Dr. Pamela Steiner on Restorative Justice, Collective Trauma, and Her Latest Work

Dr. Steiner is a Senior Fellow at the Harvard School of Public Health. Painfully aware of the pervasive issue of collective trauma, she works primarily with individuals with a trauma history and has extensive experience in reconciliation efforts using the new method of dialogue. In the following interview we discuss the personal events that led Dr. Steiner to her profession, and her latest work Collective Trauma and the Armenian Genocide.

Can you tell us about your career path and what led you to write your book, Collective Trauma, and the Armenian Genocide?

From early on family dinner conversations made me aware that certain major society-level problems were not being solved. There was one I especially focused on. I was in my early teens when I noticed the sprawl spreading throughout my beautiful town in southern Connecticut and elsewhere. The sprawl was largely created by the arrival of the interstate highway system and all the road traffic it generated. Later, because of my feelings about it, I became an environmental activist and studied land use issues extensively. I learned that expanding roads was perhaps the most convenient but also the most environmentally insensitive, inequitable, and damaging way to move large numbers of people and goods. The original rationale for the highway program was any way to move weapons freely, a need that could have been fulfilled by a much smaller system. Meanwhile, the oil-producing nations and companies did great. This was a major but still just one of many ways the environment was being degraded. a process that proceeded all but unimpeded. It greatly upset me and set me on the path of working for social change.

In my 30s I divorced, nothing to do with the highway system! To improve myself, my life, I took a very large group course in psychological growth. At a follow-up meeting designed to introduce graduates to ways of incorporating dialogue for problem-solving at the societal levels, I met some inspiring people who were at the forefront of the new dialogue approach to dealing with conflict in this case about environmental resources.

I decided to educate myself and train both as a psychotherapist for individuals and groups and as a facilitator of these new approaches for conflict resolution. In working for and completing my doctoral degree at Harvard and in taking other courses elsewhere for the psychotherapy training, I studied group dynamics and the interaction between group decision making and how different ways of making meaning influenced decisions. I trained in different kinds of groups to gain an understanding of group processes. The only professor I encountered who was intellectually developing the new dialogue approach as well as conducting dialogues at the collective level did so with Israeli Jews and Palestinians. We lucky students of this professor got to train in his real-life dialogue groups. In the meantime, conflict resolution on environmental issues had become more technical in ways that didn’t interest me as much as the social-psychological understanding of protracted ethnic conflict like the Israeli-Palestinian one.

After completing my degree and training, I opened a psychotherapy practice, took intensive training in a wonderful new trauma healing method, and continued to work on the Israeli-Palestinian relationship. Over time I became very discouraged about the lack of improvement in that relationship, however, and decided to look for a different conflict to work on as well. I settled on the conflicted Armenian-Turkish relationship about a decade and a half ago and here I am. I also continued with some Israeli-Palestinian work.

Did any personal experiences push you in the direction of writing this book?

As mentioned, I became despondent about the failure of the immense efforts of the most sophisticated and frequently employed of these new dialogue processes to change the course of Israeli-Palestinian relations. I thought it might be particular to that conflict. But I found that similar efforts on the Armenian-Turkish relationship were no more productive.

At the same time, and what really pushed me to write the book, was my growing awareness of the unacknowledged and unidentified impact of collective trauma on the dialogue process. I had witnessed the unacknowledged presence and influence of collective trauma in the dialogue process that these new kinds of groups fostered and have written about some of those moments in my book. In sum, I became convinced that collective trauma was, as a colleague commented, the elephant in the room and had to be addressed. We must recognize that when people are traumatized, their thinking, relating, and hence peace-building capacities are limited by it.

For those who might not be familiar with the history here, can you briefly describe the situation you have written about so extensively in your book?

Long before the Turks arrived, the Armenian people had inhabited much of both the lands that were to form Turkey as well as the neighboring South Caucasus. Eventually, the Turks founded the Ottoman Empire. Hundreds of years afterward that vast Empire began falling apart, a process that took well over 100 years.

