One of my Teachers College Essays: The Battle of Algiers

Some friends have asked me what I’m working on at Columbia Teachers College. In my Conflict Resolution course (part of the Social Organizational Psychology department) with Peter Coleman (see below) I wrote this essay about the topic of conflict in the film The Battle of Algiers

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Rhythmic Cries: A Cross-Cultural Analysis of the Battle of Algiers

In the film The Battle of Algiers, an understandably frightened member of the French military during the Algerian war of independence in the late 1950s memorably refers to the “unintelligible and frightening rhythmic cries” uttered by the cascading crowd of demonstrating and revolting Algerians. One wonders: unintelligible and frightening for whom? Not, presumably, for the revolting Algerians, for whom the sounds were probably associated with catharsis, liberation and social justice. Thus, as I will argue and explore here, one might say that almost any conflict is at least as much a tension between opposing or contrasting perspectives as it is between opposing realities.

The Battle of Algiers is ideally suited for deep reflection and analysis of topics related to power, conflict, conflict resolution and related topics. The film has “stood the test of time,” proving to be relevant to some of the deepest and most problematic conflicts inflaming our world today. The United States Pentagon held showings of the film in the early days of current Iraq War. Insurgency movements use it as part of their training. Topics that it addresses—such as terrorism, torture and the nature of conflict—are deeply relevant to today’s geo-political realities.

One of the many perspectives from which The Battle of Algiers proves ideal for analyzing conflict is social-cultural. The film, especially as viewed through the eyes of experts on cross-cultural issues, sends a message to those interested in conflict and peace: learn how to be cultural integrators who sew a quilt of peaceful co-existence, or risk being swept up in a vicious cycle of cultural prejudice, distrust, conflict, aggression, war.

In Conflict Formulation: Going Beyond Culture-bound Views of Conflict, G.E. Faure claims that a society’s “underlying meaning is provided by culture” and that “culture is not just one variable in the methodology of conflict studies, but rather the law of variation of the methodology of conflict studies…Conflict as a concept is laden with cultural bias…. It is perceived, defined and dealt with differently (in each culture) and thus culturally rooted.” Faure explains how different cultures capture the notion of conflict and conflict resolution differently depending on their cultural context, offering the fascinating example of the New Guinean Cargo Cult of the 1950s and how fixed their cultural explanation was of the hidden meanings that explained their plight as a colonized and oppressed people.

The degree to which the Algerians and French were entrenched in their explanations of their conflict is similar. The Algerians had a relationship to their 130 years of colonization that was unique to their cultural perspective. They had many generations of “intellectual capture” of aspects of their French colonizers. The film does a remarkable job of showing the many misunderstandings and misinterpretations that both sides had regarding each other. In the same sense that the New Guinean Cargo Cult leader could not be convinced of the Australian “truth” even when presented with “evidence” on his trip to Sydney, the culture of the Algerians served as a filter through which they experienced the French colonial policies and vice-versa. The most striking example of the filter through which the French dealt with the Algerians occurs when the French military leader describes the nature of Algerian resistance using crude geometric drawings forming a long, tree-like structure. He uses the analogy of a “tapeworm” to describe the organizational structure of the Algerian resistance, which reinforces his assertion that the tapeworm’s “head must be cut off.” This way of framing the Algerian organization contributes to the acceptance of the French military perspective that they must interrogate and torture the Algerian members of this “tapeworm.” The French military leader says that they must “know” the opposing structure to be able to eliminate it: “To know them is to eliminate them.” This statement is profoundly dehumanizing, for the Algerian independence fighters become, in the mind of the French military, more like pieces of a worm than human beings.

