Home   Who We Are   Contract   Articles   Contact Us
Waging Dialogue ForumsWaging
"The first human who hurled an insult instead of a stone was the founder of civilization." 
– Sigmund Freud

This article by Alice Maher, M.D. was published online in November 2006 in the
International Journal of Applied Psychoanalytic Studies

Is War Essential for Peace?
A Methodology for the Psychoanalysis
of Conflict and Prejudice

Abstract:  This paper presents the first year-and-a-half of an ongoing internet research project, and suggests others.  The projects are designed to address issues of conflict and prejudice by bringing dynamic constellations alive in the form of ongoing dialogues that provide safe arenas for the more direct expression of misinterpretations, fantasy distortions, and aggression.

In his book, A Public Peace Process (1990), Harold Saunders, former assistant secretary of state and veteran of the Camp David Accord negotiations, talks about the need to create “sustained dialogue” among small groups of representative citizens who come to embody the dynamics of their communities.  Saunders refers to the work of psychoanalysis Vamik Volkan (2004), who explains the way “chosen traumas” and “chosen glories” remain alive in national mythology and individual identity and remain obstacles to conflict resolution.  Lord John Alderdice utilized sustained dialogue and psychoanalytic concepts to help his representative group struggle together, over a period of eleven years, to reach the Belfast Agreement in Northern Ireland.  Alderdice (2004) and psychoanalyst Salman Akhtar both express the belief that humiliation and profound disrespect of the experience of the Other may be the most significant contributors to violence.  In his chapter on dehumanization in Violence or Dialogue, (2005), Akhtar states, “The ‘hateful’ group must be allowed to vent its outrage in private and public meetings until the feelings of hurt and shame emerge at the surface.”

Akhtar (2005) also speaks of the need for a neutral third party to provide an anchor in reality.  William Ury (2000) describes “The Third Side” as the emergent will of the surrounding community, which serves as a container for escalating conflict.  Stone, Patton and Heed (2000), Ury’s colleagues from the Harvard Negotiation Project, talk about genuine dialogue as a complex, multidimensional process involving distorted facts, mistaken assumptions, impact on the individual’s identity, and the ineffective impulse to blame.

The idea for these projects began with a simple association – the computer as a new form of psychoanalytic “blank screen.”  My goal was to set up analytic-like frames, arenas of relative safety where individuals would be free to express politically incorrect, prejudiced or otherwise “unspeakable” thoughts, and explore the reasons why they feel as they do.  Their colleagues would help them separate accurate perceptions of reality from perceptual distortions stimulated by difference, eventually enabling each side to better understand the experience of the other.  I had been stuck by the ease with which aggressive affects, public exposure and humiliation arise when e-mail and listservs are used.  I hoped we might be able to understand more about that phenomenon, and apply that understanding to the problem of inter-ethnic conflict and political hostility directed against anonymous, faceless Others.

The correspondence between Albert Einstein and Sigmund Freud on the problem of war persuaded me that such a process should be created. When I first read it, I noted that their friendly, collegial dialogue contained a distortion arising out of Freud’s unconscious prejudice. I believe it was this factor, and his inability to make himself aware of it, that interfered with the two men’s ability to deepen the dialogue, and scuttled a potentially extraordinary collaboration.    

In 1932, Einstein wrote an open letter to Freud, asking why we have war and what could be done about it.  In reply, Freud professed his belief that violence was an inexorable outcome of human nature.  “You surmise that man has in him an active instinct for hatred and destruction… I entirely agree with you… this instinct functions in every living being, striving to work its ruin and reduce life to its primal state of inert matter.  Indeed, it might well be called the ‘death instinct’; whereas the erotic instincts vouch for the struggle to live on… there is no likelihood of our being able to suppress humanity’s aggressive tendencies.”

