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Thomas Scheff: The Emotional Roots of War and Harmony

Thomas J. Scheff


The Roots of War in the Emotional/Relational World


Emotions and social bonds play an important, if hidden role in morality and political mobilization. Moral values underlie politics and economic policy, but are hidden from view. The dominance of the Bush regime has involved manipulating the emotions of the US public, especially fear. However, a counter movement might be based in the emotional/relational world. Emotions brought into the open deliver a moral shock that can be transformative. This idea is illustrated by the experiences of visitors to an Iraq War memorial. There may be a need for national rituals that deliver moral shock, uncovering hidden vulnerable emotions. Not just grief, but also fear and shame.

The Emotional/Relational World (ER/W)

We all live in the microworld of emotions and relationships every day of our lives, yet we have been trained not to notice. Our attention is riveted o­n the physical world, and o­n behavior, thoughts and beliefs. Yet the ER/W is important for many reasons. For brevity I will mention o­nly two obvious o­nes and o­ne that is not at all obvious: First, it is important in its own right, since it constitutes the moment-by-moment texture of our lives. Secondly, it is intimately linked to the larger world; it both causes and is caused by that world.

The third reason is that the moral values that form the basis of politics and economic policy are not merely beliefs, but also have a potent emotional charge. The idea of conscience, particularly, has strong emotional components that are virtually invisible in modern societies. I will return to this idea below. First, however, it is necessary to discuss the taboo o­n emotions and relationships.

A New Yorker cartoon conveyed the idea. A man lying o­n the analysts couch is saying: Call it denial if you will, but frankly I think that my personal life is none of my own damn business. Although humor is often based o­n exaggeration, the idea that our personal lives are none of our own damn business comes close to the truth of the matter. The patient in the cartoon being a man, rather than a woman, may also be significant. Men, more than women, seem to be trained to ignore the telling details that reveal emotions and relationships. Their attention is diverted elsewhere. Yet both women and men know much less about this world than the larger o­ne.

Our obliviousness seems to be a creation of the modern urban/industrial society. In traditional societies, the E/RW was virtually the o­nly world available. In modern societies there are so many duties, distractions, and diversions that most of us learn to ignore the E/RW, except when there is a personal crisis. The very language we use helps to hide it.

One example is the overwhelming emphasis in English o­n the individual, rather than o­n relationships. At least in this way, languages of urban/industrial societies are diametrically opposite from those of traditional societies. The latter focus o­n the relationship, ignoring the individual, just as much as modern societies focus o­n individuals and ignore relationships. The Japanese practice of referring to kin in relationship terms (younger sister) rather than their first name or personalpronouns is an example.

The individualistic bent of modern societies brings up a crucial issue for understanding the link between the ER/W and political consciousness. It is awkward, especially in English, to find a term for referring to the possibility of a cognitive/emotional unity between individuals or larger groups. It has been named in many different ways: intersubjectivity, joint, mutual, or shared awareness, connectedness, or somewhat tangentially, mind-reading. None of these terms are quite adequate, but here I will use Sterns word attunement (1977).

Stern was referring to the momentary states of unity that occur between a mother and her infant. In my usage, the word attuned or attunement alone, unqualified, will refer to a balancing of the viewpoints of self and other, neither engulfed (too close) nor isolated (too far). The idea of attunement will be necessary if we are to understand the role of emotions in changes in consciousness.

The Hidden Politics of Morality and Conflict

The taboo o­n the emotional/relational world (Scheff 2004) is not limited to laypersons, but occurs to o­nly a slightly lesser extent among experts. Lakoffs (2002) writing o­n the verbal structure ofpolitical messages implies that the public has intense moral responses to leaders, but doesnt get at the underlying emotions and relationships. Beginning steps to linking morality to the emotions that drive it have been taken in the social sciences (Etzioni 1988). There is still along way to go however, since this work treats emotion as an abstraction, and hardly mentions relationships at all. What is needed is to specify the effects of particular emotions and relationships o­n thought and behavior, as I do in the examples in the second half of this essay.

If we include emotion and relationship components, it becomes easier to see how social institutions might play a part in politics. The institution of gender, insofar as it leads to difference between typical male and female management of emotions and relationships, provides o­ne example. When men suppress signs grief, shame and/or fear (the vulnerable emotions), love,and exaggerate anger, either violence or silent withdrawal becomes a likely response to threat.

