Die Wahrheit bis zur Unkenntlichkeit verzerrt – Truth Distorted Beyond Recognition – On Gaslighting

Mary Trump, estranged niece of Donald Trump, daugther of Donald Trump’s late older brother Fred Trump jr, published a book this summer. One of these tell-alls, “Too Much and Never Enough: How My Family Created the World’s Most Dangerous Man”. Mary Trump is a practicing psychologist. In this world where truth is what I tell you, and lies are what the others say, you will probably find references to her credibility widely represented in one side of the media, and scathing attacks on her personal and professional credibility on the other side of the aisle. In a widely published interview she was recently saying that she thinks her uncle genuinely believes he won the election and that he’s the only person she knows ‘who can gaslight himself’. The Internet is chock full with references to her statement, in all languages. So, look it up also for yourself.

One person and his sycophants are gaslighting half of the population of the United States. Why does this matter over here in Europe? Because it has not only a real impact here as well, it is also happening here on its own, and interconnected with what is happening on that other continent. The gaslighting is not limited to an individual victim, not to a community, a society, a political party, a State, or the continent of North America. The systematic imprisonment of individuals into a fake reality which is being established by the gaslighter, it happens all over the world. It has become viral, people being gaslighted who further spread the manipulative messages, mixing with people who may realize what is happening and who hook up to the viral development because it resonates with how they think and feel and how they want to influence things for their own motives. This is not a linear thing which can be traced back to one person, so to speak, at the top. There is no mastermind. There are people who are good at it, and certainly this includes Mary Trump’s uncle. But it happens so widely because there seem to be many conditions being met which allow for the relentless attack on truth and values that we have believed in for decades. Again, Anne Applebaum’s book which I quoted from in a previous entry provides many regional examples, whether from Poland, Hungary, The United Kingdom, or Spain. And my country, Germany, is a breeding space for the same thing as well. Unfortunately, again. History appears to repeat itself.

Gaslighting requires control over the victim and where the victim gets his or her information from. Ideally total control. I will explain in a second, after having said something on the Internet, related to the aspect of “control”: In principle, the Internet knows no geographical border. It has been designed to withstand control. It’s roots are deeply anarchic, allowing for the freedom to exchange anything that can be transmitted through it’s cables and wireless connections. That is why autocratic systems undertake every effort under the sun to control the Internet, including attempting to establish regional versions, or fighting encryption tooth and nail. Whether it is in China, or elsewhere. Shutting down the Internet, in times of a crisis with unrest, it sounds innocent. But it is always a matter of the motive behind: Why does one exert control? Because of a danger for, say individual lifes or the general public? Or because of the danger for an autocrat, his family, and the oligarchy on which’s back he can thrive? Think Belarus, just for example.

Control over what people see, hear, or are meant to believe, you can exert that control by means of physical, or technological deprivation. You do it by making sure that your victim does not communicate with anyone outside the realms of your control: The messaging includes that the other side is your enemy, and you don’t talk to your enemy. One of the oldest tricks under the sleeves of autocrats, dictators, but also terrorists. Gaslighting adds a most perfidious layer: It will lead to that people do not trust other sources of information any longer. They may have a nagging feeling in the back of their minds that something is not adding up. But since they don’t know a way out, they give in. Once you give in, you need to make yourself believing that you are not a victim. So you rationalize why you’re allowing yourself being part of the group you have been coerced into. The “Stockholm Syndrome” is based on the same mechanism.

Like the car dealer has sold the most expensive car to you and you make yourself believe that this was solely a calculation which you came up with yourself, you don’t need to take away access to news channels such as CNN or the NY Times anymore. The victim of gaslighting won’t trust them and won’t use them. Recently, Fox News began to experience this downfall, too.

So, what is “gaslighting”? Gaslighting is an expression being used for a form of psychological abuse and violence. Victims of gaslighting are being purposefully disoriented, manipulated and ripped off their self-confidence. Gaslighting means to gradually take away any ability to trust reality as it is. In individual psychology, gaslighting includes means to deform and eradicate any form of self-esteem of the victim. Here, for once, a German definition of it. The term “gaslighting” gradually appears to become a mainstream expression, including in other languages.

Unfortunately, gaslighting is a common and widely spread form of psychological and emotional abuse. I will use examples for explaining what it means. At the core of why I am writing this blog entry also sits my belief that Mary Trump is wrong by exclusively attributing the ability to gaslight oneself to her uncle. I believe that this is a common phenomenon. In case of need, I make myself believe my own lies, until I have reached the point where I have created a genuine alternate reality, and memory. The current incumbent of the Office of the President of the United States is anything but special in this, except that he may have become really very good at it.

Why is it useful to say that one can become victim of own gaslighting? Like so often, things are not black and white only. Gaslighters are as much perpetrators as they are victims. And the act of gaslighting happens on a scale that can include single-instances, perhaps beginning with negligent, thoughtless, selfish behavior. It can become a self-reinforcing habit, since one has embarked on a path leading to more of the same, and then ultimately to breakdown and severe damage. On its exteme end, gaslighting is pervasive, endemic, and monstrous in acts and damage. Monstrous gaslighters are sociopaths on the extreme side of the spectrum. Their behavior is deeply anti-social, anti-human, and often criminal in nature.

The sibling of gaslighting is denial. Which is, in terms of brain development through hundreds of thousands of years of humankind, a very ancient capability of our brains that allowed for survival. Like, in the stone-age. Denial is a mechanism which shields the brain from overwhelming events and situations posing a threat to physical survival and mental and emotional sanity. It is meant to be a temporary fix. But like many other human capabilities, it requires a balance of threatening events and peaceful times, and when this balance is absent, things get out of control, permanently. Neurophysiologically out of control. Denial alters the way how we perceive, and relate to, reality. And in that, the gaslighter is no better equipped than his or her victim.

The underlying motivation both for denial and gaslighting is fear. Strong fear. More often than not this fear may not even be acknowledged by the gaslighter him- or herself. It is about loosing control. Cold blooded sociopaths can do that without losing the knowledge about that they are creating a fake reality in which they imprison the victim. But most of us are not carrying such extreme sociopathic traits that would allow us to do that.

Like everything else above, sociopathy is a form of human behavior that happens on a scale. There are extreme ends of the scale but to some extent or the other sociopathic traits are common parts of the individual psychology of many people. But even if I say that there are sociopaths who are displaying extreme forms of this disorder, it does not mean that these people do not feel emotions. Severe forms of sociopathic conditions become a disorder entailing to be progressively unable feeling emotions of other people. Note: I say “of”, not “for”. But sociopaths are not machines. Whilst they struggle with understanding and acknowledging emotions of others, they do feel their own emotions. The combination of not feeling what others feel gives space for disproportionate and intensified feelings for oneself, and this is especially true for fear. It is creating extreme forms of selfishness and self-centeredness.

Let me bring the parts of the picture alive with a personal case study. Like I said, the world is not black and white, things can be on the less extreme end, or they can be serious, or, if allowed to, they can develop from less severe to monstrous.

When I was nine years old, I went through a really difficult time at school. It was part of an overall development, I grew up with a raging father using physical punishment as a form of education. Because he had grown up under the same circumstances. Likewise, when he was not able to control his own rage, verbal, emotional and physical violence were something he had no control of. He had experienced the same with his father. As always, it hurt himself when it happened, but the result would not be an apology, but fierce denial. So I grew up with the distorted view that everything which happened to me was my own fault. Since this is not a blog entry for full personal disclosure, I will leave it with that, stressing that I love my father and that I reconciled, many decades later.

However, at the age of nine my difficult times at school fueled my low self-confidence. I had no friends. And getting bad grades wasn’t something that helped me building self-confidence. Rather, it established profound, existential fear. Fear from punishment at home. This fear grew so strong that I would not reveal the bad grade I once got. I simply could not. But the bad grade is in your exam book. And sure enough, the next test would be as bad as the previous one. What to do? Telling? No way. Soldiering on in denial that one day the story would break. But fear grew to panic levels. At one point I found myself physically removing pages from my exam book, just in case my parents would want to see and control it. I went to greatest length in this manipulation, again, with fear in my stomach going through the roof. There were two occasions when I ran away from home. I hated the days, escaped into my bed at night. It was horrible.

Then my teacher lost her patience. She gave me a note to be delivered to my parents, requesting a talk. And she asked me to bring this note back to her, signed by my father or mother. This was the worst development ever, but I was not capable to give up. What did I do? During a long afternoon session, I created a birthday card for my mother. In an insane story I had come up with, this birthday card for some reasons had to include a signature. But where the signature on this card was meant to show up, I cut a hole into that card. Underneath, the note from school. And finally, I used a blank paper as a third level, again with a hole where my mother was supposed to sign the card. I designed it in a way that the decorative elements of the fake birthday card were visible through the cover paper. And I went down to my mother, explaining in full panic mode that I was preparing something as a surprise for which I needed her signature, and that I could not tell her why. My mother was stunned, but she was also seeing me being upset, crying and begging. Whilst she had all reasons to suspect that something was wrong, I made her doubting herself, and trusting me. I gaslighted her. She finally signed.

Well, that signature was so small that my teacher immediately suspected a fake. Subsequently, my cover broke and armageddon came down on me. But why am I exposing myself here? Because this was the first, perhaps mild, form of gaslighting I did. And I never forgot it. I would refer to it for decades to come. But it would not prevent me from doing the same thing again, almost fourty-five years later, when the fear level in relation to my life breaking apart was reaching the same gigantic proportions.

People can grow apart for many reasons, but one chief reason is dishonesty. The bond between a mother and her child may forgive, but marriages and any relationship less likely do so. Dishonesty to oneself and to others is the chief reason for relationships breaking up. I believe the same is true for communities, societies, and States. If there is no honesty in communicating with each other, the catastrophe is inevitable. It may take a long time, but like with me at the age of nine, being a child, this is true because I believe it is a universal truth. And until this catastrophy happens, denial and also gaslighting are common features of an underlying condition of fear. Fear of losing control in a situation which increasingly is slipping out of one’s hands.

