Thomas J. Scheff
(Aug. 4, 1997)
This essay formulates a theory of violence, showing how it is generated
at the individual and group levels. I propose that killing rage is generated
in individuals by insults or rejection which result in shameful feelings
that are not acknowledged. Collective violence has a parallel dynamic:
when persons feel they do not belong anywhere, but do not acknowledge this
feeling to themselves or others, they may form a group which rejects the
group or groups rejecting them. The culture of such groups generates techniques
of neutralization which encourage hatred and mayhem. First I explore the
development of rage sequences between individuals, tying them to the state
of social bonds and the emotion which signals that state, shame. Then I
outline the social and cultural conditions that give rise to collective
hatred and rage. Finally, I review what is known about the opposite of
rage, seeking forgiveness through apology. In the last section, I discuss
possible steps toward forgiveness and reconciliation.
Rage is an important component of killing and maiming on a large scale.
There are indications in primitive epics of warfare that warriors worked
themselves into paroxysms of rage. It is known historically that in early
times Irish warriors fought naked, with nothing but a sword, running and
screaming at a high pitch, often casting terror into their enemies. Here
is an example from a 12th century Irish epic, The Tain (cited in Cahill
[Cuchulainn then] went into the middle of them and beyond,
and mowed down great ramparts of his enemies' corpses, circling completely
around the armies three times, attacking them in hatred. They fell sole
to sole and neck to headless neck, so dense was that destruction. He circled
them three times more in the same way, and left a bed of them six deep
in a great circuit, the soles of three to the necks of three in a circle
round the camp.... Any count or estimate of the rabble who fell there is
unknown, and unknowable. Only the names of the chiefs have been counted....
In this great Carnage on Murtheimne Plain Cuchulainn slew one hundred and
thirty kings, as well as an uncountable horde of dogs and horses, women
and boys and children and rabble of all kinds. Not one man in three escaped
without his thighbone or his head or his eye being smashed, or without
some blemish for the rest of his life. And when the battle was over Cuchulainn
left without a scratch or a stain on himself, his helper or either of his
This passage tries to convey intense fury by exaggeration, since it
is unlikely that a single individual, no matter how powerful, could have
enough stamina to cause such wholesale destruction.
I propose that certain emotions in sequence, and the social and cultural
settings which generate these emotions, are key causes of mass rage and
violence. But most social science writing on violent conflict assumes a
"realist" or materialist perspective, that the real causes of human conduct
always involve physical, rather than social and psychological reality.
But eliminating emotional and relational elements as causes of violence
is a gross error. Of course I am not arguing that material conditions are
unimportant, only that violence is caused by a combination of physical
and social/psychological elements. I will describe rage and violence first
at the level of individuals, then at the collective level, showing how
hatred and rage are products of unacknowledged emotions, which are in turn
generated by alienation and by cultural scripts for demonizing purported
An immediate problem in making this argument persuasive is the difficulty
of describing in words the experience of rage and other compelling emotions.
When my readers are sitting the comfort of their study, feeling more or
less safe and secure, it will take some effort to help them visualize the
intensity of "war fever," or of the feelings that lead to massacres on
a vast scale. The intensity and primitiveness of fury beggars verbal description.
How is one to convey intense feelings with mere words? Once again, I resort
to archaic literature where this difficulty was dealt with by florid exaggeration,
so that the words could point the reader toward the intensity of the actual
feelings. These words, I take it, are not meant to describe outer reality,
they are far too gross, but instead, to convey inner, experiential reality,
the objective correlative, as T.S. Eliot called it, of a fit of rage.