Another way in which cultural misunderstandings and misinterpretations hijack conflict resolution is through what Kimmel calls “Fundamental Attribution Error,” in which perceived negative behaviors are attributed to personality. These negative attributes inevitably lead to negative emotions (in the victimized people) and to increased perceived negative behaviors, which in turn lead to further negative attributes, resulting in a vicious cycle. In The Battle of Algiers the French media clumsily label the Algerians as illiterate, brick-laying, draft dodgers in need of “serious reform.” Like many oppressive colonial powers, most French military officials looked through the prism of their own culture and callously degraded the Algerians. According to Kimmel, it is just this sort of negative attribution that served as a filter through which the Algerians began to exhibit behaviors that reinforced the French interpretation of the negative attributes that were applied to them, and thus the vicious circle continued. In one of the more extraordinary scenes in the film, an Algerian intellectual responds to the questions of reporters in such a way that he calls into question the labeling by the media of Algerian bombings by three women as an act of “cowardice.” He challenges the reporter’s use of this term by asking how it compares to the French military’s use of napalm to kill innocent civilians in Vietnam. The fact that this film includes Vietnam in its narrative speaks even more deeply to its relevance to U.S. policies toward other cultures.

M. J. Gelfand, L. H. Nishii and J. L. Raver explain yet another way in which cultural differences play a central role in conceptualizing conflict. Their conceptual model is called “Cultural Tightness-Looseness.” This model addresses cultural bias from the notion that what we often attribute to a value system inside the mind of a person is actually more accurately understood according to the external factors that the authors call tightness (strength of social norms and sanctioning) or looseness (weakness of social norms and sanctioning). The Battle of Algiers can be seen as providing an exploration of this phenomenon. In some of the most poignant scenes of the film, we witness the effect of the Algerians’ cultural call for all citizens to give up alcohol, drugs, prostitution and other behaviors that are deemed in their culture to be ethically and morally reprehensible. In this sense the film shows the “cultural tightness” of the society, the manifestation of which is that those who lie outside the moral norm are taunted and chased through the streets by their own people. The larger purpose of this moral crackdown was to keep the resistance, appropriately, tight—meaning well organized and streamlined. According to the perspective of those who promoted this view within Algerian society, only by upholding a high standard of morality could the Algerian resistance weed out those who were not truly committed to its cause. This dynamic, if the French had been attentive enough to understand it, might have contributed to resolving conflict more effectively: declaring a shared goal (for example, improving ethical and moral behavior of all persons) could have served as a potential bridge and thus provided negotiating points between the French and Algerians.

Finally, J.P. Lederach’s Preparing for Peace: Conflict Transformation Across Cultures provides another model for conceptualizing conflict. Lederach suggests that there is a “dialectic and paradoxical component” in conflict transformation. He suggests that there is even “some positive potential to conflict” in the sense that “the energy of seemingly irreconcilable ideas are enhanced if they are held together.” In this model, “peace and conflict can go hand in hand, setting the context for each other.”

It was through Lederach’s discussion of this paradoxical conflict dialectic that I was able to draw the most inspiration and insight from The Battle of Algiers. Lederach’s writings enhanced my understanding of the scene in which Algerian prisoners cry out to Allah, as well as the scene showing the wild-eyed inspiration that the adults felt when the boy took the microphone from the French propaganda officer and assured the Algerians that they were doing the “right thing” in revolting. In both of these scenes I sensed short-term conflict within a transformative container. Most of all, however, Lederach helped me to understand—in greater depth—the scene in which the Algerians made noises that the Frenchman called “unintelligible and frightening rhythmic cries” as they spontaneously (and rhythmically!) broke through the French military barriers. In this scene the Algerians seemed to embody the raw transformative power described Lederach’s dialectic—a kind of paradox of conflict transformation. In those moments conflict was not necessarily a bad thing. It was not necessarily something to be avoided. Rather, conflict was part of the deeper “conflict/peace” dialectic that Lederach describes, conflict and peace magnetically interconnected with the energy of the other in the name of a deeper transformation of society and thus history. From this perspective, the “unintelligible and frightening rhythmic cries” may have been unintelligible to most of the French occupiers; to many of the Algerians, however, they were the intelligible rhythmic cries of transformative change and liberation.

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2 Responses to “One of my Teachers College Essays: The Battle of Algiers”

  1. A motivating discussion is worth comment.
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