Forthcoming in PsychCritiques (formerly Contemporary
Blind Trust: Large
Groups and Their Leaders in Times of Crisis and Terror
By Vamik Volkan
Charlottesville, Virginia: Pitchstone Publishing, 2004.
$19.95. ISBN 0-9728875-3-9
Review by Thomas Scheff
This book provides a broad explanation of public support for
violence worldwide. Dr. Volkan, a Professor Emeritus in the Department of
Psychiatry at the U. of Virginia, is the founder of a conflict resolution center
there, and an experienced negotiator in conflicts between large groups.
Volkan’s theory of collective violence begins with the chosen trauma. The defeat of Serbs
by Turks at the battle of Kosovo in 1396 was the battle cry in the 1990’s for
ethnic cleansing of the Moslems. Although the defeat occurred over six hundred
years ago, it lives on in the minds and hearts of Serbians.
The next step is the failure to mourn for the losses
sustained in the chosen trauma. This is why the trauma lives on. Then comes the feeling of entitlement to revenge. Rather than
facing the anguish of mourning and self-examination, a group can find
distraction in self-righteous hostility and aggression against a purported
Then there is collective regression. Under the
pressure of fear/anxiety, a majority regresses to early childhood mentality in
which mixtures of good and bad are unknown. One’s parents and leaders are good,
and one’s enemies are bad. This mentality views violence as the only
alternative, since we are completely good, the enemy is not just bad, but evil.
These four steps are implied in Dr. Volkan’s The Need for Enemies (1988), and Bloodlines (1997). However, the new book
provides a fifth element not explicit in the previous work. The key to the
failure to mourn is that the group has experienced the chosen trauma as a humiliation; they are ashamed of their
defeat. To avoid feeling shame, an “us-them” world is constructed: we have
nothing to be ashamed of, it’s those bastards. This path leads precipitously to
revenge. Even if no enemy is at hand, one can be fabricated in order to avoid
one’s true feelings.
The addition of the fifth element, humiliation, is a step
toward an integrated theory of emotion dynamics. In my own study (1994) of the
origins of the Franco-German wars (1870-1945), I proposed that both sides had
suppressed shame by hiding their humiliation behind anger. Volkan’s book implies
that my study should have also considered unresolved grief and fear as possible
Recent studies of “terror management” (Pyszczynski, et al.
2003) imply that fear is an important element in response to violence. Although
this work is stated in cognitive terms, it implies fear as a key element.
Indeed, Landau et al (2004) introducing their study of the terror management
underlying support of G.W. Bush, quote Becker (1971, p. 161):
It is [fear] that makes people so
willing to follow brash, strong-looking demagogues with tight jaws and loud
At the moment, with the exception of the book reviewed here,
work on emotional components in violence is compartmentalized. All of Volkan’s
earlier studies focused on the failure to mourn (grief) and fear/anxiety. Even
in his latest book, the role of anger is only implied (in the hostility toward
purported enemies). Beck’s (1999) book on hatred focuses largely on anger and
anxiety. However, a close reading suggests that his model implies
shame/humiliation as well, since he proposes that anger responses almost always
involve feeling diminishment before anger (p. 31 and passim).
As indicated, my own earlier work on conflict (1994) focused
on anger, shame and humiliation. Lindner’s work on violence (2002) has been even
more specialized, considering only humiliation. The studies in terror management
mentioned above have considered only “mortality salience” (fear) as causal.
Each of these studies makes a plausible case for the
particular emotions that they emphasize. But we need to integrate all four
emotions into a wider consideration of emotional/relational worlds. These
worlds, although next to invisible in hypercognizing, individualist, modern
societies, seem to play an important part in generating either public support or
opposition to collective violence.
