Academic, Review: Activist Proposes Vision for Elimination of Mass Violence


By Daphne Abeel

Special to the Mirror-Spectator

The founding director of the Psychology of Peace and Violence program at the University of Massachusetts, Ervin Staub has pursued a lifelong study of violence, its origins and the methods and strategies by which it may be overcome.

While his career has been primarily in academia, he has taken on the role of activist and field worker in his efforts to promote reconciliation in several situations, most notably in Rwanda, but also through the creation and administration of training programs with police in cities such as Los Angeles and Boston.

This book, a sequel to a previous title, The Roots of Evil: The Origins of Genocide and Other Group Violence (1989) is based on 32 years of research, work in real life settings and publications on violence between groups and its prevention. He notes in the introduction, “I wrote this book to advance scholarship but also very much to promote practical efforts in prevention and reconciliation.”

Get the Mirror in your inbox:

Born in Hungary where he lived until the age of 18, Staub experienced both the Nazi Holocaust and then the effects of the Communist regime, and it is these experiences, he says, that motivated him to work on the prevention of genocide and the development of humane and caring behaviors in societies that have undergone violence and mass killing.

The book is divided into two parts — the first explores the conditions that lead to mass violence, while the second is devoted to the principles and practices that can promote the prevention of violence and group reconciliation.

Staub sets forth several conditions that can lead to active group violence: a persistent conflict between groups, based on material and/or psychological factors; difficult societal conditions such as economic deterioration; political disorganization or great social/cultural change that can often create confusion and chaos; difficult life conditions, which can cause individuals to turn to a group that will give them a sense of security, identity, a feeling of effectiveness and control and a meaningful understanding of what is going on around them; harmful actions performed by individuals or groups that enable a reversal in morality whereby killing members of the targeted group becomes “right and moral”; a situation in which one group has become devalued and is targeted for scapegoating; passivity in the face of violence on the part of both internal and external bystanders; support in a community for a small group devoted to a terrorist ideology that can contribute to the evolution of terrorist violence; and group violence, where the perpetrators refuse to accept responsibility and blame the victim, thereby leading to fresh violence.

Staub identifies several situations that can become the catalysts for violence. He groups these under the description “difficult life conditions.” They include economic deterioration, political disorganization, a situation where two factions are competing for political power and rapid social/cultural change. Frustrated needs for security, control, a lack of positive identity, a lack of connection to others, a lack of comprehension of reality (knowing how the world operates), lack of justice and the lack of transcendence of self, that is the ability to work for the welfare of others, can all create the groundwork for mass violence.

Staub draws on the work of many scholars and researchers and using these conceptual tools, surveys many situations in which mass violence has occurred, including the Holocaust in Germany, the Genocide of the Armenians in Turkey, the Hutu-Tutsi genocide in Rwanda, the massacres in the Congo, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to show, in each case, what led up to violence and mass killings.

One of Staub’s key concepts is that of the bystander —the internal bystander, who actually witnesses what is happening, and the external, bystander, often in another country who observes from afar. Passivity on the part of either of these groups encourages perpetrators of mass violence. He gives as examples the Allies who ignored the Nazi death camps during World War II and the reluctance of the UN Security Council to intervene in Rwanda as it argued over the definition of genocide. Staub, as noted previously, has intervened personally in a number of situations to promote the strategies of reconciliation and his involvement in Rwanda provides a portrait of his idealism and willingness to involve himself in a complex effort to heal a community.

With his colleague, Laura A. Pearlman, he set up a multi-faceted program of workshops and dialogues between the Hutus and Tutsis that eventually led to an atmosphere of reconciliation. One product of the program was a series or radio broadcasts that created scenarios with which the population could identify, portraying both victims and perpetrators. This focused and intense effort in a particular situation bore results, but it’s unclear that the intricacies of these structures could be transferred to other venues.

Staub has a positive and idealistic vision that can be so sweeping as to appear unrealistic. He says, “Dialogue is essential to this process [the creation of shared goals]. In the case of group conflict, mediation, dialogue and other conflict resolution processes can be used to develop a shared vision of society and shared goals, which then can provide a framework for peace building.” This prescription is admirable, but the practical obstacles can, clearly, be immense.

In Rory Stewart’s observations of Iraqi society in his book The Prince of Marshes, he quotes more than once a mantra that different sects and tribes share: “In revenge, there is life.” How does a society that espouses that thought make the leap to dialogue and conflict resolution?

The key to bringing about a world where people care for others, identify with others, sympathize and empathize with others, Staub suggests, is education. He says, “There are two outcomes of child rearing that can affect group violence: the kind of persons children become and the kind of group members they will be. Raising children so that they become adults who care about the welfare of other people, who feel empathy and responsibility for others’ welfare and whose caring extends to people outside the boundaries of their own group makes group violence less likely.” Yes, of course, but the challenge is immense, particularly in societies where families are torn apart by war and poverty, where there may few or no resources to establish this sort of education system.

In sum, this is a book to admire for its broad based scholarship and analysis of the origins of hated and mass violence. And just as admirable is Staub’s vision that reconciliation, even between the most intractable enemies, is not only desirable, but possible. His example of personal involvement should go a long way towards inspiring others to participate in the process of healing and caring.

Staub has included an interactive feature in his book, asking readers to post their thoughts and suggestions concerning the prevention of violence and reconciliation on a blog. Interested readers should post their thoughts and comments to where they may be incorporated into essays by researchers and students to further scholarship in the field.

Overcoming Evil: Genocide, Violent Conflict and Terrorism by Ervin Staub.

Oxford University Press. 2011. 581 pp. $50. ISBN 978-0-19-538204-4

Get the Mirror-Spectator Weekly in your inbox: