Identity-Based Conflict
final paper

Ideology, Identity and Threat:

Josh Nadeau describes why it's important to understand the effects of ideological identity dynamics on dialogue processes

In a final paper for the Saint Paul University course on Identity-Based Conflict, Josh Nadeau frames the United States and Ukraine as cases where ideological identities impair the ability to conduct dialogue processes.

The following text is the academic paper produced for the course. For a more accessible version intended for a broader audience, click here.
Dialogue, a communicative tool aimed at generating mutual understanding between parties (Bryn and Eidsvåg 2015), has been repeatedly used to to assist individuals and groups faced with conflict or internal division. Organizing a dialogue process in contexts of armed or even societal conflicts requires significant preparation which often includes analyzing the identity dynamics in play. In the words of Jay Rothman, this is because dialogue involves giving "voice to [the parties'] essential concerns," ones often rooted in a "people's collective need for dignity, recognition, safety, control, purpose and efficacy" (Rothman 1997, 7-8).

A growing body of literature has emerged in the late 20th and early 21st century linking these concerns with collective identity (Volkan 1997 and 2006, Ross 2001, Tint 2010), building a robust theoretical framework that elevated identity dynamics as a core focus for dialogue organizers and practitioners. Dialogue efforts have since sought to be sensitive to salient identity dynamics (Bryn 2013) and have often worked to shift conflict-conducive identities into ones more inclusive of both threatened or threatening 'others' (Komlossyová 2018).

That said, many dialogue processes have had a limited focus on identity markers like ethnicity, nationality or religion. While such markers have proved salient in a large number of conflicts (Horowitz 1985), there is also a growing literature that emphasizes the salience of ideologically-based identity markers, for example 'liberal' or 'pro-Russian,' in polarized, inter-societal conflicts (Gramlich 2017, Mason 2018, Kraus and Kyselova 2020).

Taking from this literature, I will use this paper to demonstrate the ways ideological identity dynamics can impact the ability to conduct dialogue processes in divided societies. I affirm that ideological identity markers are just as relevant as other markers traditionally predominant in the literature, like ethnicity and religion. In some contexts, ideological identities often prove more salient than these more 'conventional' markers. To that end, I will explore the impact of ideological identity markers on dialogue processes in two cases in particular: the so-called North American 'culture war' between liberal and conservative groups, particularly during the Trump era (2015-2021), as well as the ongoing armed conflict in East Ukraine that began in 2014. A short description of both contexts is first in order.

The Context

In the United States, a prolonged, inter-societal cultural struggle between two large groups ideologically defined as liberal and conservative has been intensifying since the 1970s (Desilver 2014). This has famously been labelled a "culture war" (Hunter 1991), with the central issue at stake identified as the dominance of liberal or conservative cultural values in American society (Jacoby 2014, Graham 2021). The term "culture war" is contentious and, at times, ill-defined (Hunter and Wolfe 2006, Jacoby 2014), and so for the purposes of this paper I will define it as a large-group ideological and value-driven conflict influenced by political affiliation identity markers (PAIMs) that for the most part excludes instances of systemic or prolonged direct violence.

Conflicts driven by ideological PAIMs like 'liberal' and 'conservative' greatly intensified during the Trump presidency (Schaeffer 2020), resulting in increased socio-cultural and political polarization (Mason 2018, PRRI 2019). A growing number of reports also claim that the ideological identities driving the culture war have entrenched into a more significant socio-cultural divide than those emerging from other contentious markers like race, class, religion or gender (Gramlich 2017). This had led partisans to greater levels of disengagement from the other side (Iyengar et al 2018), as well as a heightened degree of "stereotyping, prejudice and...volatility" in public life (Mason 2018, 4), prompting concerns that partisans will "embrace distorted and skewed views of their political rivals'' or" or assume "irrationality or depravity of those with whom they disagree" (Aikin and Talisse 2019, 20, Haidt 2012). A growing amount of research linking such 'culture war' behaviour to PAIMs (Greene 2004, Mason 2013, Iyengar and Krupenkin 2018, Mason 2018) claims that partisans are increasingly viewing opponents as enemies and treating even online interactions as existential threats. These are all factors that further increase polarization and inhibit the ability to conduct dialogue between the respective camps.