Then, in apparent defiance of his own model, Freud portrayed the two of them as being somehow “above” that propensity.  “Why do we, you and I and many another, protest so vehemently against war, instead of just accepting it as another of life’s odious importunities?  The basis of our common hatred of war is this:  We cannot do otherwise than hate it.  Pacifists we are, since our organic nature wills us thus to be… Now war runs most emphatically counter to the psychic disposition imposed on us by the growth of culture; we are therefore bound to resent war, to find it utterly intolerable.  With pacifists like us it is not merely an intellectual and affective repulsion, but a constitutional intolerance, an idiosyncrasy in its most drastic form.”

In “The Future of an Illusion,” Freud’s treatise in defense of atheism, he proceeds from a similar set of assumptions.  “Civilization has little to fear from educated people and brain-workers.  In them the replacement of religious motives for civilized behavior by other, secular motives would proceed unobtrusively; moreover, such people are to a large extent themselves vehicles of civilization.  But it is another matter with the great mass of the uneducated and oppressed, who have every reason for being enemies of civilization.”

Here, Freud expresses exactly the kind of dehumanizing prejudice that lies at the root of war.  We, the intellectual, atheist elite, are good, while they, the uneducated, religious, oppressed individuals, are bad – literally “enemies of civilization.”

Where Freud defends the elite, Einstein views them as perhaps the most culpable.  In referring to the “collective psychosis” that underlies the dynamics of war, Einstein states, “Here I am thinking by no means only of the so-called uncultured masses.  Experience proves that it is rather the so-called ‘intelligentsia’ that is most apt to yield to these disastrous collective suggestions, since the intellectual has no direct contact with life in the raw but encounters it in its easiest, synthetic form – upon the printed page.”

Einstein seems to intuitively recognize the problem of intellectualization as a defense against aggressive affect in the “intelligentsia,” while Freud uses that same defense to reinforce his own prejudice against the less cultured masses.  Perhaps because he needed to preserve a belief in his own innate superiority and immunity to the dynamics that he saw so clearly in others, Freud didn’t hear or respond to Einstein’s hypothesis, nor did his followers.

How much deeper might that dialogue have gone if an audience of young people had been able to confront them with, “Hey, wait a minute.  You’re agreeing with each other that war is an intractable problem, but one of you seems to be saying that intellect and education are the greatest contributors to civilization, while the other is saying the opposite – that the ‘intelligentsia’ are most apt to succumb to the collective psychosis of war because they’re too removed from the reality of the street.  Where’s the truth here?”

With the support of IAAPS, I created an interdisciplinary listserv with participants from the analytic, mental health and lay communities.  The project’s stated goal was to see if the psychoanalytic perspective could contribute to the understanding of socio-political issues, but I was basically asking the group to free associate to issues of psychoanalysis and society.  I was the moderator of the list, meaning that all messages had to be screened by me before they were posted.  We began on September 27, 2004 with approximately 100 people.  When we went on hiatus on October 15, 2005, there were 67 subscribers, with less than a dozen posting regularly, which I understand is statistically typical for listservs.

What follows is my own, greatly simplified interpretation; I’m not professing to speak for the rest of the group.  We have “historical truth” – the hard data preserved in the archives – and ‘psychic reality” – the multiple individual interpretations of “what really happened” – embodying data that could prove useful for future research.

Initially, participants bonded around a mutual dislike of President Bush.  A number of members pushed for activism and were unhappy to discover that wasn’t the intent of the group.  The “red vs. blue” prejudice was obvious; if someone made reference to a person who was considering voting for Bush, that person’s viewpoint was instantly dismissed.  From personal correspondence I knew that at least a few members were planning to vote republican, but they didn’t speak up, and some unsubscribed because they believed their perspectives would not be accepted.

But Bush won reelection, some new members joined who supported him or at least didn’t actively dislike him, and the externalized “us vs. them” dynamic entered the listserv arena in full force.  Discussions became increasingly difficult as aggressive attacks on one another emerged with disturbing regularity.  Intelligent, knowledgeable people talked about a wide range of topics, armed with historical facts, theoretical models, and well-thought-out opinions, but it didn’t get us anywhere.  Most of us wanted our arguments to win out over the others’, and our self-esteem was injured when that didn’t happen.

