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Film fest explores group identity, schisms and violence

Bryan McKenzie     October 27, 2021

Republicans, Democrats, neo-Nazis, antifascists, religious groups and even nations share a common need to reinforce and defend their identities, a need that creates deep social divisions and makes unity difficult, according to a University of Virginia psychoanalyst who has worked worldwide to bridge international conflicts.

Dr. Vamik Volkan has spent a lifetime working in international crisis zones to bring opposing sides together in negotiations. His efforts have taken him from the Middle East to the Balkans, to his native Cyprus.


Those efforts are now taking him to the movie screen.


“Blind Trust: Leaders & Followers in Times of Crisis,” a documentary of Volkan’s work, is showing today as part of the Virginia Film Festival.

The documentary will be shown at 3 p.m. at the Violet Crown 5 Theater on Charlottesville’s Downtown Mall. A discussion featuring Volkan will follow.

The film was created by Molly Castelloe and focuses on Volkan’s peacemaking efforts as well as the psychology of group identity. Volkan, who has five times been nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize, is at the forefront of understanding societal conflict from a psychological perspective.

“The divisions in this country are not so different from those in other areas of the world. They are created by leaders who induce anxiety that foreigners or someone from the outside are coming and they’re going to harm the way of life,” Volkan said. “You feel like you are under attack. You cannot let anyone in.”

Volkan said leaders of political parties, states, countries and movements may use the same tactics. 


“They induce fear. Someone is bringing danger. Someone is coming from outside. That creates a sense of victimization followed by entitlement to make a change,” he said. “It’s what is happening in America now.”

Volkan said the U.S. is not alone. France, Germany, Hungary and Turkey show schisms of similar sorts. As leaders vie for power, they create large group identities to motivate their bases.


“It can be nationalism, tribal, ideational like white supremacists or religious like Sunni Muslim. There are leaders who mix up their own personal lives with societal/political issues,” Volkan said. 


When large group identity overrides personal identity, movements are formed.


“Imagine you have a million people under tent. Everyone has their own identity, their family and friends, and their social identities like club memberships and work,” Volkan explained. “The canvas on the tent is everyone’s second identity, including the leader.”


Maintaining the canvas covering, with its unifying cultural symbols, can become more important to individuals than their own identity, he said. “From childhood on, we have our personal identity of belonging to our family and so on, but instead of being preoccupied with our daily lives, with our families and community and friends and work and so on, these people create a large group identity to replace your personal identity,” Volkan said. 


“People who replace their personal identity with large group identity can become nationalists or racists or zealots,” he said. 


The large group identity relies on chosen traumas to give the group a sense of unity. In some cases, perceived threats or insults can trigger those traumas and release underlying aggression.


“Shared aggression has been used from the beginning of human history. There have been wars and fighting to protect large group identity. They’ve used rocks and swords and guns and now they push a button and kill somebody,” he said. 


“Aggression is there, especially in relation to the emotional impact of this abstraction called identity.

Large group identity becomes most important and, in order to protect it and maintain it, you use aggression,” Volkan said. “Often groups will bring up events and traumas from 600 years ago, or more. Do you really remember a relative from 600 years ago? It’s not a real trauma but a chosen trauma.”

Volkan’s concepts attracted the attention of filmmaker Molly Castelloe.


“I’m from the [South] and there were no African-Americans at my school when I was growing up. We were still socially segregated. I think Professor Volkan’s ideas about groups tapped into my own memories of childhood and gave me valuable insight into the psychological divides that splinter our nation today,” she said. 


Castelloe said chosen traumas played heavily in the August 2017 violence in Charlottesville surround the Unite the Right rally.


“It’s hard to witness something like the events of Charlottesville, or the Confederate flag carried into the Capitol during the insurrection last year, and not realize that many Americans are still very invested in shared memories of the Antebellum South,” she said. 


“To draw on one of Professor Volkan’s terms, as a nation we seem to be gripped in a ‘time collapse, the blurring of past and present, fantasy and reality. Our Civil War is very much alive. Perhaps we need our own Truth and Reconciliation Commission,” she said. 


Volkan is no stranger to group identity and the violence that can come from it. He grew up in Cyprus, which degenerated into an ethnic divisions and violence. His family was forced to flee their home. His best friend returned home to Cyprus only to be shot down at a pharmacy by a Greek terrorist. Like individuals suffering traumas, groups may feel similar emotions.


I hope people see the film and understand that groups have trauma like individuals do, and the healing process from something like the Civil War is complicated and enduring,” Castelloe said. “When a group’s hurt is not mourned or worked through, it is passed on and often becomes the cornerstone of group identity. It can become impossible to see past that old wound.”


Castelloe said she hopes the film will provide a deeper understanding of the nation’s divisions and the group dynamics that fuel those divisions.


“Hopefully more attention will be given to the effects of shared trauma and how it is passed down through generations, and the vital importance of the shared mourning process,” she said. “The psychological dynamics that underlie group behavior are so critical today, and I want to make these ideas better known.” 


Volkan said human psychology is slow to change so there may be little that can be done immediately to bridge the schisms either in the U.S. or elsewhere. But he believes there is hope for the future. 


“Almost every week I get an email from a university student writing his or her thesis on these concepts. It’s the biggest gift I can get, having young people so interested in world affairs,” he said. “I’m hopeful because of the young people’s interest in learning about human nature and the identities in international conflict. Maybe someday international relations will not just include bargaining but trying to understand what is bothering people and find realistic answers.”


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