This is another example from the Tain (Cahill 1995) describing the outward
appearance of a warrior in a fit of rage:
The first warp-spasm seized Cuchulainn, and made him into a
monstrous thing, hideous and shapeless, unheard of. His shanks and his
joints, every knuckle and angle and organ from head to foot, shook like
a tree in the flood or a reed in the stream. His body made a furious twist
inside his skin, so that his feet and shins and knees switched to the rear
and his heels and calves switched to the front. The balled sinews of his
calves switched to the front of his shins, each big knot the size of a
warrior's bunched fist. On his head the temple-sinews stretched to the
nape of his neck, each mighty, immense, measureless knob as big as the
head of a month-old child. His face and features became a red bowl: he
sucked one eye so deep into his head that a wild crane couldn't probe it
onto his cheek out of the depths of his skull; the other eye fell out along
his cheek. His mouth weirdly distorted: his cheek peeled back from his
jaws until the gullet appeared, his lungs and liver flapped in his mouth
and throat, his lower jaw struck the upper a lion-killing blow, and fiery
flakes large as a ram's fleece reached his mouth from his throat. His heart
boomed loud in his breast like the baying of a watch-dog at its feed or
the sound of a lion among bears. Malignant mists and spurts of fire...flickered
red in the vaporous clouds that rose boiling above his head, so fierce
was his fury. The hair of his head twisted like the tangle of a red thornbush
stuck in a gap; if a royal apple tree with all its kingly fruit were shaken
above him, scarce an apple would reach the ground but each would be spiked
on a bristle of his hair as it stood up on his scalp with rage. The hero-halo
rose out of his brow, long and broad as a warrior's whetstone, long as
a snout, and he went mad rattling his shields, urging on his charioteer
and harassing the hosts. Then, tall and thick, steady and strong, high
as the mast of a noble ship, rose up from the dead centre of his skull
a straight spout of black blood darkly and magically smoking like the smoke
from a royal hostel when a king is coming to be cared for at the close
of a winter day.
The extraordinary intensity of enraged actions, as described in the
first quotation, and of the experience of rage, as suggested in the second,
leads to the belief that rage is a virtually irresistible force and that
it is an elemental component of human nature. This essay will contradict
both of these beliefs, first that it is an elemental, and secondly, that
it is irresistible.
The ability of primitive warriors to work themselves into a state of
rage suggests that it is something that can be constructed, rather than
an elemental. How did these warriors do it? We will probably never know
the answer to that question. But studies of actual discourse suggest a
sequence of events that inevitably occur prior to the outbreak of violent
rage. At the group level, it would seem that alienation and certain cultural
beliefs militate toward states of hatred and rage, and violent behavior.
I will begin with individuals.
I suggest that rage is a composite affect, a sequence of two elemental
emotions, shame and anger. This idea has been advanced by other authors,
notably Heinz Kohut (1971), and Helen Lewis (1971). Kohut proposed that
violent anger of the kind he called "narcissistic rage" was a compound
of shame and anger. Helen Lewis suggested that shame and anger have a deep
affinity, and that it might be possible to find indications of unacknowledged
shame occurring just prior to any intense hostility. This sequence has
been demonstrated to occur in marital quarrels by Retzinger (1991), and
in Hitler's writings and speeches (Scheff 1994), exactly as Lewis proposed.
With all sixteen of the episodes of escalation of verbal violence in her
data, Retzinger was able to demonstrate that prior to each episode, there
had been first an insult by one party, indications of unacknowledged shame
in the other party, and finally intense hostility in that party. This sequence
can be seen as the motor of violence, since it connects the intense emotions
of shame and anger to overt aggression.
Although there has been little research focused explicitly on pure,
unalloyed anger, there are indications from the studies of discourse by
Lewis (1971), Retzinger (1991) and my own work, (such as Scheff 1990) that
pure anger is rare and unlikely to lead to violence or even social disruption.
On the contrary, anger by itself is usually brief and instructive. A person
who is frustrated and unashamed of her anger is mobilized to tell what
is going on, and to do what is needed, without making a huge scene. In
my own personal case, I can testify that most of my experiences of anger
have involved shame/anger, either in the form of humiliated fury, or in
a more passive form, what Labov and Fanshel (1977) call "helpless anger."
Both of these variants are long lasting and extremely unpleasant, especially
for me. Shame-induced anger was unpleasant while happening, and even more
unpleasant when it was over, since I inevitably felt foolish and out of
But in the very few episodes of what seems to have been, in retrospect,
pure anger, the experience was entirely different. I did not raise my voice
in any of them, nor did I put any one down or any other kind of excess.
I simply told my view of what was going on directly, rapidly and with no
need of calculation or planning. I was overcome with what I call "machine
gun mouth." Every one who was present to one of these communications suddenly
became quite respectful. As for me, I did not feel out of control, even
though my speech was completely spontaneous; on the contrary , I was wondering
why I had not said my say before. It would seem that anger without shame
has only a signal function, to alert self and others that one is frustrated.
When anger has its source in feelings of rejection or inadequacy, and
when the latter feelings are not acknowledged, a continuous spiral of shame/anger
may result, which is experienced as hatred and rage. Rather than expressing
and discharging one's shame, it is masked by rage and aggression. One can
be angry one is ashamed, and ashamed that one is angry, and so on, working
up to a loop of unlimited duration and intensity. This loop is the emotional
basis of lengthy episodes or even life-long hatred and rage.
