The Thirteenth Meeting of the International Dialogue Initiative (IDI) was held in Oxford, United Kingdom from September 30 to October 2, 2015. The IDI was again hosted by Harris Manchester College of Oxford University, home of the Centre for the Resolution of Intractable Conflict. This was the IDI’s second meeting at Harris Manchester College.
The IDI’s 13th Meeting took place at a time of great political and social turmoil. The group took up the issues of Syrian refugees seeking asylum in Western Europe, continued unrest in the Middle East, political shifts in multiple locales and the security and psycho-political implications of the U.S.-Iran nuclear deal, among other topics.
What follows herein is NOT a full report of IDI discussions, but rather a synopsis of key observations.
The IDI began its Thirteenth Meeting in its customary form, with members updating each other on their personal and professional activities over the preceding months. Members discussed conflict interventions, conferences and professional activities both past and upcoming. Two IDI members were unable to attend due to professional obligations in Turkey and Vienna, respectively. A total of eighteen members were present.
The IDI was joined at its Thirteenth Meeting by Donna M. Elmendorf, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist and Director of the Therapeutic Community Program at The Austen Riggs Center. The IDI has longstanding professional and personal relationships with The Austen Riggs Center. In consideration of those relationships, Dr. Elmendorf was invited to participate in the Thirteenth Meeting as an ongoing institutional liaison.
The IDI also extended its sincere congratulations to its President, Dr. Vamik Volkan, who is one of two recipients of the 2015 Sigourney Award for outstanding contributions to the field of psychoanalysis. A detailed account of Dr. Volkan’s award may be found here: http://www.sigourneyaward.org/vamik-d-volkan-m-d/.
- Corporate Form
The IDI confirmed that it has been formally recognized by the U.S. Internal Revenue Service as a registered 501(c)(3) charitable organization capable of receiving tax-deductible donations.
- Day One Discussion
Departing from past practice, the IDI opened the substantive discussion at its Thirteenth Meeting with a general inquiry, inviting members to comment on what the world looks like from their vantage points. Several members took up this entry and a lively discussion ensued.
Initial contributions from an American member’s vantage point concerned the politics and perception of the U.S.-Iran nuclear deal, the U.S.’s rapprochement with Cuba, United States internal political turmoil, including the upcoming elections and the recent resignation of the Speaker of the House of Representatives, and continued issues of racial violence in U.S. cities. Many of these issues appear related, at least as they are framed within public perception. For example, partisan politics and a complicit media environment within the United States has made it hard to assess the true implications of the U.S.-Iran deal. American members raised the possibility that U.S. domestic turmoil was related to an entrenched power structure’s fear of losing its status and becoming part of the marginalized ‘others’ they so often demonize.
Other members took up this entry point to describe their own perspectives on both the United States and the implications of U.S. policies on conflict within their home regions. Often, the implications were minor, and a narrative of U.S. narcissism emerged. In many comments, U.S. policy was of secondary or tertiary concern, behind internal domestic issues and, often, the troubling implications of Russian foreign policy.
One commentator voiced a common European concern that U.S. rhetoric was undermined by Russian strategy – the metaphor of “a speech versus a plan.” This commentator noted that Russia had just received UN approval to use force in Syria. Another pointed out that while it was clear that Russian President Vladimir Putin had worked to align Russian foreign policy with the tenets of the Russian Orthodox Church, and while some Russian media outlets were trumpeting Russian intervention in Syria as a “holy war,” it was instead becoming a proxy war between the U.S. (supporting Kurds and non-ISIS rebels) and Russia (supporting the Assad regime).
Initial perceptions of the U.S.-Iran nuclear deal were that it was of major importance even if the process seemed “chaotic,” and that it initiated changes across the Middle East in a number of relationships. One commentator observed that the U.S.-Iran deal, despite appearances, was not between the U.S. and Iran, but rather between multiple parties in multiple overlapping arrangements. A related observation was that Iran was currently the most stable state in the Middle East.
Discussion then shifted to the view from Northern Ireland, where one commentator noted that the past year had been difficult, with two high-profile murders seemingly related to past partisanship. More widely in the United Kingdom, the surprising election of Jeremy Corbyn, as Labour Leader and therefore Leader of Opposition in the Westminster Parliament, seemed to suggest that polarization was not limited to Northern Ireland but felt more widely in the United Kingdom.
Another member wondered how to frame “the correct Middle East issue.” Was it ISIS? The Syrian Refugee crisis? The Iran deal? Or was the correct Middle East inquiry into “who holds the anxiety,” where is the anxiety felt most deeply? Within this commentator’s own practice, he saw deep anxiety about ISIS and anxiety about Russian intervention mixed with the desire for ‘a leader.’ This commentator also saw, within his practice, the limits of social media to serve as a unifying force. Social media increased isolation, served as a recruiting tool for extremists, and detached users from their real-world communities.
