By Paula Bradley, InPsych Production Editor
In a survey conducted after the September 11 terrorist attacks, 90% of the Australians surveyed felt sadder as a result of the attacks, with the great majority rating their distress at a very high level.* Yet at the same time, many people supported the use of violence to deal with the people who masterminded the attacks. In this article, InPsych production editor, Paula Bradley, investigates this contradiction from the peace psychology perspective with PPOWP members, Associate Professor Di Bretherton and Amanda Allan.
Like many psychologists, Amanda Allan sees clients in her counselling practice who relate to events unfolding on the global stage. Modern technology has enabled people to ‘be there’ in the immediate aftermath of terrorist attacks and in some cases watch them happen live.
“People are referencing themselves more and more in relation to global events, and social cultures beyond their immediate context,” Amanda Allan says.
“In western societies, there has been a disembodying of what we consider to be our intimate frame of reference. The sociophysical context of family and community has changed dramatically, reorienting the framework of who we are in relation to others.
“These changes have been brought about by the globalisation phenomenon and the associated advances in technology and communication. Our relationships with dimensions of time and space have changed markedly.”
Global events such as terrorist attacks develop a presence in our personal spaces, challenging our sense of security and for some, generating a good deal of fear. That fear then triggers beliefs about what action is needed to reduce the threat. Many people believe that the way to deal with violence is more violence – whether that is by means of harsh punishment or violent retaliation. “When something terrible happens, there is often a public call for a display of force,” Di Bretherton says.
“When a dingo killed a child on Fraser Island, the immediate public reaction was for the dingoes to be killed. Similarly, a gruesome murder is often associated with calls for a return to the death penalty or tougher sentencing.”
Leaders in western societies have reacted to terrorist attacks in a similar way. The reaction of the United States government to the September 11 attacks was to bomb Afghanistan and start a ‘War on Terror’. The Australian government’s reaction to the Bali bombings was to reinforce its support for the ‘War on Terror’, which by that time was focused on Iraq, and state that our armed forces would attack terrorist cells in other South East Asian nations if necessary.
Late last year George Bush said the US might use its nuclear capability on Iraq if it didn’t declare its weapons of mass destruction.
Many people in western societies are oblivious to the inherent hypocrisy behind the US’s threat to use nuclear weapons because of the development of nuclear weapons by another country.
This blindness occurs because people believe they, and by extension their leaders, are morally justified to use force against those people that have used violence against them. These beliefs form part of a defensive spiral, in which each side believes the other side is the aggressor and act in what they see as ‘defence’, thereby justifying their own aggressive actions.
“When we define people as terrorists or a country as a ‘rogue state’, we put them outside our moral community – we stop negotiating with them and force becomes the only way,” Di Bretherton says.
The creation of enemy images, where we see the ‘other’ as the enemy, allows us to see ourselves as noble and right, and the other as evil, hostile and aggressive – making it easy to ignore their legitimate interests and concerns.
“This is dangerous because it means we don’t look at why the violence happened in the first place. People don’t just wake up one day and decide they are going to be a terrorist as a career option,” Di Bretherton says.
“In the same way that western societies want tough leaders to take military action against terrorism, people are attracted to rebel groups and military causes because they do not feel safe and secure in their world, they are under threat and want to take up arms to do something about it.
“Add to the mix, the widening economic disparity between the non-Islamic and Islamic world and you are starting to see some real issues that the world needs to deal with.”
There is no doubt that events in one part of the world have had a profound effect on the psyche of people in physically far removed places. It is apparent in the Australian context that people’s lives have become entwined in a local-global nexus phenomenon via cyberculture, the development of sophisticated and fast communication modalities, and increasing global trade and travel.
One way of understanding this phenomenon is from a culture shock perspective. Amanda Allan believes that the events of recent times, which have challenged people’s existing views of the Western world and its invincibility, have demanded a psychological reorganisation of self in relation to global structure, power and security. For many people, this has resulted in a sense of sadness and loss and a rallying to hold on to what is desired even if aggression is necessary to achieve that result.
As people increasingly become vicariously involved and identify with events unfolding around the world, they tend to seek security by clustering together in a way that increases the strength of relationships that are perceived as providing the greatest degree of safety and significance to them.
This ‘bunkering down’ is taking people right back to the basics of ontological security issues, according to Amanda Allan – they orient to more primal and safe attachment relationships (e.g. spending more time with family) and changing their activities (e.g. staying closer to home, cancelling travel plans).
“People are not as willing to take so many risks with their attachment relationships when experiencing a sense of threat. They tend to take a more black and white view of situations and people – rejecting others if they don’t share the same world view and rejecting outsiders. A more homogenous context tends to emerge,” she says.
An experimental psychological study investigating mortality salience as a terror management defence (Wis-man & Koole, 2001) links in with this perspective. Wisman and Koole found that people tend to seek affiliation with others, sometimes at the cost of their own personally relevant world views, by becoming close to other group members, even in the absence of any objective grounds for wanting to be close to the group and even when other group members threatened one’s own worldviews.
When plagued by existential concerns, people simply want to hide in the crowd, no matter what ideas this crowd has espoused.
Amanda Allan’s PhD research into the psychosocial adjustment of humanitarian aid workers returning to their country of origin has picked up on this phenomenon. A doctor returning to the US after September 11 was struck by how attitudes had become so much more black and white. From that person’s perspective, it seemed that there was very little room in the media for dissenting views and some people had become afraid to speak out.