Social and cultural conditions for the development of intergroup
In a companion paper to this one, I describe how a certain type of alienation,
which I characterize as bimodal, generates violence at the collective level
(Scheff 1997). I will give only a brief synopsis here. In my terminology,
bimodal alienation between groups occurs when there is "isolation" between
them, but "engulfment" within them. That is, the members of group A are
distant from the members of group B, and vice versa. But at the same time,
the members of each group are suffocatingly close, to the point that they
give up important parts of themselves, in order to securely belong to the
The initial motor in this theory is the need to belong. It makes sense
that the German language has the most beautiful word for home, in the sense
of the place that you belong: das Heimat. It makes sense because as both
Elias (1995) and I (1994) have independently argued, historically the Germans
seem to have long had an unsatisfied yearning for a place in which they
belong, and have had great difficulty in managing the feeling of rejection,
of not belonging and being accepted. Members of a group who feel not accepted
both by foreigners and in their own group are in a position to surrender
their individual identity in order to be accepted, giving rise in the German
case to the principle of blind loyalty and obedience. But in any case,
bimodal alienation (isolation between groups and engulfment within them)
is the fundamental condition for inter-group conflict.
Under the condition of bimodal alienation, a special culture seems to
develop within each group which encourages hatred and murder. There are
various ways of characterizing this culture, but for my purposes here I
will describe it in terms of "techniques of neutralization." This idea
was originally formulated in criminology (Sykes and Matza 1957) to explain
how and why teenagers engage in delinquent behavior, how a special culture
develops among them which neutralizes the norms in their larger culture
which oppose crime. But the idea has also been carefully applied by Alverez
(1997) to the behavior of the German people in tolerating or actually engaging
Alverez shows how each of Sykes and Matza's five techniques of neutralization
can be used to explain the special culture that developed during the Nazi
regime, a culture which neutralized the norms in the larger culture that
forbid murder. The first technique is the Denial of Responsibility. Alverez
shows that this technique in the German case usually took the form that
the perpetrator was only carrying out orders from above. 2. The Denial
of Injury under the Nazi regime took the form of special language which
hid or disguised what was actually being done, euphemisms in which killing
became "special treatment," "cleansing" (recently in the news about the
massacres in Bosnia) and many other similar examples. 3. The Denial of
Victim asserts that the victim actually brought on their own downfall.
In the German case, it was widely believed that Jews were involved in a
conspiracy to enslave the whole world, so that killing them was self-defense.
Although a fabrication, many Germans, including Hitler, appeared to have
believed it to be literally true.
4. Condemning the Condemners involved, in the German case, claims made
by the German government and the media that the other countries that were
condemning Germany were historically guilty of worse crimes, such as the
treatment of blacks and Native Americans in the United States and the treatment
of native peoples in the French, British and Spanish colonies. 5. In the
Appeal to Higher Loyalties, German perpetrators of genocide thought of
themselves as patriots, nobly carrying out their duty. 6. Finally, the
Denial of Humanity is a category that Alverez himself added to those formulated
by Sykes and Matza because of its special relevance to the Holocaust. Typical
Nazi propaganda portrayed Jews and other non-Aryans as subhuman, filled
with bestial impulses, such as the urge for destruction, primitive desires,
and unparalleled evil. Although dehumanization often accompanies inter-group
conflict, it seems in the German case that it was explicitly orchestrated
by the government.
Any one of these six techniques can serve to encourage violence by neutralizing
the norms against aggression and murder. To the extent that they are all
implemented together, as they apparently were under the Nazi regime, to
that extent a whole society can seemingly forget its moral values, in order
to engage in wholesale slaughter. The idea of techniques of neutralization
suggests the cultural foundation for collective violence. At the end of
this paper I will suggest ways of reducing violence by countering techniques
of neutralization. In the remainder of this section, I will focus on the
issue of reducing the emotional bases of violence by dealing with shame
that has gone unacknowledged.
How can spirals of unacknowledged shame and anger, which are the emotional
basis of hatred and rage, be avoided or terminated when they are occurring.
? One answer may lie in the direction of acknowledgment of shame. By acknowledgment,
however, I am not referring to merely verbal acknowledgment. Unfortunately,
there have been very few discussions of acknowledgment in the literature
on emotion. It is one of those terms like "working through" in psychoanalysis,
which play a central role in professional discourse, but which are seldom
defined or even illustrated through concrete examples. Since there is no
literature focused directly on the acknowledgment of shame, I will resort
to studies of apology, which deal with acknowledgment, if only indirectly.
