The victim wars: How competitive victimhood stymies reconciliation between conflicting groups

However, despite these encouraging findings, the practical achievements of a common identity after protracted conflicts are often slow to appear, and require great efforts on the part of the civil society. First, policymakers should strive to create a unified political structure. In the Kosovar context, for example, the existence of parallel Serbian institutions in most domains of everyday life (security, health care, school) strongly hinders the development of a common in-group entity, and their integration with identical Albanian institutions could be the first step in reducing competitive victimhood. Second, peacemakers should promote interventions, particularly in educational settings, aimed at redefining the boundaries between conflicting groups through the introduction of cooperative and interdependent tasks. Another way to remove this deep sense of victimhood would be by enhancing communication among members of conflicting groups. The effort to claim that one’s own group has suffered more than the other group inhibits any expression of altruism or understanding toward out-group members. Direct, meaningful, and friendly interaction is therefore crucial in enhancing positive emotions toward out-group members and, consequently, reducing competitive victimhood. In the same vein, through direct interaction people may become more aware of their adversaries' suffering, and discover that the others’ experiences of victimization are not so different from their own.

Although there are unquestionable benefits that this type of contact can provide, this strategy cannot be applied universally. In many post-conflict settings, contextual and political features prohibit direct contact between conflicting groups (Crisp, Stathi, Turner, & Husnu, 2008). In Kosovo, for instance, the Albanian and Serbian communities are currently strictly segregated; the Serbs live in isolated enclaves monitored by international forces. As a consequence, interventions involving direct contact can be very difficult to carry out.

To overcome this barrier to reconciliation, social psychologists are now moving beyond direct contact, testing the effectiveness of alternative forms of contact. Whright, Aron, McLaughlin-Volpe, and Ropp (1997) have argued that an 'extended contact', that is the mere knowledge of some in-group members being friends with some out-group members, could also help to heal fractured relations. Supporting this idea, Paolini, Hewstone, Cairns, and Voci (2004) conducted two surveys in Northern Ireland and found that those who knew people in their group who were friends with people in the other community were less prejudiced. In another example, we found that among Kosovar Albanian adolescents, simply the knowledge that their older family members had frequent and good-quality contacts with some out-group members encouraged the Kosovar Albanians to have empathetic and trusting feelings toward their Serbian rivals. In turn, such feelings decreased the participants’ willingness to engage in competitive victimhood with the Serbs. As in the case of common in-group identity, the theoretical insights of these findings gain real-world importance only if they are translated into practical interventions. For instance, peacemakers could plan educational programs allowing new generations to learn about their enemy group’s suffering through some narratives and stories told by their older family members.

Besides extended contact, ‘imagined contact’ (e.g., Crisp, Husnu, Melady, & Stathi, 2010) has been recently proposed as a further solution for healing relations in highly segregated communities. Imagined contact posits on the idea that simply imagining a positive social interaction with an out-group member may be sufficient to improve negative attitudes between groups. To our knowledge, this form of contact has not yet been tested as a means for defeating competitive victimhood. Although it may be a powerful strategy, especially in an educational program, it is possible that high anxiety could obstruct the positive effects of this simulation. Imagining an interaction with an adversary could prove stressful in conflict zones.

From a practical perspective, all these strategies may prove important for the application of practical interventions by policymakers and educators aimed at reducing the tendency to compete over sufferings. Interestingly, some peace programs worldwide are trying to overcome competitive victimhood by putting the principles of intergroup contact into practice, and mainly focusing on direct contact. For instance, “Operazione Colomba” (an Italian NGO) has organized multiethnic encounters in Gorazdevac (a Serbian village in West Kosovo) that allow Serbian and Albanian participants to speak with each other about the conflict and the experiences of victimization they have suffered.

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