The fall was partly but significantly precipitated by revolutionary expressions of desire by the three most numerous Christian peoples of the Ottoman Empire, prominently including Armenians, for rights enjoyed by the dominant Muslim population. Although at moments the state instituted and supported such rights, primarily it did not. Instead, Armenians were subject to every kind of discrimination including large and small massacres from the 1890s until the start of the First World War. When, finally, the intensity of the threat to the empire from the west and, as the rulers saw it, also from their Christian populations, the Ottoman rulers decided to participate in the war with the other Central Powers. The solution for resolving their “Armenian question” was to carry out a genocide of the Armenians, as well as the Greek and Assyrian peoples. Although the Ottomans as members of the Central Powers lost the First World War, neither they nor the successive governments of the Republic of Turkey have renounced the policies that led to the Genocide.

This situation only becomes more complicated. While the Armenians’ original homelands had always extended beyond Turkey into the neighboring South Caucasus, there, although mostly dominated by the Russian Empire and later Russia, Turkey could count on the friendship of the Muslim Azerbaijanis, who dominantly inhabited the east of that region.

Now, at the end of the First World War, those Armenians living in the mid-east South Caucasus were joined by survivors of the Genocide and together they formed the state, Armenia. The state Azerbaijan was founded at the same time. For the whole of the 20th century, these two parties disputed control of the region of Karabakh. Karabakh was located between the two and populated dominantly by Armenians, but not solely. Furthermore, the area holds precious cultural meaning to both peoples. In the early 1920s, Karabakh was assigned by the Soviet Union to Azerbaijan although its dominant population was then Armenian.

In 1991 the Soviet Union was breaking up. Armenians in Karabakh held a plebiscite and voted to be part of Armenia. In response, Azerbaijanis conducted pogroms against Armenians. War followed with Armenians taking Karabakh by force. It was followed by mutual ethnic cleansing involving hundreds of thousands of both peoples, although considerably more Azerbaijanis were cleansed. When Armenians prevailed and took charge of Karabakh, they proclaimed themselves to be a republic, one recognized as such by no other country, however. From then on, the people in both of the two sets of relationships maintained their enmity expressed in hot or simmering conflict over Karabakh. Neither has pushed hard for possible compromise and settlement, even as outside governments formed to assist in this. The border area between the two was unstable and unsafe.

Then, in late 2020 with the support of Turkey and others, Azerbaijan attacked and decisively seized seven regions surrounding Karabakh held by Armenians as well as the ancient, religious, and cultural center of Sushi/Susha and other areas Armenians had controlled. Today Karabakh remains located within the western end of Azerbaijan, itself located in the center of the eastern South Caucasus, with a mostly Armenian-populated on one side of it and a mostly Azerbaijani-populated one on the other. The relationships remain in active crisis. The worst-case scenario threatens Armenians again with the final loss of homeland and state and, possibly, genocide.

Are there any other comparisons amongst other groups you would draw to help illustrate the tension explored in your book?

My Chapter Three explores and compares other cases, especially the Israeli-Palestinian relationship.

Whom do you see as your primary audience?

My book is ultimately written for those interested or working in the new field of “conflict resolution.” There is undeniably immense interest in this field, and for the best possible reason: people hope for the success of this relatively new approach that aims to settle violent or potentially violent conflicts peacefully through transformative dialogue. This kind of dialogue means to awaken a mutual understanding of common obvious essential human needs¬ as well as the more abstract needs for security, basic fairness, and respect for identities.

My book aims to deepen conflict transformation dialogue by dealing with collective trauma. Everyone of whatever ethnicity, religion, or status is affected by collectively traumatizing events. Unsurprisingly, then, many individuals of different ethnicities or in different professions are interested in this topic. Graduate students enthusiastically study its multiple forms such as facilitated dialogue, mediation, and negotiation.