This literature is helpful since it places emotions and their acknowledgment
within a social context. Seeking forgiveness through apology also helps
to locate and conceptualize rage, because it is the opposite process: hatred
and enraged behavior shatter the social bond, apology seeks to re-instate
Reconciliation, repairing a disruption in a social relationship, can
be seen as an acknowledgment of interdependence. Viewed in this way, apologies,
a direct path to repair of social bonds, expose many of the key elements
in conflict and reconciliation. Describing the components of the ritual
of apology may be a succinct way of unpacking the concept of acknowledgment.
The two leading theorists of apology and reconciliation are Goffman
and Tavuchis. Goffman (l971) considered apology in his treatment of remedial
and reparative devices. Even though his discussion of apologies is brief,
it bristles with ideas (l971, p. ll3, emphasis added):
...apology has several elements: expression of embarrassment
and chagrin; ...that one knows what conduct has been expected...; ...disavowal
of the wrong way of behaving and vilification of the self that so behaved;
...avowal henceforth to pursue that course; performance of penance and
the volunteering of restitution.
Two aspects of this long sentence catch the eye. First, in a few lines,
Goffman has loaded in not one or two, but seven necessary elements for
a successful apology, a monument to concision.
The other feature of this description that invites comment is that the
first element of an apology that Goffman invokes is "expression of embarrassment
and chagrin", which connects his argument to mine concerning shame. Moreover,
placing this element at the head of the list possibly suggests that it
should come first in time, or that it might be the most important condition,
Goffman's discussion has proven fruitful in many directions, but it
has also been criticized by Tavuchis (l991), whose discussion of apologies
is much more comprehensive and detailed. Unlike Goffman, Tavuchis readily
extends his analysis beyond interpersonal apology to individual-collective
and collective remedial actions. He devotes chapter-length treatments to
situations of apology of the one to the many, the many to the one, and
the many to the many. In his treatment of interactions between individuals
and groups, he covers some of the same ground as Braithwaite (l989), but
in much more detail. The ceremonies of punishment and reintegration of
offenders which Braithwaite describes involve the repair of bonds between
the one and the many, which Tavuchis discusses in great detail. Of particular
relevance to group conflict is Tavuchis's discussion of apologies of the
many to many: the path to reconciliation between groups.
Tavuchis's two central complaints about Goffman's are that in the main
it concerns individuals, rather than relationships, and that to these individuals
an apology may be a game in which the actor is not emotionally involved
...apologies (for Goffman) are conceptualized as a "set of
moves" or interpersonal management ploys used by social disembodied actors
trying to maximize their (questionable) moral credibility...Goffman argues
that an apology entails the "splitting" of the self, whereas I underscore
the necessity of "attachment" to the offense...there is no mention of what
I take to be central to apology: sorrow and regret... an actor could follow
all the steps described by Goffman without producing a speech act that
is socially recognizable as an apology, or, its moral reciprocal, forgiveness.
Both of Tavuchis's criticisms cut close to the bone. Although Goffman
uses many relational terms, his basic frame of analysis is individualistic
rather than relational; it concerns a harried, anxious individual seeking
to maintain her/his sense of self and status in a jungle of trying situations.
The language of rules and norms, which Tavuchis also uses, is itself not
quite relational, since it also emphasizes the individual as much as the
social bond. Perhaps a new language of relationships is needed. In the
physics of light, mathematical language provided the link between particle
and wave formulations. We have no such language for linking individuals
Tavuchis's second criticism is also just. Goffman's analysis is largely
behavioral; it concerns the surface of interaction, with very little access
to the interior, the meaning of events to the actors. Even Goffman's mention
of embarrassment and chagrin as necessary parts of apology involves an
ambiguity. He does not say that the actor should feel these emotions, but
only that they should be expressed. In Goffman's world, a gesture indicating
embarrassment (covering the face with a hand, for example) might be adequate,
even if were merely enacted in the absence of any feeling. (In The Odyssey,
when addressing an audience, Ulysses would wipe his eyes with the hem of
his robe to indicate grief. The wily Ulysses would fit exactly into Goffman's
In Tavuchis's (p. 3l) description of apology, there are two essential
parts, both equally important and equally necessary. One must say one is
sorry, and one must also feel sorry. Without these two components, the
ritual is incomplete. Tavuchis's critique of individualistic and behavioral
bias locates two important flaws in Goffman's approach. To test the adequacy
of some particular apology, one can invoke what I will call Tavuchis's
rule: an apology will be genuine to the extent that one both says one is
sorry, and actually feels sorry. His rule concerns congruence between outer
and inner, as already mentioned above. An actual instance of a defective
apology will provide an example.