In my personal case, this happened roughly fourty-five years after the events of my childhood. I am so NOT proud of it. I’m sparing details, but it had to do with how my marriage had developed into a meaningless hull. Over those many years leading to the final stages, denial led me to believe that the reasons for this deterioration were not sitting with my own behavior. Rather, I victimised myself with an inner narrative with which I made myself believe I was the victim of sad circumstances, and that I deserve some relief. And means of relief, including alcohol, were just sedatives of which I needed more and more. This came with secrecy. I was dishonest to myself and my loved ones. Which wasn’t going unnoticed on the side of my loved ones. In a close relationship it is virtually impossible to entirely hide things, even with the best tricks possible.

But what happens in this case on the side of the partner? He or she will develop a feeling that something is not right. Controlling the other person may not be an option, including because it just doesn’t feel right. So, denial is kicking in on both sides in a relationship. But some things do not add up, and when this happens, gaslighting is coming into play.

I sometimes have the feeling that you want to make me believing that I have wrong perceptions.” Whenever my then wife would say this, after there was enough despair on her side to speak her truth, there was a little corner in myself mumbling that she is right. But overwhelmingly I was making myself and her believing that this wasn’t the case, that I did not establish a fake reality, that it was her who saw things in a distorted way. And again, though I learned a lot about the neurophysiology behind, I am NOT proud of it. I try not to be ashamed either. I just try to be honest, and hold myself accountable, and to do amends.

It was only after we broke up and my ex-wife had gone through enough recovery from her own pain, anger, grief, and also understanding of how the dance of two persons was based on wrong belief systems on both sides that she was able to repeat the above statement towards me with not too much own pain. And it was only because I went through my own recovery with intense work on myself that I was able to see, and to acknowledge, my own behavior. But it took years. When our relationship hit rock-bottom, and I hit rock-bottom, I found myself in so much pain and fear that I literally saw myself repeating my behavior that I had as a nine-year-old: I systematically trained the use of a lie in order to make myself believe the fake reality, so that I could use the narrative without blushing, stuttering, and with a heartbeat beyond 180 bpm.

Because my world broke into pieces, I had the chance to see it. If I would have succceeded in my fear-driven control, I would have progressively believed my own lies. It would have driven my then-wife into insanity. People who discover that they have been subjected to severe forms of gaslighting have a really hard time regaining mental sanity and the ability to trust other people. My ex-wife and I are friends today. Not only parents, good parents, but good friends. It is the gift of my lifetime. On my part, this is the consequence of a rigid decision to always remain honest to myself and others. And after many years of practicing this, my ex-wife saw enough reason to trust me, and to love me for my commitment, to myself, and to the people in my life who I love, and who love me.

Of course, this is only a personal case-study. It is not meant to establish an academic argument on gaslighting. It is meant to underpin why I believe that truth matters. Gaslighting is destroying truth, and the ability to trust. It leads to personal self-destruction, demolition of relationships, even criminal behavior. It leads to incredible suffering and pain. When it happens on a societal scale, it leads to societies running rock-bottom. And yes, like in personal cases, recovery of trust is possible on the level of communities and societies as well. But is doesn’t come as a Christmas present. It requires hard work. Better now than after the breaking-up. Because one way or the other, more often than not breaking up comes with violence. In my personal case, I am so grateful for the peaceful transition into healing and trust, and then love and friendship, through all the endless pain and discomfort. Thus, I believe, we can do it in larger contexts, too.

It requires profound honesty. Zero-tolerance to lies. Avoidance of anger, resentment, and rage. The ability to listen, rather than talking. Humility. Willingness to admit mistakes immediately. And the willingness to forgive. Oneself and others.

Anger, Rage, Fear – The Change of How We Consume News

I’d like to quote Anne Applebaum from her book “Twilight of Democracy -The Seductive Lure of Authoritarianism”, pages 110-114. At the end of this quotation you will find the same statement in relation to addictive manipulation by the likes of FaceBook, Google, and YouTube as I have been explaining in my blog article Add title – Start Writing. And just for the record, I wrote that blog entry before reading the below part in Anne Applebaum’s very insightful and readable book. Not because I’m claiming to be smart, but just to assure you I am not just copying and repeating something I have read. However, Anne Applebaum is smart. She is an American journalist and historian, not only with a distinguished history of publications, but with a very deep knowledge about European history and contemporary political and societal development. She spent vast stretches of her professional and private life in East- and West-Europe.

“In the more open societies of the West, we have become smug about our tolerance for conflicting points of view. But for much of our recent history, the actual range of those views was limited. Since 1945, the most important arguments have usually unfolded between the center right and the center left. As a result, the range of possible outcomes was narrow, especially in democracies like those in Scandinavia that were most inclined toward consensus. But even in the more raucious democracies, the field of battle was relatively well defined. In the United States, the strictures of the Cold War created bipartisan agreement around U.S. foreign policy. In many European countries, a commitment to the EU was a given. Most of all, the dominance of national television broadcasters – the BBC in Britain, the three networks in the United States – and broad-based newspapers that relied on broad-based advertising revenues meant that in most Western countries, most of the time, there was a single, national debate. Opinions diferred, but at least most people were arguing within agreed parameters.

That world has vanished. We now are living through a rapid shift in the way people transmit and receive political information – exactly the sort of communication revolution that has had profound political consequences in the past. All kinds of wonderful things flowed from the invention of the printing press in the fifteenth century: mass literacy, the spread of reliable knowledge, the end of the Catholic Church’s monopoly on information. But those same things also contributed to new divisions, to polarization and political change. The new technology made it possible for ordinary people to read the Bible, a change that helped inspire the Protestant Reformation – and, in turn, many decades of bloody religious wars. Martyrs were hanged, churches and villages sacked in a furious, righteous maelstrom that subsided only with the Enlightenment and the broad acceptance of religious tolerance.

The end of religious conflict was the beginning of other kinds of conflicts, between secular ideologies and national groups. Some of these also intensified after another change in the nature of communication: The invention of radio at the end of the monopoly of the printed word. Hitler and Stalin were among the first political leaders to understand how powerful this new medium could be. Democratic governments struggled, at first, to find ways to counter the language of demagogues that now reached people inside their homes. Anticipating how divisive broadcasting might become, the United Kingdom in 1922 created the BBC, which was explicitly designed from the beginning to reach all parts of the country, not only to “inform, educate, entertain” but also to join people together, not in a single set of opinions but in a single national conversation, one that would make democratic debate possible. Different answers were found in the United States, we are journalists accepted a regulatory framework, libel  laws, licensing rules for radio and television. President Franklin Roosevelt created the fireside chat, the form of communication better suited to the new medium.

Our new communications revolution has been far more rapid than anything we know from the fifteenth century, or even the twentieth. After the printing press was invented, it took many centuries for Europeans to become literate; after radio was invented, newspapers did not collapse. By contrast, the rapid shift in advertising money to Internet companies has, within a decade, severely damaged the ability of both newspapers and broadcasters to collect and present information. Many, though not all, have stopped reporting news altogether; many, though not all, will eventually cease to exist. The most common business model, based on advertising to the general public, meant that they were forced to serve general public interest and forced to maintain at least a theoretical commitment to objectivity. They could be biased, bland, and boring, but they filtered egregious conspiracy theories out of the debate. They were beholden to courts and regulators. Their journalists conformed to formal and informal ethical codes.

Above all, the old newspapers and broadcasters created the possibility of a single national conversation. In many advanced democracies there is now no common debate, let alone a common narrative. People have always had different opinions. Now they have different facts. At the same time, in an information sphere without authorities – political, cultural, moral – and no trusted sources, there is no easy way to distinguish between conspiracy theories and true stories. False, partisan, and often deliberately misleading narratives snow spread in digital wildfires, cascades of falsehood that move too fast for fact checkers to keep up. And even if they could, it no longer matters: a part of the public will never read or see fact-checking websites, and if they do they won’t believe them. Dominic Cummings’s Vote Leave campaign proved it was possible to lie, repeatedly, and to get away with it.

The issue is not merely one of false stories, incorrect facts, or even the election campaigns and spin doctors: the social media algorithms themselves encourage false perceptions of the world. People click on the news they want to hear; Facebook, YouTube, and Google then show them more of whatever it is that they already favor, whether it is a certain brand of soap or a particular form of politics. The algorithms radicalize those who use them too. If you click on perfectly legitimate anti-immigration YouTube sites, for example, these can lead you quickly, in just a few more clicks, to white nationalist sites and then to violent xenophobic sites. Because they have been designed to keep you online, the algorithms also favor emotions, especially anger and fear. And because the sites are addictive, they affect people in ways they don’t expect. Anger becomes a habit. Divisiveness becomes normal. Even with social media is not yet the primary news source for all Americans, it already helps shape how politicians and journalists interpret the world and portray it. Polarization has moved from the online world into reality.

The result is a hyper-partisanship that adds to the distrust of “normal” politics, “establishment” politicians, derided “experts”, and “mainstream” institutions – including courts, police, civil servants – and no wonder. As polarization increases, the employees of the state are invariably portrayed as having been “captured” by their opponents. It is not an accident that the Law and Justice Party in Poland, the Brexiteers in Britain, and the Trump administration in the United States have launched verbal assaults on civil servants and professional diplomats. It is not an accident that judges and courts and now the object of criticism, scrutiny, and anger in so many other places too. There can be no neutrality in a polarized world because there can be no nonpartisan or apolitical institutions.”

Part of my writing these days relates to the changes that have come with how our lifes are continuing to be transformed by social media. In this, the dense run-down from the 15th to the 20th and into the 21st century in the quotation above is brilliant. What becomes obvious to me (as we all establish our own interpretations of reality, I should only stay on my own side of the street) is to which extent the cohesion of a society and the underlying norms depend on some degree of “value-based order” in how news and opinion pieces are being narrated in that society. I would compare today’s technological development with some form of anarchy that is being usurped, exploited, and used for manipulation by individuals and groups with a deeply un-democratic attitude. The founding motto of the United Nations and the reasons for why it was created come to my mind: “Never Again”. History, once more, is repeating itself. But some things are profoundly new.

Also, again, the use of “algorithms” shows up. AI is, after all, a very complex and very specific form of an algorithm. It is a self-learning computer-based code that constantly changes itself within the framework of what it is directed to do: To turn input into a desired outcome. That outcome, at least for now, is defined by humans. I am still preparing something like a blog entry titled “AI For Dummies”.

