Under The Hood

Forgiveness says you are given another chance to make a new beginning.
DESMOND TUTU

This entire blog is about peace and security, trauma and reconciliation. It is my chosen overarching theme since I began writing.

Ultimately, in order to sustain lasting peace and security in a society, the society needs to be at peace with itself. The impact of traumatic situations and the societal ability to heal these, through reconciliation, is directly affecting the cohesion which is also often referred to as a “social contract”. The less cohesion in a society, the more likely the foundations of that agreement erode.

I pre-ordered “How Civil Wars Start And How To Stop Them”, written by Barbara F. Walter (Crown, 2022, Ebook ISBN 9780593137796). I read an article in the New York Times discussing this book and was immediately drawn to it. Of course, much attention is given to such topics because January 06, 2022 we also looked back on what happened one year earlier: The attacks on the U.S. Capitol by violent crowds, incited by an angry former U.S. President ready to rip everything into pieces and to burn the house to ashes when facing his power coming to an end.

I am specifically interested in understanding the author’s methodological approach. To quote from the New York Times article: “As a political scientist who has spent her career studying conflicts in other countries, she approaches her work methodically, patiently gathering her evidence before laying out her case. She spends the first half of the book explaining how civil wars have started in a number of places around the world, including the former Yugoslavia, the Philippines and Iraq.

So I began this blog entry by looking at my four terms “Peace, Security, Trauma, Reconciliation” with a focus on the January 06, 2021 Capitol riots:

There was no peaceful event, there was no security, there is massive traumatisation of an entire society, and there are huge challenges when it comes to reconciliation. The fabric of the U.S. society is critically wounded. Many, including the current President of the United States, have made that clear on occasion of the commemoration events. Others have blamed them for saying that, accusing them of dividing the very society they have undermined themselves. No matter on which side of the aisle one is, the fact of deep divisions in the society of the U.S. can not be disputed by anyone, because they all participate in it, blaming the respective other side.


Currently in every open society the fabric of consent appears to be at threat. We experience attacks from the outside and from the inside, and we have a large-scale public discourse about that. Attacks and covert efforts in a cyber-information-warfare do point back to actors from inside authoritarian systems, but not only: They include actors from within open societies, in an effort to overturn the systems of governance as they have been set up on grounds of the respective societal contract, enshrined in the relevant basic laws of these societies, their constitutional law. There is a blurry spider web of people and interest groups out there, networking on a global scale, who seem to diligently work on that.


We see societies with authoritarian leadership, heavily applying coercion, and whereever deemed useful, heavy violence against own constituencies. Whichever legitimacy, or sheer power, sits behind coercion into cohesion in those societies, the number of current examples of authoritarian regimes quelling opposition and unrest is considerable. Instability, public unrest, violent coercion of populations by a ruling structure, whether Central Asia, Africa, the Near, the Middle, and the Far East, the Americas, there are many examples.


We see societies with illiberate structures of governance that appear to be stable, sorts of. Big ones, and smaller ones.

We do speculate about the stability of the bigger ones, we suspect, or bluntly see them being in a game of stabilising themselves by dominating spheres of influence, and coercion, whilst at the same time being engaged in efforts destabilising opponents on the side of what we call open societies, including the so-called “West”.

We see smaller societies on their path to illiberate control that position themselves by jockeying for alliances, keeping options open, attempting to take advantage of being friendly to the one or the other, being ambigous.


That is how I came to suspect that the common denominator for all, on a global level, is about societal cohesion. On this level of analysis it is not about attacks of authoritarianism against democracy. It appears to be that notwithstanding the form of governance in many societies, we all struggle with societal cohesion. We all have the same problem, we only differ in how we deal with it.


With that in mind, I revisited my blog entry “Futuretelling” from April 2021. There I had written about the latest report published by the collective of American intelligence agencies: “Global Trends 2040”. The report “finds that the pandemic has proved to be “the most significant, singular global disruption since World War II,” with medical, political and security implications that will reverberate for years. That’s not sturm und drang. It’s the prologue to a far darker picture of what lies ahead.”

Five themes are identified in that assessment: (1) Global Challenges, (2) Fragmentation, (3) Disequilibrium, (4) Contestation, and (5) Adaption. I won’t repeat how I summarized the report in my previous artcle, but I do quote the following: Global challenges include climate change, disease, financial crises, and technology disruptions. The report states that they are likely to manifest more frequently and intensely in almost every region and country. Their impact on states and societies will create stress, or even catastrophic shock. The report assesses the current pandemic as “the most significant, singular global disruption since World War II, with health, economic, political, and security implications that will ripple for years to come.“


That’s huge, and overwhelming. So, what can each and everyone do, in our circles of life?

I am coming back to the basic motivation which I had when I began writing this article. Because it has not been reflected in any of the above, but I believe it is the essence of any individual contribution to finding new ways into cohesion. Lasting cohesion requires some form of consent. Which can only be achieved by talking to each other, and not at all by talking about each other. Talking about each other contributes to dissent. Often we see the dissent manifesting within a public discourse, and all our new contemporary mechanisms of discourse, especially social media, are designed to reinforce messages which achieve large public attention. Those messages are fueled by rage and anger. It is how these systems are set up.

They also function by establishing closed networks. Friends, followers, open or closed chat groups. The opposite to talk with each other is possible there. Stalking, mobbing, bullying, that all adds. Because any dissenting voice within such groups will be yelled at. Can even happen to Ted Cruz, by Tucker Carlson, recently. You stray off the party line, you will be punished.

We can not talk about divisiveness in divisive terms if we genuinely want to address it. Those who do, they purposefully do that in order to solidify it, rather than reverting back to consent. They want to impose a new consent, by manipulation and force.

In everyday life, this is difficult. Like all of us, I have concrete examples: I do not know anti-vaxxers in my circle of friends. Because I have begun to separate myself from any of those. Neither they want me to be part of their circle of friends. And once one enters into those social media groups where attitude to an issue is the polarizing theme, a subtle brainwashing is going on. If I stay, I have to have the same beliefs. They reinforce, and they isolate from any dialogue with others. Over time, own positions and beliefs will radicalize the longer one stays in these groups and circles. As if we would not know how this works. Have we forgotten about how sects do this, how people have difficulties getting out of the prison of Scientology, how difficult it is to de-radicalize people who have been caught in the web of ISIS? There is little difference in the psychology behind all this.

This, again, is happening “under the hood”, and that’s why I have chosen this title. We see the open manifestations of societal dissent. It is hard to quantify and qualify to which extent the invisible divisive lines have already permeated societies. It is fair to suspect these lines of division run much deeper than we see, or acknowledge.

So, I will be interested to see what Barbara F. Walter has to say on that. Because over the last two decades I have been living in societies which at some point broke into open conflict. Or I have been dealing with working for peace in countries which all of a sudden, and often to the surprise of the international community, experienced relapse into conflict and war.

This time, I get a sense it is increasingly about all of us, not about a country far away from us.

How can we identify the threat-level? But notwithstanding that, I firmly believe that nurturing the ability of individuals to listen to others with a dissenting opinion, in an effort to understand the other, rather than subjugating the other under the own doctrine, will be key.

That’s why this will be a momentous task for generations to come.

One thought on “Under The Hood

  1. Pingback: Anocracies – And Thoughts on International Efforts Related to Conflict Prevention | Stefan Feller

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