Narratives and Violence


Sarah Cobb

Institute for 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 ???).

Q: How does someone's narrative change after they've experienced violent conflict?

A: Again, I think that violent conflict doesn't come as a thing that happens to people on their heads. It is a story about some bad folks doing something really bad. Often times it is for either their own gain or because they are malevolent or crazy-either bad or crazy. Those are the two logics. They either do the bad things because they are bad or they are crazy. Again it goes back to narrative constraints. Basically those are the two possibilities. Or often times, people don't even know why the bad things were done. So if you look at testimonies from the interviews with Holocaust survivors done at Yale. There is a wonderful book by a guy named Martin Langur, who writes about this in his book. I can't remember the name of the book but I think it might be called Holocaust Testimonies. They write about how you can see that there are kinds of violence that can resist narrative because there is no logic. So he believes that there is no logic that anybody can create to put the events together. Nobody would understand why Nazi officers would tie women's legs together while they try to give birth. Nobody can make sense out of that. It is so horrendous that we can't make sense of those kinds of things. That kind of violence myriads outside of the perimeter of narrative's capacity to contain it. When you ask what happens to people who've experienced violent conflict, I would say that it depends on how the violent conflict is narrated. There is some that resist all narrative and that is the worst kind. It just sits there like a terrible cist in the life of a person that has to be encapsulated and then can't be part of the rest of their lives. It sits outside of the domain of the regular life because it can't be included because it can't be narrated.

It's almost easier for people to have some kind of narrative account of what happened to them, even when it's horrific it's better to have narrative than no narrative.

Q: Because then you can deal with it?

A: Yes, because then you have at least some account. It is part of your sense of your own self. It's part of your sense of the world. It is very different than having something happen where it's otherworldly; it's literally not able to be part of life. If that is the case then it's continually dangerous because the only way you can contain, as in reduce the danger, is to create an account of what happened that would imply it's not going to happen again, or it's not going to happen tomorrow or today. If you can't have an account of what happened then you have no way of ensuring for yourself or for other people that, in fact, it's not something that could crop up again because you don't have anyway of predicting. You need narrative to predict what is going to happen. So life becomes very unpredictable when you can't narrate violence.

Q: So to do that either in a trauma sense or in a conflict resolution sense you would need to somehow create language or a narrative that accounts for that kind of incredible violence?

A: Yes. I think that the best stories are those that are not conflict stories. In other words, they have complex descriptions of character traits. They have interdependence in terms of circularity. They have temporal complexity, they have moral complexity and it takes a while for folks who have experienced violent conflict or trauma to move beyond the very pancake narratives that they have post-violence. Here the characters are starkly drawn. The setting is simple and so is the plot and the moral corollaries. Whereas, when you talk to people some period of time after, they've got a better idea of the humanity of the victimizers. They've got a better idea of the things they didn't do themselves to keep themselves safe. So they've got less externalization of responsibility and more complexity of the whole situation. It doesn't necessarily have to take a long time. I don't think we have institutional forms that enable that evolution to take place. It didn't happen in the Truth and Reconciliation Commissions, which is the closest thing we've had as an institutional form where we can tell the story of the violence or retell it in a new way. Those forms were not conceived if it was anything other than witnessing and documenting the stories that already existed. There was no transformative capacity even though people argued that transformation did occur. I would agree with them. I don't think it was because of the way the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was set up to function that way. And certainly court settings don't do that. Mediation settings don't do that either because we don't think in terms of the evolution of transformation of the narrative. We don't think about the ethics of narrative. That's really what I am talking about. I am talking about

conflict evolution is the application of the normative model of narrative that says some kinds are better than others. It's better for people to have narrative with these sorts of features than not.