I’m interested in the efficacy of communication and write regularly about how communication works and why it is fundamentally and by definition the best way to elicit change. One of the most important contemporary questions is how differences engage one another; how do individuals and groups with incommensurate realities and significant cultural variation manage their relationship? One way is intergroup dialogue which has been written about but remains an ethereal concept considered by many to be an idealized form of communication that is difficult to achieve. I remain resolute in my conviction to continue to discuss dialogue as a pragmatic and achievable form of communication that is not overly romanticized. Dialogue is a particular type of communication designed to solve problems that require mutuality, cooperation, and change. In these terms – mutuality, cooperation, and change – are not niceties but theoretical requirements.
Intergroup dialogue is really about action. It’s about how you collaborate with others across differences with the goal of social justice and problem solving in mind. Solidarity-based communication is that between similar people working on a similar problem. The interaction is cohesive and reinforcing with goals of stimulation and accomplishment of objectives to bring about any desired change. But bridging discourse, as termed by Dryzek, is between people of who are different and trying to find ways to manage the differences between them, trying to reach across information, cultural, and intellectual divides. Most important dialogue struggles with bridging discourse and it is of course the most difficult.
There are a variety of perspectives and approaches to dialogue, but one of the most thoughtful and theoretically well-developed perspectives is critical-dialogue as described by Nagda, Gurin, and others. These authors have identified four communication processes that are particularly important and pertinent to the dialogic process. Each of these four is required and part of the challenge of establishing conditions for successful dialogue. You can read more about these processes here.
- Engagement: This is primarily the requirement that dialogue be taken seriously and individuals be personally involved and committed. These are not the conditions for social loafing; dialogic contact with somebody of difference, when the problems are real and significant, needs the participants to engage in the full range of committed communication. Participants must take risks, assert themselves into the story, and do the hard work of listening empathically as well as critically without overweighting one.
- Appreciate differences: Politics is essentially the management of differences. Solving problems in general conflict resolution is the same. Differences are fundamental and the goal is not to eliminate them but to manage them. For this reason, an appreciation for differences is crucial. Democracies in particular use the communication process to manage differences. There is simply no peaceful resolution to problems without understanding the perspective of others, creating trust across differences, and even trying to participate and when appropriate adopt differences. Again, the goal is not simply the aesthetic appreciation of differences but the pragmatic issues of empathy, understanding, and the ability to argue and communicate in a manner that resonates with the other.
- Critical reflection: Again, the unreflective and rigid presentation of self is always limited by the boundaries of the self. Critical reflection is the ability to examine one’s own assumptions including finding those places characterized by bias, stereotypes, and distortions related to how the other is perceived including unfair sources of power and manipulation. Any genuine attempt to solve problems requires participants to think critically about their own patterns of communication and thought processes. Moreover, participants in dialogue must be able to recognize the sources of bias and inequality in both themselves and others but in particular themselves.
- And finally, building associative relationships: Participants in dialogue groups must build something together. As often as it has been said, and as easy as it sounds participants in conflict must eventually explore common goals to develop new associative relationships that are conducive to resolving intergroup conflict. There is plenty of research that supports the impact of intergroup dialogue. Its goal is to foster the bridging of differences and these four communication patterns of the mechanisms that accomplish these goals. True enough they require additional research and operationalization but these form the foundational theoretical underpinnings
One introduction to these issues by Miles Hewstone appears here. It is a YouTube video and worth checking out and I don’t think you have to watch it all.
Various analyses (especially Pettigrew and Tropp, 2006) clearly support the effectiveness of intergroup contact for improving attitudes towards outgroups. Communication scholars concerned with these matters are enthusiastic about the role of contact and its ability to improve attitudes and intergroup relations. The word contact, by definition, implies communication. Such communication does not have to be particularly systematic or controlled, and can be anywhere along a scale from spontaneous and unplanned to highly designed, but some sort of communication is implicated. Contact means interaction in the broadest sense.
But during conflicts it is relatively common knowledge that a few people cause a lot of trouble. The majority of a group might desire resolution and be genuine about achieving it but have their efforts thwarted and undermined by a few extremists. It’s easy enough to understand contact as effective for people who genuinely want to work out problems and solve difficulties. But what about the highly ego involved, intolerant, prejudiced, ideologically oriented person who is resistant and inflames others? This would be the “difficult conversation” that I have written about before; these difficult and ideologically oriented people are the “Fierce Entanglements” that characterize intractable conflicts in particular.