The group regression was powerful and dramatic.  There were huge distortions, humiliating attacks, scapegoating, and accusations of prejudice, particularly anti-Semitism.  Subgroups formed and armed themselves against other subgroups.  Posts were forwarded to other sources for the purpose of discrediting the writers.  There were threats of law suits, ethics issues, and hacking into the mechanism of the list.  Thoughtful, non-provocative or gently questioning posts were typically ignored.  Some left in humiliation and outrage; others moved to the sidelines.  I once made a poorly timed and unconsciously aggressive joke about sending a computer virus to my “enemies” in a way that was consciously intended to defuse the intensity, but it had the opposite effect, as if I had revealed my true hidden desire to destroy those who disagreed with me.  We started out as members of the “intelligentsia” interested in exploring ideas together, and we regressed to states bordering on paranoid mistrust and brutality.

At one point I found myself fantasizing that someone would literally stab me in the back, making me an instant martyr.  Hmm…physical pain is better than psychic pain for the many individuals who cut themselves.  Might the same be true for societies?  Do wars enable groups of people to ward off psychic pain, solidify their identity, and create meaning where none yet exists?  It seemed like an interesting social theory, but was it valid, or did it reflect nothing more than my unconscious Catholic identification and/or personal masochism?  It became clear that our ideas, and the manner in which we presented them, emerged out of ourselves in enormously complex ways.  But instead of exploring that complexity with thoughtfulness, respect and enthusiasm, ideas were typically met with below-the-best attacks on the individual’s humanity.

I was often blamed for iatrogenically catalyzing a process that was, at best, hurtful, and at worst, dangerous; a number of people thought it should end immediately.  But I held firm to my conviction that the group represented a microcosm of society, exposing a natural phenomenon that needed to be looked at more closely by virtue of its close resemblance to the dynamics of prejudice, inter-ethnic conflict and war.  Could our experience eventually shed light on the controversial concepts of thanatos/destrudo?  I also persisted because I was struck by the fact that profound hurt almost always began with a simple misunderstanding of affect, meaning, desire, intent, or different thinking styles, emphasized by the anonymity of the process.*

As these phenomena emerged and threatened to derail the list, various members attempted to serve as analysts for one another and for the group.  Subgroups had formed during the process – a few like-minded individuals e-mailed comments to one another, supporting each other’s positions or continuing to discuss or argue off the record.  One member interpreted this as an acting out in relation to the group process, others agreed, and after a lengthy struggle much of it stopped.

By this time I had morphed from the moderator to a powerful-but-flawed leader.  The group challenged me, often by forwarding private messages and forcing me to decide whether or not to post them.  Should I censor an individual’s voice, or betray confidentiality for the person whose personal message I would allow to be exposed?  “Lurkers” – people who were uncomfortable posting to the group but were willing to communicate privately with me – added an additional layer of complexity.

The problem reached a painful climax when I shared my belief that Osama bin Laden, in addition to being evil, was also highly creative; I envied his ability to impact the world with a few flying lessons, boxcutters and a dream.  The response made me feel like a cross between bin Laden and Bush, as seen through the eyes of many members of the group – grandiose, evil, incompetent, powerful and dangerous.  The opportunity to present this paper arose around the same time, precipitating more accusations of ruthlessness; I was using them as lab rats for my own purposes.  In a sobering realization, I understood that, in a sense, I was.

