Category Archives: Social Trauma and Activism

Social Trauma, Emotions, and Activism: Round 2

We are pleased to introduce a new round of posts for the essay dialogue on social trauma, reconciliation, and activism.  These new perspectives draw on a interesting array of cases—post-Katrina New Orleans, reconciliation in South Africa, and government repression in Italy—and offer new insights on this relevant topic.  Many thanks to our contributors.

Round 2 Contributions:
Fanie du Toit, Institute for Justice and Reconciliation (essay)
Andrea Hajek, University of Glasgow (essay)
Stephen F. Ostertag, Tulane University (essay)

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Trauma, Community and Reflection: Mandela’s Long Walk towards Solidarity with All South Africans

By Fanie du Toit

Like a stubborn tree growing from the crevice in a rock face, reconciliation has to take root and survive in adverse conditions where the very idea may seem counterintuitive. Although there is almost always a need for it, there is seldom a moment where conditions appear “right.”

It is hard therefore to envision reconciliation, not least while the fighting continues. Leaders will lament reconciliation’s absence, but in the same breath proclaim its total impossibility. “Desirable in principle, but not realistic,” they would say. It is therefore worth asking how it transpired that South Africa’s political leaders did in fact decide to adopt reconciliation as a guiding principle for activism towards peaceful, yet radical change. Much of their ability to turn hearts towards reconciliation hinged on dealing reflectively with the trauma resulting from three decades of brutal conflict with those they were seeking to recruit as fellow activists. Continue reading

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The Mobilizing Powers of Collective Traumas: A Role for Moralities and Emotions

By Stephen F. Ostertag

Scholarship examining the role of trauma, moralities, and emotions in explaining mobilizations is undergoing a renaissance (e.g., Goodwin, Jasper, and Polletta 2000, 2001; Goodwin and Jasper 2006; Flam and King 2007; Jasper 1998, 2011).  New questions on how people experience, understand, and [re]act to traumatic events and the role of morals and emotions in these developments will help uncover some of the dynamic and nuanced social processes that underscore mobilizations (Kurzman 2008).

David G. Ortiz and I have spent the past four years examining a variety of digitally-mediated mobilizations and civic participations that people organized and took part in in the wake of hurricane Katrina (Ortiz and Ostertag 2014). Continue reading

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Affect and Trauma in Italy

By Andrea Hajek  

Over the past few decades, the role of memory communities in keeping alive forgotten or silenced memories of police repression has proven essential in Italy. This is due not only to the low commitment or unwillingness of the State to bring justice to these victims: in many cases the State has also been involved in the violence. Thus, in a commentary to a television documentary, Ilaria Cucchi – the sister of 31-year-old Stefano Cucchi, who died in an Italian prison in 2009 – described the situation of her family and, by extension, of other families of victims of police repression in Italy, as follows:

 …were it not for our perseverance, for the fact that we turned our anger into the courage to say “We will not accept being denied the truth” – were it not for this, then the stories  [of our loss] would just end, they would have ended on that day. And we realize that, as we go on, we are the only power that we have.

In this blog post I would like to focus on a case of police violence that occurred more than 30 years ago. On March 11, 1977, Francesco Lorusso, a medical student and sympathizer of a left-wing extra-parliamentary group, got involved in a conflict between left-wing and Catholic students at the University of Bologna. Continue reading

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Social Trauma, Emotions, and Activism

During the last two decades, social movement scholars have begun to recognize something that activists have long acknowledged: the importance of emotions in motivating, sustaining, and shaping activism and activists themselves. The recent death of Nelson Mandela serves as a reminder of the ways that social, cultural, and personal trauma in particular can serve to motivate individual activism, provide both tools and constraints for activism, and construct narratives and frames of injustice or reconciliation that can sustain and shape activism on a large scale. For the upcoming essay dialogue, we invited contributors to reflect on how trauma and activism are related, focusing on questions such as: How do shared traumas like war, genocide, or natural disasters provide fuel for or obstacles to mobilization around those or other societal problems? Under what conditions are social traumas likely to result in mobilization, and are those mobilizations more likely to be focused on reconciliation or retaliation? When are narratives and frames that incorporate experiences of trauma likely to resonate and motivate, and when are they likely to further traumatize activists? Essays in this first round of posts on this topic focus on various empirical cases, including the Holocaust, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and South African Apartheid.  We are grateful to our distinguished contributors:

Nicolas Argenti, Brunel University (essay)
Julia Chaitin, Sapir College, Other Voice and FAB (essay)
Michaela Soyer, Penn State (essay)
Ernesto Verdeja, Notre Dame (essay)

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Anthropology and Activism: from Radical Difference to Communities of Suffering.

By Nicolas Argenti

It was fashionable in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries for anthropologists to title or subtitle their papers ‘A little known people’ of this or that region. (Evans-Pritchard is reported to have quipped that with so many people studying little known and even lesser known peoples, he should like to study a non-existent people). The rhetorical device of referring to exotic and impossibly remote social groups spoke to the self-image of the anthropologist as adventurer/explorer in search of radical cultural difference. In a recent article Joel Robbins adumbrates a turn that has taken place in the discipline – a fundamental shift away from the study of faraway peoples as examples of otherness first identified by Michel-Rolph Trouillot in 1991. Robbins goes on to suggest that the new focus of anthropology – long in coming to fill the gap left by the turn away from ‘the savage slot’, as Trouillot glibly referred to it – is now the suffering subject. From having been objects in the study of difference, other peoples have now become subjects similar to ‘us’ in a new empathetic embrace that seeks not to highlight human diversity or difference, but to establish communion in the universality of suffering. In embracing this new communion with other peoples, Robbins takes inspiration from Cathy Caruth’s seminal work on trauma. As a literary critic, Caruth has been instrumental in taking the notion of trauma from its clinical setting and introducing it into the realm of the humanities and the social sciences, simultaneously transforming its original use as a diagnosis of individual patients to a lament for the suffering of social groups across time and space. Continue reading

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What is Political Reconciliation?

By Ernesto Verdeja

The death of Nelson Mandela in December 2013 brought renewed attention to the remarkable change in South Africa twenty years earlier, when the racist apartheid regime was finally dismantled and replaced with a democratic and broadly inclusive political order. For South Africans, the end of apartheid brought a host of challenges: how should society reckon with past human rights violations—through prosecutions, amnesties to secure peace, or truth-telling to clarify historical wrongs? What is owed to victims of atrocities, and how should victims’ needs be balanced with the numerous other pressing issues confronting the new democracy, such as fighting poverty and inequality or ensuring that violence would not return? Continue reading

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