Typically, we assume that successful contact with highly prejudiced people is difficult given their intolerant nature but, on the other hand, there are strong theoretical reasons for believing that the contact experience should be beneficial to desired attitude change for the particularly intolerant. Contact reduces anxiety and increases empathy and is clearly capable of reducing anti-outgroup sentiments. The establishment of even a minor social relationship begins the process of including the other in the self which helps undermine the forces contributing to intolerance.
The research is pretty consistent with respect to the value of contact whether prejudices are minor or major. Hodson in 2011 explained that individuals with intolerant attitudes and who had few outgroup contacts were particularly negative in their prejudicial attitudes. But those with more prejudices benefited from increased contact. Examples were prejudice heterosexuals who had contact with homosexual, White prison inmates who formed relationships with Black prison inmates, and those with more intolerant attitudes all benefited from communicative contact with target outgroups. Contact, the explanation goes, increases empathy and psychological closeness to the outgroup. It also moderates the effects of those factors that intensify prejudices such as the sense of threat. Prejudice whites consider Blacks threatening as do prejudiced heterosexuals feel threatened by homosexuals.
It is gratifying to know that contact relevant issues such as threat and anxiety are associated with the effectiveness of communication. If it were not possible to improve attitudes after a communicative encounter through the mediating variables then the contact hypothesis would be in question.
Practical considerations dictate turning our attention to getting people to the actual experience of contact because although authoritarian and high dominance people benefit from contact they tend to avoid it. This articulates nicely with the main problem of managing intractable conflict which is getting people to the table talk to one another in the first place. The most intolerant are the ones who most need contact but also most avoid it. It certainly is not surprising that the intolerant avoid contact because if they were the type of people who sought out diverse contacts they would not be intolerant in the first place. It’s comparable to someone who is sick or has troublesome symptoms but avoids medical care.
Contact designed for positive outcomes must direct its attention to the prejudiced person, and away from simple outcomes such as attitude change and begin to examine other issues that might be political or economic but are more directly relevant to conditions that foster the reality of contact. Communication works, but you have to get people to the communication table first.
Paul Berman on the Confederate Flag and What BDS (Boycott, Divest, Sanction) Does not Seem to Understand
The article by Paul Berman on the Confederate flag debate is just too good to pass up. Click here to read it.
The BDS movement (which stands for boycott, divest, and sanction) against Israel is an aggressive social movement designed to challenge the existence of the State of Israel. The video below is a typical example of the BDS arguments against Israel. They are the standard exaggerations designed to criminalize and delegitimize Israel. The goal is not simply to pressure Israel but to challenge the very existence of the Jewish polity. Take a few minutes to watch the video.
A report on just who runs, funds, and supports BDS is available here. The report explains how BDS presents itself as a movement for human rights designed to economically pressure Israel. The BDS organization claims it is doing little more than engaging in the democratic process by organizing for a social cause. They present themselves as a grassroots Palestinian organization inspired by issues in human rights. The truth is that BDS is part of the ongoing campaign to subvert the Israeli economy in an effort to damage the state.
The BDS movement misleads institutions and international organizations into believing that they are a benign social movement looking to establish a Palestinian state and the peaceful coexistence of Israelis and Palestinians. The truth is that they are far more aggressive and have malicious intentions with respect to the state of Israel.
What the BDS Does Not Understand
But interestingly the BDS movement does not realize the damage it does to Palestinians. They are so preoccupied with their own ideology that they are, in fact, doing more damage to the Palestinians and the prospect of peace than they are to Israel.
The BDS is making things worse for the Palestinians. BDS is misreading the relationship between the Palestinian economy and the Israeli economy. A recent article in the publication Fathom explains how Palestinian unemployment is related to strains in the Israeli economy. There has been a marked decline in Palestinian employment in Israel which the authors estimate amounts to 13% of Palestinian GDP in 2005-2006. Palestinian work in Israel is central to the good health of the Palestinian economy. And this will remain true even after some future peace agreement is signed. The state of one side’s economy in a conflict is important to the peace process because economic stability is necessary after treaties and agreements are signed. Otherwise, economic problems are the primary reason peace accords fail. Estimates are that the size of the Palestinian labor force needs to double. The report in Fathom goes on to clarify the impact of restrictions on Palestinian labor and on the future importance of a flow of labor into Israel from Palestine.
BDS is raising poverty levels in Palestine. When BDS opposes economic ties with Israel – Palestinians go hungry. The settlements are a problem and Israel must confront them in the future. There is little doubt that a hypothetical future peace arrangement will include the removal of many settlements. But to boycott settlement products only damages Palestinians. Settlements provide work for Palestinians who are paid on the average twice as much as those employed elsewhere. Moreover, there are some successfully Israeli-Palestinian business arrangements that will be important as future models of coexistence but boycotts threaten these partnerships.