However, speaking of those human engineers and their bosses who create and improve these forms of “social media”: As far as I know, they are also not only perfectly aware of but also purposefully using what we know about how to create addictive patterns of behavior. With addiction being something I do know a lot about. Because when I started to address my own compulsive self-harming behavior, I also began to dig deeper into the science of addiction. There are quite a few articles in my blog which carry that tag.

Deeper explanations may be for another article, but there is a direct link between emotions such as fear, anger, rage, and addiction. Every practising health professional and every recovering trauma survivor will tell you about it, and every student beyond freshman status, in fields such as addiction medicine, neuroscience or related will happily explain the inner workings within the brain that sit behind this connection. Like for “AI 101”, “Neurophysiology of Addiction 101” is for later. But I will say that forms of addictive compulsive behavior go way beyond a discourse of commoners in a society, and the proportion of individuals in a society being affected by this is including a vast number of people who just simply do not even know.

My friend from Long Island, New York State, decided to quit watching Cable News and reading blogs on contemporary U.S. politics. Shortly after the networks called Joe Biden the winner of these elections, she realized to which extent her usually peaceful life had gotten into a turmoil of fear and anger. She continued to watch the onslaught which is still fueling the news of CNN and others. She could not bear it any longer, and when she stopped watching, she felt withdrawal. She felt the same void which I described when I temporarily went off YouTube, once I realized to which extent my evenings had become endless hours of watching videos that were presented to me in endless succession because I had watched only one of them. Most recently, I looked up a new mini-drone, and it happened again: My YouTube homepage is overboarding with videos from vloggers putting that little technological marvel through its paces. And the more I watched, the more I got offered.

Now, this is a mechanism in order to sell products. Such as cute drones. So, the longer I continue to watch, the more likely I will buy one, right? Thats what these sites intend to do: Sell me more stuff. Those algorithms, they don’t care about whether I watch a video about a drone, or about a conspiracy theory, or a hate-speech by a politician. They will just present more of those, mercilessly, because they are just bits of computer-code. But when it comes to conspiracy theories, or hate-speech, I get presented with hate, divisiveness, anger. The increasing polarization that I see in traditional networks, it adds. If I don’t fall victim to wrong memories, news presentations by CNN, New York Times, Washington Post, they also became more polarised, often angry, the longer the onslaught by authoritarian politicians and their increasingly louder sycophants became. But these social media sites operate by attempting to get more and more of my screen time. Meaning I have less and less time for news that, at least to some degree, attempt to follow rules of value-based journalism. So, even if I want (which many don’t), I see less and less curated news, and more and more unspecified information and, simply, propaganda.

May be you want to watch this one, on propaganda. Its horrible and disturbing. Like this one. Or this one. Or you look up the OpEd of the Editorial Board of the Washington Post on the entire thing. But don’t blame me when you’re getting angry. Rather, try not to. Because I wrote on an earlier occasion that once somebody has made you angry, he or she has won over you.

I wrote to my friend: “When I get too upset about things (though rightfully), my mind is bordering insanity. Turning this into a positive statement, we need to learn from it. It is not about neglecting news, but learning to consume healthily, and more importantly contribute with our experiences to explaining what needs to change.”

If we want to experience peace and love, we need to practice it.

The feature picture of this article has been taken from https://discover.hubpages.com/health/Anger-and-Traumatic-Brain-Injury

Add title – Start Writing

When I open my blog editor with a fresh new page, WordPress exactly invites me to do that: Add a title – start writing. Once I put the cursor into the respective text field and I hit the first key, these suggestions disappear and I am presented with a blank space. Blogs, like their fanciful siblings called video blogs, or Vlogs, exactly do that: They invite people to produce a stream of conscienceness. Of course, one can easily get distracted in a discourse happening in real-life (I am notorius in that one), and the same works here in the blog universe. This is what is happening with this blog entry. I wanted to write about the effects of the Covid-pandemic on the fabric of our societies. Instead, I found myself distracted by the invitation “Add Title – Start Writing”. Reading these words, my mind went off into a different realm of issues I am grappling with. But okay, the initial idea for this blog entry is not lost, it is just for later. I decided this way, and within the ensuing creative process, the following product materialized.

Watch this movie: “The Social Dilemma“. It is on Netflix, and I should say, if you look it up, it has created a lot of controversial discussion itself. It left a huge impression on me. Judge for yourself. It is the main driver making me writing the following, and hopefully to continue with a series of more blog entries.

In my experience, blogging and vlogging platforms invite to produce a never ending stream of output. As a consequence of how human brains work, how the platform providers set up their business models, and most importantly, because of the Artificial Intelligence (AI) built in under the hood of these systems, more often than not this can create a binding spell not only for content consumers but also for content creators. They are being bound in ways which tend to hide the fact that there is a hidden intention on the side of platform providers, for which’s purpose they employ AI as a masterful tool. Consumers are encouraged to consume more, producers are encouraged to produce more, and limiting producers in admitting that partly or entirely they may do it for financial gain. Both groups being coerced into spending more and more of their lifetime in this digital relationship. For consumers it is true what they say: “If you are getting something for free, consider yourself being the object of other people’s choices and not the subject owning your own set of choices”.

I am an avid reader of news blogs, and for decades the use of RSS-feeds is hard-wired in how I choose reading my daily dose of news. These systems are working by allowing me to define the set of news sites I would like to subscribe to. I am the one who makes the choice. I choose the online editions of the “New York Times”, the “Washington Post”, the German magazine “Der Spiegel”, and so on. In effect I make a choice between sources of information, select these in my news reader application, and when I open up the news reader, I am getting stories from these sites, instead of having to visit them all. This is a more or less static undertaking. Sometimes I change the choice of sites, adding Buzzfeed, deleting a tech blog which just gave me annoying redundant news, stuff like that. But I am in the driver’s seat of choosing the source of my information. Mostly. Because whatever adblocker I use, it is a never ending race against the manipulative noise which comes together with my news through advertisements. Tapping at the wrong part of the screen when scrolling up or down, bang, something else is opening up. And more often than not, information about my choice is transmitted to some information crawlers in the background without my knowledge or consent, increasing chances that I will be presented with more of the stuff I tapped on, by mistake.

Then there are sites that present a carefully curated choice of news. Apple News (and the paid sibling Apple News+) is an example for it. They offer me content based on my preferences, and they stick to a business model which appears to include some values, about pluralism, truthfulness, content limitation, and so on. Yet, I can make choices which appear to be based less on what I call subconscious manipulation. In addition to my RSS-based newsreader, I also like to visit providers like these. And since I pay for the +-Version, I feel like I am contributing to freedom of press not making journalists solely depending on advertisements.

In this way, I am getting my news from digital editions since more than twenty years at least. I don’t read paper newspapers. I don’t watch the evening news at 8pm. I choose the sources which I like, and which I trust. I make a choice about what I want to read and see, and what I don’t. Importantly, I choose when to read my news, and it is my responsibility to make sure that I am not consumed by my news. Opportunities for others to change my choice, and efforts to lure me in, are somewhat reduced and slowed down. In this model, there is plenty of space for real-life discussions, getting incentives about new and interesting things from friends over a coffee, and then looking it up.

I will say that I deliberately choose to go off FaceBook in 2016, I have an extremely reduced Twitter account, I maintain a LinkedIn-account mainly for putting my profile out, I am not using Instagram, Tic Toc, or any other social media site. And because I found myself in the same situation of some social media site creeping in and taking control over ever more of my daily time, flicking pictures and glancing on pieces of information, my experience with dating sites led to the same decision: I entirely went off. They are just specialized sites for dating, they operate in very much a similar way like Social Media does. Except that there are “benefits” if you decide to become a paying subscriber: The brakes are off, and you can flick through profiles of people offering themselves to your heart’s content, you can see when you’re being noticed, you can control ways how to be seen, or not, you can pay for being put on top of “suggestion lists”, and so on. Amongst the several reasons why I went off social media, my experience with how they take over more and more of my daily time compulsively spent on them stands out. I know more about compulsion and addiction than I have written about on this blog, and this knowledge is including deep personal experiences.

Then I “discovered” Netflix. My relationship with Netflix now includes several years. Interestingly, and I will come to it in a little moment, my relationship with Netflix cooled off when a new lover entered my life: Youtube. But Netflix first: I used to buy movies on DVD, and I have quite an archive on high-powered harddisks. I still archive my movies, even after buying them in Apple’s movie store, and despite the fact that internet bandwidth has become a staple allowing me to watch old purchases over and over again, just online. Netflix is different, like Amazon Prime, HBO or else, for me three reasons stand out: (1) I can’t archive; (2) movies come and go; (3) I am presented with an AI-driven interface suggesting more of the same, to an extent very different from, for example, Apple Movies.

My relationship with Netflix is a love/hate-relationship. It is nice to flick through recommendations put up for me, to pick something for the evening, even to download it for later, or a long-distance flight. It is extremely annoying over time to get presented only with “more of the same”. If I watch movies from my beloved Marvel Universe, I get related offerings. The interface is increasingly hiding other choices I could make. It learns from my choices, and my choices narrow down my future choices. If I want to break through that invisible barrier, I have to make an active search effort. When I choose enough new stuff, the choice which is presented to me is gradually changing. But it is not getting me to a less narrow choice, it is just a different form of a new narrow choice. And over time, the purpose of the AI worked out fine: Though I have a paid Netflix account and I am not getting presented with ads, I watched more and more stuff on Netflix. All of us know it: We name it binging. Compulsively spending afternoons and evenings watching movies or series. When I have a favorite Science Fiction series, I watch three or four episodes before going to sleep. As a child, I had to wait for the next Enterprise episode for ONE WEEK…

We all know that experience. Which brings me to Youtube. Let me talk about how it started, because I know Youtube since decades, but I never allowed myself to dive in. Until my 12-year-old son wanted to operate a Youtube channel. As a family, we are operating with 6.500 kilometer between us, so often my contribution to parenting includes being the IT-expert for our growing kids, attempting to mitigate the many risks that come from online exposure. So, in order to advise my son about the do’s and don’ts, I often have to create an account myself to understand. Otherwise I would just be “the old man” advising on something I have no clue about.

