Analysis | To counteract identity-based conflict, global and domestic policymakers should work together

Jordyn Iger

The following blog post draws on research conducted by the author with funding and support from the ISD Fellows in Diplomacy program.

Two protestors hold up signs that read “#hate is a virus” and “stop Asian hate”
Protestors at an anti-hate rally in Washington, D.C. in March 2021. (Image: Victoria Pickering on Flickr)

Last week’s shocking mass shooting in Buffalo, NY is just the latest in a series of high-profile, identity-based acts of violence in the United States, including the 2016 Charleston church shooting and the 2018 Pittsburgh synagogue shooting. Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, Asian Americans of all ages, in all parts of the country have experienced a rise in hate crimes, driven by narratives that blame them for the disease. Although many Americans are unused to thinking about the United States as a conflict area, hate can be a powerful mobilizing tool in any community perceiving its own marginalization for any reason. It is high time for U.S. political leaders and practitioners to develop a practice of sharing knowledge and collaborating with their international counterparts, and vice versa, on strategies for overcoming identity-based conflict. Understanding the dynamics and narratives underpinning identity-based conflict is critical for policymakers and practitioners addressing these issues.

The role of emotions in identity-based conflict

A study of identity-based conflict must start with the identification of human emotional needs. When assembling lists of core human needs, psychologists tend to converge on three general themes: relationships, self-efficacy or capacity, and control over one’s environment. In her book “Uncivil Agreement,” Liliana Mason explains that when we form or join social groups, we address not only our need for connection, but also our need to define our sense of self, as part of one group or another. Competition with other groups — direct or indirect — threatens our sense of self, and we respond in ways that are proven to improve our self esteem through demonstrated hostility towards the out-group.

This expressed hostility, resentment, and fear gives ill-intentioned politicians and other political actors ammunition to pursue a strategy of dominance through societal division, by lamenting perceived negative changes and assigning scapegoats. In the United States and overseas, this has taken the form of rhetoric decrying immigration and stoking fears of a ‘Great Replacement’ of majority ethnic groups. President Trump frequently used the term “China virus” when describing COVID-19, while Hungary’s Viktor Orban named an explicit desire that Hungary’s culture not “be mixed with those of others.”

U.S. and overseas approaches

Salient differences exist between common U.S. domestic approaches to identity-based conflicts and approaches taken by organizations working overseas. Specifically, in the United States, hateful expression has time and again been defended by the Supreme Court as protected speech. This results in an environment where expressions of hate are not treated as a warning sign for potential violence until actual violence occurs. Given this, two different programmatic approaches have emerged. The first involves programs aimed at rehabilitating members of violent extremist groups or preventing the vulnerable from joining one, framing hate as a public health problem akin to addiction. The other involves programs aimed at engaging ordinary citizens with different identities in conversation to reduce ordinary prejudice, using the language of countering “a divided America” or of training the next generation in civic skills.

For organizations working overseas however, counter-extremism programming may directly feed into broad community-based social cohesion goals and vice versa. That is, overseas interventions are more likely to directly instrumentalize social cohesion programming as a means of preventing or recovering from violence.

Together, global leaders should collaborate to develop strategies for countering extremism and identify-based conflict that:

  1. Find ways to make identity less salient as a mobilization tool. This can involve appealing to a different identity that supersedes the identity of cleavage.
    Another approach is to look inward at individual identity, to glean information about events in the lives of violent actors, such as trauma, that make them emotionally vulnerable to the influence of hate. This is the approach taken by organizations such as Life After Hate, which enlists former white supremacist extremists and mental health practitioners to support people in exiting from extremist movements.
  2. Address hate and underlying conditions that facilitate vulnerability to hate simultaneously. As outgroup prejudice and hate are typically generated in response to some external trigger, isolating the prejudice and hate as a target for intervention is inadequate. So is isolating the material grievance without addressing societal-level emotional responses. A USAID-funded Mercy Corps report from March 2021 finds that in contexts where natural resource management is contentious, building trust between groups in conflict works best when paired with other interventions that substantively address resource distribution issues.
  3. Take advantage of prevailing political conditions and interests as well as local community consensus. What works in one community or cultural context may not work in another, even within the same country, so it’s important to look for even the smallest political opportunities wherever they may arise. Through its work countering hate speech, PeaceTech Lab has observed that interventions to educate communities about hateful rhetoric are most effective in the time immediately following elections. PeaceTech Lab’s local partners have reported that after the urgency of mobilizing for an election subsides, the public is calmer and more receptive to questions about the nature of their actions during the election season and even the prospect that they might have been lied to.
  4. Identify key stakeholders influencing identity-based narratives and leverage their incentives for action. This could involve either direct outreach with government authorities or other influential stakeholders or building a publicly recognized and respected record that is taken seriously by these stakeholders. When advocating for the state of Arkansas to continue resettling refugees, Canopy of Northwest Arkansas intentionally developed relationships at each relevant level of authority: community leaders, then local government officials, and finally members of Congress. Demonstrated support for Canopy’s work from each level of leadership, combined with fortuitous political circumstances, ultimately persuaded the Governor of Arkansas to agree to continuing refugee resettlement despite prevailing political party narratives at that time.

Unlike most policy, existing practice already takes into account the psychology and sociology underpinning prejudice and hate formation in conflict. Ultimately, policymakers must be more in touch with both the role of human emotions in conflict and the work of existing practice, and extract key overarching principles from practitioners’ successes and failures.

Jordyn Iger (GHD ’22) is a 2021–22 ISD Huffington graduate fellow. This piece is based on her fellowship project, “Grievance, Vulnerability, the State, and Identity-Based Violence: Lessons from the U.S. and Overseas”.

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