My initial hope was that providing an arena in which to speak unspeakable thoughts would eventually prove to be liberating.  I knew it would be hard, but I didn’t anticipate just how hard it would be.  Nevertheless, the members who remained eventually became more tolerant of one another and of me, and began to take risks that worked.  In a thoughtful and moving post, a participant dared to wonder if the dynamic of suicide bombing in Muslim men might be related to the fact that many of them are circumcised in a a pre-adolescent religious ritual rather than in infancy.  The person had to repeat it several times before we could get past the, How dare you THINK that! horror.  Nevertheless, we were eventually able to surmount our prejudices and discuss the hypothesis openly and honestly, preserving our respect and admiration for the person who proposed it.  We discussed transference as it manifested itself in the context of a listserv, and were able to talk about charged topics like abortion and religion with less difficulty than before.  As the discussion drew toward closure, we had progressed from seeing ourselves as members of groups and subgroups hiding behind a leader, a theoretical model or a political position, to taking the risk of revealing ourselves as unique individuals struggling to find rare moments of common ground and connectedness amid chaos, prejudice, different lives, different histories, different thinking styles, different worldviews, and much misunderstanding.

During the summer I proposed a termination date for this phase of the project.  I thought we needed to put the experience in perspective, rework the theory, methodology and purpose, and apply what we learned to a new edition of the listserv.  Some expressed anger, but other themes were hope, a more positive perspective – Where else can people talk like this? – and recognition that real change will take a long time and be more difficult than anticipated.  There was also the intriguing suggestion that a capacity for feminine identification might be necessary to tolerate a process like this.

I assumed that few members would be motivated to resume, so my intention at the time was to begin a new listserv that would focus on the topic of religion, with a group of people from different religious backgrounds who would be willing to sign a statement of informed consent and commit to an ongoing, difficult process.  My expectation was that we would have the conscious desire to care about one another and work toward the religious ideal of greater insight, empathy and compassion, while at the same time be forced to confront our instinct to ridicule and attack the incomprehensible and disturbing belief systems of the Other.  I expressed my belief that all religions, including atheism, contain a body part of the elephant that is “God,” and I was hopeful that such a group would bring both the beauty and the ugliness alive as we tried to mentalize our experience and share it with others.  As the title of this paper suggests, I had become convinced that a process bearing some characteristics of “war” would be essential en route to a genuine peace.

Two months later I reopened the list to discuss the direction of the project and ways of transitioning to a safer arena.  I was pleased to discover that most members who had been present at the end were motivated to continue, and a few new people joined as well.  It soon became clear that we would not focus on any specific topic, but we agreed that it was important to close the group to anonymous subscribers, and create a contract, including a statement of informed consent, that new, invited members would be required to sign.

I contacted the silent members individually.  Many unsubscribed, while a few became active participants.  At this point a moderator no longer seemed necessary, so I made the list unmoderated.  I viewed this decision as evidence that basic trust had been established, but others assumed I had been pressured to surrender my role as leader – an idea that pleased some and disappointed others.

      The negativity, though lessened compared to last year, remained an obstacle to deeper communication.  Two of the new members strongly suggested a change to a forum model, and offered to set it up for us.  The opportunity to argue over something concrete, and eventually vote to accept it, seemed to help.

While we were discussing the transition to the forum, I drafted several versions of the contract, which were discussed and edited before we agreed to the following:

The IAAPS interdisciplinary forum was created to bring people with different backgrounds together for the purpose of discussing social, political, and cultural issues from a psychoanalytic perspective.  Begun as a moderated listerv on September 27, 2004, it has developed into both a research project and a dynamic group process, in an unmoderated forum.  As we discuss issues such as inter-ethnic conflict, prejudice, and war, we observe ways in which analogous conflicts arise within our own community.  We attempt to give them meaning, work to resolve them over time, and share what we learn with others.

Topics vary widely from day to day, but the underlying question the group has agreed to address is this: “If I sincerely, powerfully believe something to be true and others around me don’t, what, if anything, should I do?  If someone expresses a belief or makes a statement that I have a sincere and powerful objection to, what, if anything, should I do?”