In terms of the Ukrainian context, the following paragraph summarizes information from Tatiana Kyselova's "Mapping Civil Society and Peacebuilding in Ukraine" (2019):

Since 2014, the Donbas (alternatively spelled Donbass) region in East Ukraine has experienced armed, separatist violence resulting in the emergence of the so-called Donetsk and Luhansk People's Republics (DNR/LNR) in April 2014. These are breakaway states that have failed to gain recognition from the broader international community. The violence involved was ostensibly in response to the 'Euromaidan' protests and the ensuing local revolution in February 2014, though opinions on which group is at fault vary – Kyiv officially blames Russia for supporting the separatists (which Russia denies) while Moscow claims the conflict is an inter-ethnic, civil affair. Two ceasefire protocols, known as Minsk I and II, were reached in 2015 but proved difficult to implement. They have however remained the basis of peace talks through a continuing process known as the Normandy Format (composed of the political leaders of Ukraine, France, Germany and Russia). Low intensity shelling and occasional firefights still erupt along the 'grey zone,' a line which effectively delineates the border between government- and non-government controlled territories (GCA/NGCA). Since 2014, the conflict has claimed over 13,000 lives and displaced more than two million citizens – currently 8% of Ukrainian territory (including the annexed Crimean peninsula) is de facto NGCA (Kyselova 2019, 7-8).

Kyselova claims the war is "characterized by [a] high level of...hybridity" that "combines elements of external aggression and localized conflict" (Kyselova 2019, 8). There are a number of different components to the conflict: a) the allegedly internationalized dispute between Kyiv and Moscow proxied through Donbas separatist forces, b) the direct armed conflict between the Ukrainian army and the separatists, and c) the ideological, cultural split within Ukrainian society along local PAIMs such as pro-Russian or pro-Ukrainian/European (Kyselova 2019, Kraus and Kyselova 2020, Salnykova 2014). For the purposes of this paper, I will be focusing primarily on the impact the latter, ideologically-based conflict has on local dialogue processes.

The first point that I would like to make about the impact of PAIMs on dialogue initiatives involves how such ideological identities are often unprotected. In other words, identity dyads like liberal/conservative or pro-Ukrainian/pro-Russian are often neither subject to anti-discrimination laws nor is such discrimination a social taboo – in fact, the opposite is often true: partisans in these respective conflicts are often encouraged to "view one's opponents unfavourably" (Iyengar and Krupenkin 2018, 31).

Shanto Iyengar and Masha Krupenkin (2018) noted this dynamic in the context of the American culture war, going on to note that this 'encouragement' contributes to the delegitimization of the other side's needs or point of view, making it difficult to justify norms like civility in an increasingly polarized context where the parties are already primed, cognitively speaking, to see the other side as normatively "bad" (Iyengar and Krupenkin 2018, 31).

This is complicated further by findings on how ideological divides can fuel righteous indignation against groups who hold the 'wrong' values (Haidt 2012). Being faced with opposing different ideological-moral frameworks can easily trigger partisan brains to enter "combat mode" (Haidt 2012, 58) or prompt them to "cleanse" their social spaces from what are perceived as contaminating ideas and worldviews (Haidt 2012, 71). Such mechanisms can supplement social encouragement of attacking ideological foes with cognitive rewards associated with overcoming perceived evils and fulfilling moral imperatives. These factors place additional burdens on dialogue initiators who focus on ideological divides, burdens that may not be encountered over the course of projects dedicated to addressing ethnic, religious or racial disputes.

The Ukrainian context adds additional complexities that can take the conflict into the realm of the potentially intractable. Kraus and Kyselova have noted the "problematic" absence of pro-Russian ideological identities in many dialogues taking place across Ukraine (2020, 3), which is likely fuelled by strong, anti-Russian social pressures (on levels ranging from the government to civil society) that have emerged as a result of the armed conflict. Public discourse "marginalizes the concept of peace as a whole" (Kyselova 2019, 14), and engagement with the 'other' (here defined as pro-Russian Ukranians) through mechanisms like dialogue can generate anxieties of being labelled a "traitor" to a nation at war (Kraus and Kyselova 2020, 24). While anti-discrimination policies and discourses are applied to identity markers like gender, ability, sexual orientation or ethnicity (Kyselova 2019, 29), 'threatening' PAIMs not only are unprotected but can be actively or structurally discriminated against, complicating dialogue efforts.

