Discovering the Conflict Story, II

October 10, 2015

Below I describe a narrative mediation model that I have developed and employed during my years of experience practicing tribal engagement, a primary US Army Special Forces function used in countering violent extremism and community conflict in under-governed regions of states experiencing communal conflict.

I distinguish between the historical narrative and the conflict story to separa


te the dense, generational narrative of a collective from the micro-stories that bring glory and trauma into the larger narrative. Where the larger collective narrative carries group identity and projects cultural expression, the micro-stories of glory and trauma serve as markers of cognition and emotion. While the existence of the collective narrative may be non-negotiable, the micro-stories that bring the narrative into conflict can be mediated. The communal act of restorying is meant as an action verb, something that is consciously and willfully done by the community in order to establish ownership. As many emerging cultures are, for all practical purposes, oral societies, the word ‘restory’ fits better then ‘rewrite’.

Sociocentric society and the call to position in group identity definition and sustainment. Unlike the constructed societies of the developed world, emerging cultures remain, for the most part, bounded by blood and marriage and possess a socio- centric psychological organization (Lindholm, 2008). Sociocentric societies are characterized by an external locus of member control that uses complex schemas of inclusion and alienation as powerful methods of group coherence and belonging (Kaufman, 1996). Family members in sociocentric households tend to develop less of an individual agency function and a greater ethos-laden collective-centric group identity and action that builds shared context for communication and the making of meaning (Linger, 2007).

Within the sociocentric family structure, there is far more of the ‘we’ than the ‘I’ mentality found in the egocentric family (Tajfel, 1982).  This reality drives how the mediator must work to discover the conflict story within: collectively rather than individually. Because the collective is bound with greater member dependency for their own individual psychosocial and emotional health, serious damage or destabilization of the sociocentric narrative will incur greater sequelae in any resulting psychological devolution or sociological disintegration (Elsass, 1992; 1997).

The intimate group interaction that creates the historical narrative also inculcates the group’s archaic typologies (archetypes) to each new generation of membership (Jung, 1981). These archaic typologies, in turn, serve as standard-bearers for the development of each generation’s prototypes and their requirements for receiving eulogy and heroic acclaim (Stein, 1994b). These archaic typologies, be they in the form of warrior, savior, survivor, fertility, caregiving and the like, create strong cognitive–psychological and subconscious–emotional drives to fulfill prototypical roles within the group historical narrative (Edinger, 1992). Individual and group collectives act out prototypical behaviors that serve physical daily needs as well as contribute to the deepening of the group narrative (Tilly, 2005).

The narrative is deepened when the prototypical behavior meets accepted criteria for a heroic eulogy and inclusion into the shared cultural dream work that the group holds out as their ongoing narrative containing the collective existential identity and its multifaceted emotional conjugate (Stein, 1994a). If we think of the group narrative and its existential identity as the center of a shared dream life of the family, clan and tribe, then any threats to that dream life would result in increased activity to protect, define and or sustain it. This by itself creates what Winslade and Monk (2000) refer to as ‘calls to position’ among the members that can result in the creation of individual acts or stories by the membership designed to preserve the interior life of the whole. For conflict participants, the preservation of their group narrative may seem to be inseparable from their enactment of their ongoing conflict story. It is the task of the mediator to help them separate the negotiable conflict story from the non-negotiable historical narrative.

Opening psychological and emotional space to discover the conflict story. By the time that I become involved in mediating tribal or militia conflict, the calls to position within the conflict parties have long hardened. Psychological pain from survivor guilt, loss of loved ones and traumatization of communal reality had closed down the psychological and emotional space between the conflict parties; all either side could see was their own pain and suffering. All they could think of doing was to continue the endless cycle of perpetrating more pain, followed by the victimization of retaliation by the hated other (Krystal, 1978). It is at this point that the mediator has to commit himself to empathy with community members who are at once victims and perpetrators caught in a cycle of victimization–retaliation–victimization.

The commitment to empathy is a verb, not an adjective; it is more a physical than an emotional change in that the mediator listens with a cognitive attentive- ness and “emotional alertness” that creates “cultural space” between the mediator and the client victim and the client perpetrator (Stein, 1994: 2-3). This deep listening on the part of the mediator can elicit the deeper, profoundly painful conflict story that has caught the victim-perpetrator in a harrowing nightmare of alienation. Such alienation creates overwhelming shame that results in uncontrolled rage, turning the victim back into the perpetrator (Scheff and Retzinger, 1991). This first step between mediator and conflict party is about building an emotional and empathetic relationship as a basis for cognitive trust, without which the conflict story cannot be discovered.

The conflict stories of intra-state conflicts are often violent, brutal affairs. In my current work in northern Niger, my team and I work to understand and mediate tribal conflict that takes the lives of men, women, children and the livestock they depend on to survive. In the past several weeks, a number of related Tuareg and Fulani clans have lost 17 dead and 20 have been wounded in violence that affected every family in the clan and tribe. In such communal violence the discovery of the conflict story must become a journey grounded in trust and willingness of the mediator to share (com) the pain (passion) of those whom he would help.

My inquiries constitute a request for access to places of loss and suffering protected by defensive boundaries against casual memory. Words and expressions that casually invoke memory without descent into sharing leave the relationship between mediator and participant wounded and bleeding. Such words become charity from unequal positions of respect, dignity and right of survival. The dialogue demeans the relationship to one of participant subservience rather than mediator sharing. The mediator then forfeits his right to inquire, to share in that secret place of pain – the conflict story. Events, information and actions that have the deepest emotional, psychological or spiritual impact on people are not casually shared, discussed or evaluated without demeaning them (Nathanson, 1987). The descent into sharing must be authorized, guided and based on equality at an intrinsic level of suffering.

The mediator’s willingness to engage calmly and compassionately in order to learn their conflict story through sharing in its pain and loss allows the conflict members to open up and tell their side of the story from that deeply emotional place the mediator has helped them access. The practice of discovering the conflict story is not difficult when the mediator is prepared to listen patiently and without judgment. Often, after achieving rapport, the mediator begins the journey with the simplest but most heartfelt of questions while others are designed simply to open dialogue.
Mediator: What is it that you have lost that was the most precious?5 What is the most important thing that you would like to make clear to us about your community’s relationship with the ‘other’?
Cultural mediation uses questions and sensitive restatements of responses to deconstruct the positions and stances the conflict party has been using to satisfy their underlying human needs. Through a slow process of dialogue, the mediator works to bring these needs into the open so they can be objectively examined against the reality of day-to-day survival and viewed as a separate entity from the larger historical narrative. The questions and dialogue can be as simple as asking how they will survive.
Mediator: How will you farm without water? Where will your children go during the next attack? Have you thought of asking your conflict partner to dis- cuss how to use collective action to obtain assistance from the government?

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