October 02, 2007


Caption: These goats are ripe for scaping.

The guiding thread through this week's Goat Rope is social conflict and how it can either hold groups together or tear them apart (along with links and items about current events). If this is your first visit, please click on yesterday's post.

Sociologist Lewis Coser noted in his Functions of Social Conflict that feelings of hostility naturally arise in the course of social interaction and that sometimes these erupt into conflict. When that happens, conflict can often help hold groups together by strengthening their sense of identity and group boundaries. It can also help clear the air and establish better ways of dealing with problems. But sometimes it can result in the disintegration of the group.

Most societies have developed "safety valves" that allow conflict and hostile feelings to be expressed without threatening the overall structure. For example, while dueling seems pretty weird to us today, it did place limits on physical aggression and created elaborate rules for settling "affairs of honor."

Sometimes festivals such as carnival (ancestor of Mardi Gras), the theater and other forms of entertainment allow social norms to be relaxed and let people either act out a little or express themselves. Even jokes and humor can be an outlet for social tensions. As Freud once said,

Wit is used with special preference as a weapon of attack or criticism of superiors who claim to be in authority. Wit then serves as a resistance against such authority and an escape from its pressures.

As Coser notes,

The outcrop of political jokes in totalitarian countries bears witness to this, as does the statement attributed to Goebbels that the Nazi regime actually welcomed political jokes since they provided harmless outlets for hostilities.

Sometimes conflict is displaced, to use language from psychoanalysis. If it's too risky to attack powerful groups in a society, people often blame or scapegoat others. Witch hunts, literal or metaphorical, serve the same purpose.

Probably a great deal of bigotry, racism, xenophobia, prejudice, and similar phenomena are examples of displaced frustration, which can be deadly in their consequences.

Even when it doesn't go that far, Coser warns that displacement can be risky. They

involve costs both for the social system and for the individual: reduced pressure for modifying the system to meet changing conditions, as well as dammed-up tension in the individual, creating potentialities for disruptive explosion.

Displacement, unfortunately, has all too often been a major factor in politics here as elsewhere--examples could include the bashing of welfare mothers, gays, minorities, or others--and it usually serves as a distraction that keeps people from working for changes that would improve the quality of life for the majority of people.

Next time: realistic and unrealistic conflict.

SPEAKING OF CONFLICT, here's the latest report from the Coalition on Human Needs about the showdown with Bush over CHIP.

CANDLELIGHT VIGIL TONIGHT IN BIG CREEK in support of Megan Williams. For details from the Logan Banner, click here. Here's a little more on the subject from the Gazette.

NEXT STOP? Here's Seymour Hersh on the Bush administration's Iran plans.

TRIGGER HAPPY. It looks like the folks at Blackwater have been busier than some people thought.



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