Hatred Is Not Stronger Than Bonds

Social Relationships, Aversion to Harm, and Relational Exceptionalism

in Social Analysis
Author:
Jean-Philippe Belleau Associate Professor, University of Massachusetts Boston, USA Jeanphilippe.belleau@umb.edu

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Abstract

One of the most disturbing phenomena during episodes of mass violence concerns individuals who hated a specific group and harmed some of its members while making exceptions for people they had a relationship with. A preexisting social tie, not moral consciousness, produces this aversion to harming a party to the relationship, even if rescuing vulnerable individuals contradicts personal beliefs, orders, or group loyalty. Hatred is stronger than bonds only when the latter are weak, fraught, or missing in the first place. I call this phenomenon relational exceptionalism. Bringing the anthropological literature on interpersonal relationships to bear on studies of mass violence, this article illustrates that to trigger relational exceptionalism, a relationship requires not reciprocity, trust, obligations, affinities, or nearness, but a degree of autonomy.

Any research starts with a state of perplexity. The reflection for this article had two. The first occurred while noticing recent trends in mass violence studies. While the first studies of genocides after the Second World War sketched vast analyses, identifying patterns and causalities across sites of perpetration and even countries (e.g., Arendt 1951; Fein 1979; Hilberg 1961), for the past two decades scholars have focused on the microlevel of perpetration, notably on what civilians can do to their neighbors. Jan Gross's Neighbors (2002) initiated this ‘neighborly turn’ of mass violence studies in a seminal work on the mass killing of Jews in Jedwabne, a Polish town under German occupation in 1941. With a microlevel approach, Gross argues, we realize that it was the Polish population that went after and killed their Jewish neighbors—hence the book's title—not the Nazi occupiers. Since then, historians (Bartov 2018; Dumas 2014; Foa 2021; Sémelin 2009; Zipperstein 2018), political scientists (Fuji 2009; Kopstein and Wittenberg 2018), and psychologists (Esses and Vernon 2008; Hewston et al. 2008) have argued that mass killings can be carried out by the victims’ intimates—whether during pogroms in the European borderlands in the twentieth century or genocides in Rwanda and ex-Yugoslavia. This scholarship argues that civilians from one ethno-religious group can carry out ethnic cleansing and massacres against their own neighbors; people have killed, and sometimes reveled in killing, people they knew. The figure of the ‘neighbor’ therefore emerges from this approach as a major figure of perpetration. Esses and Vernon (2008: 1–2) even contend that being a neighbor increases the probability of turning into a perpetrator, adding that it is

a sad and a surprising fact that humans are capable of discounting the suffering of those they know well and of directly inflicting the cruelest forms of suffering upon them. But the evidence for it is clear.

But is it? There is ample evidence that some or even many civilians, under the pressure of political incitement to hate, ‘brainwashing,’ and fear have engaged in killing people who lived nearby or in the same region—yes. However, the evidence, I have argued in another piece in which I surveyed this scholarship in more detail (Belleau 2022), is much weaker in showing that victims and their killers shared actual bonds. As an anthropologist, and one focused on sociality for that matter, I looked for ‘thick descriptions’ of social ties, but instead found rather succinct descriptions of relatedness between perpetrators and victims (‘an acquaintance,’ ‘a classmate,’ ‘someone he knew’).1 The verb ‘to know’ emerges in particular as a ubiquitous terminological tool to qualify ties between killers and victims. Jewish victims of pogroms recognized someone's face in the rampaging mob; members of mobs that committed pogroms knew the locations of Jewish houses, and sometimes knew the names of their occupants.2 Yet to know someone by face or by name is not an evidence of a bond, and a connection is not the same as a social relationship. What kind of bonds exactly did victims and perpetrators share before violence erupted? There is no denial that among the perpetrators of pogroms were people who knew their victims. Some also refused to rescue their endangered neighbors, as Kopstein and Wittenberg (2018: 16) and Bartov (2018: 271) show. The Rwandan genocide itself is characterized by the participation of civilians who carried out killings within their immediate region and also knew many of the victims. What made survival so uncertain for the hunted Tutsi was precisely that the Hutus in the Interhamwe often knew about them, in particular where they lived. Some had been their classmates, acquaintances, or had had transactional encounters with them. Yet the evidence (Dumas 2014; Fuji 2009) also shows that many social ties across the ethnic divide had become considerably fraught even before the start of the genocide. This is particularly true of the mixed families Dumas mentions: Hutu in-laws deeply resented the Tutsi spouses of their kin and in two cases at least attempted to murder them years before the start of the genocide. These were social relationships, yes, but they were particularly fraught.

The term ‘neighbors’ often appears in this scholarship as what Lévi-Strauss (1987: 63) called “a floating signifier”: a ubiquitous term that functions more as a catchphrase than a reflexive and critical one, melting types of social ties and actual distances between neighbors. Used liberally to qualify people who live in the same villages, the same towns, sometimes the same region, somewhere ‘nearby,’ ‘neighbors’ become almost equivalent to ‘society.’ Yet vicinity is not sociality. Most importantly, sociometrics are required to explore types of ties and how they weather, or not, violent liminality. By liminality, I simply mean to put under one single umbrella the type of events described here (genocide, ethnic cleansing, or increased political tensions usually linked to outside events such as conflicts, etc.), in opposition to times of peace, where bonds across an ethnic divide are generally more benign. By asserting that with the right dosage of ideology people can massively kill people they had until then shared bonds with, this scholarship tends to spectacularize the breakdown of social violations. It converges toward one implicit conclusion with considerable implications: no bond is strong enough to prevent one party to the bond from harming the other party.