What's more, these attitudes are underlied by emotionally-fraught historical narratives centered around the recent past that allow pro-Ukrainian/European and pro-Russian PAIMs to be framed in moral terms of good and evil. For ideologically pro-Russian citizens, pro-Ukrainians are often linked to independence movements from the mid-20th century that had collaborated with the Nazis. This is fuelled by Russian-language media narratives branding pro-democratic Ukrainians as "neo-Nazis" or "fascists" (Fedor, Lewis and Zhurzhenko 2017, 5), linking ideological identity with past atrocity. On the other side, such 'memory wars' frame the pro-Russians as traitors to the Ukranian cause, allied with the forces which had perpetrated famine, genocide and subjugation upon Ukrainians during Soviet times (Zhurzhenko 2011). These ideological attitudes predate the war – pro-Ukrainian and pro-Russian partisans in the far east and west of the country have long been found to express skepticism of dialogue in favour of using legislative or majoritarian "force" to resolve these deep-seated tensions (Salnykova 2014, 16).

The second point I would like to draw attention to is how ideologically-driven societal conflicts complicate attempts to cleanly delineate the 'sides' involved – this can have a major impact on dialogue processes.

In the United States, Liliana Mason has written extensively about the 'social sorting' that has led to intensified PAIM-based conflict in the country. In her book "Uncivil Agreement: How Politics Became Our Identity" (2018), she defined sorting as the process by which "partisan, ideological, religious and racial identities have, in recent decades, moved into strong alignment," claiming that the Democrat and Republican parties have "grown increasingly socially homogeneous" (Mason 2018, 6). In other words, typically cross-cutting identities have consolidated into monolithic 'mega-identities' defined by ideological PAIMs. She notes that "secular, urban, low-income, Hispanic and black" communities have been sorted in with liberal identities, while "middle class or wealthy rural, churchgoing and white" identities are increasingly sorted in with conservatives (Mason 2018, 26).

Mason goes on to explain how, with these identities lined up, increased animosity, polarization and even hatred start to set in as two 'sides' emerge that have increasingly little to do with each other and little contact to speak of, leading to groups that are "less tolerant, more biased and feel angier at the people in their outgroups" (Mason 2018, 61). This creates even higher stakes – the lack of cross-cutting cleavages is thought to create a greater sense of humiliation or elation in the face of victory or loss against the outgroup. What's more, as identity groups become more monolithic, key minority groups that resist these sorting trends may not be included or even noticed by organizers of dialogue processes.

One example of such a group are black conservatives. Included in this group are prominent figures like economist Thomas Sowell or pundits like radio host Larry Elder, who regularly speak out against framing racial issues in terms of purportedly "liberal" concepts like structural racism, opting instead to focus on the alleged effects of the welfare state or fatherlessness (Elder 2013, Sowell 2019). Writer, lawyer and activist Jamil Jivani claims that these 'breaks' with mainstream black opinion lead to conservatives being "written out of the discourse" (Jivani 2021). In this sort of ideologically-charged cultural context, dialogue facilitators may experience difficulties identifying, including and bringing such divergent voices to the table.

In Ukraine, pinning down ideologically-delineated participants for dialogue processes has proven difficult for an entirely different reason. Rather than being defined by a highly visible sorting process, Kyselova writes that societal conflict between pro-Ukrainan and pro-Russian ideological partisans resists reduction to "ethnic, linguistic...political differences, or structural economic inequalities between the regions" (Kyselova 2019, 7). These identities are rooted in the ideas held by individuals and communities rather than being defined by the contact line or whether a given locality lies within the GCA or NGCA. They are based on self-identification and, most importantly, "are not stable, but instead are constantly shifting and mixing" (Kyselova 2019, 8). These ideological stances, in fact, may have even made ethnic identification more fluid: "some people who live in Ukraine and used to identify themselves as ethnic Russians in 2003 and now might identify as ethnic Ukrainians and vice versa" (Kyselova 2019, 8).

This is further complicated by the fact that these identities can be subject to dramatic change should an individual or community decide to reassess their ideological positions. Kraus and Kyselova argue that this is a process that, in fact, can be sped up by dialogue – by including, for example, pro-Russian Ukrainians in a dialogue, their minds may change and thus there may no longer be an 'other' to reconcile with in a given process. By "transforming" these identities, they are "excluded" by means of their disappearance (Kraus and Kyselova 2020, 24). That said, there's no way of knowing for sure whether a pro-Russian partisan's views have actually changed, or whether they have decided to conceal them from the group for reasons of their own personal safety or because facilitators have opted not to engage those opinions for fear of legitimizing a political 'other' or facing social reprisals (Kraus and Kyselova 2020, 23). "Consequently," Kyselova writes, "the conflict has no clearly identifiable sets of conflict parties and therefore the target groups of reconciliation...remain unclear" (Kyselova 2019, 7).

