"The Iron Forest" - building the walls to scar the nature

“The Iron Forest” — building the walls to scar the nature

If I could bring one thing from my hometown, it would be the fresh air of the conifers from “my” forest. This is the statement my friends have heard me say many times, in particular when I feel nostalgic about my hometown.

Augustów, where I am from, lies in the midst of Augustów Primeval Forest, in the North-East of Poland — a region referred to as the “green lungs” of Poland. It is an enormous virgin forest complex stretching across the border with Lithuania and connecting with other forests in the region.

Forest near my hometown

When I was 10, I went on a school trip to a neighbouring Bialowieza forest — a UNESCO heritage site with its largest European bison population. I still remember the tranquillity and magnificence of its landscape including stoic bison. I never would have thought that some years later, the serenity of this place will face being destroyed by the wall built on the Polish and Belarusian border, following the recent events of the refugee crisis.

Today, I am a mental health scientist with a background in Psychology and Psychological Medicine. I am also a Pole from the North-East of Poland. Embracing both identities, in this blog, I would like to talk about “building walls” and what it means from a psychological perspective.


Building Walls and Social Identity

Following the humanitarian crisis which recently took place on the border between Belarus and Poland, we are now witnessing Poland building a wall which would prevent asylum seekers from Syria, Iraqi Kurdistan and Afghanistan, to cross the border.

The concept of building a wall to separate nations isn’t new. I am sure you have heard about the Berlin wall separating East and West Germany, the Israeli West Bank Barrier between Israel and Palestine, or more recently the wall between Mexico and the US. In fact, according to Elisabeth Vallet, a professor at the University of Quebec-Montreal, since World War II the number of border walls jumped from 7 to at least 70! So, how can we explain this need to separate?

In her article for the New Yorker on “Do walls change how we think”, Jessica Wapner talks about the three main purposes of the walls which are “establishing peace, preventing smuggling, and terrorism”. It is based on the premises of keeping “the others” away, the others that are threatening to “us”, our safety, integrity and identity. These motivations form the basis for the political agenda of nationalism.

Using the words of the famous psychologist, Elliot Aronson, humans are social animals, and we all have the need to belong to a group. This has been well described by the Social Identity Theory which claims that positive evaluation of the group we belong to helps us to maintain positive self-image and self-esteem. Negative evaluation of the “the other,” or the outgroup, further reaffirms the positive image of your own group — the intergroup bias. As such, strong social identity helps us feel safe and secure psychologically, which is handy in difficult times such as perceived threat posed by another nation or any other crisis. However, it often creates a “psychological illusion” as in attempt to seek that comfort, we distort the reality placing ourselves and our group in a more favourable light. This, in turn, only worsens the crisis, as described by Vamik Volkan, a psychiatrist and the president of the International Society of Political Psychology, in the article by Jessica Wapner.


The disillusionment of walls

In reality, history shows consistently that building walls have only, and many, negative consequences. The positive ones, well, are an illusion: based on the false sense of psychological protection.

In 1973, a German psychiatrist Dietfried Müller-Hegemann, published a book, “Wall disease”, in which he talked about the surge of mental illness in people living “in the shadow” of the wall. Those who lived in the proximity of the Berlin wall showed higher rates of paranoia, psychosis, depression, alcoholism and other mental health difficulties. And the psychological consequences of the Iron Curtain lingered long after the actual wall was gone: in 2005, a group of scientists were interested in the mental representation of the distances between the cities in Germany among the German population. They demonstrated systematic overestimations of distances between German cities that were situated across the former Iron Curtain, compared with the estimated difference between cities all within the East or the West Germany. For example, people overestimated the distance between Dusseldorf and Magdeburg, but not between Dusseldorf and Hannover, or between Magdeburg and Leipzig.

Source: Carbon et al. in Psychonomic Bulletin & Review 2005

What was even more interesting is that this discrepancy was stronger in those who had a negative attitude towards the reintegration! These findings show that even when the physical separation is no longer present, the psychological distance persists.

Building walls is a perfect strategy to prevent dialogue and cooperation and to turn the blind eye to what is happening on the other side — if I can’t see it, it doesn’t exist.

It embodies two different ideologies that could not find the way to compromise and resorted to “sweeping the problem under the carpet”. From a psychoanalytical point of view, it refers to denial — a defence mechanism individuals experience and apply when struggling to cope with the demands of reality. It is important and comes to the rescue when we truly struggle, but, inevitably, it needs to be addressed for recovery to be possible. Perhaps this analogy applies to societies too.

It goes without saying that the atmosphere created by putting the walls up is that of fear of “the other” and hostility. Jessica Wapner describes it very well in her article for the New Yorker, as she talks about the dystopian atmosphere of the looming surveillance and the mental illness that goes with it.

And lastly, I wouldn’t want to miss a very important point related to the wall of interest in this blog — the Poland-Belarus wall. In this particular case, we will not only deal with the partition between people, but also between animals and within the ecosystem of the forest, which is likely to have a devastating effect on the environment and the local society.

Bringing this blog to conclusion, I hope that we can take a step back and reflect on what history and psychology tell us about the needs and motivations to “build walls”, both physically and metaphorically, and the disillusionment and devastating consequences it might have: for people, for society, and for nature.