Restoring the Social Fabric
Vesna Hart speaks about the need to bridge memories and narratives if we want to restore the social fabric.
Our speaker, Vesna Hart, was nineteen when war broke out in Croatia. She had just gotten a teaching degree and had to shuffle between four schools because of the conflict. She belongs to an ethnic minority (neither Croat or Serb) and hails from Vukovar, a town that's become a symbol of the wars that tore the Balkans apart. She never thought she could forgive, much less talk to people on the other side. Now she's here to show us how it's done.

She was teaching kids to read and write, and one day she saw a little girl come into the room with her hands clenched and chin trembling. She couldn't get the girl to talk so she had to piece things together from other kids as they came in: a warlord came through the street, stole equipment from some houses and threw a few bombs for good measure. One of those bombs landed in that little girl's home. Neutrality was impossible: you picked a side or a side picked you.

That's when she realized education wasn't just about literacy so much as taking care of the whole person. Experiences like these shape how we think about ourselves, about the Other (whoever that is) and the world in general. One of the most important decisions we can make is deciding if we think the world is a friendly place. And sometimes we don't have a choice when it comes to that – things happen to us and we react. We keep the Other (and each other) at a distance. It's a process and not just a decision.

So as she moved forward she came to believe deeply that education has a transformative power – people don't have to be stuck as Serbs or Croats, they don't have to argue over who started the war. They don't need to get caught up in the cycle of blame games, victim narratives or being content not analyzing our own role in all of this. So she eventually moved to the US to study peacebuilding, and when she saw just how many people there were coming from intractable conflicts she decided to focus on psychology. This helped her work with people, their beliefs and why they hold them.

We can't think of restoring the social fabric, Vesna says, without working with individuals. On all three tracks of diplomacy. This means getting people to start thinking about who they are, what their dark side is like, why they do what they do.

A lot of this has to do with memory – like the photographs fromthe previous lecture, they allow us to represent a specific moment. If she asks us to think of a specific moment last night: what we were wearing, who was there, what people said (precisely), we wouldn't be able to do it. Our memories aren't accurate, which is worrying when we think about how much our memories are connected to what we do as a society.

How many of us, she asks, have had first-hand experiences of war or violence? How many of us live in a place where violence happened? Did our parents? Our grandparents? These things shape us, as do our individual and collective memories of them.

She was born in Vukovar, as she mentioned, and there wasn't any house that wasn't impacted by the war. Some parts of town were completely flattened. Many people displaced, many dead. It had around fifty thousand people before the war and only twenty five remain today. It was a pretty industrial town and had its own bank – all of that just disappeared.
This is what her memory of war is like. Lots of shelling, lots of destruction, plenty of orphans, IDPS with little choices and lots of pain. There was a lot of alcohol, and cigarettes were damn valuable. People were trying to cope with the anxiety war produces. Every year is marked by marches to the victim memorials.

But there's something else going on here, she says. If she as an individual sees this event as the most defining event of her identity, then she has a big problem. The same is true for the group. It's an issue because life is bigger than Vukovar.

This leads to a mixed bag of experiences, with the need to remember the war rubbing up against the need to move on. These two desires can tend to make people either trapped in the past or putting it under lock and key. Neither of which is conducive to a healthy life.

But we have to understand why this happens. People who live in the past often live out of a sense of injustice, of their voice not being heard. They look backwards because they want to find a kind of justification, to right wrongs, to have their words out in the world. It's connected to an active process of victimization. The people who focus on the future, on the other hand, have a tendency to be the winners of the conflict. We often hear things like, "well, my people never did that. Maybe there were exceptions but we don't talk about it. We're the nice guys, the ones who were attacked and suffered." It's hard to look at what's inside or at any ways they were complicit in horror.

Again, what we focus on becomes our reality. Focusing on the future can mean avoidance, and focusing on the past can put limits on our possibilities for growth and change. So maybe we have to make a bridge between them and build narratives that are more inclusive, more focused on living better lives. Working with younger generations is really important for this, she says, because they're going to be creating our future social structures.

We know from experience and from studies that people who weren't cared for, who didn't have good relationships with their caregivers, have a limited capacity to care for themselves, other people and the world at large. That, and if you haven't been through the process of healing, then you stay hurt. And hurt people hurt other people.