Anthropologists who address ethnic cleansing in the intercommunal neighborhoods and villages where they have carried out fieldwork show considerably more nuanced ethnographic results than the scholarship of the ‘neighborly turn’ that describes neighbors turning into fanatical, heartless killers.3 Loizos (1981), Bringa (1995), Kolind (2008), Henig (2012), and Akarturk (2013) provide scales of complexities, particularly in terms of social relationships and perpetration. Loizos (1981) and Akarturk (2013), reflecting from two different sides on the same ethnic cleansing of a Cypriot village that Turks and Christians used to share, point at the immense sense of loss and resentment that populates the refugees’ discourse and memories today. Yet, during the 1974 conflict, Turkish villagers helped their neighbors in the Turkish-dominated hamlet of Trachonas, while in the Christian-dominated village of Argaki, Greek Cypriots hid their endangered Turkish neighbors (Akarturk 2013: 152–153; Loizos 1981: 70–71).4 Michael Herzfeld (1991: 81–129), in a seminal ethnography of a Cretan coastal town, stated that before the island's independence, when Turkish families lived there, intercommunal relations were generally tense. Yet during the war against the Turks in the late nineteenth century, when antagonism between the two groups was at its highest, the Christian Cretans refused to kill their vulnerable Turkish neighbors even though they had been ordered to (ibid.: 95). Bringa (1995), Henig (2012), and Kolind (2008) studied Bosnian Muslim communities deeply victimized by ethnic cleansing and genocide in the early 1990s, which they evoke without sensationalism. Relations across the ethno-religious divide before the 1990s come out as ranging from benign to good, even if they could occasionally be tense; in the midst of conflict and ethnic cleansing, these relations deteriorated rapidly. Yet Kolind's (2008: 149–184) Muslim interlocutors believe that those “who did this to us” were “Others” (sic), Croats from the nearby countryside, people without culture (“nekultura”) who later moved in to appropriate Muslims’ properties and belongings (ibid.: 149)—not the Croats from the town (their ex-neighbors), who are granted a moral place (ibid.: 165–169). Bringa (1995: xvi) mentions that once the Bosnian Croat military forces had moved into the town, several locals “joined in,” without elaborating.5 All state indeed that some locals, Croats or Serbs, eventually joined in when outside military forces moved in; none evoke intimates or friends participating in the violence against their neighbors and all stress that potentially antagonist neighboring groups shared and still share a place in each other's moral aspirations.6 It is a far stretch from neighbors killing neighbors.

The second starting point was an intriguing fact uncovered during my own research on a massacre of elites in a small Haitian town in 1964 (Belleau forthcoming). At first, I had believed what the historiography was saying: upper- and middle-class families were dragged out of their houses by a mob and slaughtered by their own neighbors (e.g., Chassagne 1979; Pierre-Charles 2013). Only after interviewing witnesses to the executions and finding primary sources did I realize that this narrative was inaccurate: the massacre had been committed by the military under order from the president at the time, François Duvalier. No civilian, no inhabitant, no ‘neighbor’ was involved in the execution of 27 people. It was a state crime. I also found out that the local population, even those who resented the upper class, actually evaded participation—in spite of their fear of the regime. I had first taken the epistemological route of anomie, the breakdown of social institutions and social bonds, only to realize that the bonds had actually held and likely minimized the scope of the killing.

If social bonds hold when antagonisms and hatred are at the highest and the rule of law has collapsed, are they violable in the first place? This article argues that they are not. Interpersonal relationships are causal to and predict inhibitions against harming a party to the relationship. I call this phenomenon relational exceptionalism. It is evidenced when obligations, particularly group solidarity, obedience, and incitement to hate, may require individuals to harm those who belong to the group constructed as the enemy and with whom they have a relationship. To illustrate this phenomenon, Figure 1 heuristically proposes two axes: one of sociality, going from negative relationships (more on this further) and the smallest of connections to the strongest of bonds; another axis shows behavior during violent liminality, going from the gravest act of perpetration (killing), on one end, to relational exceptionalism on the other. Locations of encounters between the two axes provide a type of relationship and either a social violation or a form of inhibition. A scale of social violations coincides with a scale of ethical inhibitions. The most unlikely act is therefore the act of killing an intimate. Social bonds, I argue, should predict most behaviors in times of violent liminality. In this sense, bonds are foundational to ethics. There are of course other causalities to aversion to harm and to ethical behavior in general, especially beliefs and values. Yet there is a point of no return in the social life of a relationship, when a connection turns into a bond and the bond becomes inviolable. This threshold of course varies in space, time, individual history, immediate context, the level of intimacy, and a crowd of contingencies.7 Yet relational exceptionalism—the inhibitions against harming a person one has a relationship with—is a property of interpersonal relationships. In this regard, I propose that violating social bonds is cognitively analog to the incest taboo. Violating bonds is possible, and it indeed happens, but it is extremely rare—such violations are possible mainly by individuals often diagnosed as sociopathic and do not happen in large patterns (see Buss 2005). To recognize the reality, no matter how rare, of incest is not to deny the universality of its taboo; I argue that the same thing can be said about relational exceptionalism.

Figure 1:
Figure 1:

Relational exceptionalism.