That’s how I got myself a Youtube-account, which is, by definition, a Google-account which I have to link to Youtube. After that, I could happily subscribe to the little channel of my son where he is posting Minecraft videos. Dad and some ten kids, friends of my son. I have to add that a few months earlier my son made an experience on another site where a small video he posted went viral within days. Which was, and is, his biggest motivation for running such a channel. He dreams of getting a huge amount of subscribers, because that is what will make the money coming in.

Back to my own love affairs: I discovered Youtube channels. And this entirely replaced the time I was spending on Netflix. I allowed this to happen, deciding to make myself the object of my own experiment.

When I was interested, for professional reasons, in some videos explaining functions of weapons, I progressively entered a little universe of craziness: People firing weapons of all sorts on things of all sorts in some U.S. desert areas. And soon I bordered videos where other content, like right-wing fascism content, would have flooded my menu if I would have made only one mistake, only tapping on one “wrong” video. If somebody would have seen my home screen on Youtube during that time, you would have thought I am a weapons fanatic. And for a short while it was entertaining watching people creating and firing sophisticated crossbows, penetrating safes with high-powered assault rifles, of driving tanks and firing their cannons in the desert. Then I changed it, watched some videos about how turbines work. Soon I submerged in a world of people building turbines and rocket engines into cars in some Russian workshops. Nice, for a time. I changed it again, looking up chemical science of explosives, getting into that , sometimes really informative, universe. Slowly, the weapons crazies disappeared from my menu, useful stuff, but also other crazies, showed up. Changing it again, I began to watch movies about van life. Ending up with a small bunch of really nice and useful bloggers living a lifestyle which I embrace as well, I also was confronted with vlogs of broken people living a van life, and I saw their attempts to create followerships by inviting people into their crazy lifes.

Over time, I curated my list. But this being the consequence of an educated decision, even entirely going off YouTube for a while, allowing myself to experience the void. Yes, a void. Because part of the mechanism has to do with supporting compulsive and addictive patterns which can form a disorder, and often do.

Quite a group of those vloggers which I watched for a while, they do whatever works in order to get followers. Because YouTube will take you a little bit more serious in case you have a followership larger than 10.000. Money may flow in. You dream of 100.000. You dream of the big money. Like in a lottery, you fail to see that only a few people make big money, AI working together with human intelligence in finding out how to create more followers, in order to make more money. Result being the creation of narrow universes of followers. Combine this with the endless creativity of young people, and their wish to make money. Or: Combine this with the endless creativity of manipulative political operatives, and today’s bunch of conspiracy theorists.

The difference to Netflix? Whilst Youtube also offers a paid premium (and is constantly nagging me to give in, which I will not), I can dive into this universe, with all its useful and all its crazy forms, including content providers on the conspiracy theory side of things, for free. I have to accept the fact that I am bombarded with advertisements, and I soon discovered that checking for equipment on Amazon would lead to specific ads on Youtube. Also, the use of Virtual Private Networks aiming at hiding my IP-address would have limited or no success in avoiding this cross-fertilisation of the likes of Amazon, Google, Youtube, and whatever, with my user-data.

Since I am not using Social Media sites like FaceBook, I can not, from own experience, say who is “better”, or “worse” in applying AI-technology. But I see the tremendous impact of this technology in my experience with Youtube.

Watch this movie: “The Social Dilemma“.

My dystopian comments at the end of this blog entry: A global peepshow… People watching the lives of other people through windows on smartphone or computer screens. Unlike a sophisticated discourse in a Viennoise coffeehouse where I would sit around with likeminded, this blog entry is the product of a wild mixture of sitting on my couch, or in front of a PC, interrupted by taking a shower, sitting there in my pajamas, cleaning the kitchen, coming back to the screen with another idea, doing other stuff, honing my writing, creating something where you don’t see the messy process any longer. The product always communicates an illusion about how it has come together. Like YouTubers sharing their stories selectively, only focusing on the beautiful parts. Or the parts which stick. Watch some lifestreams on YouTube and you see the interaction between these actors and a never-ending stream of contents running up the screen, reflecting on every mundane, or also gross way people think and talk. Because of the business model underneath and mostly invisible, this influences the influencer. Which is, in a way, how life works. Were there not the amplifying effects of AI.

I’ll try to read and think more about it. As may have become clear, I do not condemn this modern technology. However, there are really scary things going on that, I believe, we need to understand better. Meanwhile, in order to get a glimpse of what I am trying to understand better, read today’s OpEd in the NYT, written by one my favorite authors, Yuval Noah Harari, on “When The World Seems Like One Big Conspiracy“. There is a link between what I wrote about, and this one. And there is another link to psychological impacts of the Covid-pandemic. Which I had wanted to write about in the first place. I hope it will come in one of my next entries.

A High-level View on Reform Needs for Peace Operations

This article combines an analysis of current reform efforts, and reform needs that I see following my four previous posts on the impact of trauma on sustainable peace and reconciliation. So, partly, you will see language coming from there. Opposed to these four pieces, this one does not make reference to external sources through footnotes. If you want to “check the fact-checking” for my conclusions, read the more detailed analysis.

Since taking office January 2017, the UN Secretary General has made the reform of how the UN engages in the field of peace and security a top priority. His vision includes efforts to improve the complex architecture through which the many UN actors within the Secretariat and within UN agencies contribute. More importantly, it also includes improving the conceptual approach: A historically grown delineation between peacekeeping and peacebuilding efforts, with the latter following the former, is being gradually replaced by more integrated approaches which put conflict prevention at the fore. Sustained peace and security is the best approach to prevent relapse into renewed conflict.

In his own words, the SG describes the challenge in his report to the General Assembly and the Security Council on peacebuilding and sustaining peace: “An important breakthrough … was the recognition that efforts to sustain peace were necessary not only once conflict had broken out but also long beforehand, through the prevention of conflict and addressing its root causes. More countries have recently experienced violent conflict than at any time in nearly three decades. Forced displacement has reached unparalleled levels. In too many places, the cohesion of societies and the well-being of people are at risk. Building a common vision of society must involve paying attention to the causes of those problems. In the resolutions, it was recognized that the international community must redouble its efforts to support Member States in preventing crises that exact such unacceptable and growing human and financial tolls.

The Secretary General thus points at the inherent connection between well-being of people, the cohesion of societies, and the likelihood of violent conflict: Health, including mental health, and cohesion of communities and societies are inseparable. In the currently increasingly challenged global system, with a rise of populism, nationalism, disregard of achievements on human values and rights, and erosion of vital elements of democracy including the rule of law, international organizations such as the United Nations are experiencing distrust and at times open hostility. A credible implementation of the UN SG’s vision requires to give him utmost support.

UN policy has not kept up with developments in peacekeeping, which has seen an increasing number of mandates that have changed the principles which have traditionally defined it as based on consent, limited use of force, and impartiality. The 2008 Capstone Doctrine sought, based on the findings and recommendations of the 2000 Brahimi Report, and on the aforementioned principles, to place peacekeeping within a spectrum of “Peace and Security Activities”, a “range of activities undertaken by the United Nations and other international actors to maintain peace and security throughout the world”.

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Whilst the Capstone Doctrine places peacekeeping within a larger set of concepts, the other elements remain largely undefined policy wise. This is also true for UN Special Political Missions. As one of the consequences of a changed environment in which these missions operate, peacekeeping has focused more and more on the grey zone with peace enforcement, making it more difficult to create a distinction to peace enforcement which is required if one is to uphold the traditional principles of peacekeeping. Peacekeeping is challenged by having a conceptual identity that is less reflected in contemporary mandates. With regard to it’s current reform, there is a common tendency to focus on those parts of this reform that make operations fit for work in less benign environments where there is less and less consent of stakeholders with the presence of a UN operation that includes more coercive capabilities. As another consequence, the distinction between peacekeeping operations and special political missions, which have been growing over the years since then, has become more difficult as well. At the same time, no follow up to the Capstone Doctrine took place. The “scattershot, incoherent and occasionally contradictory or competitive international efforts as a significant source of failed peacebuilding efforts”, as described by the SG in his 18 January 2018 report, comes as no surprise.

The 2015 report of the “High-Level Independent Panel on United Nations Peace Operations”, in conjunction with the 2015 “Report of the Advisory Group of Experts for the 2015 Review of the United Nations Peacebuilding Architecture” have set the stage for the current reform activities. Yet, a unifying policy that would reflect the views of all stakeholders within the United Nations how best to combine existing tools under the primacy of the Secretary General’s vision of putting conflict prevention to the fore is not yet visible.

At the same time, again with the SG’s own words in his report as of 18 January 2018, “the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development contains the blueprint of the common vision of society towards which the world is trying to move. Inclusive and sustainable development not only is an end in itself but also happens to be the best defence against the risks of violent conflict. The 2030 Agenda also contains the promise to leave no one behind in the quest to build such societies.

It can, therefore, be argued that the reform vision of the UN requires a fundamental discussion about how to proceed with outdated and incomplete doctrine: Peace operations need to be more integrated, which is one of the objectives behind the SG’s reform initiative of the peace&security architecture of the UN Secretariat: The UN is currently implementing a new organizational setup. This absorbs most capacity that is not already consumed by operational needs. However, in order to drive change, in this fundamental discussion there is a need for guiding strategic principles for mandating peace operations, and how they integrate the political objectives of the UN and its constituency. Growing rifts between members of the UN Security Council, and between the driving forces of the Security Council and the general constituency represented in the UN General Assembly can significantly paralyze future success of this reform.

If identifying root causes of conflict, as stated by the SG, sits at the heart of conflict prevention activities, then identifying root causes for relapse into conflict is a core activity of conflict prevention as well. It has often been stated that, in order to get peacekeeping done right, important opportunities of assistance during the early “golden hours” need to be addressed better. This is true for transnational threats including the combined effects of transnational organized crime, violent extremism, and terrorism, but it is also true for early assistance to peacebuilding, which often is missing recognition in mandating peacekeeping operations. Even more then this is vital if a renewed strategy of the United Nations is meant to lead to more integration and coherence between what currently is understood as peacekeeping and as peacebuilding.

