Myths and stereotypes

International Alert’s new research, Myths and conflicts in the South Caucasus, sheds light on the ways in which myths and stereotypes about the conflicts in the South Caucasus are created, communicated and used in the region.

A particular focus of this research is on how myths associated with the conflicts are subject to political manipulation, how “enemy images” are created and how these in turn make it more difficult to resolve the conflicts. The findings reveal the urgent need to develop capacities for critical thinking and to equip people with the tools and help they need to resist the manipulation of public opinion through invented stereotypes.

Published in two volumes, the research is the result of a region-wide project funded by the European Union as part of the South Caucasus Mediation and Dialogue Initiative, which began in late 2010. The research looks at three key means of communicating myths and stereotypes in the region: history textbooks, political discourse and the media, including the burgeoning blogosphere.

The analysis of history textbooks (volume 1) compares those used across the region in the late Soviet period with those used in the post-Soviet period. The research shows that the textbooks used in the post-Soviet period are based on the same ideological paradigm as those from the late Soviet period, using the same nationalist discriminatory discourse. History teaching in the post-Soviet period supports the political objective of constructing new nationalist identities and justifying one version of events around the current day conflicts. The Soviet concept of “friendship of the peoples” has given way to revised national histories which are hostile to the “other” and yet are offered as “truths” to be memorised by children, embedding such enemy images deep into the psyche of the nation.

The research on political discourse (volume 2) examines how enemy images are utilised in the domestic politics of the South Caucasus, which has entered its third decade of protracted conflict. The research shows clearly and unambiguously how the societal myths of post-conflict societies – such as “victimhood” and the search for an avenging “saviour” on one side, and “victorious” posturing on the other – are used to manipulate public opinion for short-term political gains.

Our findings on the role of the media will be incorporated in a forthcoming training resource designed to develop critical thinking.

One of the main conclusions from this project is that the prevailing enemy narratives close down the space available for reflection and critical thinking. The conflicts are unlikely to be resolved in a sustainable manner as long as the political and public discourse is dominated by such enemy images, and as long as the education process fails to encourage alternative interpretations of history.

The editor and methodological supervisor of the project, Jana Javakhishvili, says:

‘This research attempted to raise questions regarding taboo topics on which there  has been historical public consensus, thus preventing such topics from being studied  or reinterpreted. The initiative therefore required a certain amount of civic courage  from the researchers. We would therefore like to express our gratitude to all of the  researchers and partners who were involved in the process and to praise them for  their commitment and courage.’

The project began in December 2010 with a meeting with political analysts, sociologists, journalists, bloggers and civil society activists from the Caucasus, which informed the research methodology. Three multi-disciplinary teams of researchers and practitioners from across the region then began to research the three topic areas. After one year, the researchers gathered for a conference in Brussels to present their findings to each other, and to institutions and civil society representatives from Europe and the South Caucasus.

The research process and dialogue on the research findings in itself represents one small step towards fostering critical thinking on the conflicts, as several of the researchers shared how the study had had a very personal and profound impact on their own perceptions, and they found similar feedback from other researchers incredibly encouraging.

We are currently using the research findings to produce a training manual in critical thinking which promotes understanding of conflict-related myths and their impact at societal and individual levels. The manual will help professionals working in places affected by protracted conflict, such as teachers, students, journalists and NGOs, to overcome the clichés and stereotypes so prevalent in such societies. The manual will provide training participants with an opportunity to distance themselves from their own contexts (as far as possible) and take an outsider’s look at the state of affairs in their communities.

This project is funded by:

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