Citation: Social Analysis 67, 1; 10.3167/sa.2023.670103

I had first assumed that the causality between social bonds and aversion to harm was ordinary and that a concept was available, somewhere, to describe this. Rather, the opposite notion that intimacy is fraught with danger dominates the literature, starting with the story of Cain and Abel, Sophocles's plays, and the Mahabharata, where all wars are fratricidal. Freud famously put the Leviathan in the private sphere—a vibrant tradition to this day in social psychology.8 Neither physical nearness (between people) nor time spent together necessarily makes a bond strong. As Weber (1978: 27) counterintuitively suspected, relationships can be both fleeting and strong. What, then, allows trust to unconsciously set in if it is not repeated encounters? What triggers relational exceptionalism?

In order to analyze the dynamics of relational exceptionalism, this article provides a detailed anthropological reflection on social relationships and their properties. After briefly addressing questions pertaining to social psychology and ethics, it examines the causal connection between social bonds and aversion to harm by reflecting on the ‘social’ part of the equation, which I believe holds the key property at work. I purposely chose unsavory individuals whose punctual actions contradicted to a large extent their personal beliefs and general behavior. I then review concepts and arguments that articulate sociality and aversion to harm before exploring the scope and content of social relationships, especially the ways that a relationship's autonomy—rather than, say, reciprocity, nearness, or affinities—trigger relational exceptionalism.

‘The Kindness of a Murderer’

In her nuanced ethnography of social bonds during the Rwandan genocide, Ann Fuji (2009: 139–147) tells a peculiar story. At the beginning of the events, three Tutsi friends trying to escape certain death joined an Interahamwe9 and participated in its actions, although they did not personally kill or commit atrocities. Joining it saved their lives. The other members of that Interahamwe, all Hutus moved by a deep hatred of Tutsis, were aware of their identity. Yet they accepted the three young Tutsis because they had been their childhood friends. “[T]ies of friendship could in certain circumstances trump the salience of a person's ethnic identity . . . In these moments, ties of friendship clearly mediated between the script for genocide and people's strategies and actions” (ibid.: 143). For Fuji, Interahamwe members who saved Tutsis always shared social ties with them: “Ties of friendship . . . led Joiners to help Tutsis they had known as longtime friends or neighbors when circumstances allowed” (ibid.: 153).

Similar accounts of ‘murderer-rescuers’ appear in personal memoirs of genocide survivors. Immaculée Ilibagiza (2006), who authored an extraordinarily precise and poignant account of ties between perpetrators and victims, told a similar story. Her account also highlights the fluidity of behaviors. Perpetrators rescued, rescuers betrayed, bystanders turned into perpetrators and vice versa; even Hutu rescuers expressed a deep hatred of Tutsis; people were moved at once by self-preservation and empathy, calculation and hatred, beliefs and evasion. People shifted from a neat analytical category (bystander, perpetrator, etc.) to another in seconds, and back, especially as fear fatigue exhausted ethical stands. However, these behavioral changes were predominantly based on relationships and on how relationships affected calculations.

One of the most disconcerting behaviors was that of Hutus hiding Tutsis they were friends with and yet going every day on a killing rampage in other villages. At the beginning of the killings, Immaculée sees Kayego, “a good [Hutu] friend of my father's” (Ilibagiza 2006: 121), machete in hand, in the middle of a murderous marching mob. Suddenly Kayego recognizes her in medias res, leaves the mob, rushes to her, and saves her. In another story, Jean-Paul, a Tutsi, explains to Immaculée that he and his brother survived because of “the kindness of a murderer” (ibid.: 230), his Hutu friend Laurent, who hid them in his house:

Laurent would wake us to say good morning every day, then go out and spend hours hunting Tutsis with the people who killed my family. When he'd come back in the evening and make supper, I'd see flecks of blood on his hands and clothes, which he just couldn't wash off. Our lives were in his hands, so we couldn't say anything. I don't understand how people can do good and evil at the same time. (Ilibagiza 2006: 231)

Immaculée also tells Florence's story:

She stumbled to the nearest house where some kind Hutus took her in, dressed her wounds, and hid her. “Even though they saved my life,” she [tells Immaculée], “their son left the house every morning, met with the Interahamwe, and kept killing Tutsis in my town until there were none left to kill. Nothing makes sense to me anymore, Immaculée.” (Ilibagiza 2006: 253)

In her account, those engaged in the very act of killing appeared never to have had an interpersonal relationship with their immediate victims. A close reading of Fuji (2009), Dumas (2014), and Hatzfeld (2005) reveals the same pattern. There is ample evidence also that many perpetrators and bystanders knew or knew of the victims during pogroms in the European borderlands, as shown in the introduction. A heuristic of sociometrics reveals that relationships between perpetrators and victims evoked in these historical ethnographies were made of connections or acquaintanceships—people they knew or knew of—and more often of no ties at all. To a very large extent, Rwanda's was a ‘weak ties’ genocide, and pogroms in the European borderlands were massacres of even weaker ties—not strong bonds.10

The logics of interpersonal relationships may also explain the disconcerting stories of Hitler's relationships to two Jewish physicians, Eduard Bloch and Karl Kroner, documented by medical historian George Weisz (2014). Bloch had cared for Hitler's mother, Klara, until her death of cancer. Weisz provides several evidences of an interpersonal relationship between Hitler and Bloch: a postcard from Hitler, eye contact when Hitler is parading through Linz after the Anschluss while Bloch watches him from his window, and anecdotes told by witnesses. “Dr. Bloch and his family were given special privileges that were probably not accorded to any other Jew in the Reich” (Weisz 2014: 3): he and his family were eventually allowed by the Nazi government to flee Germany and emigrate to the United States. Another Jewish physician, Karl Kroner, had treated Hitler in 1918 for “hysterical amblyopia,” when the latter was a young soldier. The most common treatment for that condition at the time was brutal and included beating. Instead, Kroner chose to treat Hitler with hypnosis, considered a most humane treatment. They probably never saw each other again afterward. Two decades later, in 1938, Kroner was briefly deported to a concentration camp; he was freed after a few weeks and allowed to emigrate to the United States. Both stories are irrelevant to a larger political science analysis and unable to explain authoritarian personalities. They obviously cannot relativize Nazism in any way. Hitler could have interpreted the physicians’ benevolent behavior toward him to humanize Jews—but chose not to. Weisz ends his account with an open question that betrays analytical despair: why did “the most rabid anti-Jewish leader” in history “[allow] both of his Jewish physicians to leave the Reich, whilst millions of others were murdered . . . ?” The exceptions made to Bloch and Kroner can only be explained by their relationship to Hitler.