Innovative approaches are needed in support of the Secretary General’s vision to make the entire system fit for contributing to the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. The context between conflict- and war related trauma of entire young generations and their caregivers through many forms of abuse on one hand, and the ability of communities and a society to move forward towards sustainable peace on the other hand, remains part of the scattershot activities of actors attempting to help, but without a guiding high-level policy.

At all times children have witnessed their fathers being killed and their mothers being brutally raped, and they have suffered from the same cruelties themselves, committed by armies, militias, gangs, and mobs. Children have been separated from their parents, endured unspeakable atrocities. This is the reality until today. Nowhere this is more devastating for communities and societies than when acts of severe war crimes or genocide are being committed. Generations suffer. Never before in human history the number of civilian casualties has outnumbered the military casualties as much as today. In contemporary conflicts, as much as 90 percent of casualties are among civilians, most of whom are women and children. Women in war-torn societies face specific and devastating forms of sexual violence, systematically deployed to achieve military or political objectives. It is in this context that entire traumatized generations emerge.

Children grow up with the consequences of what has been done to them and their parents, others again grow up with the knowledge that they are born because their mothers were raped. Raped mothers struggle with acceptance in patriarchal societies. Raped men even more. Children of rape, raised by a traumatized raped mother already struggling to love her unwanted child unconditionally, they also experience being pariahs in their communities. In all this suffering, childhood trauma is different from the trauma of adult survivors of conflict in that trauma is perceived as an event or a series of events in life for adults. It is defining the life of children. It is their never ending reality, and the younger they are, the fewer, if any, cognitive tools they have to comprehend what happens to them and to put it into a context of accountability of others. Mental health is severely affected by irreparable damage to the developing brain, and mitigating coping mechanisms within families or communities are dysfunctional or absent.

Sustained severe trauma through conflict-related violence profoundly impacts on the world of a toddler who has no concept of complex human relations. Subsequently, the adult survivor will suffer from a deformed capacity to establish healthy human relations. Because of neurophysiological damage inflicted by enduring trauma this is true for all cultures.

The International Community is also defined by the helplessness of many who care about humanity and decry the atrocities through soldiers, militia, gangs, mobs, violent extremists and international terrorists against civilian populations including children, whether in Syria, Yemen, Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia, Sudan/Darfur, South Sudan, Central African Republic, Democratic of Congo, Burundi, Niger, Mali, Libya, recently Mozambique, Myanmar, and so many other places. Increasingly the divisions within the UN Security Council do not allow finding a common position that can be enforced. In cases of mandates being given to UN or partner organizations, we are confronted with an increasing inability to stop atrocities under our eyes, and to help countless trauma victims in the aftermath of conflict: Respect for ceasefires or commitment to peace agreements is as much waning as the acceptance of the UN itself, not least because of the disunity amongst those who constitute the UN: Member States, and especially the Security Council Members. Peace operations that can not sufficiently engage in deterring atrocities lose political credibility, such as in South Sudan, peace operations that engage in order to protect civilian populations with robust means, such as in Mali or the Democratic Republic of Congo find themselves being accused of bias, increasingly getting under fire themselves. The plight of civilians, especially children, continues. Billion-dollar peacekeeping operations get stuck in conflict where there is no peace to keep, losing capacity and credibility to contribute to peacebuilding.

Global migration of surviving traumatized young people throws them into the merciless arms of organized criminals and spills them into societies which are overwhelmed and increasingly hostile. Across the globe, whether in the U.S., Europe, or in Bangladesh facing refugees from Myanmar, traumatized children continue to experience severe traumatizing even in places they have been told might be their hope for a better future. Families with cruel abuse stories at their place of origin find themselves in another horror: The arrest of the adults and the forced and cruel separation of their infants, toddlers and children from them without any prospect to know how to maintain contact, or when they may be re-unified. Children who have been thrown on smuggler’s boats by their parents experience that a country denies access to a port of entry to vessels operated by aid organizations. Trauma becomes a constant fact of life. Alienation both on the side of victims and receiving host societies’ communities leads to “why bother” on either side. Antagonization leads to mutual resentment and hate. The spiral of conflict continues. Deported forced migrants come back to their country of origin, with little hope for peace, security, and some economic future. What do we know about the impact of mass trauma on children and adults by conflict and war? How well do we understand the connection between healing of individuals and communities, and societies, on the one hand and reconciliation as a core pre-condition for lasting peace?

On a high-level policy level, a much better appreciation of the damaging neurophysiological consequences of sustained childhood trauma within communities within and post conflict is necessary. A health-focused discussion needs to happen, recognizing the importance for peacebuilding efforts. Notwithstanding the different conditions created by different conflicts for whether, and how, the effects of severe trauma can be addressed through international assistance, its impact itself on communities and a society are deep. Whilst the crippling, life long, and intergenerational impact of trauma, especially during early childhood, on individual mental and physiological health is well documented and increasingly better understood, less knowledge exists about how it affects conflict- and post-conflict communities in different cultural settings. Even less studies have been undertaken on how such communities affected by large scale mental health deficiencies contribute to societal healing, or are supported in healing by those societies they exist in. Yet, any practitioner will agree on the relevance, perhaps with varying degrees of helplessness when it comes to the question how to help. Studies about how to overcome this within peace operations do not exist.

Closely connected to efforts raising awareness, a path towards identifying mitigating measures within peace operations needs to be charted. This is important in order to make a difference to the current situation: Practitioners and policy-makers acknowledging the problem in principle, but not sure about how to better and more holistically address it. However, the impact on building sustained peace, including through reconciliation, is critical. Therefore, the question must be how to incentivize an increased focus within support efforts for peace and security.

Without doubt, scattershot efforts to the best of the abilities of many actors do exist, including through humanitarian actors working in peace operations with so-called multi-dimensional mandates. An effort collecting views, practice, and potential best practice needs to be undertaken.

A new approach – Part Four in a series on Trauma and Conflict

In Part I I have shown that pro-longed and intense trauma creates dysfunctionality in many forms, and that the impact of trauma during formative periods of brain development goes even deeper1.

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(Picture taken from: https://www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention/acestudy/about.html, retrieved June 27, 2018)

The longer a young child exposed to repeating trauma through forms of childhood abuse, the higher are both chances of, and the depth of, life-long badly damaging consequences. One very important reason for the unmitigated impact of trauma sits with that parents or caregivers either are the source of the child’s trauma (abuse of any form), or that they are not appropriately able to nurture a traumatized child.

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(Picture taken from: https://www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention/acestudy/about.html, retrieved June 27, 2018)

Children who, for example, get victimized by sexual abuse through third persons, depend on that their caregivers are able to respond appropriately. If they don’t or can’t, life-long dysfunctions include severe depression, compulsive pain medication leading to addiction, and a general struggle with building healthy relationships. Health problems can be severe, leading to premature death, including through substance abuse, and suicide.

In Part III I am referencing studies that confirm this for children who survive abuse in countless forms happening in conflict and war. There is evidence for that social relationships and the existence of culture-specific coping strategies, can mitigate the impact of trauma. Healing can happen. But where there is an absence of these mitigating factors, because the parents are traumatized themselves, and because cultural mechanisms struggle or have broken down entirely, dysfunctionality becomes a feature of communities and even an entire society. The plight of caregivers deprives the traumatized children from healing.

How can we expect that large percentages of trauma survivors do not influence the functioning of communities and societies? It might be difficult to find studies that confirm the relationship between trauma-induced life-long and inter-generational dysfunctional behavior on the level of entire communities and the ability of communities and a society to move to lasting peace including through its ability to reconcile. But simple logic tells that this is the case: Reconciliation is, as I have said, about restoring inner harmony, integrating memory and behavioral impact of trauma into a healthy form of living. Dysfunctional individuals can not contribute to restoring a healing and healthy community, as the community is made from these individuals who need to heal in order to contribute their healthiness to the Whole. My personal experiences in this regard, stemming from living in and visiting so many communities support this. So goes the experience of every health worker, every humanitarian, every peacekeeper. We do collectively know that a country relapses into internal conflict easier than plunging into an internal all-out conflict without having suffered from precedents. We do know that vulnerable communities in a weakened society are subject to efforts of violent extremism and international terrorism to establish control by a reign of terror.

How can we neglect a fact that is so obvious?

  • Is it because we have to mainstream the understanding of what trauma really does?
  • Is it because we are simply overwhelmed and do not know an answer to the question what could be done?
  • Is it, as I have shown, that we collectively fail to act appropriately on assisting complex systems to regain their balance?
  • Is it that we still have to act more boldly on the UN Secretary General’s vision and intent to put conflict prevention front and center? Effective peacebuilding is conflict-prevention, and thus it can not be emphasized, in my view, enough how important it is to factor early peacebuilding into peace operations. After all, the United Nation’s “Capstone Doctrine2” from 2008 emphasizes exactly that. But I know of no comprehensive follow-on to the Capstone Doctrine. It explicitly sets a framework for peacekeeping, within a larger realm that encompasses conflict prevention and peacebuilding. The larger realm remains insufficiently addressed since 2008.
  • Why is global policy not matching reality?

In the most recent comprehensive analysis of UN Peacekeeping Doctrine in book form3, “UN Peacekeeping Doctrine in a New Era: Adapting to Stabilisation, Protection and New Threats“, Chiyuki Aoi, Cedric de Coning, and John Karlsrud4 bring it to the point when they describe how mandates given to the most recent peacekeeping operations challenge the traditional UN peacekeeping principles. The authors argue that these missions operate without a peace agreement in place and that, as a result, the current focus is on projecting more force, including undertaking offensive operations at times, engaging in intelligence and using special weapons and tactics.

We have heard the UN Secretary General and his Undersecretaries constantly referring to that we deploy peacekeeping operations into environments where there is no peace to keep. In short, the focus which is absorbing almost all energy of policy- and decision makers is heavy on the military side. More or less the rest of all energy currently goes into reform efforts of the United Nations and UN peace operations. The above book makes the case that this development widens a gap between existing peacekeeping policy and practical developments on the ground. Anticipating that more of the same may come in Syria, Yemen, or elsewhere, this is of concern for the collective of twenty authors from all over the globe and with in-depth practical and academic perspective on peace operations of the UN.

