Walking the talk: Co-creating a Learning Exchange in times of polarization
Adrian Wagner, CMMI Fellow 2018
Adrian Wagner is part of the Institute for Global Integral Competence, has studied Public Policy at the Humboldt-Viadrina School of Governance in Berlin and has trained as a mediator at the Humboldt Law faculty. Adrian was one of our two CMMI Fellows who presented at the recent Learning Exchange. He reflects on his experience at the Learning Exchange, interweaving his reflections with the topic of his talk on “Collective Trauma Integration in the Light of the current US Crisis: Establishing Global Action Networks of Meaning-Making”.
The topic of the CMMI Fellows’ session at the Learning Exchange in 2018 could not have been better chosen—“Overcoming Polarization in Communities and Societies”—especially given what else was happening at the same time. It was my first visit to the USA and while I was there I had the chance to witness the unfolding of the run-up to the midterm elections. It was fascinating and scary at the same time to see the mismanagement of meaning and the coordination of polarization taking place on multiple levels. At the same time, other sobering highlights included the attempted postal bombings, the Synagogue shooting and the open nationalist language of the President.
Having explored mass and group traumatization in the light of the current US crises as part of my doctoral research and for my CMMI fellowship, it seemed present everywhere. The CMMI Learning Exchange was a very welcome contrast and I was very happy that it highlighted that even in times of crises there is hope and the possibility to co-create.
During my time as a scholar, I focused on Dr. Regine Scholz’s collective trauma research and found a very similar theoretical foundation to CMM. Scholz states in her work on culture and collective trauma that individuals, groups, and societies are units of a “continuous communicative creation process” (Scholz, 2011). Similarly, Pearce states that social worlds are “extending through time in unfinished processes, as multi-layered, fully reflexive, and having the ultimate shape of a self-referential paradox” (Pearce, 2002).
Understanding how we are shaped by language in a fundamental way and how we are co-creating realities is crucial in times where the dialogue is missing and polarized points of views are on the rise. It was a pleasant surprise that the Learning Exchange was built on this commitment to co-create realities together from the very start. Because there was an equal number of experienced and inexperienced scholars of CMM a dynamic field of learning was established. The facilitation was heart-full and professional throughout the days. The composition of exploration, exchange, dialogue, and presentations was well crafted and helped not only to learn CMM on the go but to draw participants into a generative field based on trust and mutual respect. One learned about the Cosmokidz initiative where new approaches to learning and empowering of kids are exercised and developed as well as what the future city—Cosmopolis —could look like. What struck me was the diverse and high-quality academic background of many participants and the many inspiring conversations and discussions next to the official program.
Reflecting more on my own lecture and the insights I gained during the fellowship I realized how important human relations are beyond our narrow identities. It seems important in times of polarization that the root cause is examined, understood and analyzed. Too often we deal with the symptoms rather with the cause of the problems. Following this understanding and the insights CMM provides, I realized how much communication matters.
When it comes to trauma, we are often unable to find words and so become silent. Our energy and understanding is blocked by this silence and dissociation from the pain that we are not able to feel. This in turn often leads to miscommunication, mismanagement and a lack of coordination of meaning. While this has been researched in trauma theory and in psychology, it’s only in recent years that more scholarly work has emerged around collective trauma. Dan Bar-On, for example, has researched intergenerational traumas discovering the painful and disturbing relationships of Holocaust survivors and the following generations of victims and perpetrators. Vamik Volkan’s research has focused more on “the mental representations of an event that has caused a large group to face drastic losses, feel helpless and victimized by another group, and share a humiliating injury.” (Volkan 1998). Volkan defines such events as chosen trauma. In his understanding, those events are usually in the past and kept alive in societies and cultures through memory and rituals. Chosen traumas are therefore mental representations and meaning-making plays an important role in shaping them. What he observed was that if new conflicts arise old, almost forgotten, chosen trauma can reemerge and a time collapse occur. People associated with the chosen trauma feel as if it could happen right now. This can, of course, lead to dangerous polarization.
Brunner has criticized Volkan for this term “chosen trauma”. For him, only individuals can be traumatized and usually they don’t choose to be so. In his view, there can be a “collective processing of mass individual traumatization” when war or natural catastrophes influence large amounts of people. On the other hand, he also refers to the term trauma narration or trauma discourse as something that either can be “just invented or correspond to the real trauma of several group members. In the last case, we could talk about a discursive collectivization of individual traumas.” In addition, he suggests the term “trauma-induced collectives” if large groups are formed after their persecution (Brunner 2012).
In the light of these different definitions it seems important to get a better overview and understanding of the overall topic of collective, or group, trauma; especially how mass traumatization that occurs, for example, through events like Hurricane Katrina or 9/11 can develop into group traumas. Depending on the level of leadership and the ability to coordinate and manage meaning group traumas can generate ethnocentric identities leading to exclusion and polarization—as has happened in the US. While we might not be able to stop mass traumatization in times of climate change, how we deal with and work in the aftermath of such events will decide if we are able to prevent group traumas. This could be crucial to stopping the polarization in communities and society. Only if we find deeper meaning in the painful events of the past and are able to activate resilience, hope and a global perspective will we be able to truly establish cosmopolitan communication—a form of communication that is much needed to face the challenges of the 21st century.
Margret Mead is attributed with saying: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” The Learning Exchange was, to me, a beacon of hope that change is possible. Supported by the findings of Lukas Herrmann’s research on generative fields theory I felt a lot of potential to deepen and explore those generative dimensions, so much needed for lasting and sustainable change. I’m grateful to have had the opportunity provided by the CMM Institute and look forward to continuing to co-create the world through communication.
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