A pertinent example of the virtual invisibility of the
emotional/relational world occurs within the social and behavioral sciences
themselves. Most studies in the various disciplines elide around emotions and
relationships in favor of individual cognition and behavior, even though all
four areas are equally important. Compared with their precise knowledge of
cognition and behavior, neither laypersons nor experts know much about the
With integration, it becomes easier to see how social
institutions might play a part, as they do in the case of gender. If individuals
and/or groups suppress grief, shame and/or fear (the vulnerable emotions) either
violence or silent withdrawal is likely. Boys and men learn that vulnerable
feelings are seen as signs of weakness, but anger, even if faked, shows
In Western cultures, at least, boys and men hide vulnerable
feelings, either in silence or anger. That is, young boys learn first in their
families, and later, in school, to suppress the vulnerable emotions they feel.
They either maintain silence or explode in anger.
Since men usually dominate state and ethnic nationalism, the
theory predicts a violent future unless something can be done about
understanding emotions. It would seem to be necessary to study these four
emotions both separately and in interaction. Are there gradations of repression,
or is it all or nothing? Can numbing a single emotion, such as fear, lead to
silence/violence, or does it take all three? Does repression of one emotion
spread to other emotions? None of these questions appear to have been directly
addressed in the literature on emotions.
My guess is that the more a person is backed up on one or
more of these four emotions, the less they will be able to experience any of
them. For example, those who are still suffering from their previous losses
(perhaps a majority of adults in modern societies) will be unable to mourn, and
won’t tolerate mourning in others. This mechanism would create what Volkan calls
the transgenerational transmission of trauma, a key feature of his explanation
of continuing enmity between groups.
Collective regression of the kind described by Volkan has
less direct effect on the conduct of one’s daily life than it does on large
matters at a distance. But with respect to these distant matters, it
incapacitates judgment. One is in the grip of a massive delusion. With complete
and unwavering confidence, one might as well believe that the earth is flat, or
that water flows uphill.
Volkan’s theory seems to explain many elements in today’s
world. For example, the state of Israel has taken the Holocaust as its chosen
trauma, and public support for Sharon’s destructive policies toward Palestinians
is generated by the suppression of grief, shame and fear. In this country, we
have 9/11 as our chosen trauma. The failure to collectively mourn our losses and
to face our fear and shame has resulted in support for the completely gratuitous
Iraq war. Hidden vulnerable emotions and all too obvious anger may be the matrix
from which unnecessary violence arises.
A recent chance encounter at a memorial to our Iraq war dead
illustrates some aspects of Volkan’s theory. The father of a soldier who died in
Iraq was showing me pictures of his son in uniform, a handsome young teenager.
After viewing photos from his childhood to just before his death, I began to
Father (surprised): “What’s the
Me: “I was wondering if the war in
Iraq is worth the death of your son.”
Father: (Again surprised). “But we
had to do something.”
Me: “Why is that?”
Me: “But Iraq had nothing to do
Father: “Well, they’re all
The responses of this father suggest the kind of mentality
that dominates today’s world. Volkan’s book provides a first step toward
understanding it, and implies steps toward healing.
Beck, A. (1999). Prisoners of Hate: The Cognitive Basis of
Anger, Hostility, and Violence. New York: HarperCollins.
Landau, M., S. Solomon, J. Greenberg, F. Cohen, T, Pyszczynski, J. Arndt, C. Miller, D.
Ogilvie, and A. Cook. (2004). Deliver
us from Evil: The Effects of Mortality Salience and Reminders of 9/11 on Support
for President George W. Bush Pers Soc Psychol Bull 30: 1136-1150
Lindner, E. (2002). Healing the cycles of
humiliation: How to attend to the emotional aspects of "unsolvable" conflicts
and the use of "humiliation entrepreneurship". In Peace and Conflict: Journal of Peace
Psychology, 8 (2), 125-139.
Pyszczynski, T., S. Solomon, and J.Greenberg. (2003). In the Wake of 9/11: The Psychology of
Terror. WDC: APA.
J. (1994). Bloody Revenge: Emotion,
Nationalism and War. Westview Press (Reissued by iUniverse
D. (1988). The need to have enemies and allies: from
clinical practice to international relationships. Northvale, N.J.: J.
_______________ (1997). Bloodlines: from ethnic pride to ethnic
terrorism. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
Thomas Scheff, Department of
UCSB, Santa Barbara, CA 93106.