Guest post by Brent Sasley
Last month Rose McDermott wrote an important piece in these pages arguing that some individuals (particularly men) are more likely to be interested in violence, based on their biological make-up, than most IR scholars think. This, she continues, is because we tend to focus on larger, macro structures and processes and so miss individual-level determinants of behavior. Her analysis isn’t wrong; it’s incomplete. As IR scholars, we want to know not why individuals act violently, but why large groups do. This is because national and international politics are affected only when groups, not individuals, act violently.
McDermott is right, but we still need to think more about what makes a collection of individuals fight, go to war, act violently. It may be that some individuals react more aggressively to others and to events, but if these individuals are not leaders of groups, including states, and cannot also get large numbers of other individuals to follow their orders to fight and kill, then their aggressive inclinations are less likely to manifest on a large scale.
One way to build on McDermott’s argument is by considering the effects of social emotions. Social identity theorists and social psychologists have found plenty of evidence that individuals will react to events or other actors that affect other members of their group. That is, when individuals identify as members of a group — when they feel as part of the group — they react when other group members are hurt, attacked, abused, victorious in sports, and so on — even if they have not personally experienced any of these actions. The perception isn’t that individuals absorb punishment or reward; it’s that the group does. Collective memories operate the same way.
Think of how people react to sports matches. It is common for individuals sitting in their homes and playing no role at all in their home team’s efforts to share in the pride or in the frustration when their team wins or loses, toasting “their” success or throwing items at the television. Other clinical experiments by social psychologists have shown that individuals who consider themselves part of different departments in the same university view themselves as part of different universities in the same country, or identify as citizens of different countries react emotionally on the basis of how they perceive their own group — that is, other group members — to have been affected by events.
Because emotions are so powerful, they lead group members to prefer a given response over others (an “action tendency” in psychology’s terms). In the aftermath of violence against the group, group members feel anger, resentment, and fear, which in turn have been found to transform into stereotyping, prejudice, aggression, and hostility. These emotions do not lead automatically to a given behavior or policy — such as violence or war — which can be conditioned by other factors (such as relative strength of different groups). But they do make a specific behavior or policy more likely.
Consider the widespread support in Crimea for the Russian intervention. It is not likely that all the Russians and Russian-speakers who are cheering Moscow’s suddenly-expanded military presence in Crimea have been physically or verbally attacked by others, so that they have been seething for years and hoping to be saved by Moscow. But their reaction — joy, pride, excitement, affection — is a direct result of their identification with a Russian communal identity (however they define it).
There haven’t been any large-scale clashes in Crimea yet, but one can easily imagine their occurrence on the basis of a relevant trigger. We can expect that Russian-speakers will respond with fear and anger if other Russian-speakers or their property are attacked in some way. Vladimir Putin’s dangerous escalation makes such triggers more likely. And if Russian-speakers attack, we can expect others in Crimea to respond, which in turn might bring the Ukrainian and Russian armies into a direct clash. Inter-group emotions make it that much easier for communities to physically confront each other, and that much harder to restrain.
Large-scale violence through the use of official state militaries is only a little different. Military discipline does mostly ensure that soldiers follow orders to engage in routine violence. But often there is more to it than that. For example, in his new book on Israel, Ari Shavit looks at the atrocities the Israelis committed in the Arab city of Lydda during the first Arab-Israeli war. His discussion highlights the individual fears, frustrations, anger, and hostility that individual Israeli troops felt regarding the war’s effects on the Zionist community and the nascent Jewish state. These emotional reactions played a critical role in their violence, leading to a massacre of Palestinians in the city and their expulsion from it.
McDermott is right that some individuals, including leaders, might be more willing to act violently. But without being able to motivate groups to follow along, individual-level violence will remain contained. Understanding the emotional reactions and action tendencies of many members of a group usefully extends her argument from just individuals to group violence, which is of concern to IR scholars and policymakers.