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Face to face with the enemy

peacecamp – looking at political conflict through psychoanalytical lenses…

peacecamp Matineepeacecamps have been taking place in Austria since 2004. They bring together some 40 youngsters and 15 adults in the tranquility of Austrian landscape, away from the hassle, day-to-day business and consumption of modern society. A wood, a field, a hill, a greenfield delimit the transitional space which offers participants manifold opportunities to experience self and other in an unusual face-to-face, to explore and find oneself and the other in the mirror of this encounter. This is an encounter of groups and people who, if at all, meet the ”other” with apprehension and fear: close, foreign, distant, unknown, familiar and feared neighbors, magically magnified into fantasized bogeymen, projections of one’s own disagreeable, obnoxious, dissociated, split-off parts; at the same time real, living, threatening, potentially dangerous others, all of them in need of a screen or container for their own mighty, daunting,  uncontrollable impulses calling for vengeance, retaliation and destruction.

Israelis, Palestinians, Hungarians, Austrians, Slovenes, Moslems, Jews, Christians constitute the participating group of a peacecamp, groups which define themselves by means of including or excluding, delimiting,  de- and appreciating members of the own versus the respective “other” group. The relationships of these groups and people to one another is based on collective narratives, transmitted conscious as well as unconscious ideas of the own as well as the respective other group and marked by fantasized attributions and projections of “good” and “bad” traits or characteristics to one another. There often is a striking polarization and partition in pre-ambivalent, dichotomous perception of self and non-self – representatives,  leading to unequivocal ascriptions  of solely good or solely bad attributes to the own, versus the “other group. These splits in perception and the use of the other as projection screen for one’s own group’s “bad”, unaccepted, unwanted attitudes and characteristics are the basis for xenophobic attitudes and collective acting out in political conflict. They are the motor for recurrent circles of vengeance, retaliation aggression, they perpetuate national, religious and other forms of political conflict, ultimatley leading to violence, war and destruction.

peacecamp invites Jewish and Palestinian youth to meet in the presence of two other groups of youngsters, Austrian, Slovenes, Hungarians. It offers them an opportunity to get to know one another in a setting that inspires trust and eases anxieties, does facilitating a look at oneself and the other in the light of this encounter.

All participants arrive with their personal “family album”, a documentation of each participant’s family and personal history. They also bring an outline of the history, culture, religion, nation of each participating group. Each group prepares a “culture evening”, meant to introduce one’s own group with its specific traits and characteristics. A team of artists and art therapists encourages creative elaborations on these topics, allowing for re-evaluation, correction or validation of preconceived ideas and attributions of the participating groups and individuals to one another. This allows to perceive the own and the other groups and individuals in a new light , to dissolve dichotomous, polarizing and splitting categorizations into less rigid, less unequivocal, more real representations. As similarities and differences between groups and individuals become visible, a more empathic listening – and cooperating – becomes possible. Meditating, relaxing, singing, dancing, solving problems, coping with challenging, amusing, interesting , complex tasks and problems make it possible to perceive the “other” no longer as a “not-me” complementary of myself, but also as similar, alike, different, understandable, close, sometimes distant,  as compared with myself.

Now new modes of relating become possible, a relating based on empathy and compassion and on the understanding that the “other” is not, and not only, a potential aggressor, but has his and her own suffering and may be, just as myself, victim of persecution, injustice and aggression. New relational experience can be made in this new space warmed up and illuminated by concern, compassion, empathy and a new capacity for ambivalence , based on the awareness that both can be victims and perpetrators, aggressed and aggressors, destroyed and destructed – good and bad all at the same time.

In the center of each peacecamp so called talks4peace, led by experts (teachers, historians, psychologists etc.) invite debates on relevant issues of our time and societies: minorities, statehood,  religion,  national, religious, cultural identity, place of the individual, of women in society, migration, attitude to foreigners and strangers, to refugees etc.

A daily analytical large group offers insights about one’s own and others’ conscious and unconscious ideas, attitudes, conceptions and feelings, and gives containment to those aspects of self which we often tend to ward off and project onto others. Being able to accept and contain one’s own “bad” parts and feelings allows accepting and keeping these within ourselves, rather than warding them off by splitting, projection and projective identification.  This leads to an endlessly growing space within which various conscious and unconscious, pleasant and disagreeable, socially acceptable or despicable attitudes, feelings and actions become legitimate, can be integrated and assembled to new patterns of the identity based on the awareness of similarity and difference between ourselves and others. In this kind of space empathic, active listening becomes possible, a listening with an ear open to the person who is sharing and speaking, and not defensively deafened by means of repetitive attributions based on narrative and prejudice.

At the final show4peace all stand on stage, together, as a new group; a group no longer divided by old ascriptions, enemy images and polarizations, but a group within which new, more flexible, changeable modes of grouping have become possible, a group of real people: people who came together and found one another, able to cooperate, to share, to build, construct and show what they have produced in mutual trust and cooperation. Something new has evolved that paves the way to growth based on  empathy and compassion with people’s joy and suffering – one’s own and others’.

Evelyn Böhmer-Laufer
Initiator and director of the project peacecamp

eu_flagge_erasmusplus_rgbpeacamp is sponsored by EU/Erasmus+