Economic partnerships and interdependence creates unity and trust. They are an important foundation for peace. Organizations such as Hamas gained popularity through their social support programs and Hamas will be more attractive as economic conditions worsen. Boycotts and divestment will not lead to cooperation, improved fiscal infrastructures, and energized entrepreneurship. Any successful consequences of BDS will harm only Palestinians and, ironically, slow the removal of settlers from the West Bank.
Conversations are difficult when one or both parties are fixed on an ideological position they consider a core value fundamental to their concept of truth and personal identity. These difficult conversations are the genuinely “hard” part of managing conflicts and in many ways more important than the military dimension. It is certainly easier to kill someone then to change their ideology. Moreover, security measures do not sufficiently engage the problem when the true enemy is an ideology that must be communicatively confronted. Conversations are difficult for four reasons primarily.
- The nature of their content: those political or religious positions that claim to speak to God and know the mind of God, and believe that God has a plan or an inevitable future, will be particularly recalcitrant. Yes, radical Islam fits this definition but so do extreme versions of Christianity, Judaism, or any body of thinking and literature rooted in religious cosmology. Some are more dangerous than others because of a tradition of activism and preaching. Orthodox Judaism, for example, does not have a tradition of expansionist preaching and is thus less threatening than some other traditions even though they are still a narrow vision based on the presumed word of God. Cultures of shame and honor are also particularly sensitive to humiliations of various sorts and often likely to respond violently.
- Radical versus assimilationist thinking: some people hold strict religious or political opinions and even want to impose them on others but they take a slow education oriented approach. They support a comprehensive system of influences – economic, artistic, educational, cultural, and political – and assume that in time others will assimilate into the “truth.” But those positions that include radical approaches, which desire quicker satisfaction, are more likely to advocate violence and be more difficult to work with. Slower assimilationist approaches are more subject to counter influences. After a generation, for example, of living in the United States a family may have absorbed the values of liberal democracy. Conversation with the radical is clearly more challenging because it typically uses more threats, blame, humiliation, and demands for apologies.
- Belief in an essential cause: participants in discussions often get to a point where they have identified what is considered the “essential” cause of the problem. This essential cause takes on considerable explanatory power and becomes difficult to change. For example, some blame the United States for the rise of violent Islam and it is US foreign policy that becomes the “essential cause” of the problem. Others might cherry pick the Koran and find references that are used as essential explanations for violence. A belief in an essential cause is typically accompanied by blame which is psychologically satisfying.
- Incommensurate narratives: when the two cultures in conflict are particularly distinct and the qualities of each culture are significantly different, then these differences make the conversation difficult. Cultures like the Israelis and Palestinians present different accounts of historical events and selectively emphasize and organize motivations. These incommensurate narratives are cultural conflicts that make interaction even more difficult because the two sides are locked into images of the past and myths about the future. This concentration on the past becomes powerfully influential because the sides believe that lessons learned from the past are particularly timeless and resistant to change. The narrative or story each group tells about its self becomes glorified as a timeless truth and a steady beacon. Consequently, tolerance and change our challenge.
Of course, there are other qualities of conflict – psychological, communicative, political, economic – that make conversations difficult. But these four pose particularly demanding (shall we say almost impossible) conditions that make for difficult conversations.
I have made the point on more than one occasion that it is the communication and interaction process that closes or shrinks gaps of indeterminacy. It is communication that reaches across divides and differences between people. But the really important part of this entire equation is the nature and type of communication. Communication is only as effective and as functional as it can be when it is designed and directed properly. in other words, when the communication is smart. Just putting two or more people together and telling them to communicate can cause as much damage as good. In fact, it is statistically likely to cause more harm than not.
So, when I say that the “type” of communication is most important, what does that mean? The answer is complex with many possibilities but let’s look at some basic issues and some foundational principles that can help guide people make better decisions. First, is the nature of the decision-making task itself. When the task has a specific correct answer that requires expertise then groups and even communication are less important because a single qualified individual can solve the problem. We can organize a collection of people in any manner, and apply all of our theoretical knowledge, to build a bridge or solve a complex mathematical equation but the group will never figure it out satisfactorily because they don’t have the individual knowledge or expertise. A group working on these problems will be of no use and any solution that did emerge would probably be quite deficient. Political conflicts such as that between the Israelis and Palestinians do not meet these criteria. They are not problems with single correct answers that simply require expertise and training.
