Seminar
Understanding
War and Violence II
Andriy Portnov explores what it is that makes some people pick up arms, but not everyone.
This is the second of a three-part workshop our speaker's prepared on what violence means. As this is a topic people have been researching for centuries. PRIO, the Peace Research Institute of Oslo (where I also spent time studying this summer) exists because there aren't easy answers just waiting to pop out at you. So there'll be less of an 'here's the answer!' vibe here and more of a 'wow, what the fuck have we done to ourselves' one.

"So!" our speaker, Andriy Portnov, rubs his hands. "Are we ready?"


It's important, we're told, to think about the gap (or maybe link) between sentiment and killing. And by sentiments we mean feelings. Think about Donbas: there are a lot of polarized feelings. 'Polarized' doesn't even begin to describe the horror show – we're deep into trauma territory here. People have grievances and they might be against the gov't in Kiev or against Russia or against each other. Whatever. But people across all corners of the planet have feelings of grievance – that doesn't mean you're going to do pick up a gun. So what happens when they do?

Some say a war is a product of identity conflicts, and if you say that then you're saying there's a direct link between hate and the act of killing. And as Tatiana Zhurzhenko (and the entirety of peace research as a field) told us while speaking about memory wars: that's not enough. Maybe it's reason to troll someone, but not to reach for a weapon.

So what is, then?

Echoing the folks we read up on while doing our peace research course, there's the thought that a weak state apparatus doesn't help. We spoke yesterday about a lack of 'state-legitimate' violence sometimes makes space for other kinds of violence. But unless you want to pummel someone with your fists (happens) you need to get yourself some weapons.
Tangent: Not every conflict needs high-quality, hard-to-find weapons.
In Rwanda they used whatever they had at home.
So usually we have to take a look at where the weapons came from – follow the trails in Afghanistan, Karabakh or the Balkans and you'll uncover some interesting stuff. Maybe things were stolen from military bases, for example. Or they were brought in from abroad. Maybe distribution networks were built between local and non-local actors. In East Ukraine, there was no way they could have gotten the big guns, the anti-aircraft ones. Everything came from somewhere.

Then you need to create a space to use weapons. This isn't necessarily about a battlefield or physical spot (although that matters too), you have to create a climate in which someone things to themselves: oh, I can kill. I can take property. I can rape - because this usually ends up being the case. So then you have to look at who created this space or made the situation possible.

We often try to apply these thoughts to the Donbas conflict but they can equally be found elsewhere. Andriy often refers to the anti-Jewish pogroms in the Russian Empire, the one in 1905 being among the worst. Yesterday we looked at how one potential reason for their happening was how the Jews of the time tried to integrate into the Russian population (with dire results), but today there'll be another angle.

There were a number of revolutions in the first quarter of the 20th century, with the one in 1917 hogging the most attention, but there was a revolution around 1905 when Russia transformed into a constitutional monarchy. Meaning they got themselves a parliament – the Duma.

"And then pogroms!" shouts Andriy. "Why?"

The stories are, interestingly enough, nearly identical across all locations where the pogroms took place. First you had a monarchist demonstration wanting the old system back. And usually there was one person, sometimes identifiable to history, who said "hey! Those Jews are responsible! They brought us to this shit." Then someone has to throw the first stone. Enter chaos.

Another key part of this was that there wasn't any intervention in the first few days, not by the gov't or the army or anyone at all. And if you're the guy calling for Jewish heads then, well, you may say to yourself, hey, if you got off this easy this time then maybe you can keep going. This is a factor Andriy wants to focus on: things start in steps and then snowball. So look to the steps.
Tangent: Of course there were places where the pogroms didn't happen, like the Polish city of Lodz. But this may be less because of tolerance and more because two groups of Poles, socialist and non-socialist, were already fighting each other. Plus the police intervened from the start and made sure anti-semitism didn't get out of control.