Maurice Blanchot's protection of a Jewish family, that of his colleague and fellow philosopher Emmanuel Lévinas, is also a case in point.11 Blanchot, a public antisemite intellectual in the 1930s and early 1940s, epitomizes the figure of the right-wing intellectual of that era. Historian of fascism Zeev Sternhell found in Blanchot “the perfect definition” of “the fascist mind” (cited in Mehlman 2009: 99). Blanchot's antisemitic pieces, written well into World War II, demonstrate his visceral hatred for Jewish people. The point here is not to delegitimize Blanchot but to highlight the fact that he treated Jewish people he knew personally and those he did not in an opposite manner. Blanchot had developed a friendship with Emmanuel Lévinas, who later became a renowned philosopher, as early as 1930, when they studied together at the University of Strasbourg. From 1942 to August 1944, Blanchot hid Levinas's wife and daughter. He also hid Paul Lévy, a publisher with whom he also had a close relationship. Blanchot became a public intellectual engaged against antisemitism only after 1945—or, as Bernanos put it, only after antisemitism had become a discrediting behavior. He never recognized his own record while publicly denouncing the works of intellectuals tainted by their antisemitism, such as Heidegger.

Avoiding a Moral-Centric Argument

Aversion to harming someone is ethical behavior. Yet I use the term ‘ethics’ as a result and an interpretation, not a motivation, and for this reason have opted to avoid a moral-centric argument and theoretical framework. To call behaviors covered by relational exceptionalism ‘ethical’ or ‘moral’ is to teleologically mix results, or interpretations thereof, with motivations, values, intuitions, ethics, or empathy, unless someone wants to call Hitler ethical. I therefore do not explore relational exceptionalism with approaches pertaining to the expanding (Fassin 2014) anthropological and sociological literature on morality and ethics. Here is why: From Durkheim (2004) and Weber (1978) to Bauman (1998), Das (2010), Fassin (2013, 2015), Laidlaw (2013), and Lambek et al. (2015), this approach tends to view morality as conscious, or more or less conscious, and as voluntary, or more or less voluntary, generally following a Kantian outlook, apophases notwithstanding. It links society to morality, morality to values, values to obligations. In a brilliant and exhaustive anthropology of ethics, Laidlaw (2013) even sees ethics as virtue and freedom.12 I am focusing on another subject altogether. Relational exceptionalism cannot be understood in terms of value systems, societal norms, duty, efforts to pursue a moral life, or obligations and other Durkheimian and Kantian approaches; it is independent of one's values. To assess an action as ethical or moral projects, as is known, culturally defined judgments of values upon it. In the end, even Hitler spared (two) people, but not on values, or beliefs. The phenomenon I am pointing at is more adequately captured by the terms ‘mental block’ or ‘inhibitions,’ not ‘morality’ or ‘ethics.’ That the same individual would have a type of behavior toward people he knows and an opposite one toward those he does not exactly during the same time period points at the root of the mental block: interpersonal relationship, social bond, attachment, intimacy. I do infer here that interpersonal relationships are one of the most deterministic cultural creations and therefore leave little freedom not only to individuals, contra James Laidlaw (2013), but also to more classical sociological configurations, such as group loyalty or ideology.13

The Social Life of Bonds

A correlation between relationships and ethical behavior has been highlighted by a number of scholars from various angles. David Hume (1739, 1751) and Adam Smith (1759) may have been the first to link sociality and morality. The Scottish philosophers disconnected moral behavior from reflexivity and self-interest to argue that moral actions and judgments are instinctive.14 Their key concept was sympathy.15 Both argued that sympathy derives from our understanding of the experience of others. For Jennifer Herdt (1997), Hume's theories of morality must be understood as an effort to problematize and restrict violence, particularly violence caused by religious beliefs. Personal empathy is therefore for Hume a response to collective violence. Herdt also contends that sociality, for Hume, leads either to obedience, which can result in harm committed to others (through group pressure), or to sympathy for someone who is hurt. Yet, for the Scottish philosophers, sympathy for someone can happen without any prior social bond, ex social nihilo, and can be felt “for another,” “a stranger,” or “with any person” (Hume 1739: 384–389).