Albert Speer, one of Hitler's chief lieutenants, was tried and convicted
of crimes against humanity at Nuremberg. Unlike any of the other defendants,
however, his life was spared. Instead of being executed, he spent 21 years
in solitary confinement at Spandau prison, outside of Berlin. During this
period, he wrote his memoirs (Speer 1970). One recurring theme is the regret
he expresses about the role he played in Hitler's Germany. In some ways,
the book can be read as an apology for his actions.
If the book is an apology, however, it doesn't seem to be an adequate
one; it is frequently off pitch in some essential way. It is true that
some of the apologetic statements sound genuine. Tavuchis (1991, p. 21)
points to an excellent one. But even one false note in a text can call
into question the validity of an entire apology: perhaps most of the words
sound right, but does the one apologizing actually feel sorry? There are
many lapses in Speer's memoirs.
In an insightful review, George Steiner (1971) describes Speer's attempts
at apology as "motions, presumably sincere in their own hollow, cerebral
way, of retrospective horror." Although Steiner did not provide examples
to show how hollow and cerebral Speer's attempts were, they can be easily
found in the text. One (Speer, 1970, p. 24) begins with a statement that
almost strikes the right note:
By entering Hitler's party I had already, in essence, assumed a responsibility
that led directly to the brutalities of forced labor, to the destruction
of war, and to the deaths of those millions of so-called undesirable stock,
to the crushing of justice and the elevation of every evil.
Even in this passage there is questionable phrasing. But it hints at
some feeling of responsibility and remorse. One touch is that he heads
his list of crimes with "the brutalities of forced labor," a crime in which
he was directly implicated as the overseer of the armament industry.
But in the rest of the paragraph, the tone falters: "In 1931 [when he
joined the Nazi party] I had no idea that fourteen years later I would
have to answer for a host of crimes to which I subscribed beforehand by
entering the party." Although somewhat indirect, this sentence seems to
be more of an excuse ("I didn't know") than an apology. It denies his own
responsibility for his actions by implying that once having joined the
party, a youthful folly, blind loyalty was inescapable.
The paragraph ends with a whimper: "I did not yet know that I would
atone with twenty-one years of my life for frivolity and thoughtlessness
and breaking with tradition." There is a thread of self-justification and
self-pity running through the entire paragraph, faint at first, but in
the last sentence, dominant. Instead of expressing gratitude that his life
alone was spared, of all the Nuremberg defendants, he seems to complain
about the length of the prison sentence. The most shocking element however,
is the terms used to describe the causes of his adherence to the Nazi Party:
"frivolity, thoughtlessness, and breaking with tradition." These terms
would be appropriate if he had participated in a panty raid, but not in
crimes whose scope and vileness beggars the imagination.
Speer's apology fails the second part of the Tavuchis rule. Although
Speer says many times that he is sorry, the way he says it suggests that
he does not feel sorry. His failure occurs with both cognitive and emotional
aspects. In terms of the cognitive content, self-justification is exactly
the opposite of what is required in an apology, taking responsibility for
one's own actions with no excuses.
Speer's apology also fails to pass the at the emotional level. The connotations
of many of his words and phrases work against the expression of remorse.
One example is the phrase "undesirable stock." Although Speer qualifies
this phrase with "so-called," it still strikes the wrong note. He is referring
to the victims of Nazi atrocities, such as the Jews and Slavs who were
murdered or worked to death. To use a term from his Nazi past rather than
from the present day is an appalling blunder, since it suggests that in
some ways his point of view, and therefore his feelings still have not
changed. Sustaining the right tone in an apology seems to require actually
feeling remorse, the second part of the Tavuchis test.
My discussion of the Speer case suggests that Tavuchis's analysis is
helpful in understanding the nature of apology, and therefore of acknowledgment
of feelings. However, I would like to extend the description of the core
ritual of apology further than Tavuchis takes it, in order to resolve an
issue that he leaves unresolved. In many different passages, Tavuchis puzzles
over a mystery: how can mere words resolve conflict? He notes that an apology,
however fastidious, does not undo the harmful act. Tavuchis repeatedly
indicates that successful apologies are like magic: using only words, one
can obtain genuine forgiveness for an injurious act (l991, 122):
...although I have referred frequently to forgiveness as a
crucial element in the apologetic equation, this mysterious and unpremeditated
faculty has not been adequately addressed or formulated. If, as I have
argued, sorrow is the energizing force of apology, then what moves the
offended party to forgive? ...[the] social and psychodynamic sources [of
forgiveness] have been relatively neglected.