Boys and men learn that vulnerable feelings are seen as signs of weakness, but anger, even if faked, shows strength. It is possible that hypermasculinity is created by the suppression of the signs of love and the vulnerable emotions, and a tendency toward isolation from others (Scheff 2003).

In Western cultures, at least, most men hide vulnerable feelings, either in silence or violence. Young boys learn first in their families, and later, in school, to suppress the vulnerable emotions they feel. They either maintain silence or explode in anger. The numbing of shame, at the root of conscience, makes men dangerous to others. The numbing of fear, an instinctive signal of danger, makes men dangerous to themselves. The suppression of grief similarly creates long range difficulties in thought, communication, and bonding with others.

Similarly, boys learn to keep their distance from others, standing alone. The emotional/relational world of hypermasculine men is characterized by lack of close bonds to others, the hiding of most emotions, and acting out of anger. The US response to 9/11 can be seen in this way (Hochschild 2003).

Since men usually dominate state and ethnic nationalism, this idea predicts a violent future unless something can be done about understanding the ER/W. It would seem to be necessary to study it in some detail. Are there gradations of repression, or is it all or nothing? Can numbing a single emotion, such as fear, lead to silence/violence, or does it take need to take in all emotions? Does repression of o­ne emotion spread to other emotions? Does the hiding of emotions interfere with social bonds? None of these questions appear to have been directly addressed in the literatures o­n emotion and relationships.

It seems likely that the more a person is backed up o­n o­ne or more of these four emotions, the less they will be able to experience any of them. For example, those who are still suffering from their previous losses (perhaps a majority of adults in modern societies) will be unable to mourn, and wont tolerate mourning in others. This mechanism would create what Volkan (2004) calls the transgenerational transmission of trauma, a key feature of his explanation of continuing enmity between groups. 

It seems clear that in our society the failure to mourn is not just a deficiency of individuals, but part of a society-wide pattern. I have been told by an experienced grief counselor that the mourners social network (colleagues, friends, and family) will support mourning for o­nly a very short time (Retzinger 2004).

The lost of a close relationship may require a year or more of grief work, but most networks become intolerant after a few weeks. Since, as will be discussed below, mourning requires a close relationship (attunement) in which o­ne may confide o­nes thoughts and feelings at length, this limitation usually blocks the completion of mourning. The inability to mourn is institutionalized in modern societies, which effects, in turn, the politics of war and peace.

War, especially gratuitous war, is based largely o­n an us-them mentality. How does such a mentality arise? A relational component, solidarity/alienation, and the hiding of emotions may both be primary causes. Us relationships do not represent true attunement, but engulfment within the us group. That is, they are suffocatingly close within the group, and completely cut off from the enemy. Engulfment within and alienation between groups, in the form of isolation (too much distance), is a vital cause of collective violence, along with repression of emotions.

The confounding of engulfment (us) and solidarity is common in most social science. o­ne notable exception is Eliass work (1987) o­n the relationship between emotion and social structure. His classification of types of social relationships is threefold: independence (isolation: them), dependence (engulfment: us), and interdependence (true solidarity). A threefold classification is also implied in attachment and family system studies also, since they both recognize engulfment, close ties in which o­ne sacrifices vital parts of self in order to be loyal to the relationship. For example, a wife who represses anger and her own point of view in order to support her husband. At the level of nations, this kind of relationship gives rise to the blind trust in leaders, the kind of cognitive impairment suggested by Volkans (2004) idea of collective regression.

Moral Shock: Responses to a War Memorial

The following sections introduce aspects of the E/RW in more detail by naming specific emotions and the relational element, degree of attunement. I have been viewing (and myself feeling) varying states of moral shock regularly for the last year in my anti-war activism in Santa Barbara. Although I had heard about a local war memorial early o­n, it was several months before I visited. Protesting the war in Iraq in Saturday marches, I wasnt in any hurry to see the memorial. Finally I visited o­ne Sunday morning because my friend Bob, o­ne of the veterans at the memorial, was pressing me.

When I got there, he was printing nametags to add to the crosses that make up the memorial, about five hundred at the time. o­n Saturday night, he copies from the Internet the names and other information about U.S. military deaths for the past week in Iraq

The monument itself, dubbed Arlington West after the US military cemetery in Washington, is o­nly temporary, as per city ordinance. Early Sunday mornings the crosses, flags, and other materials are brought to the site and installed by members of the local chapter of the Veterans for Peace. A nametag is then attached to each cross. In the evening, we remove everything, leaving nothing behind.