In sociology and anthropology, the explanation of behaviors by ‘the social’ is most associated with Émile Durkheim (1858–1917). What makes a society hold together, according to Durkheim (1974, 1995), are social bonds. People in a localized social situation, people who meet, know, and interact with the same people over time, develop what he called ‘solidarity.’ However, for Durkheim, morality was akin to respect for social norms; society exists and functions as long as its members accept and consciously abide by social rules; obedience and even social homogeneity are the conditions for social peace.16 When Durkheim argued that fear guides moral behavior, notably fear of others’ gaze and reaction, notions located between ‘duty’ and ‘social control,’ he implied that a group and its norms inhibit individuals to harm others. In the scholarship on massacres of neighbors (‘the neighborly turn’), mentioned in the introduction, the group, whether small, such as an Interhamwe or an Einsatzgruppen, or conceived as large, such as the Nazi state, the Hutu ethnic group, and so on, orders or encourages individuals to harm people they know or do not know. Relational exceptionalism, as I argue, is evidenced when an individual's choice contradicts group solidarity. When Durkheim, as well as Simmel (1964) for that matter, argued that morality is social in origin, they did not mean that relationships make us moral but that society ordains values and behavior. Simmel, as Annette Disselkamp (1998) highlighted, argued that ethics is co-substantial to social interactions: interactions have to be ethical in order to happen. We are still within the domain of conscious obligations. This was also Zygmunt Bauman's (1998) view on morality, which was akin to duty, if not love for others—a rather abstract other.

Social psychologists have similarly argued that morality and ethics are invented by humans in order to have sociality. To that effect, they have de- signed various, often model-based, theories: Moral Foundation Theory (e.g., Haidt 2012), Dyadic Morality (e.g., Gray et al. 2012), and Relational Model Theory (e.g., Fiske 1991), where “[m]orality [is] embedded in social relationships” (Fiske and Rai 2015: 59), all provide explanations for moral values that are, apophases notwithstanding, innate or evolutionary, conscious and rationalized—with a touch of Hobbesian pessimism on human nature. McDonald et al. (2017) argue that the variations in one's behavior in regards to aversion to harm (moral in some instance, not in others) are congruent to different types of moral calculations, or “intrinsic to the actions alone” (ibid.: 771). The Perception-Action Model designed by neurobiologists Stephanie Preston and Frans de Waal (2002), based on dozens of prior studies on empathy across species, argues that empathy determines the quality of social relationships. Michael Tomasello (2016) characterizes morality as a form of human cooperation. Evolutionary anthropologists Oliver Scott Curry et al. (2019) designed an ambitious theory, Morality-As-Cooperation, to contend that morality has emerged through the ages as a biological and cultural solution to the question of cooperation. For Fiske and Rai (2015: 60), “[o]ur sense of morality emerges out of our need to regulate our social relationships”; morality precedes sociality and makes it possible. Haidt (2001, 2012) makes “social intuition” the paradigm of moral judgments: most moral decisions are taken in the instant without rationalization, which evokes Hume's and Smith's arguments. This theory, though operative in many cases, nonetheless fails to explain why the same person would have different judgments toward people, depending on the existence of a relationship with them. In addition, Hitler's series of decisions toward Bloch and Kroner were not taken in the instant but were actions extended over time.

Properties and Types

The arguments and theories listed above do not distinguish between types of relationships. Since aversion to harm is triggered by social ties, how do we study the latter? Is the ‘trigger’ of relational exceptionalism a type of tie or a feature of ties? Because defining relationships often infers a typology, some ties having properties that others have not, definitions and typologies should be studied together. We all know that social relationships range on an almost infinite spectrum, from, say, mere interactions to bonds. The anthropological literature offers few definitions and sociometric tools. Marilyn Strathern (2020: 3) noticed this void in a discipline where relationships are “honored with no special, or specialist, definition,” although they permeate the works of many, possibly most, ethnographers. Durkheim (e.g., 1995) never really explained what a social bond is; rather, he based his theory on the social bond.17 Max Weber (1978: 26–28) used “social relationships” as an umbrella expression and explicitly avoided typologizing and essentializing them (“to avoid the ‘reification’ of these concepts,” ibid.: 27). What Weber suspected is that social relationships do not need to be symmetrical, reciprocal, repetitive, or permanent to be what he called “meaningful” and share “mutual orientation,” the only description he provided.

Lévi-Strauss (1949), Mauss (2021), and Sahlins (1972) made reciprocity the crux of relationships, with Sahlins (ibid.: 196) famously devising a typology of concentric circles where bonds are the strongest within the family and the primary group; as we move away from kinship and toward society, trust diminishes and “negative reciprocity” is more likely.18 This feature, reciprocity, might however locate the threshold for relational exceptionalism a bit far.

Strathern's abovementioned contention is not entirely true. Bruce Kapferer (1969), Gregory Feldman (2011), and Philippe Descola (2005: 309–335) have all explored the content of social relationships.19 All recognize that relationships vary in intensity. For Kapferer, relationships can be measured by overlapping contents, or what he calls “multiplexity”: “relationships which are multiplex . . . are stronger than those which are uniplex” (Kapferer 1969: 213). For Feldman (2011: 379), a social relationship is made of tangibility, corporeality, and locality and should be distinguished from mere connections. Strathern (2020: 11–12) herself distinguishes between two levels of relationships and provides (rather minimal) content:

interpersonal (“social”) relations are . . . inevitably constituted through interaction and recognition, by contrast with relations that are mere affordances.20

With these two markers, we would thus have the bare minimum of a relationship. Can this be violated? ‘Interaction’ is a rather obvious feature and ‘recognition’ does not really help with our topic—the perpetrator, say, an Einsatzgruppen member, also ‘recognizes’ his victims’ identity. Early social network sociologists (e.g., Granovetter 1973; Azarian 2010) also devised typologies around two types: weak ties, or acquaintances, and strong ties, such as, but not limited to, friendship and family ties. Felder (2020: 682) added another type, the “invisible tie,” situated at a lower level than weak ties: “Invisible ties are relations with known strangers” that over time, through repetition and pieces of information from third parties, may become more familiar. This typology is indexed on the frequency of encounters, as shown by Granovetter's (1973: 1361) definition of interpersonal relationships in general: a “combination of the amount of time, the emotional intensity, the intimacy (mutual confiding), and the reciprocal services which characterize the tie.” Common sense would thus point at stronger bonds as the type most likely to hold in the face of adversity and produce obligations. Frequency of encounters or nearness would then be the trigger feature of relational exceptionalism. Yet these types can also be negative. A negative tie, strong or weak, is simply “an unfriendly relation” (Felder 2020: 683), a rather minimal definition, whose quality is nonetheless to recognize that a relationship, even based on frequency, can be fraught and would, therefore, not weather temptation to harm—more on that further.21