Whilst my series here on trauma is not the place for a larger analysis of these developments, it can, however, be said that the development of policy how to effectively contribute to restoring peace and security runs breathtakingly behind the rapidly changing reality on the ground. This gap may contribute to challenges on advising political bodies, such as the Security Council, on what should be done, what needs to be done when being confronted with the heavy-handed conflicts of these days, and their consequences for communities and societies. Policy with no operational impact is as problematic as operational decisions based on outdated policy.

For example, I have repeatedly argued that we continue to miss the “golden hour” of early engagement through peacekeeping operations by not being provided with the necessary expertise to address the endemic consequences of emerging transnational crime influencing such peacekeeping processes negatively: “Let us get boots on the ground first” is a mantra that can often be heard. But the difficulties addressing root causes immediately makes it almost impossible to address emerging threats later.

If we engage with peacekeeping within a larger framework as we, I believe, have to, then we want to get it right. We want to see that the enormous effort, including the human tolls that we take, do effectively help getting communities and societies on a path to peace. It appears to me that those have a point who argue giving up the traditional division between peacekeeping and other forms of activities towards a unified term “peace operations”. The entire reform of the United Nations initiated by its current Secretary General is based on this.

In this series of articles I argue that the same is true for the impact of trauma on post-conflict development: We think reconciliation only later, we associate it with peace building. Like with emerging threats that include transnational organized crime, we appear to prioritize a select toolset which, though it is necessary at times, must be incomplete if it is not taking into account threats that can not be mitigated by military capacity. We postpone other action, or leave it to others, and it may be that we collectively fail to follow up.

Reconciliation empowers societies to chart their own way towards lasting peace. Whilst this is widely acknowledged, it would also appear that efforts of the assisting international community fostering this healing power have been futile. I have witnessed many discussions about how model processes, such as the South African path towards seeking truth and reconciliation, could be adopted for different post-conflict societies. But looking just at the very same country today, South Africa’s crisis of endemic corruption also demonstrates the relevance of a truly owned rule of law for a sustainable way forward. The relevance of security and rule of law for economic development, and vice versa, has become part of the core of contemporary multidimensional mandates of peace operations. What is missing is the recognition that reconciliation belongs to the critical needs from the outset on, too, and how to support it. Today, reconciliation is considered being part of a peacebuilding process, which may be emphasized later. The “paramedic approach” of peacekeeping operations focuses on protection of civilians and on political processes. Assistance to restoring security capacities is considered a secondary task which may require later action. Even more so, this is true for reconciliation. Parts of the process are recognized in what we call “transitional justice”, but even there we seem to fail seeing the relevance of deep trauma on individuals, communities, and the society as a whole.

The triangular relationship between providing security and order, applying criminal justice, and allowing meaningful penal management based on humanitarian principles and human rights is well known and often quoted as an example for the need for integrated thinking. However, the triangular relationship between governance, rule of law, and reconciliation is less strategized and even lesser operationalized.

2 In it’s own words, the Capstone Doctrine as of 2008 aims to define the nature, scope and core business of contemporary United Nations peacekeeping operations, which are usually deployed as one part of a much broader international effort to build a

sustainable peace in countries emerging from conflict. It identifies the comparative advantages and limitations of United Nations peacekeeping operations as a conflict management tool, and explains the basic principles that should guide their planning and conduct. In doing so, it reflects the primary lessons learned during the past sixty years of United Nations peacekeeping. It draws on landmark reports of the Secretary-General and legislative responses to these reports, as well as relevant resolutions and statements of the principal organs of the United Nations.

https://www.un.org/ruleoflaw/files/Capstone_Doctrine_ENG.pdf

3 UN Peacekeeping Doctrine in a New Era: Adapting to Stabilisation, Protection and New Threats (Global Institutions) (p. 1). Taylor and Francis. Kindle Edition; Loc 385

4 Ibid, Introduction – Addressing the emerging gap between concepts, doctrine, and practice in UN peacekeeping operations

The Trauma of Children in Conflict and War – Part Two in a series on Trauma and Conflict

The stories about pillaging and raping soldiers and marauding militias are part of the entire history of mankind. There is no doubt that this shameful aspect of human cruelty haunts us since our earliest pre-historical times. In narratives it plays a side role at best. The heroism and the suffering of the soldier comes first. However, at all times children have witnessed their fathers being killed and their mothers being brutally raped, and they have suffered from the same cruelties themselves, committed by armies, militias, gangs, and mobs. Children have been separated from their parents, endured unspeakable atrocities, survived the murder of their peers under piles of dead bodies or hiding in the bush. This is the reality until today. And never before in human history the number of civilian casualties has outnumbered the military casualties as much as today.

Nowhere this is more devastating for communities and societies than when acts of genocide are being committed. Generations suffer. The Holocaust, the genocide of Srebrenica, or the genocide in Rwanda are only examples of these darkest chapters of mankind, which is still persisting against all vows to let it never happen again. Ethnic and political cleansing by brutal dictators adds, during World War II, and today: Even where genocide could be prevented by bold action, such as perhaps recently in Burundi, or the Central African Republic, the run-up violence exceeds all imagination, creating thousands or hundreds of thousands of victims surviving the worst atrocities of mankind.

Children grow up with the consequences of what has been done to them and their parents, others again grow up with the knowledge that they are born because their mothers were raped. Raped mothers struggle with acceptance in patriarchal societies. Raped men even more. Children of rape, raised by a traumatized raped mother already struggling to love her unwanted child unconditionally, they also experience being pariahs in their communities1. As has been said earlier, childhood trauma is different from the trauma of adult survivors of conflict in that trauma is perceived as an event or a series of events in life for adults. It is defining the life of children. It is their never ending reality, and the younger they are, the fewer, if any, cognitive tools they have to comprehend what happens to them and to put it into a context of accountability of others. For young children, often the only way to make sense to painful events is to believe that they themselves must be responsible for it.

If their mothers and fathers suffer from being unable to love them unconditionally, they inevitably believe they are responsible for what happens. If a mother is separated by militias from her infant, and if the mother or the infant, or both, are abused, the infant will conclude that it is punishment for something they are responsible for themselves. If children are abducted by Boko Haram, or recruited as child soldiers by the Lord’s Resistance Army, mere survival under conditions known as “Stockholm Syndrome” will add.

Trauma therapy is over-boarding with stories of adult survivors of childhood abuse who finally recognize that the inability, say for example, of their mother to prevent them from their father’s rage, also constitutes abuse: Their mothers could not save them. Understanding abuse requires to take the view of the victim, notwithstanding whether malicious intent, involuntary action, or omission constituted the trauma. Abuse profoundly impacts on the world of a toddler who has no concept of complex human relations. Subsequently, the adult abuse survivor will suffer from a deformed capacity to establish human relations, in countless variations.

That black sheep within their own peacekeeping forces and civilian parts of peace operations contribute to this trauma in conflict and post-conflict situations, is collectively shame-driving the International Community. This sits at the heart of current zero-tolerance efforts against sexual exploitation and abuse of local populations by soldiers, police, and civilians in national or multilateral engagement of United Nations2 and regional actors, such as NATO, EU, AU, and others. Being aware of the harm beyond imagination, the International Community at least has begun to “clean it’s own side of the street”, which is laudable.

But the International Community is also defined by the helplessness of many who care about humanity and decry the atrocities through soldiers, militia, gangs, mobs, violent extremists and international terrorists against civilian populations including children, whether in Syria, Yemen, Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia, Sudan/Darfur, South Sudan, Central African Republic, Democratic of Congo, Burundi, Niger, Mali, Libya, recently Mozambique, Myanmar, and so many other places. Increasingly the divisions within the UN Security Council do not allow finding a common position that can be enforced. In cases of mandates being given to UN or partner organizations, we are confronted with an increasing inability to stop atrocities under our eyes, and to help countless trauma victims in the aftermath of conflict: Respect for ceasefires or commitment to peace agreements is as much waning as the acceptance of the UN itself, not least because of the disunity amongst those who constitute the UN: Member States, and especially the Security Council Members. Peace operations that can not sufficiently engage in deterring atrocities will lose political credibility, such as in South Sudan, peace operations that engage in order to protect civilian populations with robust means, such as in Mali or the Democratic Republic of Congo find themselves being accused of bias, increasingly getting under fire themselves. The plight of civilians, especially children, continues.

The situation is getting worse: The systematic use of violence against civilian populations, and especially of sexual violence as a weapon of war and conflict, spreads. Until recently the opinion that conflicts and victims of armed conflict constantly fell to a low after the end of the Cold War could be heard frequently3. Since a few years however, voices, including the Secretary General of the United Nations himself, express worry about the renewed increase of conflicts4 and the return of the Cold War5. These messages seem to indicate another, reverse, trend in terms of numbers of conflicts. Research is surfacing that demonstrates that 60 % of conflicts in the early 2000s relapsed within five years6. The trend towards an ever more increasing share of civilians in casualties from conflict and war is reaching horrible numbers: In contemporary conflicts, as much as 90 percent of casualties are among civilians, most of whom are women and children7. Women in war-torn societies can face specific and devastating forms of sexual violence, which are sometimes deployed systematically to achieve military or political objectives. It is in this context that entire traumatized generations emerge.

Global migration of surviving traumatized young people throws them into the merciless arms of organized criminals8 and spills them into societies which are overwhelmed and increasingly hostile. Families with cruel abuse stories at their place of origin, attempting to get into the United States, find themselves in another horror: The arrest of the adults and the forced and cruel separation of their infants, toddlers and children from them without any prospect to know how to maintain contact, or when they may be re-unified9. Across the globe, whether in the U.S., Europe, or in Bangladesh facing refugees from Myanmar10, traumatized children continue to experience severe traumatizing even in places they have been told might be their hope for a better future. Children who have been thrown on smuggler’s boats in Libya by their parents experience that a European country denies access to a port of entry11. Trauma becomes a constant fact of life. Alienation both on the side of victims and receiving host societies’ communities leads to “why bother”. Antagonization leads to mutual resentment and hate. The spiral of conflict continues.