In the US, many citizens and permanent residents of Middle Eastern origin were arrested and questioned after September 11. In Australia after the Bali bombings, a number of Indonesian families had their houses raided and searched. Mainstream public opinion indicated a decrease in support for asylum seekers held in detention centres. And little public sympathy existed for the two Australians caught in Afghanistan and transported to Camp X-Ray in Cuba, where they have been put outside international law and are treated neither as war criminals or civilians.
These are some of the results of a rise in black and white attitudes, which so-called outsiders fall victim to.
What can psychology do?
Amanda Allan and Di Bretherton agree that psychologists can help reduce levels of fear and anxiety at an individual level and can also educate and lobby on a broader scale. They say psychologists of all orientations can contribute to changing cultures of violence into cultures of peace through clinical and academic work, research and education, and by taking their work into the public arena through contributing to the development and implementation of social policies that institutionalise social justice.
“At the individual level, psychologists can empower people to understand how their beliefs, thoughts, emotions and behaviour are linked – and while you can’t control events happening around the world, you can increase your consciousness of your own reactions to them and assume some responsibility for your expression of these reactions,” Amanda Allan says.
“An essential skill psychologists can help people develop is being able to hold multiple perspectives simultaneously.”
Di Bretherton believes that psychologists can contribute to a saner world by encouraging perspective taking (considering your view and also others’ points of view), as well as more analytic thinking. “We should be asking people to think about questions such as: ‘Why do I fear Islamic people?’ ‘Does terrorism threaten my personal safety?’ ‘If it does, what can do to reduce that threat?’,” she says.
Amanda Allan wants to see more psychologists becoming involved in educating people about their reactions and increasing consciousness of how the ‘self’ fits within a more socially and globally oriented context rather than just focusing on the individual level.
“As people in western societies have bunkered down in response to terrorism, the paradox in wanting to preserve our safe havens by using force against people on the other side of the world has resulted in the creation of higher levels of insecurity and displacement on a global scale,” she says.
“We then find we have more people knocking at our door needing somewhere safe to go. We tend not to appreciate the link or want to see the link.”
* Australian Unity Wellbeing Index, Survey 3, Report 3.1, May 2002.
PPOWP – helping people put peace into practice
Psychologists for the Promotion of World Peace (PPOWP) has been developing strategies to assist psychologists to put peace into practice in their daily lives.
A conference is planned for July 13, 2003, which will offer a practical look at the many ways psychologists, health professionals and educators can, and do, contribute to peace.
Michael Wessells, Professor of Psychology at Randolph-Macon College, will give the keynote address. He has worked for many years in the field of post-conflict reconstruction, with an emphasis on community-based culturally-sensitive programs.
Training workshops will be held in conflict resolution, media training, and mediation. Shorter workshops and symposiums will be held on topics as diverse as East Timor, peace education in schools, conflict resolution in families, relaxation and meditation.
The day will end with a panel of notable international psychologists sharing their ideas about how professionals can put peace into practice.Submissions are invited for symposia, papers, posters and practice forums on current developments in peace psychology and peace education. Applicants should submit a ‘Call for Papers’ Submission Form (see website) and abstract by the March 3, 2003.
PPOWP has also recently produced ‘Peace is Possible’ badges, (small gold badge, $3 each – purchase from PPOWP c/o APS). By wearing these badges, people are helping to spread the message that there are alternatives to violent solutions to conflict, and taking steps to put peace into practice. By inviting people to consider that peace is possible, we help each other move out of helplessness and hopelessness and into action. Indeed, the belief that ‘I can do something’ is the first stage in effective problem solving.
Wearing a badge, and giving badges to friends and colleagues, is only one step. Other constructive activities include writing letters to politicians and world leaders and asking them to support peaceful rather than violent ways to solve world problems, joining a peace group, attending rallies, making peaceful activities a part of your daily life, discussing peace with friends and colleagues, and so on. Everything we do to encourage others to believe non-violent solutions are possible and to actively express their concerns helps to bring about changes that will ripple through all levels of society.
PPOWP has also recently appointed a Peace Education Project Officer, Margot Trinder. Through this position, PPOWP aims to develop and promote resources and professional development to support people in promoting peace through education. The resources will focus on the themes of PPOWP’s existing posters and books plus related themes.
In the current political climate of fear, threats, violence and uncertainty, it is easy to feel helpless and to despair about the possibility of creating a more peaceful world. There is a tendency to resort to blaming individuals, political, or cultural groups, to believe that the only answer to violence is more violence, and to wait for others to take responsibility for change.
Whilst some believe that work for peace is something to be done ‘in your own time’ and as citizens, we believe that building peace is a matter of professional responsibility.Psychologists have been working for peace throughout the 20th century.Peace Building in the 21st century began with the UN declaring the year 2000 as the International Year for the Culture of Peace. Building peace requires prevention and long-term proactive work along the lines of social justice, human rights, non-violence, inclusiveness, civil society, peace education, and sustainability.
PPOWP encourages individuals and communities to create a culture of peace and adopt an alternative dialogue to fear, violence and retribution.We encourage the study of issues related to the promotion of peace and prevention of war, and advocate the use of peaceful rather than violent methods for the resolution of conflict. We endeavour to put peace into practice through education, research, books and articles, posters, advocacy, and activism.
Attending PPOWP’s one-day conference, ‘Putting Peace into Practice’, is one way that psychologists and educators can build on their current endeavours to create cultures of peace www.conferences.unimelb.edu.au/ppowp/. This day is a satellite to the 2003 Flagship Conference of the University of Melbourne, ‘International Perspectives on Peace and Reconciliation’ www.conferences.unimelb.edu.au/flagship, which provides further opportunities for inspiration and professional development.
For information on other activities and products of Psychologists for the Promotion of World Peace, see www.groups.psychology.org.au/pfp/