Group Solidarity vs. Relational Exceptionalism

Social scientists have long emphasized the centrality of group solidarity (Durkheim 1995), which regulates one's behavior to outsiders. Social psychologists (e.g., Green 2013) believe that tribalism, the inflexible loyalty toward one's group and against outsiders, is innate. Haidt and Lukianoff (2018: 58) even argue that tribalism “is our evolutionary endowment for banding together for intergroup conflict . . . and we stop thinking for ourselves.” Relational exceptionalism, however, breaks through this tribalism. The primacy of bonds over ideology, value systems, and imagined communities was first identified and theorized by Edward Shils (1957). Detecting loose ends in Tönnies's Gemeinschaft and Durkheim's mechanical solidarity, Shils argues:

Ideals and beliefs can only influence conduct alongside of personal ties, primordial attachments, and responsibilities in corporate bodies and they can come into play primarily in the form of vague notions regarding the Right and Good in concrete forms. (Shils 1957: 130)

Shils was concerned with “small groups” and wondered what “makes” them—shared values or attachments. His data set, first collected during World War II, consisted of testimonies of Nazi and Soviet soldiers. For Shils, horizontal bonds developed by soldiers during training and combat, not shared belief in the regime's ideology, explained their motivation to fight and their cohesion in a small group; for Shils, therefore, bonds produce groups, adding that the strength of a bond is not determined by interactions only but by the value granted to the relation (ibid.: 141–143), which is reminiscent of Weber's views of relationships (“mutual orientation”).

Yet, for Shils, there is no potential contradiction between ideology and bonds, they are just distinct, as proven by the examples he gave and the arguments he built. In the end, the interpersonal relationships studied by Shils were indeed structural (in Radcliffe-Brown's sense) and ordained by institutions, not formed against them. Shils did not test his hypothesis when bonds contradict ideology or social institutions. While sociality, and more particularly intimacy, are associated, via Durkheim, with group cohesion, sociality in a society divided by segmentarism, communalism, or antagonist groups is actually where and how loyalty is breached—when people form bonds across divides. Interpersonal relationships woven across groups do not mean bliss, but entangled, conflicting loyalties that produce larger tensions and even destabilize groups. In such societal configurations, intimacy interrelates with cultural insecurity (think Romeo and Juliet). Relational exceptionalism does not suspend group loyalty through moral reflection or a competing ideology, but by the instinctual cognitive reaction produced by bonds.

Return to the Dyad

The dyad (Tönnies 2012) is a concept generally used in sociology to break down analytically the whole, as Radcliffe-Brown (1959: 191) did when he argued that social organizations such as kinship are made of dyadic relationships (brother–sister, master–servant, etc.). That is, dyads are used as a methodological stage of a mental exercise to comprehend larger phenomena, ‘society’ or ‘culture’ (Descombes 2014), and are therefore located beyond the opposition between group and individual.

This is not what I argue here. I am taking the dyad as the location and the scale of the phenomenon under study, not as a method to evidence anything larger. The cognitive process that leads to relational exceptionalism is grounded in and caused by a dyadic relationship. Inhibitions, protection, or benevolence might be extended to kin or friends of one of the parties of the dyad, as when Blanchot protected Lévinas's wife and daughter, but they crystalized earlier with the simplest form of a social relationship. Almost all of the examples presented by Hume and Smith are dyads, although usually mere interactions—such as when a commiserating woman pities a man she sees on the gallows.

The dyad is autonomous to both the group and the individual. Even if made of two individuals, the dynamics of relational exceptionalism require going beyond an individual-centered analysis. The abovementioned social-psychological theories do not explain variations, if not contradictions, of one's behavior in relation to harm and tend to take the individual as a whole. The view that a dyadic relationship is external to each of the personalities is not new.22 The examples of Blanchot or Hitler show that the inhibition property of a dyadic relationship primes the logic of primary groups (family, clans, community, traditions, etc.): these individuals followed one type of values generally, which they contradicted when dealing with their own friends. The contradiction between, on one side, an individual's belief and their obligations to the larger group and, on the other side, their behavior toward the few they have a relationship with, strikingly highlights the degree of autonomy of an interpersonal relationship. The scholarly literature on love relations, because they focus on dyads, offers a field of comparisons on autonomy. A resourceful appropriation here would be sociologist Niklas Luhmann's (1986) work on romantic love. Simply put, Luhmann argued that love, if shared by two people, constitutes an autonomous system. Their relationship, if positive, infers a boundary between itself and the larger environment, the latter having a reduced influence on the smaller system constituted by the dyad. The individuals within the relation choose to select limited information and input from outside, thus creating an autonomous space of lesser complexity. I am obviously not contending that all types of interpersonal relationships are akin to a romantic one; I argue that a degree of autonomy from the social environment is what allows the participants in a social relationship to ignore or even turn against their group if it allows for helping the other party in the relationship, particularly when bonds are woven across group borders. The abovementioned Polish family that hid a Jewish family on the run (Zipperstein 2018: 80); the fanatical Hutus who sheltered their Tutsi friends (Fuji 2009: 139–147); all behaved in contradiction with their social environment, at considerable risks to their own safety, even against orders received in the Hutu case. The protagonists of these stories were able to extract themselves from the surrounding hatred and patterns of behavior. The autonomy of an interpersonal relationship can be instantiated only when or if the relationship is under threat and the protagonists have to make a choice.