A member framed her observations with the question “Can we speak to the Other?” She noted that global concerns from years previous about failed states have not stopped the number of failed states from proliferating. She noted the irony for Germany of feeling like ‘the good guys’ relative to European financial stability and response to the refugee crisis, the irony of a recent magazine cover showing German PM Angela Merkel in the habit of Mother Theresa. She also noted the challenge presented by the waves of refugees entering Germany, the oscillation between the sentiments of “let them in” and “build a wall,” the number of buildings being built to house and shelter refugees. She compared this effort with the effort after World War II, when Germany took in 12 million refugees. What were the assimilation challenges then? Was it easier for European refugees to assimilate into German culture than it is for Syrian refugees? Was Europe ‘younger’ then, and more flexible in its assimilation demands? One member noted that the first response to the needs of others is usually empathy, but the second is fear.
A member observed that Putin was solving domestic problems in Russia via foreign policy. The sense in Russia is that Putin is gambling that his interventions will provide leverage against Western sanctions in response to Russian actions in the Crimea and the Ukraine. Syria and ISIS are tools for creating this leverage, not primary concerns for Russia. The primary concern is control of the post-Soviet space. Putin describes Russia before the United Nations as “the largest separated nation in the world.” Another member noted that, as Hitler’s rise was fueled by the humiliation of Versailles, so Putin’s rise is fueled by the humiliation of the end of the Cold War. Putin is determined to avenge that humiliation, and is doing so.
A discussion of the dynamics and political uses of polarization ensued. The phenomenon of polarization could be observed in many of the countries under discussion. Within this dynamic, negative characteristics are located in the other group and intense feelings directed toward them. Bridging actions by leadership are seen as collaboration with the enemy. Group identity is stabilized but at the enormous cost of creating an enemy and denial of internal complexity. In Turkey, in the U.S., in Israel, politicians using rhetoric of polarization to mobilize their voting constituencies. What is the fantasy about the other group? What is the fear of what could happen if that Other comes to power? Will past wrongs lead to retribution or unbearable humiliation? Are some of the things progressive populations want made undeliverable because achieving them would require working with the Other, thereby activating primitive fears and anxieties? One IDI member posed the challenge in the following terms: The process of globalization and of engaging the Other – that is, the groups who represent difference – leads to anxiety about loss of both boundaries and identity, and threatens the group with an inability to bind its internal potential for aggression. This is the challenge of dialogue in a context of polarization.
In the late afternoon of the first day, members were asked to summarize projects they had undertaken, or proposed to undertake, with which the IDI might assist.
One member discussed a documentary film he had made with Ukrainian artists working on the Maidan in Kiev. He posited that the enthusiasm of these artists is a psychological phenomenon, useful in countering an erosion of good will. This member was also interested in taking up a documentary of the so-called “Winter War” between Finland and Russia, and asked for IDI input into the phenomenon of border psychopathology.
Another member discussed her work with the Armenian community in the Los Angeles area. This member had multiple ongoing projects, including collaborative street art exhibitions, therapeutic communities for Armenian expatriates returning to their homeland, and public diplomacy workshops on issues, such as global warming, that transcend national and ethnic backgrounds.
A member from Northern Ireland then spoke of a very interesting and apparently successful intervention his team had made with a group of members of a Protestant marching band in a hard-line area of Belfast. They traditionally engaged in marches which antagonized Catholic neighborhoods, and indeed often this seemed to be part of the purpose. When this member’s team provided assistance to improve the quality of the group’s musical output – providing lessons and other resources – the group’s interest in engaging in meaningful musical opportunities grew and its interest in antagonism waned. This member cautioned that it was too early to call the intervention a success, but noted that meeting the groups ‘on their ground’ – meeting them in their interests, and investing on one of those interests – had proven more fruitful than many efforts to more explicitly redirect the groups away from antagonism. This member, who had recently been called to consult on U.S. racial violence in Baltimore in the wake of the death of a young African American man named Freddie Gray while in police custody, expressed a hope that the Northern Ireland intervention might serve as a template for future interventions.
A member presented a nine-minute video, in which previously jailed Iranians spoke of their hope that the U.S.-Iran nuclear deal would be approved. He spoke of the hope for compromise, the idea that Iran’s interest in its nuclear program was secondary to the Iranian people’s interest in a framework in which compromise with the West was possible. That promise of compromise, this member suggested, was far more alluring than the benefits of a resumed nuclear program. The film was an intervention into the polarization process, insofar as it invited the U.S. Congress to recognize that the deal was not simply a tool of the Iranian government, but also had broad support by those who had spoken out against the government at various points.