Each of the crosses, now nearly two thousand, has the name of a US fighter who died in the current Iraq war. Thousands of tourists have walked past, and many have stopped to look at this replica of a military cemetery, now larger than a football field. Some of the strollers talk to us as we stand o­n the beach below the pier, handing out memorial postcards. Some also write their comments in the notebooks we have made available o­n the railing, along with a listing of names of the dead.

The weekly installation and removal of the memorial requires an enormous amount of work, and the dedication of all or part of every Sunday to unpaid labor. Even though they get help from volunteers and passers by, most of the work is done by about a dozen regulars. Why are they working so hard? Perhaps the vividly dramatic responses by some of the strollers sustain the activists.

My own response o­n first visit was intense. When I arrived, Bob had me install some of the nametags he had just made. Crawling in the sand between the crosses, I read the names and ages of the fallen. It was their ages, mostly 18-26, that I couldnt shake off. I was disturbed, but I couldnt tell what I was feeling.

After finishing the stack of nametags, I returned to where Bob was working. He asked if I would do more. I said Let me take a breather; I didnt realize how young I couldnt finish the sentence, silenced by convulsive sobs. Tears streamed down my face. The deep feeling of loss revealed by my fit of crying was probably the reason I had resisted visiting. I hadnt wanted to feel it. Resistance to feeling turned out to be a theme for our visitors also.

In the early weeks of the effort, the group thought of the memorial as a protest against the Iraq war. They soon realized, however,that it had much greater effect if it was not political. What effect does it have?

Responses by Visitors

From the majority driving and walking o­n the pier, many thousands every Sunday, there is little or no response. Most of them dont look, or give o­nly a sidelong glance. Many briefly read some of  the signs, then continue o­n their way. A substantial number, however, stop to look. Most of those who stop are responsive to our greetings. Some of them, unsolicited, read and /or write comments in the notebooks that lay o­n our railing. Although o­nly a small percentage of the passers by, those who stop are still a large number, perhaps three or four hundred each Sunday.

Of this group, there is a small minority o­n which there is no noticeable effect. o­ne of the things they say is to thank us for honoring our brave dead fighting for our freedom. I have learned not to argue. More rarely, I have seen no change whatsoever in persons who come down off the pier to place a flower or photo or to write o­n the nametag of a relative or friend.

I recall o­ne extreme example of those o­n whom the memorial has no effect. The father of a soldier who died in Iraq had come down from the pier. He asked me to help him choose a photo from a large album to put o­n his sons marker. I saw many pictures, beginning in infancy. When we came to a photo of his son in uniform, a handsome young teenager, just before his death, I began to cry.


Father (surprised): Whats the matter?

Me: I was wondering if the war in Iraq is worth the death of your son.

Father: (Again surprised). But we had to do something.

Me: Why is that?


Me: But Iraq had nothing to do with 9/11.

Father: Well, theyre all Moslems.

I was shocked into speechlessness. Another vet who had overheard sought to explain, but the father seemed impervious. Like most of those who support the war, he was locked into a rigid us-them stance.

In the early days of the memorial, there were a substantial number of strollers who were suspicious of the memorial, or overtly angry about it. Lately the number of the impervious, skeptical or angry about it has fallento close to zero. Most of those who stop for even a short time to talk to us or write in the notebooks seem transformed by the experience. Some of the excerpts from the notebooks hint at what has happened to them.

  There are many comments that indicate strong feelings. Here a few examples:

Very emotional and touching; I am profoundly touched by this thoughtful display; Beautiful and touching! Wow, I cant even express what I feel when I see this, and many similar comments.

Some of the comments about feelings also imply a reason for them: 

Thank you for showing us what a tragedy the war is. These crosses really bring it home Seeing this brings a face to war, not just headlines.  Thank you from my heart. We must remain conscious of our losses.  Thank you for being our conscience, for waking us up Thank you for keep us in touch; and Thank you for jarring me into realityits so easy to forget This makes it real.  Thank you for being a voice for conscience. [We need] reminders that the numbers are real people

These comments, and many others like them, suggest strong feelings are elicited by the memorial and also the reason for them. Seeing and talking to those who stop gives a more detailed picture of their responses.

A few have immediate emotional reactions o­n their own, without any contact with us. I have seen many women, and o­ne man, crying all alone by the rail. Most reactions, however are somewhat delayed. Here is an example.

A young blond in a flowery dress stops to look at the crosses and the leaves of the fallen. As she surveys the memorial, the smile o­n her face fades. She is obviously puzzled:

Stroller: Which war?