This evokes a counterintuitive analysis of Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet by Benzaquen and Viveiros de Castro (1977). While the commonplace sees romantic love as irrational, liminal, and a disorder in which an emotional individual ignores the collective and its rules, the two Brazilian anthropologists read the play as a founding myth of modernity—of the parallel rise of romantic love and of the centralized state that, together, produced an “autonomization of the affective domain” (ibid.: 140) unconcerned with primary group solidarity. Again, I am of course not saying that social bonds are akin to romantic love. Rather, a degree of autonomy is a feature that must be found in any meaningful social relationship in order to trigger relational exceptionalism, the consequence of which may lead the individual to agonistic relations with their primary or secondary group. By locating this autonomization in the sixteenth century, Benzaquen and Viveiros de Castro bring historicity to the subject. If, as I argue, the ethical property of an interpersonal relationship is inherent to the latter rather than to conscious beliefs or humanist values, its degree of autonomy indeed varies across time and probably increases with modernity and a worldview where the individual is a central notion—not to say, though, that the modern individual is (supposed to be) the master of their destiny and can therefore freely design autonomous spaces. The relationship's potential autonomy therefore poses a threat to group cohesion. Why else would more holistic worlds restrict the possibility of bonds formed across group identities, notably by limiting or preventing shared social institutions and practices (commensality, exogamy, etc.)? I am not pointing at ‘autonomy’ to avoid using the term ‘trust’ as the defining feature of relationships and the trigger of relational exceptionalism. Yet trust may not exist as such but only in terms of time, when a relationship is under threat from something external to the relation. The trigger feature of relational exceptionalism therefore requires at least three elements within an interpersonal relationship: there must be some degree of intimacy, even for a short period; the relationship cannot be negative and has to be, to some degree, benevolent; autonomy must exist from the broader social environment, or at least the understanding of its possibility.

Conclusion

Relational exceptionalism is a property of interpersonal relationships. It is evidenced when social bonds across antagonist groups are challenged by group solidarity and ideology. Even in contexts where people are led to hate and target members of a neighboring group, prior social bonds inhibit individuals from harming people with whom they have a positive relationship. Of course, helping others, particularly vulnerable strangers, can be determined by beliefs and values. Yet the phenomenon under study is different in nature: social bonds, not ‘values,’ ‘beliefs,’ ‘society,’ or ‘group,’ create cognitive effects that prevent us from harming the other party. Relational exceptionalism of course exists at lower intensity whenever we favor someone we know. Yet it is best demonstrated when individuals act in a contradictory fashion. Thus, Hutu extremists killed Tutsis they hated, including Tutsis they knew as acquaintances, but hid those they considered their friends or kin of friends, thus acting against their own anti-Tutsi beliefs, against orders, against obligations to their government, and against loyalty to their ethnic group at war (or so they believed). Their immersion in a hystericized environment, as well as their own beliefs, well rendered by both the scholarly literature and memoirs on the Rwandan genocide, did not prevent them from making selective exceptions—while, at the same time, protecting terrified Tutsi intimates on a daily basis during the genocide did not humanize the figure of the Tutsi either, leaving their ethnic hatred intact. They fully participated in both the genocide against Tutsis and their relationships with their Tutsi friends.

If the unlikelihood of social violations is indeed determined by the level of intimacy, there might be, or not, a threshold beyond which harm would be impossible or a magic property on the relationship continuum, one that would trigger aversion to harm even if the latter's activation varies in space, time, and personal history. Yet the most obvious features, reciprocity and nearness, do not appear to be the definite trigger of relational exceptionalism. As Max Weber (1978: 27) counterintuitively suspected, bonds can be fleeting and strong. What allows for relational exceptionalism is the possibility of autonomy of a relationship against group solidarity. It can be present in the most fleeting relationship, in a weak or strong tie. Said differently, a relationship's ethics appear when the bond is under threat.

Acknowledgments

I thank Silvia Montenegro for her crucial bibliographic orientation, and the two anonymous reviewers of this article.

Notes

1

As a matter of clarification, I use ‘social relationship’ and ‘social bonds’ interchangeably. ‘Sociality’ is an umbrella term that covers connections, relationships, and all forms of social interactions. ‘Interpersonal relationship’ refers more specifically to a bond between two persons.

2

See Esses and Vernon (2008); Zipperstein (2018). Interestingly, the only time Zipperstein (ibid.: 80), in his landmark study of the Kishinev pogrom, uses the term “friend” (allegedly, the strongest of ties) to qualify a social relationship between a Jewish and a Catholic family is to explain why the latter rescued and hid the former.

3

Although they do not address stricto sensu neighbors or sociality, see the pioneering works on the anthropology of mass violence by Hinton (2002) and Taylor (1999).

4

The ethnic cleansing and brutalities in Argaki were not committed by Turkish ‘neighbors’ but by the Turkish military, which entirely emptied the region of its Greek Cypriot population.

5

Bringa (1995) also points at the centrality of friendships between women across the communal divide, who seem to sustain the entire edifice of interethnic relations.

6

Henig (2012) in particular provides a thorough examination of the terms ‘neighbor’ and ‘neighborhood’ as they are understood in Bosnia.