There's a literature that suggests that up to age thirty our personality is pretty well-developed, and around age forty there's time for reflection and mild tuneups, but then after that we tend to be pretty set as we are. So unless we already have deep, deep beliefs somewhere inside us that the world is a positive place, it's hard to introduce that possibility after middle age. And it's much harder to challenge or change our narratives when they've got emotionally charged memories behind them.

Memories, on their own, are the raw material for the stories we tell ourselves. When they happen to be emotionally loaded, they create powerful, powerful narratives about ourselves, others and the world. Narratives can be seen as windows into individual and collective beliefs and values, and they can group together in society and produce a collective worldview. The past (or, in this case, the stories we tell about it) is constructed not as fact but as a kind of myth that exists to address the needs of individuals or communities. And, if at the core of all this are these emotional memories, it's hard to be neutral about stuff.

The narratives we have tend to serve the needs we have, and that's true whether we feel threatened or not. But when we do feel under threat we tend to tribe up – that's where we feel safe. And then a leader emerges. He or she has needs too, maybe a need to be in power and in control. Maybe the tribe has a need to follow something. Each has their own needs and narratives are constructed to tie them together (and against some Other).

We know that our attention is very selective, particularly when we go through a traumatic experience. Put a gun in our face and we won't remember the colour of your tshirt later. We select (not intentionally) the aspects of the event we focus in on and remember. There's research that suggests that as time passes people's memories actually become less accurate yet we have even more confidence in them – there was a study done on people's memories of 9/11 and the results were astounding.

We keep talking about needs and it's not just about Maslow's typical inventory of food, shelter and whatnot. Our speaker affirms that we have broader socio-emotional needs that are just as important: affiliation, affection and attachment. And grouping up into these tribal formations addresses these needs profoundly, and having a leader can play into this as well.

So, this stuff starts impacting our collective lives when we feel threatened and start gravitating even more strongly towards our in-group. This threat to our social identity often leads us to:
Delegitimize the Other – we say they're not human, they're to blame for atrocities, the focus is entirely on what they've done
Create a positive self-image as a moral, righteous, peace-loving people
Allow for a collective self-victimization – we affirm that we're the ones who suffered, who experienced the most injustice, and this
can be used to prompt international interventions
(as was the case in Croatia and Bosnia)
When we throw in emotions like fear, hatred or whatever, we often create toxic environments. We start consolidating selective ways of memory and forgetting (chosen traumas and chosen victories) and develop huge blind spots along the way. And these spotty memories can dominate a group's identity.

The battle of Kosovo, for example, was a traumatic event in 1387 and it still dominates the Serbian national imagination today. It was perceived as a humiliating and shameful moment (a chosen trauma), but in 1989 Milošević (then-president of Yugoslavia) goes and gives this speech that Serbs are under threat and need to fight back because they're winners dammit and because they rose again and became a strong nation (the chosen glory).

Different groups, gathering around different memories, construct different narratives about the past – if these groups live in close proximity they basically create parallel identities and parallel realities to prop them up. And if these parallel realities end up on a crash course we get acts of aggression and memorializing and violence and the whole cycle starts again. Sometimes we get histories of one-sided oppression. Sometimes we get victims switching roles with aggressors.

This last bit is interesting and she spends some time with it. If a group is victimized, maybe they don't acknowledge it at first, maybe they say it wasn't that bad, or maybe they deserved it. And then time passes and they realize, wow, we're pissed. And anger is always a secondary emotion – there's pain and hurt and sadness beneath that, along with other suppressed emotions like humiliation or guilt. And then with all that brewing under us maybe we start fantasizing about revenge.

Maybe we develop this good/evil narrative about everyone associated with the people who hurt us. We see how bad they are, we see what they did to us. They're bad, like, really, really bad. They're evil. In fact...they're cockroaches. And then from there it becomes easy to go and squish them if we can. We start the cycle again but from the other side.
So we have whole societies and identity-groups stewing in traumatic historical experiences that are selectively remembered and used to address traumas they have today. Is there any connection between the past and the present, between different points in the conflict? Is there any way to get out of this cycle, or to get a broader, more generous view of the past?