Me: Iraq. (This is a common question. Perhaps she is unsure because most the vets she sees below her are obviously too old to have fought in Iraq, even in the Gulf War. They are mostly veterans of the Vietnam war, but a few, like me, the Korean war.) She scans the memorial and the leaves of the fallen again.

Stroller: What for?

Me: To honor our dead.

Then she took a long hard look at the memorial. During this time emotion began to work in her face: first surprise and shock, then sadness. She cries intensely with tears streaming down her face. Then she said the thought that caused surprise: I didnt realize how many have died. I have seen similar reactions and heard similar statements many times over. Women cry at this point, and men reach into their pocket to contribute money. Although the men dont cry, I can see sadness in their face in varying degrees.

This effect was also caught by Santa Barbara man, Richard Anderson, who took the trouble to write to the local newspaper at length about it: This is an excerpt from his letter of 9/13/ 04:    

Walking out into the memorial for the first time, I found myself overwhelmed with grief. o­ne thousand casualties is just a number. o­ne thousand crosses, with names and dates, will drive you to your knees like a sledgehammer

Notice that this testimony names a specific emotion, grief, which is very unusual. Among the hundreds of  comments in our notebooks for the strollers (like the examples above), I have never seen a specific emotion named.  Although I have seen some of the strollers crying while they were writing, explicit reference to crying is never made. In our society, we usually dont talk about specific emotions and their intense effects o­n us, and when we do, o­nly by implication and indirection. In the present case, Anderson also seems to refer to crying (overwhelmed by grief) but o­nly indirectly. As will be discussed below, this reticence also occurs in a similar fashion even in the scholarly literature o­n emotions.

Like me before I visited the memorial, Andersons feelings about the war, and those of the others affected by the memorial, had been asleep. The memorial woke us up. Even if had just been o­ne person, the effort would have been rewarding. But because of the memorial, it has struck a large number of people, perhaps thousands. It is these strong reactions, it seems to me, that sustains the veterans willingness to labor away their Sundays.

The role of the awakening of hidden feeling in political transformation is implied in Shakespeares Julius Caesar. Against the advice of the other conspirators, Brutus has allowed Mark Anthony, Caesars friend, to speak at Caesars funeral. By his artful portrayal of Caesar, he makes him live again in the minds and hearts of the listeners. Anthony is able to connect with the mob. He then rouses them to feel grief over Caesars death, leading to revolt against the conspirators. The first step occurs when the mob follows Anthonys advice:  If you have tears, prepare to shed them now. The uncovering of hidden grief leads to revolt against the status quo.

The responses of the strollers to the war memorial can be used to illustrate the emotional/relational structure of o­ne  type of moral shock, as I have observed it  from beneath the pier. The first specific emotion that occurs in the face of the stroller is surprise. Surprise is always the emotion of transition from o­ne mood to another. In this respect, it is like the clutch in a truck for shifting gears. If a joke is to produce laughter, it always involve surprise.

The crucial moment o­n the pier occurs when the stroller asks about the purpose of the memorial: Whats it for? I say To honor our dead. I learned that any other answer, such as To protest an unjust war,  would usually give rise to a cognitive, rather than an emotional response. The response I give serves to unite, rather than to divide us: we both want to honor our dead. We become momentarily attuned in our respect for the dead.

So in addition to surprise,  a change in attitude must also involve a relational element, attunement. I think that this is the reason that most of the intense responses I have seen are delayed: for most people, deeply hidden feelings can be accessed o­nly when they feel attuned to at least o­ne other person. Being attuned, rather than isolated, provides the security needed to access emotions that are anticipated as extremely painful, if not unbearable. Note that in my own first day at the memorial, described above,my own response was delayed until I spoke to Bob, my colleague.

In this moment of attunement, no matter the political stance, o­ne is suddenly able to feel at least some of the grief that has been covered over until now. Until this moment, o­ne knew about the loss of lives o­nly intellectually, without feeling it. Understanding a situation in a new way involves three steps: surprise, attunement, and feeling a hidden emotion. In this case, the emotion is grief. If art involves the awakening of hidden emotions, than the Iraq war memorial, like the Vietnam memorial in Washington, is a work of art.

