Reflections on Conflict and the Politics of Empathy

Reflections on Conflict and the Politics of Empathy

This week, Kate McNeil, PaCCS Communications Officer, sat down with the University of Glasgow’s Dr Naomi Head to discuss her ESRC project on Conflict, Dialogue and Ethics in International Relations and the politics of empathy.

Kate McNeil: Thank you for taking the time to chat with me today. I’m wondering if you’d like to get started by telling me a bit about your area of research background?

Dr Naomi Head: My PhD research examined questions of communicative ethics from a critical theory perspective in relation to questions of legitimacy around the use of force in international relations. My focus was the use of force by NATO in Kosovo in 1999. At the time, a common argument was that the intervention in Kosovo had been illegal, but legitimate. That legitimacy was often thought of in terms of questions of legality and morality, but it didn’t really include questions of communication – how those judgements were being arrived at in the first place. I was very interested in examining what a construction of legitimacy that took communication and deliberative processes seriously would look like.

My research focused on how we could construct a notion of communicative legitimacy, and how we could use that framework to analyse and think critically about decisions around the use of force in international relations. I looked for the extent of inclusivity or coercion present in negotiations, the orientation to dialogue, and the degree of reflexivity present in actors who were involved in negotiations and who were claiming that the situation met the last resort criteria found in just war theory. Challenging that question of last resort involved re-reading the history of the negotiations prior to the 1999 intervention.

The end result was a set of ‘communicative imperatives’ – a series of guidelines to help us understand how we can shape forms of critique around these communication processes. However, I also realized that the model of communication and the theories drawn upon by Habermas and other scholars that were important to my work didn’t really incorporate the role that emotions play in politics.

How did this work lead into your ESRC project on Conflict, Dialogue and Ethics in International Relations which fell under the Global Uncertainties umbrella?

The ESRC project was a postdoctoral fellowship that extended one aspect of my PhD area of research. I had started thinking about where emotions lie in our conceptions of communication. I was interested in the impact of emotions upon politics, the relationships that are key to transforming conflict, and the production of conflict in international relations.

Trust and empathy became the two emotional approaches that I was most interested in, and I focused on the relationship between discourse, dialogue, trust, and empathy.

My main case study was the Iranian nuclear negotiations, where I looked at the way that trust, empathy and dialogue might further or become obstacles to a sustainable diplomatic solution.

What were that project’s main takeaways?

If we are thinking about building trust between states, we cannot afford to ignore the role that emotions play in contributing to these processes. Our thinking about conflict transformation or  the production of conflict cannot be separated from the role of emotions. Moreover, we need to look at the work of emotions on both a micro and macro level in IR, not just emotions as an individual concept.

Does that mean we need to think about both the mood of the person, and the mood of the country?

Yes, it could be that.

There are also questions of identity, beliefs, and historical accounts of interactions which need to be considered. For example, one of the things that shaped the Iranian nuclear negotiations is that there was a deep set of historical interactions that were characterized by both the US and Iran as full of betrayal, mistrust, and hostility. That historical context shaped the possibility of negotiations going forward from the very beginning in 2003. Failing to recognize those dynamics would impede the relationships that were being built from that point. So that’s the macro level role emotions play.

At the individual level, you also need to think about the ways in which individuals are embedded in their societies, political environments, contexts, and so on.

How do you think policymakers or participants in these negotiations should apply these findings?

There are two key terms that should influence how policymakers might think about this: reflexivity and empathy. Those two things are related, because to engage empathically with other actors doesn’t mean you have to agree with them, but it does mean you have to be willing to understand why they think and feel the way they do. Meanwhile, to be reflexive in that process is to understand how you may be involved in the beliefs, feelings, thoughts and perceptions of the ‘other’; to understand how others may see you, and how you might be responsible for certain elements of that relationship and certain dynamics within it.

This line of thinking asks policymakers that they, rather than simply adopting the line of national interest, take a more reflexive approach to the way they think about how situations of conflict are constructed in the first place. We are always – at least partially – responsible for  our problems, but that is often not the way in which representatives of states think about international relations.

Have you continued to think about the politics of empathy since the end of your postdoctoral work?

Empathy has remained central to my work, and I have spent the last few years focusing on what the politics of empathy might look like. I’m currently interested in what it means to think about empathy in the context of international relations, and I want to move away from the sense that empathy is always a benign or positive process. There’s a common idea that more empathy is always better, and while that may be normatively true in many respects, that belief in empathy as a tool for positive transformation is often divorced from perceptions of power in the political contexts in which it is exercised.

In this area, I previously have done work on how individuals involved in non-violent resistance understand the role of empathy in the Israel-Palestine context. There are at least two narratives around empathy which emerge from which it becomes clear how much we need to understand how politics is attached to this language of empathy. For some, empathy is a political act of resistance, while for others it is perceived as a form of political normalization because it doesn’t result in structural or political change within the context of occupation. Empathy  within conditions of political contestation and conflict may also come with costs – to job security, to relationships with friends, family, and communities, to status within a community, and to physical and psychological health.

My current Leverhulme Research Fellowship builds on these efforts to understand the meanings people attribute to empathy in politicized contexts, narrowing my focus to an examination of empathy in the context of the violence of war and occupation. The case study I’m working on at the moment looks at the ’hearts and minds’ campaign in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the role that empathy plays in thinking about counterinsurgency.

Weaponizing empathy, which is how it has been described in this context, goes against common   understandings of empathy and so it is important to understand what empathy as a weapon of war might mean, and to interrogate the ways states may employ it.

Is there anything else about your work that you would want people outside your field to know?

The main thing I would want to say to policymakers is that the politics of empathy always requires thinking about how we got to where we are now. That’s always both a historical and a political process, and there are responsibilities attached to how we got to where we are. We are always implicated in the power relations of the conflicts we are involved in, and states, their representatives and societies, need to be willing to be much more reflexive about this process and what it might mean to both acknowledge and transform our role in the ongoing production of conflict, inequalities, and forms of oppression.

Photo credit: Michael Loadenthal –