7

Adding to this, notions of harm of course vary across cultures. The literature on cannibalism in Amazonian societies would be a good (extreme) example of that: killing is not harm if being eaten is understood by both parties as the realization of the self (e.g., Fausto 2007; Viveiros de Castro 1986).

8

For social psychologists (e.g., Buss 2005; Fiske and Rai 2015), we are more likely to kill intimates than strangers. But the percentile to the entire group, not to murderers, matters here: the almost totality of people does not kill—their intimates, or strangers for that matter. This article is entirely qualitative, yet a mention of numbers situates the marginality of intimate killings. According to UNODC (2019), killers of intimates are vastly inferior to 0.1 percent of the entire human population. Another detailed UNODC (2021) analysis reported that 47,000 women and girls were killed worldwide by their partners in one year. Supposing that such violence is underreported (which the report did not imply), we can arbitrarily multiply it by 5: we thus obtain a number of 235,000. Relative to the world's population of women, this represents 0.006 percent. As Randall Collins (2008) shows, violent acts are extremely rare and the act of killing even rarer, precisely because they violate interaction ritual chains and create paralyzing fear. Sinisa Malesevic (2017) relativizes the prevalence of fighting in history. This has immense consequences on how militaries, which are dependent on, well, people willing to kill, deal with recruits. The literature on this last aspect is vast: e.g., Ardant du Picq (1880); Malesevic (2017).

9

A small paramilitary group of Hutu civilians. Most of the five hundred thousand Tutsi victims were killed by the Interahamwe.

11

Blanchot was a literary critic often credited with being the founder of so-called French Theory. For biographic information on Blanchot and his pre-World War II intellectual trajectory, I relied on Bident (2008), Mehlman (2009), and Surya (2015), as well as Blanchot's (2017) own writings: his damning 1936 piece, “Terrorism, Method of Public Salvation,” exemplifies the extremism of his views before 1945. Omer Bartov (2002) evokes the “conspiracy of silence” that Blanchot and others in academia benefited from after the war.

12

Fassin (2014) argues for a more nuanced look at the causality of ethics.

13

Not to mention that ethics remain, as most recognize, both relative and subjective: to other antisemites, Blanchot's and Hitler's behavior in the very particular cases described above would sound immoral. See in this respect Pina-Cabral (2020).

14

Sayre-McCord (2013) argues that both Hume and Smith tend to conflate approbation (how others look at us) and empathy (how we look at others).

15

Hume uses the term ‘compassion’ in later works. See Herdt (1997).

16

Fassin (2014) refutes the established notion that Durkheim was Kantian in regards to morality. This might be true in regards to the ‘consciousness’ dimension of obligations, but morality was very much an obligation for Durkheim.

17

Because he uses it in the singular, Durkheim's original expression, le lien social, does not have a neat translation in English. It captures both an abstraction and Durkheim's signature holistic approach. For Durkheim, the lien social was not just the sum of relationships but what guarantees society's cohesion. Durkheim focused on ‘society,’ traditional or modern, more than on relationships per se. Even when he explored friendship and intimacy, which should have warranted a full definition of relationships, Durkheim remained general and saw friendship through the prism of social integration (on friendship in Durkheim's work, see Wallace and Hartley 1988).

18

See Geschiere (2013: 30–31) for a critique of Sahlins's typology, precisely because it links the intensity of reciprocity to trust. Weber (1978: 27) also explicitly rejected reciprocity as a defining feature of relationships.

19

The exploration of non-Western conceptions of the person has allowed for a refocus on social relationships (e.g., Bastide 1971; M'Bity 1990; Marriott 1976; Pina-Cabral 2017; Sahlins 2013; Strathern 2017; Viveiros de Castro 1986). The person comes into ‘being,’ if I try to hold the said explorations under one single characterization, only through multiple relationships; yet these authors tend to shun explicating types and content of bonds, not to mention that they heavily focus on kinship only.

20

Strathern grants paternity of this idea to Pina-Cabral (2017), although this might be inferred rather than explicit in the latter's book. On the other hand, and throughout his work, Pina-Cabral (1986, 2017, 2019) has insisted that nearness and frequency of encounters determine the strength of relationships.

21

Importantly, still in the context of mass violence, ties can be downgraded when relationships between, and representation of, neighbors evolve in media res under the pressure of violence, fear, and hate propaganda. See Kolind (2008: 165–169). The type of face-to-face interactions that Goffman (1967) would take for granted in normal times would rarify or completely disappear between members of antagonist groups.

22

Strathern (2018: 2) commenting on Descombes (2014) commenting on Leibniz commenting on Locke summarizes:

 Descombes spells out the implications of their (Leibniz and Locke) arguments for the empiricist view that social relations are exterior to individual entities and the idealist view that social relations are constitutive of individuals.

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Contributor Notes

Jean-Philippe Belleau is an Associate Professor of anthropology at the University of Massachusetts Boston. Originally trained as an Amazonist, his current research focuses on mass violence, sociality, and inter-ethnicity. He has carried out field research in Brazil, Haiti, and India. His last book, Killing the Elite, will come out in 2024 with Columbia University Press. Email: Jeanphilippe.belleau@umb.edu

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The International Journal of Anthropology

  • Ardant du Picq, Charles. 1880. Études sur le combat. Paris: Champ Libre.

  • Arendt, Hannah. The Origins of Totalitarianism. New York: Harcourt, Brace & Co., 1951.

  • Akarturk, Eral. 2013. “The Intercommunal Relations between Greek Cypriots and Turkish Cypriots in the Mixed Village of Argaki.” Cyprus Review 25 (1): 149167.

    • Search Google Scholar
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