Shame dynamics, which Tavuchis does not invoke, may speak to the issue
which Tavuchis raises: what are the social and psychodynamic sources of
apology and forgiveness? I will deal first with psychodynamic sources,
the vicissitudes of emotions and feelings, then with social ones.
I agree with the first part of Tavuchis's rule: one must say one is
sorry, or words to that effect. But in order to understand the magic of
apology, it may be necessary to unpack the second part of the formula,
that one must also feel sorry. What are the emotional components of feeling
sorry? In the passage just quoted, Tavuchis states that sorrow, that is,
grief, is the energizing force of apology. I disagree. Although feeling
and displaying grief might be helpful, it may not be the main emotion required
for an apology to accomplish its purpose.
I propose that an effective apology requires that the predominant emotion
of the party making the apology be one of embarrassment or shame. This
is difficult for the participants to see, or even for observers, because
in our civilization, embarrassment and shame are so frequently and deeply
disguised and denied as to be rendered almost invisible (Lynd, l958; Lewis,
l971; Scheff, l990; Retzinger 1991). Although Tavuchis discusses shame
at several points (as in note 4, p. 151), it does not figure prominently
in his discussion. It does figure prominently in Miller's (1993) discussion
of apologies; he proposes, as I do, that shame or embarrassment are the
predominate emotion in a genuine apology.
Suppose, for purpose of argument, after one party has been injured by
another, both parties are in a state of embarrassment or shame. Depending
on the gravity of the injury, the intensity of shame may range from slight
embarrassment through severe, lengthy states of humiliation. The injured
party may feel helpless, rejected, powerless or inadequate, because of
the treatment received: the injuring party may feel unworthy because he/she
has injured the other. All of these terms have been rated as encoded references
to shame (Gottschalk and Gleser, l969; Lewis, l971; Retzinger 1991). The
shared mood of the two parties is bleak: they are in a state of shared
embarrassment or shame.
The function of apology under these conditions is to allow both parties
to acknowledge and discharge the burden of shame they are carrying with
respect to the injurious act, rather than deny it. This function is difficult
for the parties to be aware of in Western societies, because shame is routinely
denied. Perhaps if social psychology brought unacknowledged shame to light,
we might be able to understand and increase the magic of apology.
An effective apology is also difficult because it depends on a veritable
symphony of verbal and non-verbal activities jointly enacted and felt by
both parties. Each must coordinate their words, gestures, thoughts and
feelings with those of the other. It is a dance, a pas de deux, requiring
not only the right words, the lyrics, but also the right music. That is,
the timing (rhythm) of the moves of each party, relative to the moves of
the other, is crucial, as are the emotions displayed (melody) and felt
This formulation in terms of emotion dynamics may remove some of the
mystery from apology and forgiveness . If the lyrics and the melody of
the party apologizing are right, and the attitude of the party apologized
to accepting, then a dramatic mood change can occur: the parties can go
from a state of shared shame to one of shared pride in a matter of minutes,
from fluster, awkwardness, and emotional pain to rapport and pleasure.
My explanation of the apology/forgiveness process to this point is incomplete,
however, because it has concerned only the emotional sources, not the social
ones. To move toward these sources requires discussion of the nature of
social relationships and social bonds at an abstract and general level.
Social relationships are difficult to describe in Western societies
because human interdependency, like shame, is also routinely denied. Our
public discourse is in the language of individuals, rather than relationships.
A social bond may be defined in terms of the mix of solidarity and alienation
(Scheff, l990; Retzinger, l991). A secure bond is a relationship in which
solidarity prevails: accurate understanding of both parties of the other's
thoughts and feelings, their short and long-term intentions, and their
character prevails over misunderstanding or lack of understanding. In an
insecure or threatened bond alienation dominates: lack of understanding
or misunderstanding in these matters on one or both sides. Most social
bonds are a mix, but either solidarity or alienation predominates.
As already indicated, alienation occurs in two different formats. Using
Elias's (l989) "I-we" language: a secure bond requires balance between
the importance of the individuals and importance of the relationship. Too
much emphasis on the individual means isolation; each cannot know the other
and reveal the self because they are too distant. Too much emphasis on
the relationship means engulfment: each cannot know the other and reveal
the self because loyalty and conformity demands that important parts of
the self, basic desires, thoughts and feelings may be hidden, even from
ones' self. Secrecy, deception, and self-deception go hand in hand. Modern
societies tend toward individuation and isolation, traditional ones toward
conformity and engulfment. Both formats are equally alienated.
