Prof Philip Zimbardo puts it, “Good people can turn bad and become capable of doing evil things bad people do, in overwhelming situations.” - A phenomenon he called ‘The Lucifer effect’.
Incidents of violence and persecution happen at the micro, mezzo and macro system at various levels. Other incidents that exhibit the ‘Bystander effect’ at a larger scale like our relative calmness as a witness to violence like genocides and acts of terror that attempt to erase clueless and innocent civilians across the globe - perhaps far from our television screens on which we gladly watch them as mute spectators - like what happens in Syria, Palestine, Sri Lanka, Tibet, Bangladesh, Philippines, parts of Africa, apart from North East India and elsewhere too from a safe distance - safe enough for us to be comfortable to be not bothered about anything happening at a distance far away from us.
Often when we hear about incidents of violence where a person is left to die on the road after being run over by a speeding vehicle or thrown out of one after a brutal rape, with no one to help, we are left to the wits of our fantasy to imagine, if at all they survive, what would they be thinking… Would they wonder why no one cared when they were left to die? Would they be so gracious to see and forgive the violence shown towards them (at times accidental and many times deliberate)? Or would they go further to reflect on why the disregard and apathy shown to them exists in the first place? Would they see an emerging pattern of prejudice, bigotry, stereotyping and attitude - a result of constant and continuous assimilation and accommodation of schemas within their frame of reference that concludes in discovering and reaffirming their identity to justify the injustice shown to them - a cognitive dissonance at any scale or level as a natural tendency to move on - nevertheless survive as a group of victims against a group of perpetrators - groups that often interchange their stance in accordance to time for survival’s sake. Perhaps the same questions rise from a point of reflection at a larger level as it does at times of bearing individual trauma - only that this time it is reaffirmation and reconfirmation of identities for resilience at a confirmatory scale.
The upward mobility of the downtrodden
The plight and fight of the socially (pushed) backward and traditionally oppressed communities is more like a life on the wheel. The victims of violence and injustice today being identified and recognized as such, command more than demand their special provisions for upliftment in the name of social justice - be it the Dalits from India or the Africans settled in America or the indigenous people who were devoid of their rights in their homeland like the Maoris of New Zealand or the Red Indians of America and every other colonized country like India that is yet to recover from the aftermath of the mad nightmare of the past.
This self-imposed need to be identified and recognized as one belonging to the victimized, marginalized and scheduled groups is a mandate to avail the rationed welfare from the stored loot of his/her majesty’s invasion supplied in the form of grants, aid and other concessions. This identity of the ‘receiver’ as an ever-marginalized group or as a forever-developing country at large, gets further cemented by the media and good Samaritans of the development sector who make and take sensational coverage for overseas broadcast carefully selecting the ‘target’ group to be showcased as dirty, humbled and always dressed up in rags; while at the same time, the ‘giver’ being shown wearing the cloak of superiority, authority and pride to break and throw morsels collected on behalf of the victimized, poor, vulnerable, voiceless, haplessly helpless target groups to fetch. In reality though, it is these non-governmental organizations from the west whose survival depends by straining majority of the loot for their own keep - collected in the name of the target group on whose behalf they beg.
On one hand, the people who carry the burden of the earlier oppressors and who are widely pointed to for the blunders committed once for which they have no rationale claim to be blamed, are subjected and go through the same level of human disregard and discrimination which once their predecessors (alone) had to be blamed for. This phenomenon is a turn of the wheel as we see the ones who were up yesterday being crushed by the ones who were down today - just for the simple way in which things have turned. Sadly, identities that were fought to be cast away have simply become more certain, defined, nurtured, wilfully promoted by many and unwilfully thrust on the rest - for the same reason it was earlier done - for survival.
A resulting paradox - an ingroup that fought against an outgroup for stratifying, discriminating and labelling it, now takes up yet another fight to belong and be identified as a group carrying its own marks and scars of identity - quite ironically that becomes the new identity the ingroup wants to establish – reaffirming and confirming its identity more strongly rather than finding opportunities to shed the same for which it has been fighting all the while.
The culture of reaction and response
As a recourse for the perpetual violence and a way out of the suburban drudgery to soothe the conscience and ever questioning superego - those that result as a collective - is established through international treaties and national policies in an attempt to provide damage control to protect the affected – thereby promoting rather than suppress identities in the meantime. Thus, in a pursuit of burying identities, we only end up finding grounds to breed the same instead.
Others who lack faith in the collective conscience numb their pain and suffer in silence. This systematic depletion of unity, even though sees the existence of issues, resists seeking solutions. Subduing dissent as an opportunistic stand tends to be uncalculated risk every oppressor and their promoters can postpone yet never completely douse. In the process of brushing issues under the carpet to showcase and promote a false sense of complacency among the masses, unaddressed problems lie repressed until they erupt at unforeseen places at the least expected time and situation. Every issue calls to be addressed; as often, the simple, neglected form of unaddressed abuse turns out to become more complex and irreversible when not mitigated.
Interconnection of the broken links
The chances of cultivating singularity in the case of identity, is not as much an easy task as the claim to success through plural affiliations. Just as impeding individual freedom by imposing regulations for preserving common good cannot be denied, exercising strata to advocate nation-building in the context of valuing inclusion and pluralism cannot be dismissed - though both remain contradictory and paradoxical in their approach.
If one calls for scrutinizing the prevalence of poverty, inequality in the distribution of resources, services and justice, it all stems up from a context of social exclusion that prevailed at a period of time or that prevails still. From racism, imperialism, structuralism, autocracy to the more recent technocracy, stratification, discrimination and class distinction seems to be the way of life set forth by some, widely accepted by many and consciously or unconsciously followed by all indiscriminately. In our adherence to belong, we ensure that we don’t fail to belong to some group or the other and consequently by doing so, render to fail some way or the other.
Excessive emphasis on attributes based on religion, place of origin, gender, linguistic-similarities and differences and so on as an ascriptive attribute to describe one’s belonging to a certain group is also the discriminating force that mutilates multi-culturalism and turns out to be counter-productive to the idea of peaceful diversity and the idea of coexistence.
Though there have been enough and more academic dialogues, debates, discussions and discourses on the idea of identity, chances remain that there have been more questions than conclusions that have opened up. As we show greater resistance to be discriminated on one hand, we get more and more wilfully stratified on the other – either for political or it’s associated socio-economic reasons. Even the decision to opt out of having an identity established for us, seems out of question as we find ourselves struggling to get out of one box only to find ourselves drop in and fit right into another - packed, labelled and compartmentalized to be exhibited for the rest of the world to see and recognize. Thus, a fitting conclusion to this essay would be the chance to reflect only even more on the identities we chose and the identities that choose us as we reach a point of mooting over this final thought:
“When you call yourself an Indian or a Muslim or a Christian or a European, or anything else, you are being violent. Do you see why it is violent? Because you are separating yourself from the rest of mankind. When you separate yourself by belief, by nationality, by tradition, it breeds violence. So a man who is seeking to understand violence does not belong to any country, to any religion, to any political party or partial system; he is concerned with the total understanding of mankind." Jiddu Krishnamurti, Philosopher and Thinker
Points for further reflection:
1. How do we identify our self?
2. How are we identified by others?
3. What are the identities thrust upon us that we wish were not thrust upon us?
4. What are the identities we have thrust upon others?
5. How violent have we been establishing and thrusting identities on each other?
6. How long have we been and will continue to obstruct peace by promoting violence for establishing identities?
7. What is the way out for promoting peace and building a brave, new world free from identities?