Heartbreaking stories on display in memorial sites such as Potocari12 on the Srebrenica genocide, or the memorial site in Kigali on the Rwandese genocide exemplify the plight of children with examples. And every now and then, media is creating attention, such as on the children of rape in Rwanda. The world needs examples in order to generate understanding and compassion, but does this translate into action in light of the sheer size? What do we know about the impact of mass trauma on children and adults by conflict and war? How well do we understand the connection between healing of individuals and communities, and societies, on the one hand and reconciliation as a core pre-condition for lasting peace?

So, how well do we understand the threat, how well do we understand the vulnerability of peace processes by this threat, and how much do we know about mitigation of this threat? As a deeply involved practitioner since almost twenty years my answer is depressing: Those who know appear to be overwhelmed. Political operatives defining policy are aware but have to make priority decisions that have to exclude this problem, simply because of it’s magnitude and the limitations both on knowledge how to help, and how to generate willingness and resources to do so. Boots on the ground come first. But if the trauma of entire generations contributes to most crucial impediments to reconciliation processes, is it not that we should focus on, at least, to the same extent? Again, as a practitioner, my experience is that prevention will be acknowledged as being necessary by All, but it does not generate awareness and public willingness to act: The story of a dog biting a man does not carry news. The story of a man biting a dog will make the news. The story of preventing a man to bite a dog hasn’t been tested and may be similarly boring than the story of a dog biting a man, except from a bit of amusement in social media. In the same vein, robust military action may catch the public attention, but the more silent work of civilians, and international police under the UN umbrella, assisting in the recovery of communities and societies from conflict, does not.

If this already is true, how much more must be true in relation to a phenomenon of whole young generations being badly traumatized and how this may carry forward the potential for future conflicts? In his book “The Responsibility to Protect”13 Gareth Evans sums up a disappointing account of scientific methods to predict conflict, so that preventative action can focus on it. At the end we only know one thing, he says: The likelihood of conflict is twice as high in countries where there was a conflict earlier. For me, a link to entirely traumatized generations is obvious.

11A very insightful example is this documentation by France24:

Against the odds: The Rwandan women raising a family despite genocide and rape – France 24

http://www.france24.com/en/20180531-focus-rwanda-genocide-rape-children-born-women-discrimination-hutu-tutsi-families

22For the UN: https://peacekeeping.un.org/en/standards-of-conduct; retrieved June 18, 2018

Other organizatons have established similar policies

33http://www.fallen.io/ww2/ leads to an amazing data visualisation within an interactive documentary that examines the human cost of the second World War and the decline of battle deaths in the years since the war.

This is the crucial point: this extraordinary visualization puts battle field deaths and civilian deaths until WW2 into a proportion that demonstrates the ever higher number of civilian casualties. However, the project is not able to generate other figures than battle field deaths for the time post WW2 until 2015. Towards the end of the demonstration, the argument that we live within an extraordinary long period of peace is being upheld.

44Sebastian von Einsiedel, Louise Bosetti, James Cockayne, Cale Salih & Wilfred Wan – Civil War Trends and the Changing Nature of Armed Conflict;

United Nations University, Centre for Policy Research; April 25, 2017;

https://cpr.unu.edu/civil-war-trends-and-the-changing-nature-of-armed-conflict.html, retrieved June 17, 2018

66Ibid

88See my article “Why global cooperation on peace and security is needed – An argument against divisiveness from the perspective of fighting organized crime”, June 9, 2018

https://durabile.me/2018/06/09/why-global-cooperation-on-peace-and-security-is-needed-an-argument-against-divisiveness-from-the-perspective-of-fighting-organized-crime/

99For many:

I Can’t Go Without My Son,’ a Mother Pleaded as She Was Deported to Guatemala – The New York Times

https://www.nytimes.com/2018/06/17/us/immigration-deported-parents.html

Statement of APA President Regarding the Traumatic Effects of Separating Immigrant Families

http://www.apa.org/news/press/releases/2018/05/separating-immigrant-families.aspx

U.N. Rights Chief Tells U.S. to Stop Taking Migrant Children From Parents – The New York Times

https://www.nytimes.com/2018/06/18/world/europe/trump-migrant-children-un.html

1111Italy’s New Populist Government Turns Away Ship With 600 Migrants Aboard – The New York Times

https://www.nytimes.com/2018/06/11/world/europe/italy-migrant-boat-aquarius.html

1313Gareth Evans: The Responsibility to Protect: Ending Mass Atrocity Crimes Once and For All; Brookings Institution Press (September 4, 2009)

The Impact of Trauma on Individuals – Part One in a series on Trauma and Conflict

Trauma1

a : an injury (such as a wound) to living tissue caused by an extrinsic agent

b : a disordered psychic or behavioral state resulting from severe mental or emotional stress or physical injury

c : an emotional upset

Work in neurophysiology has altered traditional views on brain development and the impact of trauma. It is now better understood how thought processes, behavior and memory are formed. The notion that the brain develops until early adulthood and then remains neurologically static for the rest of its life is replaced by the concept of neuroplasticity2 which teaches that literally everything we do or get exposed to creates physical pathways between neurons or leads to pruning of existing pathways between connected neurons. The brain keeps resonating to external stimuli by changing itself on a physiological level for its entire life.

The view that traumatic experiences cause a disordered psychic or behavioral state is too narrow. A quick Google search finds many variations of an understanding that differenciates between physical damage by physical trauma, and psychological trauma as a damage inflicted to the psyche. However, it is now increasingly acknowledged that every traumatic event leads to neuronal changes which are beginning to be understood and which include temporary or lasting brain damage. In plain language: Some physical trauma leads to wounds that one can see because they are bleeding, traumatic events can inflict physical damage that is visible on a MRI or PET scan3. Survivors of severe trauma often suffer from a brain condition with biological, psychological, social and spiritual manifestations. Lacking public awareness is responsible for erroneous or plainly wrong, even moral, judgment of trauma survivors and their struggle.

Ever since the end of the Vietnam war psychology and psychotherapy grappled with what became known as post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD. Growing understanding about its severe impact led to efforts helping soldiers, police officers, public servants, nurses and other vulnerable groups, all of which are mostly composed of adults, with exceptions being mostly cases of catastrophes that include children. Responses comprise first-line support which includes a debriefing by a trained individual who will refer cases of visible and more severe affects to specialists. Public views often equal trauma with PTSD, the understanding of consequences of all forms of trauma and it’s consequences is too limited. A huge variety of known self-harming and self-destructive behavior is rooted in exposure to trauma. Depression and addiction medicine present examples of a growing understanding how childhood abuse affects the entire lifetime4 of individuals. This still evades broader public awareness: The view that depression equals weakness and addiction equals moral failure can be found in large swaths of discussions which would occasionally be sprinkled with sensational news such as about mass shootings by military veterans, for example.

In cases of mass exposure to traumatic events the coping ability of a society is limited: Man-made catastrophes and natural disasters with large numbers of victims strain first-line responders and second-line support mechanisms beyond limitations and imagination. Whilst the size of societies can act as a buffering mechanism that mitigates the societal effect of trauma on individuals, mass exposure of a community alters the entire community, not only individual members. Like in the case of individuals, these consequences can affect following generations.

It is the impact of trauma on the brain development of infants and children that gives reason to most serious concern: Significant consequences for the concept of self, self-esteem, empathy and the capacity for intimacy are amongst those aspects documented by a sound body of scientific research, at least in the Western world. Today we know that brief exposure of infants, children and adolescents to highly traumatic situations and longer exposure to less traumatic but longer-lasting events cause the same catastrophic consequences5. Child abuse in all forms belong to the events that constitute extreme forms of this trauma. Yet, a public understanding of the term “child abuse” is too narrow as well6. Immediate7 and life-long deviation from a healthy norm include depression, self-destructive behavior ranging from compulsive disorders to addiction, rage and anxiety and premature death in countless forms, from suicide through overdosing to cancer.

The life-long manifestations from early childhood trauma root in the specific vulnerability of the developing brain. As David Eagleman8 puts it: “In a newborn brain, neurons are relatively unconnected to each other. Over the first two to three years, the branches grow and the cells become increasingly connected. After that, the connections are pruned back, becoming fewer and stronger in adulthood.” It is, therefore, that early childhood trauma impacts on the neurophysiological development of the brain. This is also the reason why long-lasting exposure to trauma has a lasting impact notwithstanding its intensity.

Imagine a pristine piece of grassland. Once trespassers begin to cross this land, there will not be a random use of all possible connections between all possible points. Instead, after a short while pathways will emerge. Some of them will get more trodden over time, some remain small, some will not be used after some time. From now on trespassers will use existing paths. Just crossing the land the shortest possible way will not be a convincing option any longer. After years or decades main paths may have become roads. Within human society roads are known that exist for thousands of years, today’s super highway may have carried caravans of traders millenia ago. In the same way the developed brain builds and prunes along pathways that have formed during the initial development phase. Because the brain learns from any event, trauma throughout this formative period is especially prone to form lifelong consequences. Trauma can deform vital pathways in the brain and affects whole regions and their interaction and contribution to the whole. Pruning and building new pathways may lead to later correction, but only partially. Like a severe wound leaves a life-long scar, and pain, the same is true for the physical reality of the brain.

A second profound impact of early childhood trauma may be especially related to longer lasting traumatic events: They cause stress. Stress leads to release of stress hormones9. A part of the brain’s response to stress is a cascade of biochemical changes in hypothalamus, pituitary, and adrenal glands, as well as in the sympathetic nervous system. According to Louis Cozolino10, increased levels of glucocorticoids, epinephrine, and endogenous opioids are particularly relevant to a discussion of the psychological impact of stress and trauma, in that they alter attention, cognition, and memory. Long exposure of the developing brain to trauma effectively leads to that it is permanently exposed to hormones that hold functions both in the realm of pain and the realm of pleasure. A proneness to mental disorders such as depression and addiction is created early on. Likewise, the permanent activation of the amygdala within a fight-or-flight reaction causes the permanent repetition under exposure of events or situations that the brain later associates to the initially learned trigger during childhood trauma, as they do for PTSD victims11. However, to the child traumas are not experienced as events in life, but as life defining12. The effects of early and severe trauma are extremely widespread, devastating, and difficult to treat13.

