Culture in Conflict

Kevin Avruch

Professor of Conflict Analysis and Resolution, George Mason University

Interviewed by Julian Portilla, 2003

This rough transcript provides a text alternative to audio. We apologize for occasional errors and unintelligible sections (which are marked with ???).

A: There's a whole other tradition in talking about cultural resistance that is probably best exemplified these days by Samuel Huntington's "Clash of Civilization." I'm mistrustful in that way, because, as you know, Peter and I have written a lot. We don't see cultural differences per se as tremendously important. Differences can be politicized, but then it becomes a matter of ethnicity or nationalism or ethno-nationalism or whatever, not necessarily cultural differences. We do see culture as being - I use this line a lot in my writings - "The lenses through which the causes of conflict are refracted." There are some classic examples of that if you look at Catholic and Protestant working class culture in Northern Ireland; there are tremendous similarities. All of those differences often get boiled down to the differences between Catholics and Protestants and that's a vast over implication. Those differences can become flags; they can become emblems. If you look in Sarajevo in the 1970s, you would not see tremendous cultural differences among the Serbs, Croats, and Muslims.

Q: To couch conflict in cultural terms is a way maybe either to disguise the real political motivations behind certain kinds of actions? It's the Slovadon Milosevich syndrome where he uses these events that happened 400, 500, 1,000 years ago to incite nationalism. Maybe its some sort of political mobilization to get out of economic depression that's captured in cultural terms because it's easier to identify? Why is it so easy to impede in cultural differences when they are that different?

A: Well, because cultural differences are always visible and they are learned early on and they can represent important social differences like where we worship and church. The answer to your question is, yes, cultural differences are used to disguise things, but you have to be careful about the word "disguise" because that makes it seem entirely intentional. The larger issue here is power is almost always disguised. There are times when it's not when someone is hitting you with a baton on the top of you head, but in our social lives power differences are almost always disguised and they're disguised in various kinds of symbolic forms. Religion is one of them. Gender, as it is symbolized, is one of them, and cultural differences become one. So in that sense culture serves in the interest of power disguises.

Q: When you say disguise do you mean in the intentional sense?

A: In both senses. Not necessarily in terms of individual actors' intentions, but in terms of larger types of disguises like legitimacy.

Q: Does it help to try to remove the arguments causing conflict based on culture. I mean you said the word "disaggregate" earlier in talking about Type Two stuff, and is that what we're getting at? Is that what we're trying to get to when we're disaggregating the cultural distinctions trying to get to the power differences, political differences, things like that?

A: I would say that is our job as critical theorists. We're trying to unmask, we're trying to deconstruct. In that sense we're trying to do what George Orwell did in his essay "Politics and the English language." We're trying to move through all of the rhetorics and all of the ideology to get at what the real differences are. Having said that, no deconstructionist ever stopped the lynching that I know of. We have to be careful about what the limits of what our theoretical program are politically. That to me is where the theorists and the practitioners ought to be meeting. The point at which the practitioners, who are often the ones who are working at the political ground level a little bit higher up than the policy level, can't discourse with the theorists is where ideas meet action.