An American member discussed his work creating the Trust for Trauma Journalism, a financial trust that would support journalists working in conflict zones in their effort to process their experiences from a psychological and political standpoint. He described the TTJ as “a fund for the rehabilitation of journalists who have been to war.” He suggested that the IDI might provide the TTJ with a psycho-political framework useful in helping trauma journalists – who are but do not see themselves as “first responders” – process their own experiences.
Other members described ongoing projects in schools and several potential projects in the Balkans, including possible workshops in Banja Luka and Sarajevo. Another set of projects had to do with reviewing transcripts of interviews with young people who had become radicalized, in an effort to understand more deeply the psychological and family dynamics, and quite likely the particular identity crisis, leading to their dangerous choice.
IDI President Vamik Volkan closed the first day by observing that in the course of his recent travels he had noted a rapidly-growing interest on the part of both public and private institutions in psycho-political issues. He noted that the IDI was one of only a few groups speaking to this interest.
- Day Two Discussion
In July, 2015, the International Psychoanalytic Association (IPA) held its annual meeting in Boston, Massachusetts. Vamik Volkan, Gerard Fromm, Ed Shapiro and Ford Rowan were present at that meeting and were asked to present on the work of the IDI. Accordingly, Day Two of the IDI’s Thirteenth Meeting began with a report from those members on the IPA meeting and the interest there in the work of the IDI. Interested readers will find a thorough account of the IDI presentation to the IPA at http://internationaldialogueinitiative.com/idi-panel-speaks-at-ipa-conference/.
Following that report, a Palestinian member reported on two initiatives she was working on in the West Bank. The first of these initiatives involved severely disaffected Palestinian youth, who no longer believed in the political processes of the Palestinian Authority or Israel. These youths were “despairing of the status quo” but not politically engaged. The PA is delegitimized in the eyes of Palestinians; Hamas, while financially and physically weak, continues to project an aura of strength as an opposition force, not to Israel but to the PA. It is, this IDI member posited, “a recipe for a storm of sorts. Palestinians are going with the flow, but we don’t know where it is taking us.”
An Israeli member asked what effect, if any, Palestinians felt from the fact that the Palestinian flag was flying for the first time in the United Nations. It was a symbolic achievement, the Palestinian member felt, but one that was not felt strongly on the ground.
This member’s other project involved a recently-published report analyzing possible models of governance in the event that Israel and the Palestinians abandon a two-state solution. This member had presented her report to the IDI in earlier meetings.
A discussion ensued concerning anxieties within the Middle East, and particularly within Israelis and Palestinians. One member who works in Israel noted that when he asked his Palestinian friends who they would vote for if they were Israelis, they said Netanyahu. This might represent a sense of the perceived weakness of Abbas and the PA. Another member posited that within the wider Middle East, the plight of Palestinians was but one of many issues, with ISIS and Iran now far more visible. A third noted that ISIS fighters were coming into both Palestinian territory and the Iran/Iraq/Kurdish territories, thus conflating and confusing the on-the-ground dynamic.
An IDI member warned that where there is disengagement by younger generations, there are people waiting in the wings to cultivate the disengaged. ISIS is waiting to cultivate disengaged Palestinians. It is already doing so. Unless Israel engages with Hamas, it will be engaging with ISIS in the Sinai Peninsula. Chaos waits for a spark. With regard to the two-state solution, it’s been a fantasy for years. Indeed a recent book called it a “delusion,” and the author was criticized for not offering some sort of hope in his analysis. But genuine hope may only come from first accepting the hopelessness of the current situation. Neither Israel nor the PA can by themselves deliver a workable solution at this point.
An IDI member raised the issue of the invisible caliph. With regard to ISIS and its stated desire to create a new caliphate, its leader Abu Al’Baghdadi remains largely out of the public eye. In Islam it is forbidden to depict the prophet. By remaining hidden, Al’Baghdadi perhaps increases his psychological appeal and power as a Muslim leader. A psychoanalyst sits behind a patient on the couch; he becomes an unseen person. This helps the patient, without the interference of reality, to develop transference fantasies more freely. By being an “unseen person,” does Al’Bagdadi became a stronger transference image for thousands of persons who are searching a container to increase their self-esteem? ISIS creates a brand. Its fighters fight for the caliphate, for the brand, for the fantasy. If an ISIS propaganda video is correct that “the cure for depression is jihad,” then does the promise of the caliphate transform a “chosen trauma” into a “chosen glory?”
Another IDI member quoted the psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott: “There are no brakes on a fantasy.” In other words, while joining a fantasy can be enlivening, the loss of contact with reality is dangerous and leads to real consequences. He noted that in another ISIS promotion, a fighter referred to the violent Middle East as “the real Disneyland,” as though psychologically it is only a play space. How can this kind of fantasy be maintained? Only in the absence of empathy, for both oneself and others. The member pointed out that denial of reality – and the reality of others – can take many forms, and it was worthwhile to consider the forms it was taking for ISIS recruits. There also seems to be an absence of what one might call a “paternal function,” that is, a function sometimes given to fathers to help the next generation make sense of an indifferent, chaotic and sometimes violent world. What is the fate of this interpretive function these days? Where is the recognition of real life consequences and ultimately of what death means within a family? An IDI member noted the phenomenon of the younger generation’s immersion in virtual life, either in video or through the proliferation of violent online games – the Playstation Phenomenon, she called it – in which death is not death but fantasy. What is missing for the developing young person? What creates a vacancy to be filled by this sort of fantasy life?
