On Violence and Truth and Jon Holtzman’s Killing Your Neighbors

I recently read Jon D. Holtzman’s Killing Your Neighbors: Friendship and Violence in Northern Kenya and Beyond and found it really engaging, especially for my current and recent research projects. I added it to my reading list because I thought the title referenced the electoral violence in Kenya in 2007-2008 (I read it alongside other mass atrocity literature), but it’s actually about local (though perhaps just as violent) wars in northern Kenya and asks how community ties break down such that these wars are possible (and enduring). But it’s also about many other processes that are involved in violent conflict.

Holtzman’s ethnography is principally about the Samburu people, with whom he has done fieldwork in the past and has deep personal and scholarly ties, and in this book he studies the various incidents of violence between Samburu and their neighbors. By looking at wars, attacks, or massacres between the Samburu and nearby Pokot, Kikuyu, Somali, and Turkana groups, Holtzman also tries to map these incidents from “both sides” — attempting a sort of multi-sited (but never claiming “holistic”) approach to the study of violence. The central argument of the book is that there is a process through which neighbors are transformed from unkillable to killable people, and that “this transformation is a cultural and historical process rather than simply a material or political event” (4). Viewing violence as part of a cultural system, Holtzman spends much of the book analyzing how different groups and individuals talk about violence, situating such narratives and representations (including his own as the author) within the same contexts in which violence occurs. The ways people talk about, represent, interpret, and make sense of violence matter.

Most interesting, to me, is this last point, which runs throughout the ethnography. Looking at Samburu and Pokot narratives about the war between these two groups, for example, Holtzman admits ethnographic uncertainty (he doesn’t, and thus we can’t, ever know the “real” reason some of these incidents occurred, or what “really” happened) but also the uncertainty of war itself as combatants’ reasons for fighting don’t add up, or their timelines are off, or potential ulterior motives are revealed. In fact, in many of these incidents, his interlocutors agree on the basic facts of what happened, but they bring forth completely different interpretations of what these facts mean.

This is also seen in other examples: sometimes one group would read an incident through a particular historical lens while others did not: Samburu often saw violence with Kikuyu embedded in histories of Mau Mau killings of Samburu on settler farms, Samburu support for British counterinsurgency, and the subsequent marginalization of Samburu by the postcolonial government, while many Kikuyu interpreted the same current violence ahistorically to be about contemporary land issues, political inequities, and cultural “backwardness.” These incidents and divergences demonstrate the role of memory as a lens through which violence is understood. Meanwhile, Samburu saw a massacre committed by nearby Somalis as an unprovoked and major incident whereas many Somalis situated the event as part of a broader struggle against the British and then Kenyan governments. These different analyses demonstrate how interpretations of conflict occur at different scales – of time, space, population, etc. – depending on different subject positions and who you’re talking to (and, arguably, when and where and how).

One conceptual tool that emerges from these different narratives is that of “collective irresponsibility.” Holtzman inverts Evans-Pritchard’s notion of collective responsibility (a mode of solidarity) by noting that “one may assert that things done by members of our group do not reflect collective actions (although what is done by members of other ethnic groups can be subject to collective blame)” (62) and that “just as victims are prone to apply… ‘collective responsibility,’ perpetrators frequently adopt a stance of ‘collective irresponsibility’: the killers are people like us but not actually us” (100).

Collective (ir)responsibility is always situational, always a matter of who your audience is, always a matter of what the consequences or benefits of association might be. And in instances of violence — especially civil war or ethnic violence — these stakes can be rather high. If “violent acts not only do something but also say something” (165), then how people talk about or interpret violent acts is always in relation to whom that audience is. One thing I’ve been preoccupied with in my own research is how different groups – in different times and in different places – make sense of the same or similar acts of violence. This is something Holtzman reflects upon time and time again.

Given that I’ve been particularly interested in ways of writing about violence (and spent much of the spring thinking through the subject with some colleagues here at GW), I found Holtzman’s extended reflection on the ethnographic project to be useful and engaging. Take, for example, his conclusion to a chapter on different Samburu and Somali interpretations of what happened the day that a Samburu counterattack—a reprisal for the massacre of dozens of Samburu—resulted in the killing of a shiekh:

There is no resolution, nor perhaps should there be. At our best, anthropologists translate something meaningful about a world that we have grasped deeply, but subjectively and imperfectly, to an audience who will rarely fully grasp even that translation. There are no complete answers: there are incorrect versions and even offensive ones, but we, like our subjects, always see and portray worlds through gazes that are incomplete, if also in some senses true, though in stark contradiction to other “true” versions.

[…]

I am not simply trying to present an array of voices to demonstrate that different people are always going to disagree, nor to present a multitude of disagreeing voices that I as the anthropologist can resolve with monolithic conclusions about “what really happened” and “what it means.” Rather, I am aiming to explore what ethnography looks like when we embrace multivocality as an intrinsic aspect of our subject matter, an intrinsic aspect of the worlds our informants inhabit and live through, and thus necessarily an aspect of how we interpret the data. This is different from rehearsing a postmodern cliché of multiple truths; rather, it explores how our subjects act in accordance with a knowledge that these multiple truths shape their worlds (even if they do not acknowledge all of them as “truths”).

[…]

We [anthropologists] understand that the lives of human beings are a messy business, more so when, as in cases of violence, so much is at stake… rather than simplifying this messiness for the sake of analytical or theoretical clarity, we as anthropologists [should] embrace the ambiguities and contradictions within ethnographies that mirror, and thus more truly capture, the uncertainties in the world that our subjects (and ourselves) inhabit. (123-125).

And lastly, in the conclusion Holtzman reflects on the role of truth in war, reading Rigoberta Mechú, Tim O’Brien, and other narratives of war in light of the question of “true” representations of violence. But one reflection stuck with me as I grapple with my own research:

People have died in this book, a lot of people, and it doesn’t do them justice for me to slither off to my university job and get paid decent money to say that I don’t really know who is to blame, that maybe it is everyone or no one. Because someone killed those people, so to them, to their loved ones, or maybe to our sense of humanity, who did it and how it happened matters.

Or maybe it does and maybe it doesn’t… Sometimes blame isn’t really the point. A major issue here is the way the stories people tell about their wars contain understandings and misunderstandings of other groups that sow the seeds for future violence (197-198).

An ethnography of violence (or intervention or reconciliation or peace or–) might have multiple purposes, but if one is to tell what “really” happened, I’m not sure that will always be possible. War is messy; everyday life is uncertain. I think Holtzman’s book does a good job of showing us that uncertainty and sharing the stories that people tell. I don’t know what the best way to grapple with such uncertainty is – but I know I’ll be coming back to this book soon as I work through that question.

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