Trauma and unconscious malignant processes in groups
Bernard Cullen (Queen's University, Belfast, Northern Ireland)
The theme of intercultural understanding and communication, and their absence, has become a subject of urgent study by sociologists, educationists, theologians, and cultural theorists, largely because of the mayhem and destruction graphically reported on television screens around the world in recent years from locations as diverse as the former Yugoslavia, Rwanda, the Middle East, and lower Manhattan, and also because there are London housing estates, for example, in which more than forty distinct languages are spoken, reflecting the very diverse range of ethnic origin of their population. Philosophy has been slow to respond, and its responses have tended to assume a belief in the efficacy of rationality in the life of individuals and groups that cannot be borne out by the evidence of recent history.
In this paper, I propose to consider the implications of the view that people are seldom driven by purely rational or materially self-interested motives. A human life, or a human community, provides a whole range of clues to understanding in the shape of observable actions and various kinds of discourse. To understand that life or that community (be it our own or that of another), what is required is to pore over it, as we would do with a difficult text, and do our best to interpret its many meanings. When we do that, we find that the self-understanding of a person or a community consists largely of myriad felt and often opaque, rather than immediately transparent and explicable, statements about their own situation, which together make up a description of a profound form of individual or communal identity. It is also important to bear in mind, in seeking to understand the cultural and political dynamics of, for example, the Middle East, that traumatized communities, like traumatized individuals, are likely to manifest neurotic (and sometimes destructively psychotic) symptoms and find great difficulty in sustaining meaningful and mutually satisfying relationships. In helping us to understand the dynamics of such situations and their mutually hostile groups, I shall draw on a number of psychoanalytic theories that describe trauma and malignant processes in groups, chiefly those of Wilfred Bion and Otto Kernberg.