Whilst it can be assumed that these two major consequences are culturally neutral, a third complex of trauma consequences may depend on a social context. In western societies it is well documented that early childhood trauma, especially through forms of abuse, creates psychological and spiritual manifestations: The concept of self, and of self-esteem, is negatively affected. “Abusive parenting creates a painful sense of shame, inadequacy, or superiority in children, which, if left unacknowledged and untreated, results in the prolongation of these wounds into adulthood14.” It is very obvious that the wide definition of childhood abuse often runs confrontational to traditional parenting. Sentences about the forming of character through (mild) forms of physical violence can be found in many societies, and as long as, for example, the punishment of children is still legal if approved by parents in some jurisdictions in the United States of America, this will continue. However, contemporary science and therapeutic fieldwork tell another story.

11 Merriam Webster Dictionary

https://merriam-webster.com/dictionary/trauma

22 Neuroplasticity: The brain’s ability to reorganize itself by forming new neural connections throughout life. Neuroplasticity allows the neurons (nerve cells) in the brain to compensate for injury and disease and to adjust their activities in response to new situations or to changes in their environment.

https://www.medicinenet.com/script/main/art.asp?articlekey=40362

33 Encyclopedia Britannica:

“Studies employing positron emission tomography (PET) and functional magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) have shown that people with symptoms of PTSD have altered activity in the brain, primarily in the regions of the medial prefrontal cortex, thalamus, and anterior cingulate gyrus.”

https://www.britannica.com/science/post-traumatic-stress-disorder

44 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

https://www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention/acestudy/about_ace.html

Page last reviewed April 01, 2016, retrieved June 16, 2018

55 A very good example is the self-examination abuse-checklist in: Carnes, Patrick J., A Gentle Path Through the Twelve Steps: A Classic Guide for All People in the Process of Recovery; Hazelden Publishing; Expanded, Updated edition, June 1, 2012; Kindle edition; pg. Loc 662 of 3435

66 For Pia Mellody, childhood abuse can be constituted by any less than nurturing behavior of parents and caregivers.

77 Complex Trauma in Early Childhood

by Kim Cross LSCSW, B.C.E.T.S.;

The American Academy of Experts in Traumatic Stress;

http://www.aaets.org/article174.html;

Copyright 2014, retrieved June 16, 2018

88 David Eagleman, The Brain: The Story of You; Vintage; Reprint edition (October 6, 2015); Kindle eBook edition, pg 9

99 A good general description:”

Adrenaline, Cortisol, Norepinephrine: The Three Major Stress Hormones, Explained”

The Huffington Post, https://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/04/19/adrenaline-cortisol-stress-hormones_n_3112800.html; April 19, 2013, retrieved June 16, 2018

1010 Cozolino, Louis, The Neuroscience of Psychotherapy: Healing the Social Brain; Second Edition; Norton Series on Interpersonal Neurobiology; W.W. Norton & Company, June 21, 2010; Kindle Edition; pg 240

1111 Ibid, pg 264 ff.

1212 Ibid, quotation of Christopher Bollas, pg. 267

1313 Ibid, pg. 267

1414 Pia Mellody, Lawrence S. Freundlich, The Intimacy Factor; HarperOne; Reprint edition (October 13, 2009); Kindle edition, pg 11

Us, and Them

What does your brain need to function normally? Beyond the nutrients from the food you eat, beyond the oxygen you breathe, beyond the water you drink, there’s something else, something equally as important: it needs other people. Normal brain function depends on the social web around us. Our neurons require other people’s neurons to thrive and survive.

David Eagleman, The Brain; Chapter introduction to Chapter 5: Do I Need You?; 2015; New York

Unnoticed by many, neuroscience, the science of the brain, has made progress over the past ten to twenty years which one can perhaps only describe with moving from the medieval ages to enlightenment with lightning speed. We research on the brain since hundreds of years, may be even much more, if all early attempts to understand it are included. We do apply modern methods of science since a century, or more. But it is the cutting edge result of research of the past fifteen years which makes us say that we are entering a new phase of understanding who we are; who we are not; what is constituting our conscious self awareness; and how this is embedded into a much larger context of the subconscious which we mostly are not aware of. But even more, modern neuroscience begins to help us understanding to which extent we need the interrelationship between us and others, and what it means for the “self”, and what it does to us. The borderline between the self and the outer world becomes more and more porous. We are all more interconnected with the entire world than the concept of an independent self makes us want to believe.

David Eagleman’s book is based on a PBS series “The Brain”. These six episodes are the most awesome piece of popular science made public I have come across in many years. It should be viewed in schools and universities, and everybody can, you can get it in the iTunes Store, for example.

In Chapter 5, findings of neuroscience are demonstrated that connect to my personal understanding of the effects of trauma, how it affects me, and people like me. Chapter 5 also includes important clues to understanding societal interactions of many people that lead to violence, destruction, xenophobia, and genocide. As Eagleman says, brains have traditionally been studied in isolation, but that approach overlooks the effect that an enormous amount of brain circuitry has to do with other brains. Our brains are primed for social interaction, from a moment on we appear to not have memories of, from the moment we are given birth. Babies at the age of one year have a complex capacity to differentiate between trustworthy action and the opposite, before even understanding language.

The self does not exist in isolation to others. We know that, we would agree to it, and perhaps the extent to which this is true can be seen when looking at persons who suffer from having less ability to empathize, such as persons suffering from autism, or from sociopathy. Both are deficiencies in complex interaction of subsystems of the brain circuitry. By no means they are moral or behavioral deficiencies, emerging understanding goes deep into the knowledge of the brain being interconnected with other brains.

The understanding of how individuals relate to Ingroups and Outgroups, to groups to which we belong, and to groups we feel we do not belong, it all is affected by how the trillions of synapses of a brain relate to other sets of trillions of synapses, and billions of those. It is kind of a challenge to accept that interdependency with others is not something that we decide, but that is built into our fabric on most fundamental levels. To those who are challenged by the thought that we depend on entities outside of ourselves on a deep level, here is another thought: The average adult human being is carrying several pounds of living matter that appear to not belong to the body itself, with entirely different DNA, living in co-existence, sometimes parasitic, sometimes in symbiosis: Bacteria. But it goes beyond: Take these bacteria away from your body, and you will die in a very short while. You can simply not exist without of these billions and billions of other living beings inside yourself.

The same goes with empathy. Empathy is a fundamental mechanism of the brain, and it is activating the same brain circuitry that is activated when you feel pain. Especially when you are being left out: If people do not cooperate with you, but leave you out, fMRI scans show that the parts of your pain fire up which also light up when you feel physical pain.

So, belonging to a group makes us feel good. Meaning that the question arises how we relate to people which we wold categorize as not being part of the groups we feel good with.

It is here where Eagleman’s book is becoming so fascinating read for me: He is referring to the genocide in Rwanda, the genocide in Srebrenica, and also making it clear that so many more of these situations exist, like the killing of millions of Armenians by Turks in 1915, or the Nazi Holocaust, and much more. All of a sudden, when reading his book, I am back in Sarajevo: Eagleman interviews Hasan Nuhanovic, who worked as a translator in the United Nation’s mission UNPROFOR on the compound where his family was seeking refuge. He survived, and he lost his family, when the UN commander decided to open the gates, exposing 8.000 Bosniak Muslims to the hellhounds of Ratko Mladic’s genocidaires. I know Hasan personally, I employed him in the European  Union Police Mission, we revered him, and we made it a regular habit to have him educating the International Community about the consequences of the genocide in Srebrenica.

Eagleman tries to understand what transforms neighbors into killers. Individuals who have been in more or less peaceful coexistence for a lifetime, and their ancestors since hundreds of years, they seem to be able to mutate into monstrous torturers and killers within a brief moment.

I would not conclude, from what I understand, that the reasons for this are entirely understood. But neuroscience offers clues: Empathy works with Ingroups. The brain shows visibly less activity in circuitry related to empathy when considering somebody to be part of an Outgroup. As he says, these areas of the brain become short-circuited, they do not longer participate in decision making. Empathy disengages. We don’t care any more. To me, this is the entry point into dehumanization.

Read, or watch, his experiment: Brain scan people who see pictures of hands being stabbed by a needle, and how the brain reacts in case you tell the person that this hand belongs to somebody in a group you identify with, or not. The same picture can create either a firestorm in the brain, let me say, in case you are a Democrat and you are being told that this person is a Democrat, or a Republican. Or, a German, and a migrant from North Africa. Or a Christian, and a Muslim. Depending on which side you belong to, your brain reacts different to the same picture, depending on how you label the picture: For example, the medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC) of the brain is engaging differently in case we are thinking of other people, or inanimate objects: People looking at pictures of homeless people show much less activity in the mPFC compared to pictures of people they relate to. Dehumanization, made visible on a brain scanner.

Now, I am leaving the narrative of Eagleman’s book of my beautiful city Sarajevo to the reader. But I do ask how this translates into contemporary empathy with people suffering in conflict areas, and when they arrive, millions of them, having successfully escaped, at the borders of, say, European Union States.

Think about it: Your reaction to a picture of a child found on a shore, drowned because the boat overloaded with refugees capsized, it creates viral replication in social media, storms of empathy flare up, because you can identify: A child is a child. But if you see troves of people waiting at some European countries border, your reaction might be different, though the only real difference is that these people did not drown, they made it. Empathy makes all the difference in your reaction.

I want to leave it there for today. My thoughts go deeper, naturally I am trying to find an entry point into the xenophobic elements of a discussion that also has justified elements, such as respect of migrants for societal values in those countries welcoming migrants escaping from horrible violence, and the way how the social networks in these societies appear to explode with fear, and hate.

Education is the key. The great simplifiers, those who trumpet their rallying sounds for hate from the TV stations and the Internet, they need to be countered by an educated debate. Fair, tough with those who disrespect values, but also tolerant with those who may want to learn values they have never been exposed to before.

How can I blame somebody who, from the moment of being a baby on, has been either taught male supremacy, or female subordination? We all learn from copying what our parents and caregivers tell us.

But we can engage in discussions, learn, and help in learning.