Our goals are, 1) to be true to ourselves while working to preserve our relationship with the Others; 2) to make every effort to share our associations to the ideas and feelings of our colleagues, rather than criticizing them, judging them, or ignoring them; to construct bridges rather than sever them; 3) when conflicts emerge, to look inside ourselves, examine our own sense of injury, and the feelings and self-protective mechanisms that motivate our communications and the way we hear and respond to the communications of others.

What we write is an expression of ideas.  Our purpose is creativity and discovery, with personal insight and a greater sense of connectedness arising from the struggle to work together.  We agree to be as open and honest as possible with ourselves and one another, and to express ourselves in ways that facilitate those processes.  We agree to compose our thoughts rather than vent or suppress them, with consideration for their potential impact on others.  We will try to avoid prejudging our colleagues on the basis of different ideologies or communication styles.  We may dismiss a proposition or attack an idea, but we may not dismiss or attack their authors, either directly or by intimation.  While we can’t expect ourselves to maintain full conscious control of the unconscious forces that motivate our posts, we appreciate that we’re more likely to disregard that level of meaning when we feel hurt, humiliated, or desire revenge.

Full participation in the forum is intense, emotionally challenging, and time-consuming.  Potential new subscribers must have some understanding of the nature of the project, and either be sponsored by a member of the group, or be willing to tell us something about themselves and the reason for their interest prior to joining.  Agreement with the conditions of this statement is required.

Participants understand that this process is not confidential. Real names are used.  Some members plan to write about the project, and others will discuss it with friends and colleagues.  We agree not to reveal names or forward posts to individuals outside the group, and we will not quote people without their permission.  Discussions with outsiders should be about the process as we experience it, not about specific individuals.  However, we also understand that rules are occasionally broken, and this is a greater risk when there are a large number of people involved.  If we agree to participate we do so with full understanding of these risks.

It is always easy to misinterpret the meaning and intention of others based on what we’re predisposed to believe, and distortions are even more likely when we can’t read each other’s expressions or hear their voices.  Intense feelings and conflicts may arise as a result.  We will try our best to help our colleagues recognize and resolve these difficulties when they arise, but we understand that in unusual circumstances this may lead to an exacerbation of an individual’s underlying emotional problems.

It’s impossible to prevent a member from unsubscribing at any point, but those who sign the contract agree to do their best to remain in the room.  We understand that personal issues or vacations may take people out of the arena for extended periods, but if the desire to unsubscribe arises out of strong personal feelings, we agree to discuss those feelings first, with the hope of resolving them.

If individual participants choose to write about the project, they agree to share their drafts with the group first, but will ultimately take full responsibility for their interpretation of the material, without implying that other group members are in agreement with their perspective.

This contract will remain in effect until phenomena emerge that make us need to reconsider some elements and perhaps add others, at which point it will be renegotiated.

The forum now has 27 members.  Some post almost daily, others occasionally, in spurts, or not at all.  We’re a group with wide ranging differences in educational levels, career choices, life experiences, theoretical “languages,” and religious/cultural backgrounds and belief systems, and we’re struggling hard to be true to ourselves while working to preserve our relationships with our colleagues, and find ways to harness the aggression that still regularly emerges.

The methodology is still in its infancy, but I’m optimistic enough about its potential to plan for the development of several other forums, which will be located on the IAAPS web site.  One will involve educators and school consultants, and the other will include psychoanalysts from different theoretical backgrounds who are motivated to “desymbolize” their complex theoretical languages and search for a simple common denominator that defines what analysis is, how it works, and how it can best be marketed - to potential patients, and to the world outside the consulting room.

This methodology has potential for development in the real, three-dimensional world, not just cyber-reality.  Two of the weaknesses of computer-based projects is the lack of a “third side” – a group observing ego – and the opportunity for group members to meet in person.  The following project, which would require sponsorship by a university, is designed in a way that would correct for that problem, and invite a larger audience to witness and participate in the process.