Cindy Sheehan, the mother of a soldier who died in Iraq, was first radicalized by her visit to AW. o­n Mothers Day, 2004, she had come from her home in Northern California to visit the marker of her son. She told a reporter that after crying in front of her sons cross for some time: Im finished crying for Casey. Im crying for all the other mothers. (Santa Barbara News-Press, August 15, 2005, p. A4). Her attempt to talk to Bush during his vacation in Texas has propelled her into being the most prominent activist against the war.

Exploitation vs. Uncovering of Emotions

The Bush regime has exploited the fear elicited by the 9/11 attack. Rather than helping people work through their fear through public rituals, the regime has helped the public cover its fear under angry aggression directed at Iraq and other purported enemies. It is a common tactic of governments to help their supporters disguise vulnerable emotions through false pride and aggression.

Yet emotions can be mobilized in the opposite way, helping rather than hindering the process of working through. o­ne example was discussed above: the uncovering of the strollers hidden grief in response to viewing the war memorials, perhaps a crucial step away from war or passivity.

The experience of the Chinese Communists in mobilized the peasants for their revolution seems to support this idea. They used political theatre and other psychological means to awake the peasants from their passive stance toward the way the traditional Chinese society had oppressed them. The following is a description by a Western reporter from the early days of revolutionary activity:

As the tragedy of this poor peasant's family unfolded, the women around me wept openly and unashamedly. o­n every side, as I turned to look, tears were coursing down their faces. No o­ne sobbed, no o­ne cried out, but all wept together in silence. The agony o­n the stage seemed to have unlocked a thousand painful memories, a bottomless reservoir of suffering that no o­ne could controlAs that cry carried out across the field, the women, huddled o­ne against the other in their dark padded jackets, shuddered as if stirred by a gust of wind, and something like a sigh moved in a wave from the front to the back of the multitudeAt that moment I became aware of a new quality in the reaction of the audience. Men were weeping, and I along with them.(Hinton 1997, pp. 314-15)

Mass weeping seems to be a step toward change. There is also a pressing need for the uncovering of two other vulnerable emotions in addition to grief, shame and fear. Freud mentioned o­nly the grief work that is necessary to work through the loss of an important relationship. As it turns out, fear work and shame work are just as important. 9/11 probably created more unacknowledged fear and shame than unacknowledged grief.

Is there also need for anger work? Probably not. Psychotherapists have long known that anger is o­nly a secondary emotion. That is, underlying most anger is what psychotherapists call hurt. They mean that anger is used to cover up the hurt that clients want to avoid since they sense it might be unbearably painful. However, hurt usually turns out to be a combination of the vulnerable emotions, grief, fear, and shame. For most men, the fear component seems difficult to access. For both men and women, shame also seems to be well hidden. When the vulnerable emotions are worked through, however, anger fades to nearly zero. How could steps be taken to uncover hidden vulnerable emotions in a whole society?

One step in this direction would be an adequate apology for the part we all play in mass violence, if o­nly by our passive acceptance of it. Since a genuine apology could touch the basic hidden emotions, it might mark the beginning of the kind of national mourning needed to avoid further acting out of anger. Here is an outline for such an apologetic mantra in regard to 911. With its emphasis o­n shame and guilt, this mantra would be particularly necessary for men, since their training to be protectors would make many of them feel a vague sense of responsibility about 9/11.





In addition to uncovering our own emotions, such a statement might encourage world leaders to apologize to their people also. Not just Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld and Rice, but also Osana Ben Laden and any other leaders who are acting like gang members rather than rational adults.

To this point, virtually all anti-war activism has been in the form of protest and argument. It now seems to me that this format is usually not effective, and except under unusual circumstances, may even be counterproductive. The thesis of this essay has been that what may be needed are rituals that uncover the vulnerable emotions and create secure social bonds.


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_______________2004. (Personal communication)

Scheff, T. J. 1994. Bloody Revenge: Emotion, Nationalism and War. Westview Press (Reissued by iUniverse 2000)

___________1997. Emotions and the Social Bond. Cambridge: Cambridge U. Press.

___________2002. The Emotional/Relational World:  Handbook of Sociological Theory. J. H. Turner (Editor). Kluwer/Plenum.

­2003. Male Emotions and Violence: A Case Study. Human Relations, 56: 727-749.

__________ 2005. Looking Glass Self: Goffman as Symbolic Interactionist  Symbolic Interaction     28 (2), 147-166.

­­­Stern, Daniel. 1977. The First Relationship. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

­­­Volkan, V. D. 2004. Blind Trust: Large Groups and Their Leaders in Times of Crisis and Terror. Charlottesville, Virginia: Pitchstone Publishing.

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