My primary audience is thus very wide. Specifically, it should include all those who practice or participate in dialogues, whether official, semi-official or entirely grassroots. These are people with a serious interest in this new approach to conflict resolution -- facilitators, lawyers, activists, government officials, and academics from many fields. An equally likely important audience are Armenians, Turks, and Azerbaijanis interested in a study of their relationship history analyzed in terms of security, basic fairness, and respect for identities, untaken opportunities as well as collective trauma.

Why is the concept of collective trauma so important to understand and explore if we are to attempt reconciliation?

Both collective and individual trauma interfere with and limit our perceiving and thinking capacities in ways that make conflict resolution much more difficult. People, including myself, who advocate the use of advanced conflict resolution methods to address the effects of collective trauma, do so in the hope that going forward these peoples might reconcile themselves to living in the same region peacefully and interacting productively and respectfully. “Reconciliation” here is not about reconciling in the sense of reestablishing a previous relationship of mutual respect and primarily fair and positive relations. Rather, these are peoples with a very long history of living among each other in what is known as the South Caucasus region, under the Turkish or Russian empires, one based on significant separation of communities by ethnicity and inter-relations that were often very violent, precluding their attention to positive opportunities that showed up at different times.

In my book, I describe these relations over time in a historical context with emphasis on the most well-known events. What is different is that this book labels the events as traumatizing and analyzes the effects of those traumas on the relationships among these peoples. Their long history of traumatization means one also of transmitted and intergenerational trauma. Labeling trauma as such is very important because it informs readers that we are dealing with a specific phenomenon that can be understood and dealt with afresh.

I maintain that the time has passed when all peoples, all of us sharing the planet, must take account of the existence and effects of collective trauma to assist in the essential work of achieving a sustainable and fairer world. Rarely is violent conflict anything but destructive, especially of the very resources needed for survival. Early action and a strong international community can if clearly so intended ensure settlement of difference before violence. Whole peoples, even if aware that they have had traumatic experiences, do not know what that means in terms of its effects (trauma symptoms) and hence do not realize how it impacts their relationship with the other. Understanding and working with trauma can help make this better world we must achieve more likely than otherwise.

Do you feel this book is particularly relevant now? If so, why?

Apart from what I have already said about the need for conflict resolution among these peoples, the 2020 war between Armenians and Azerbaijanis over the region of Karabakh brings their unhappy relationship into immediate focus, adding dramatic and intense traumatization to their history of transmitted and intergenerational trauma. Painful issues remain unresolved and demand attention. These peoples need to work with their collective traumatization to help enable productive and fair settlement. As I said, part of the reason for the difficulties between them is the immense trauma and intergenerational and transmitted trauma experienced by both these peoples in their relationship over so long.

For example, in the case of the recent conflict over Karabakh, before the war, some Armenians appeared to have compensated, and still do today, for their dire situation by exaggerating their strength and making unrealistic claims. Thus, now after a terribly painful decisive defeat, some boldly proclaim that they will retake all Karabakh. This segment of Armenians places the blame entirely outside themselves rather than self-examining what the Armenian nation is responsible for as well as what it is not and evaluating what this terrible large and painful loss means (Chapter 17). They have tragically and unconsciously stepped into the trauma trap. This is the trap not of repeating history but of rhyming with it. That is, there appeared to be the possibility for a second genocide. Most Turks are taught to hide, from themselves, by denial and blatantly false claims, a state of mind that is the result of the moral injury they as the Turkish nation did to themselves. They, too, could move forward with self-respect were they to focus on their ancestors’ role for which their nation is responsible (Chapter 18). In each nation, different trauma symptoms play a major role.

What are the most important messages you hope readers will take away from your book?

Because trauma negatively affects our perceiving and thinking capacities, the history of past and present collective trauma that is entirely unhealed is likely to

1) impede the prevention of violence,

2) impede the establishment post-conflict of productive, non-violent relationships, and

3) impede the development of true democracies within their countries.

Trauma processing at the collective level is badly needed to enable people to see the humanity of the other and to decide to live together sustainably and civilly.

To learn more about Dr. Pamela Steiner’s work in restorative justice, click here.