So, local civil war = no pogroms. By no means an ideal second-best.
Then there's the dehumanization factor. Prepping someone for violence is much easier if there's pre-propaganda involved – it doesn't have to focus on killing someone so much as declaring them non-human. Insects, vermin, cockroaches and all that. The enemy is positioned outside the moral order in general.

When we talk about this it's easy to state the need to be analytical and academic, perhaps even neutral/objective, but in real life it's quite difficult. Even the language we use has political implications: if you talk about Crimea in 2014, do you say the process was annexation, reunion, joining, anschluss? It's a very human thing, these word traps. That and we have our own emotions to deal with – we can't avoid them but we still have to be aware. And analyze our own language.

Other complicated word choices: whether or not a Polish WWII museum uses 'German' or 'Nazi' when describing troops. When and where we use the word 'genocide.' Or who is considered an 'indigenous' people – the Crimean Tatars being a very complicated case. And while many of us are unaware of all the connotations attached to language, many of us very much know exactly what we're doing. Playing with words can make our political claims stronger or more problematic or both. And it's hard to scale things back and try to really analyze what we're doing.

We finish with a discussion of victimhood, which is the part that was the most fraught for me. The way victimhood's used in the context of class is one that problematizes claims to be a victim. Which makes sense, because in East Europe everyone says they're the victim – this victimhood narrative makes it difficult for people to accept that, in some cases, their countryfolk were also perpetrators. Polish and Soviet people killed Jews, for example. But recognizing this fact damages the status afforded them by their own victimization by the Nazis. And because of this historical blind spot, along with the special claims certain groups make as 'victims' and the major consequences of those claims, there's a quote in one of the articles saying "victimhood narratives are much more conducive to committing injustice than to resisting them." Think Israel or Palestine using victimhood narratives to justify violence or terror.

This a loaded statement.

Being from North America, I had alarms ringing all over the inside of my skull. The conversation over there surrounding the term 'victimhood' is one that's been launched into the stratosphere, especially by people identifying as leaning to the political right. Especially recently. This's often opposed to the conversations on the popular left about privilege and affirmative action. On the left, certain marginalized groups are named victims (victimized particularly by privileged people) and so receive status/cultural capital or benefits or the ability to make claims (affirmative action being one) in a way that's similar to stuff mentioned in the lecture today.

Certain groups resist this and claim that the victimhood narratives of the popular North American left have problematic elements that, when implemented, create problems and escalate into culture war. Think about why Jordan Peterson is so popular – he makes claims (many of which I find to be a tad undercooked) about how victim culture is total bullshit, and a number of people feel the bit of truth in it and buy in all the way. The problem isn't that it's a lie people are buying into, but that there's a part of what he's saying that might be legit, and that legit set of problematic elements in the liberal conversation needs to be addressed. But they're only being addressed by people (like Peterson) who themselves are also fucking things up along the way. And that makes people on the popular left react against them. And so even challenging narratives of victimhood can be seen (on the popular left) as an act of allying with the alt-right or an expression of some kind of phobia. There's no public space to even discuss or process victimhood, and it entrenches elements of cultural conflict that are already rather polarized.

With that, a sliver of this ridiculously deep conversation about memory in East Europe reaches halfway around the world and reverberates very squarely with issues on my home continent. I don't know what to make of that yet. I'm still very much processing how I want to respond. It's a very dicey tightrope to walk, made even more complicated by the fact that I come from a relatively privileged background.
Tangent: look up a quote from a guy named Martin Niemoeller. It's easy to find because, in a way, there's only one that's become famous. But even saying that's a bit misleading: there's one quote, but tons of varations on it all claim to be the original. Here's one:

"First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a socialist.

"Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a trade unionist.

"Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.

"Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me."

It's super famous. In part because, in every monument it's carved in, the victims change according to the circumstances. In Boston Catholics are included. In the 2010s gay people are often included. People in varying groups compete to be lined up among the suffering. What Andriy asks us to consider is why, and what all this implies about victimhood and culture.
Brain status after the lecture: swimming. I very much would have like a nap.