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Atrocity denial and emotions in the Ethiopian civil war

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Ethiopian Flag under a partly cloudy sky
Michael Woldemariam, Yilma Woldgabreal, "Atrocity denial and emotions in the Ethiopian civil war," Aggression and Violent Behavior, Volume 73, 2023, 101875, ISSN 1359-1789,

What is the relationship between atrocity denial and emotion in violent ethnic conflict? Atrocity denial is often anchored in instrumental calculations, as it facilitates implicated parties escaping legal and political accountability; yet it is also a phenomenon tethered to personal and mass emotions in important ways. Freud's classic intuition that denial arises from a subconscious desire to suppress painful emotions resonates specifically in the context of atrocity denial, since association with morally reprehensible acts can generate difficult sentiments of shame, guilt, and remorse that perpetrators and their constituents would prefer to avoid. Atrocity denial conventionally understood is thus a defense mechanism, designed to blunt distressing emotions, and its effect on violence is permissive—neutralizing the uncomfortable emotive sentiments that might otherwise constrain conflict in the future.

Using the case of the Ethiopian civil war, we argue that this classic conception of the atrocity denial-emotion nexus misses an important dimension. Atrocity denial blunts certain emotional responses, but appeals to emotion as well, including the very emotions that cause and sustain violent ethnic conflict. Careful analysis of two specific alleged atrocities committed in the course of the war—the Mai Kadra massacre and the ethnic of cleansing of Tigrayans in Western Tigray—and the corresponding denial narratives of the various parties to the conflict, highlight the ways in which emotions such as hatred, fear, and resentment are consistently invoked in denial accounts. Atrocity denial is thus not simply an act of defense via emotional supression, but through emotional appeals, constitutive of political violence itself.

Keywords: Atrocity denial; Emotions; Ethiopia; Conflict; Civil war; Violence

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