In this project I would bring together a group of 10-12 individuals representing different religious, ethnic, cultural and political positions.  The goal would be to develop an ongoing dialogue on the problem of inter-ethnic conflict, with emphasis on a specific arena such as the Middle East.  Participants would have strong personal convictions, coexisting with a willingness to struggle openly with the impact of their beliefs on their relations with the Other, and be willing to do the hard work of changing aspects of their worldviews as new insights emerge.

Initially the group would spend four days on campus.  The morning of the first day, each participant would present a 10-15 minute position statement to an audience of students and faculty.  A representative of the university would moderate the discussion, and a reporter would record it.  During the lunch break the moderator would collect questions from the audience.  In the afternoon session those questions would be presented to the group, and the participants would respond to them and to one another.

During the next two days, group members would interact with students and faculty in different ways.  They would also spend time together, getting to know one another while struggling to make sense of the positions of their colleagues, and take steps toward defining the most salient arenas of conflict while imagining reconciliation scenarios.

On the fourth day the participants would return to the stage.  Each would give a brief presentation describing which aspects of their initial perspectives have changed and which remain entrenched.  What new questions are they pondering?  What have they found to be most significant and/or most disturbing about their colleagues’ frames of reference?

After the group leaves campus, the discussion would continue via a listserv, with a faculty member moderating questions from an audience of student observers.  Six months later the group would return to the campus for another four-day residency.  They would report on the progress of the dialogue, integrating the political events of the period as part of the data.  The process would be repeated again, and come to closure six months later.

My hypothesis is that, as Volkan and Saunders suggest, each of the members will come to embody the perspectives of the society in which they were raised, and will represent that culture and its belief systems for their audience.  In the struggle to remain true to themselves while preserving their relationships with challenging and sometimes threatening Others, they will illustrate how individual and group fantasies, defenses, blind spots, and language/symbolization differences are confronted, grappled with, given meaning, and worked through without resorting to violence or withdrawal.  With the help of the young people as their “third side,” they will illustrate how prejudices arise out of individual experience and cultural inheritance, how stereotyping can be recognized and responded to appropriately, and how the threatening force of aggression that arises naturally during such interactions can be harnessed as a valuable tool for understanding, empathy, and change.

By the time the process reaches closure, participants and observers will be in possession of significant new perspectives on the nature and meaning of inter-ethnic conflict, and will present those insights as specific recommendations for societal change.  Obviously much will happen that can’t be anticipated, but no matter what the concrete outcome, the project will have added a new psychoanalytic dimension to the educational process, initiated the development of new tools for problem-solving and conflict resolution, and empowered the young, cyber-generation to use those tools wisely.

Alderdice, Lord John.  Presentation at the meetings of the American Psychoanalytic Association, January 23, 2004.
Einstein, Albert and Freud, Sigmund (1932).  Why War?  London, 1934.
Freud, Sigmund (1927).  The future of an illusion.  The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud.  London:  Hogarth Press, 1961.
Saunders, Harold (1999).  A Public Peace Process: Sustained Dialogue to Transform Racial and Ethnic Conflicts.  NY and London:  Palgrave, 2001.
Stone, Douglas, Patton, Bruce and Heen, Sheila (2000).  Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most.  The Penguin Group.
Varvin, Sverre and Volkan, Vamik, eds. (2005).  Violence or Dialogue?  Psychoanalytic Insights on Terror and Terrorism.  London: The International Psychoanalytic Association.
Volkan, Vamik (2004).  Blind Trust:  Large Groups and Their Leaders in Times of Crisis and Terror.  Charlottesville, VA: Pitchstone Publishing.
Ury, William (2000).  The Third Side: Why We Fight and How We Can Stop.  The Penguin Group.

* Freud’s friend Breuer and his patient Anna O actually discovered the psychoanalytic method when he invited her to associate to her symptoms, and they improved.  But he became terrified when she later feel in love with him and developed an hysterical pregnancy.  In contrast, Freud recognized the universality of the phenomenon, and chose to explore it rather than run from it.  That association helped me stand firm during this difficult period.