The apology/forgiveness transaction signifies the removal of a threat
to the social bond. In relational language, in every moment of every encounter,
the bond is either being maintained, strengthened, repaired, or damaged.
This is one of Goffman's (l967) central themes: every action (or inaction)
by each party has an effect on the relative status and sense of self of
the parties, without exception.
By verbal and nonverbal means, an effective apology is a master stroke
in this scenario, a repair of a threatened or insecure bond. When one party
has injured another, the bond is threatened, the parties are disconnected
emotionally and/or cognitively, i.e., they are in a state of shame. A successful
apology allows both parties to acknowledge and discharge the shame evoked
by the injury. The apology "makes things right" between the parties, both
emotionally and cognitively, it repairs the breach in the bond. The success
of the action of repair is felt and signaled by both parties: they both
feel and display the emotion of pride.
Bond language is needed if we are to understand and describe the process
of denial and acknowledgment: acknowledgment of the state of a relationship
(the degree of attunement and its accompanying emotions) leads to building
or repair of bonds, denial, to damage to bonds.
Tavuchis's analysis of apology and my commentary on it suggests the
complexity of the concept of acknowledgment and of its practice in real
life, even at the interpersonal level. At the level of relations between
nations, the issues are further complicated by the large number of participants,
the vastly increased volume of discourse, and particularly by the lack
of consensus which characterizes modern societies. In the theory proposed
here, acknowledgment of interdependency and emotion, the state of the bond,
is crucial not only for individuals, but for whole societies.
This discussion points toward several paths for conciliation between
belligerent groups. My theory of conflict suggests that the foremost cause
is mass alienation within and between the groups at enmity. Any steps which
would decrease mass alienation would automatically lessen pressure toward
conflict. In the paper on alienation which is a companion to this one,
I propose that teachers need to be retrained to be aware of the way in
which they reject working class and minority students. I also ask for classes
on family relations which would help young people form stable families.
Also in that paper I recommend reform for welfare programs to lessen rejection
and shame. Young men form the bulk of combatants for inter-group and international
conflict. If they could be better integrated into work or welfare, school,
and family, they would be less vulnerable to pressure to fight an external
At the level of culture, to undermine the sources of inter-group conflict,
we need to counter the techniques of neutralization (Sykes and Matza 1957;
Alverez 1997) that are used to foment hatred and violence toward purported
enemies. Although there are attempts to control the reaffirmation of hatred
and hatred in the mass media, they still have not been comprehensive enough
to help reduce the pressure toward violence. An obvious example is the
continuing sexism and violence toward women in major films, not to mention
fringe films. An expensive film like "Revenge," with major stars (Kevin
Costner, Madeleine Stowe, Anthony Quinn) degrades women and encourages
violence toward them, yet is being widely distributed and shown both in
theaters and on TV and video. Although racism and xenophobia has been toned
down somewhat, it still forms an undercurrent in many current films. It
seems particularly flagrant in "action" films (such as those produced by
Sylvester Stallone). Needless to say, both sexism and racism is rife in
most of the old films which are
constantly being rerun on TV.
Learning to identify and
acknowledge shame in self and others is also a fundamental direction toward
decreasing conflict. I have shown in this essay that alienation and unacknowledged
shame are basic causes of destructive conflict, as important as material
causes. Obviously material interests matter in human affairs. They are
topics of quarrells. But these interests can always be negotiated, if there
is no unacknowledged emotion, in a way that allows parties maximum benefit
or perhaps least destructive outcomes. Unacknowledged shame figures large
because it make rational negotiation of interest difficult or even impossible,
given the non-rational, that is, the elements of insult and rejection when
shame is not acknowledged by both parties.
The conflict in Northern Ireland can be taken as a current example of
this point. This conflict has been going on for over half a century, at
great expense to life, limb and pocketbook. At this writing, no resolution
is in sight . The three parties most affected by the conflict are the Catholic
and Protestant factions in N. Ireland, and the English police and military
stationed there. The rational solution would be a scheme that would allow
the sharing of power between the two factions, and the removal of the English
presence. That solution would benefit all sides. It would stop the loss
of life and physical damage that is occurring, and the drain on the funds
that English law enforcement is costing the UK, some three billion dollars
a year. Surely a way can be found to reach this goal, since all sides would
Here are four suggestions. The first two begin at the local level with
peace-making. In one of the papers that accompanies this one (Scheff 1997a),
I suggest that all political and terrorist crimes (excepting capital crimes)
be managed through "community conferences," rather than through the courts.