One model that's important for her has the ability to help us deal with emotions (again, she reminds us: hurt people hurt people). We might be afraid to deal with our emotions, maybe we think they'll be too big if we look at them straight on. But when we do just that, they often as not become smaller. Because we finally make room for other emotions to enter that space. And once we've started processing our emotions and developing mechanism to manage our own trauma we'll be able to start thinking about the narratives we've built up around ourselves.

Finding a way out of these cycles, for her, involves a willingness to consider the narrative of the other. It means asking ourselves why do they do what they do. And this can happen through an encounter. The most important transformative experience she had was when she was able to share her experience with a neutral person. After doing it for a week straight he had to spend two days just lying in bed.

From there she felt ready to go out and engage others. Namely people from the other side – she wanted tell her story. At that stage she mostly just got into arguments about who started the war first, sometimes even with good friends. But then they got to a point where they thought, wow, why are we focusing on this one particular thing? Is this the most important factor? How can we focus on the act of living together?

When dealing with violent pasts it's important to realize how, in the end, we're all losers. Our communities were torn apart. The social fabric was torn. We've undergone trauma. And obviously we need to resolve political issues and mediation is certainly one way to do that, but it can be a process that stays very much in the head. We have a need to connect to the heart as well.

Storytelling processes are important here. Regardless of whether or not reconciliation happens or transformative justice is moved forward, the act of integrating different experiences into your community life is a huge deal and it helps us step out of exclusionary identities like "I'm a victim and this is what they did to me." Because people are much more than victims. You're much more than a victim.
Tangent: I ask her about a tension I run into in dialogue work. The one between finding healing as a person on the one hand and seeking systemic societal change on the other. If you have a strong identity, and if that identity helps people band together and fight for their rights/change/progress, then stepping outside of that identity in the name of individual healing can feel a lot like betrayal. Another person in the room says this is true about identity politics in North America. We ask about this dynamic and how she approaches it.
She tells us you can't force anyone to heal, and if people are still choosing to remain in their victimized group identities then that's their choice. Maybe they're not ready to move into a different mode of living and identifying. Maybe their issues have become politicized, which also affects the process quite a bit. Instead of diving head first into this kind of process, maybe it's better to dip your toes in first. One bit at a time.

You can do this by simply asking for their story. Look for glimpses of hope, or of other identities than just a 'survivor'. Someone in the audience tells about a friend who lost a parent in the war and constantly goes around talking about it and making other people feel guilty. The Vesna suggests asking if she also has a sister, or what about an aunt? You can help them build a narrative that isn't excllusively based on the identity of a person-who-lost-a-parent-in-war. Or maybe you can respond by saying something like, hey, you're hurting me. You're hurt, I see that. How can we explore this space together?

Or, or course, maybe she won't be ready for that yet.

So when we start advocating for change, for reintegrating this social fabric, things have to happen on the level of individuals. And we have to help those individuals process their emotions as well as think about what emotions might be driving us as we move along. There's this one researcher who published an article about five different ways emotions can impact the kinds of advocacy we do.

First there's radvocacy, which is the radical position that everything is bad and we need to change it now. It points out what isn't working, but it's hard to follow up on this realistically. Then there's madvocacy, where anger's in the driver's seat. Anger's good for figuring out the things that are oppressing or bothering you, but it isn't always the best for suggesting constructive solutions. Gladvocacy is like that guy who says they're just really glad to be here and we should listen to everything and all just work together. Which can be very good when you've already processed the situation (and hurt) and figured out where we can move forward. But it can just as often be naive or even be blind to on some pretty crucial factors. Then there's sadvocacy, which uses sadness as motivation for change. This is a look-at-poor-me kind of approach and can be connected to narratives of victimization. Then fadvocacy is where people are just getting on a bandwagon.

As we become aware of these different modes and models we can start asking ourselves when each are effective. And when they're not. There may be a place for all of them, but we need to be wise and strategic. The emotions we use to drive the advocacy or healing or reconciliation process may have more effects on said process than we expect.

For example, she's based in the US right now and the most common image they have in the public mind is an angry activist. An angry activist without solutions. Obviously this is a stereotype, but even activists can be trapped in cycles like this. People hurting people. But she's going to stop here and continue tomorrow with some practical exercises for making these connections again. Because diagnosing the issue without taking steps to addressing it is like cutting someone open for surgery and leaving them them open there on the table.

Not ideal.