But now, assume that people are working on a problem of common interest and one that can potentially benefit from a variety of voices and perspectives. For certain problems groups are better than individuals because of the accuracy that emerges from averaging affects. Thus, if there were a bowl of jellybeans and we were asked to guess how many jellybeans are in the bowl, your best option would be to take the average of all guesses. This is the type of task that benefits from the error reduction that comes from the averaging effect of multiple estimates. But this too is not a particularly realistic type of group problem characteristic of contentious politics.
The third and richest type of interaction experience is a group that requires a commitment of each member along with the value of any knowledge, insight, or perspective they bring to the table. Training or directing people toward improving their communication is most crucial here because there is a hornet’s nest of small stings and psychological effects that distort perceptions, attitudes, and decision-making. Sunstein and Hastie in their book “Wiser: Getting beyond Groupthink to Make Groups Smarter” offer up plenty of does the most recent episode does the most recent episode of House of cards and with clear telling Frank she is leaving him. Is that the most recent episode or is there another one after that after thatsuggestions for training group members and improving their communication skills. They suggest things like the value of groups composed of diverse membership, healthy dissent, fair and energetic participation, the strength of empirical evidence, avoiding irrelevance, quality arguments, being on the lookout for bias, and getting along with fellow group members just to name a few. But it turns out that most of this advice is ignored or participants are unable to learn.
The errors and mistakes that group members are subject to are legion. Group members are stubborn, egotistical, overly confident, lazy, incompetent, naïve, conformist, or easily influenced by a leader. They engage in all sorts of cognitive heuristics related to groupthink, the confirmation hypothesis, the availability hypothesis, negativity bias, and a host of other information processing plagues. In fact, one might assume that these group participants are best left out of the decision-making process.
But despite all these cognitive pitfalls deliberation is still crucial for democracy and the simple truth is that many of our decisions are not subject to deliberation at all. Moreover, students beginning in the early stages of their education are not taught how to adopt a deliberative stance. There are many things about living in a political culture that are required such as organizing, campaigning, arguing, or negotiating but the list rarely includes deliberation. Deliberation is about reflection, inclusion, and quality argument made in the public sphere. It is the process most suited for quality preference formation.
Recently, an acquaintance sent me an article with the inflammatory title “Why Israel Should Not Exist.” My acquaintance sent it eagerly and mentioned how much he was awaiting my response because the article was so trenchant and challenging. You can read the article here. Upon realizing that it came from the publication “Counterpunch” I knew it was going to be pretty left of center but I read the article carefully and gave it its due. What a collection of nonsense and distortions! The article should be an exercise in a journalism class on recognizing bias and manipulating the readers. But let’s take a look at it point by point. Maybe somebody will learn something.
The text is full of clichés and politically loaded language and the author seems to flitter by them so easily I get the impression that they are common and taken for granted in his thinking. Single words or phrases are categories for entire spaces of reality and I can usually tell when someone has organized his reality according to some common clichéish categories. Here are just a few examples: the term “Zionist” in the numerous places below appears with frequency because the author imposes the normal caveat that he is not anti-Semitic but anti-Zionist. I will give him this distinction just because it’s important to defend the difference between being anti-Semitic and anti-Zionist, but I doubt sometimes that people are really making a distinction. There is clearly anti-Zionism that is a cover for anti-Semitism. But we won’t go there today. The sections below in quotes are taken from the article in question. We start with the author’s conception of Zionism.
- “Zionism is for that sector of the Jewish people that believes it is their God-given right to establish a state of Israel in the holy land at the expense of the Palestinians who lived there for 2000 years” Zionism is about no such thing; it is nothing more than a concern for the care, cultural development, and security of the Jewish people. Zionism says nothing about Palestinians or God-given rights to land. These things happen to emerge but they are not part of actual Zionism. Zionism is philosophically rooted in the principle of self-determination – the same principle applied to Palestinians and other groups.
- “Zionism is a continuation of European colonialism.” The author and his minions better start following these issues a little more carefully. In fact, Israel was one of the first to decolonize the Middle East. The Balfour declaration helped Arab nations escape the colonial clutches of France and the United Kingdom. The Balfour declaration was good for the Arabs. Moreover, there were plenty of states that became colonies or protectorates but only Israel gets accused of being “colonial.” Here’s where you better be careful about claiming your anti-Zionism is not anti-Semitism. The colonial settler charges are rooted in the ideological denial of Israel’s connection to the land. And to continue if you need more arguments, the term settler colonization is only applicable if the population has no historical or indigenous relationship to the land, which clearly is not the case for the Jews. Calling Israel a settler state is nothing more than name-calling. Anyone who does it is already ideologically grounded and biased and simply interested in attacking Israel. Again, the “I’m anti-Zionist not anti-Semitic claim” gets a little unsteady. American racists always had it explained to them how they didn’t understand their own racism. Why would liberals critical of Israel be less subject to such influences?