This step would directly involve the two conflicting factions in peace-making,
since they would have to arrive at a resolution of each political and terrorist
crime together. This move would further benefit the peace process in that
the two factions would be also put into a situation of having to share
and resolve the shame that accompanies each crime, as I explain in the
A second suggestion is also the local level. It is a very long step
from hatred and rage to peace and forgiveness. Ultimately, when some of
the smoldering rage has died down, it will probably be necessary to the
three parties to the conflict to exchange apologies, in the manner outlined
by Tavuchis (1991) in his discussion of group-to-group apologies. But this
is the last stage of the peace process, when the social and emotional conditions
will allow for conciliation and forgiveness. A prior step would be the
formation of what might be called "forums of conciliation" (This idea was
suggested to me by Terry O'Connell), after each community has had several
community conferences in the control of political and terrorist crimes.
In these local meetings in each town, first the individual factions, then
a combined meeting, could have discussions of their losses and hopes for
the future, building support for conciliation at the local level.
The third and fourth suggestions involve the highest levels of negotiation
in the peace process. The third suggestion is to hold the primary negotiations
in secret, to remove them from publicity, and from the temptation of each
of the two sides to play to their home audiences. This is the way the Oslo
accords were reached in the peace negotiations between the Arab states
and Israel. Secret negotiations, involving the most skilled and imaginative
of the negotiators from the two factions, allows them to reach creative
solutions, rather than strike rigid and unchangeable postures.
Finally, the fourth suggestions, relevant to the public negotiations
that should continue while the secret ones are going on, and will continue
after they reach an agreement. Given the role of unacknowledged shame and
insult in sabotaging rationale compromise, it is essential that all contact
between the three sides be handled with exquisite courtesy, avoiding any
kind of language or action that might occasion insult. Given the fact that
all sides have become enormously shame-prone, from the backlog of mutual
insults, this is not an easy task. But with human ingenuity being limitless,
I am confident that the right personnel and practices can be found that
would remove virtually unacknowledged shame and its ramifications from
the peace process. Under these conditions, it might be possible for Northern
Ireland or any other conflict to reach a rational compromise.
Alverez, Alexander. 1997. Adjusting to Genocide: Techniques of Neutralization
and the Holocaust. Social Science History 21: pp. 139-178.
Braithwaite, J. l989. Crime,Shame,and Reintegration. Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press.
Cahill, Thomas. 1995. How the Irish Saved Civilization. New York:
Elias, Norbert. 1995. The Germans: Power Struggles and the Development
of Habitus in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries. Cambridge: Polity
Goffman, Erving. l967. Interaction Ritual. New York: Anchor.
______________. l971. Relations in Public. New York: Harper.
Gottschalk, L. and G. Gleser. 1969. Gottschalk-Gleser Content Analysis
Scales. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Labov, W. and D. Fanshel. 1977. Therapeutic Discourse. New York:
Lewis, H. l971. Shame and Guilt in Neurosis. New York: International
Lynd, H. l958. Shame and the Search for Identity. New York: Harcourt
Macnamara, Robert. 1995. In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of
Vietnam. New York: Random House.
Miller, Ian. 1993. Humiliation. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.
Retzinger, S. M. l991. Violent Emotions: Shame and Rage in Marital
Quarrels. Newbury Park: Sage.
Scheff, T. 1979. Catharsis in Healing, Ritual, and Drama. Berkeley:
U. of California Press.
________. l990. Microsociology: Discourse, Emotion and Social Structure.
Chicago: U. of Chicago Press.
________.1994. Bloody Revenge: Emotions, Nationalism, War. Boulder:
________.1997. "Alienation, Nationalism, and Inter-ethnic Conflict."
________.1997a. "Local Peacemaking through "Community Conferences,"
Scheff, T., and Retzinger, S. l991. Emotion and Violence: Shame/Rage
Spirals in Interminable Conflicts. Lexington: Lexington Books.
Speer, Albert. 1970. Inside the Third Reich. New York: Macmillan.
Steiner, George. l971. Review of Albert Speer's Inside the Third Reich.
New Yorker . April 14.
Sykes, G. and D. Matza. 1957. Techniques of Neutralization: A Theory
of Delinquency. American Sociological Review 22: 664-70.
Tavuchis, Nicholas. l991. Mea Culpa: a Sociology of Apology and Reconciliation.
Stanford: Stanford U. Press.
Whyte, John. 1990. Interpreting Northern Ireland. Oxford: Clarendon