The third, final and perhaps most concerning factor that complicates dialogue between ideologically-opposed PAIM partisans is that the dialogue process itself, or at least discourses of dialogue, can become appropriated by one partisan group and used against the other.

In the American culture war, this has been especially evident in discourses on civility. Civility is often framed as a precondition for dialogue to take place (Ropers 2017): it is defined as a "a set of norms that enable citizens to manage their political disagreements, even in cases where the stakes are high" (Aikin and Talisse 2019, 7), the "baseline of respect that we owe one another in public life" (Fadel 2019) or a "courageous" attempt to humanize the other side of a divisive debate (Bornstein 2018). Civility has been framed as a virtue that resists "cheap shots" against one's opponents, promotes genuine dialogue in the face of polarization and consolidates the democratic glue that holds liberal societies together (Aikin and Talisse 2019, 18).

However, civility has come under fire during the Trump era, and dialogue, due to this connection, has been criticized along with it. These criticisms have focused on how historically underprivileged groups, such as black, queer or trans communities, can be marginalized by powerful actors who appropriate the language of civility and dialogue (Newkirk 2016, Surgue 2018). In cases like these, minorities and their allies are told to stop being "loud" and to "calm down" if they want their needs are to be taken into account (Hugs 2015) – this is thought to place an undue burden on communities who are described as not having the "luxury" to remain calm (Serwer 2019). In cases like these, dialogue can be framed as a weapon used by oppressive actors in bad faith to quell resistance to unjust power structures – this has been an accusation brought against groups seen as embodying white supremacy (Zamalin 2021), which is a particularly contested topic in the culture war.

In cases like these, dialogue ceases to be seen as ideologically neutral, and there may need to be extra steps taken by facilitators and dialogue organizers in order to convince the relevant groups that dialogue is not going to be weaponized against them by partisan opponents.

In Ukraine, this discourse of 'weaponization' has also proved salient, particularly regarding media events known as 'telebridges.' These are live broadcast events where two parties speak to each other, often framed as a dialogue or debate, and in the summer of 2019 there were attempts on the part of Kremlin-linked Channel 1 to set up a telebridge between Kyiv and Moscow on the topic of the ongoing Donbas conflict (Nadeau 2019). It was marketed as a Russia-brokered attempt at civil dialogue, though this narrative was problematized as it was funded by a state-funded channel accused of running anti-Ukrainian propaganda (KyivPost 2019). The telebridge was subsequently denounced as an attempt at "informational sabotage" and a "provocation" by major political figures (Teller Report 2019, KyivPost 2019).

This plays into a broader narrative that "peace with the aggressor is impossible; how can you reconcile if we are victims?" (Kyselova 2019, 14), which can lend itself to interpretations of dialogue as attempts at manipulation. Dialogue meetings in Ukraine have also been targets for harassment by far-right Ukrainian nationalist groups like "Right Sector" (Kraus and Kyselova 2020), who have shown up at dialogue events to threaten participants. Civil society initiatives, including dialogue processes, that have shown signs of inclusion towards pro-Russian ideological partisans have been viewed with suspicion as there have been accusations that Russian government has used such groups as a weapon of "hybrid warfare" in the country (Kraus and Kyselova 2020, 15). This, in turn, lowers the likelihood of pro-Russian partisans engaging in dialogue at all, or even identifying themselves in public.

In this paper, I have identified three ways in which ideological PAIMs affect dialogue processes in divided societies. First, ideological identities, as compared to other identity markers, are often unprotected or even overtly discriminated against. Second, the ambiguities involved in ideological PAIMs result in difficulties to delineate and thus address the relevant sides to a dispute. And third, if dialogue mechanisms become ideologically associated with one partisan group, they can come to be viewed as 'weaponized' by the other side. While these might appear to be wholly pessimistic prognoses for the state of dialogue in an increasingly ideologically divided world, identifying the problem remains the first step. Should these criticisms be taken into consideration by enough relevant figures in a conflict, steps may then be taken to mitigate their negative impact.
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Josh Nadeau is a freelance writer and dialogue practitioner.
He studied identity-based conflict at St. Paul University in 2021.

Banner photo by Mstyslav Chernov on wikicommons
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