In a related point, an IDI member suggested that whatever pathology fueled ISIS, the entity itself was being utilized by other Middle East actors like a soccer ball, pushing it into different areas as part of a strategy to reshape the territory.
In the face of these world dynamics in which long-time stabilizing boundaries were eroding, the group thought again about the intervention with the Protestant musicians in Northern Ireland. It was a small intervention to be sure, but within it, a provision of a certain kind of resource had changed and opened up the world to a group of young people who were being enlisted to continue a generational tradition of antagonism and ongoing polarization. What could be learned from such an intervention? Perhaps that the generational links can be broken, to some degree, by an intervention that transcends them and offers the possibility of a genuine joining at a broader societal level.
After a break, the IDI took up a detailed discussion of the political situation in Turkey. Members wanted to know what forces were shaping upcoming elections and whether or not the political dynamic in Ankara was stable. One IDI member pointed to surprising unity between Turks and Kurds. Turks do not fight with Kurds, this member said. Turks fight with the PKK, but the PKK is not representative of the Kurdish population. Another member remarked on the construction of a massive presidential palace with 1,000 rooms. Such a facility can be both a palace and a “prison”, the member suggested, separating and isolating a leader from his constituency. With regard to upcoming elections, there was concern that the party currently in power, the AKP, would not be able to govern without establishing a coalition but would continue its reluctance to do so. How would this continuing uncertainty at the governmental level play out? It seems like a moment of real opportunity – to bridge polarizing gaps, for example – but also of real danger of the country’s moving in a less democratic direction. Members also expressed a belief that Russia’s entry into Syria was likely to result in stronger ties between Turkey and NATO.
- Day Three Discussion
Members spent Day Three of the IDI’s 13th Meeting reflecting on whatever learning might have occurred in their conversation so far. One member reflected on a dream, ostensibly about the refugee crisis but also about potency, about the ability to achieve meaningful change. Another shared a dream of being asked to judge a contest of sand-castles – temporary vanities which would be washed away by the next wave – leading the group to reflect further on the “wave” of migrants and the “castles” they might be seen as threatening.
A third, however, reported a night of sound sleep, and a conviction that the group was not results-oriented, but process-oriented. She found the meetings – and each meeting individually – to be sometimes frustrating, even maddening, while immersed in them. When she returned home, however, she found her thinking to be surprisingly clearer, refreshed even. She could see things – interactions, dynamics, pressures – about her home context that she had not seen before. After the meetings, she reported, things, both in the meeting and at home, made more sense to her.
Another member spoke about his efforts to strengthen his grandchildren, and how he saw those efforts in light of his understanding, as an Israeli, that his children and grandchildren would be soldiers, as he was: that one of their large group identifications would be as soldiers, and that their thinking would be influenced by an analytical matrix or mind-set specific to soldiers.
An American member spoke of “the hope in hopelessness.” Not only is carrying on in the face of hopelessness a sort of hope in itself, but acknowledging that some things are hopeless – the Other group will not simply disappear – can lead to something new, for example, new forms of dialogue and the more realistic hope that might come from them. He noted both the theme of assaults on democratic governance but also the resilience members saw in their governance, the way that the working out of issues within a democracy was, in very concrete ways, both threatened but also sturdy. Another American member spoke of the IDI’s conversation as an effort to understand and navigate within a free-fall of international psycho-political paradigms, a shift between a hierarchical international paradigm to a broader, multiform, multiphasic paradigm. The IDI, he suggested, was trying to make sense of these shifts in a context of the erosion of past boundaries.
IDI Vice President John Alderdice spoke of expanding the work of the group beyond its process-oriented meetings and into more formal engagements. He discussed several projects which the IDI might take up, either formally or informally, as a group or in smaller subgroups. A previous intervention in Northern Ireland might serve as a template for subgroup projects. Other potential projects included engagements in the Balkans and with the Trust for Trauma Journalism.
Finally, IDI President Vamik Volkan spoke about the group’s evolution. He noted that over the course of thirteen meetings and nearly a decade of work, the group had remained consistent in its membership and focused in its stance of making sense of large group societal dynamics. A methodology continued to develop and the number of IDI engagements continued to grow. He thanked the members for their work, their engagement and their continued friendship.
NEXT IDI MEETING:
The 14th Meeting of the IDI will take place at a time and location to be decided after Board consultation.