- The author loves the phrase “Zionist project.” This is postmodern language for intentional hegemony and criticism. If you refer to it as the “Zionist movement” or “Zionist aspiration” it would not be so devilish sounding.
- Good God, the author quotes Ilan Pappe as an authorative of source. Don’t you realize man that he is the most discredited academic in Israel? The author’s bed table reading must be pretty scary. You might as well quote Chomsky on the American media.
- The source (quoting Pappe) says that Israel destroyed 400 Palestinian villages, massacred thousands of civilians and forcibly displaced almost 1 million Palestinians who ended up in refugee camps. He then uses the phrase “ethnic cleansing” to describe what the Jews did to the Palestinians. He even invokes the term Holocaust. The author of the article doesn’t even hint that other historians, far many more of them who are more credible, discount all of these numbers. Sure, there were some unfortunate circumstances of war and Israel is not completely innocent but most of the Palestinians fled and there are far fewer documented instances of wrongdoing than in most violent conflicts.
- The claim that the United States has used its veto power to prevent anti-Israel resolutions is a piece of circular reasoning that has nothing to do with the issue. Do you know how easy it is to gather up a few people who will sanction some Israeli United Nations act or support a resolution condemning Israel. All you have to do is go to a few of the Arab delegation and they will gladly condemn Israel. Nobody takes it seriously.
- “Almost half a million Jews live in the illegal settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem despite UN resolutions demanding that they be dismantled” Sorry my friends but the legal status of settlements is just not established. Painful as it is for you, you cannot simply and glibly point to illegal settlements. Nor can the movement of Israelis be regarded as violating the human rights of the occupied individuals. The situation is unlike that of the deportation of Jews to their deaths in the Nazi extermination camps. The 1949 Geneva Convention was aimed at preventing in the future what had happened in World War II: the forced transfer of large numbers of Jews by Nazi Germany and associates to the extermination camps. It was never intended to apply to Israeli settlements.
- There is no international law to ban Jews, whether Israelis or otherwise, from settling in the area of the original Palestine Mandate established by the League of Nations. The Mandate clearly says, in Article 6, that the administration of Palestine, while ensuring that the rights and position of other sections of the population are not prejudiced, shall facilitate Jewish immigration under suitable conditions and shall encourage … close settlement by Jews on the lands, including State lands and waste lands not required for public purposes.” Eugene Rostow argued thirty years ago that “until the final status of a particular area is resolved, there is no legal basis for barring Jews from settling there.”
- “There is a disproportionate number of Palestinians killed in this conflict.” Call it what you like, but the Israelis have the right to defend themselves. They have been subjected to terrorism and a host of violent incidents all of which justify response. It’s unfortunate but these things are relational and the behavior of one side is dependent on the behavior of the other. This response is typically viewed as an excuse by those critical of Israel but there’s little more to say – it’s a simple fact.
- I will dispense with much of a response to “apartheid.” Apartheid is a political system that has nothing to do with Israel. Israel has no laws forcing its citizens into residences or legal restrictions. But remember, if he wants to use the word “apartheid” to describe the condition of Israel’s Palestinian Arabs—who enjoy rights denied to many ethnic and religious minorities throughout the Middle East and beyond—so many countries are going to quack that the term is going to lose any meaning. We should reserve “apartheid” for countries that deny an entire ethnic, racial or religious group the right to citizenship or the right to vote. Israel isn’t one of them.
- Finally, the author poses the standard “one state solution”. This is simple enough to respond to because it’s a nonstarter. It would mean the end of the state of Israel and the noble Zionist aspirations to simply find a homeland for the Jews would all be for nothing and make no sense. No Israeli, except in the most extreme case, supports a one state solution. Even if they are not religious or particularly nationalistic in the end they want a state of Israel, devoted in some way to Jewish particularity, to be standing.
I will stop here because there is always no end to these arguments especially when the participants would not recognize the end anyway.
There remains those who still discount the centrality of communication and believe that difficult conflicts such as Israel-Palestine simply must continue with bloodshed, difficulty, and recalcitrance. But the argument landscape while not pristine could arc toward success with just a little help. Below are some data (see The Program for Public Consultation, US Institute of Peace for additional data and sources) that lay out the argument landscape and strongly suggest that with more work the scales can be tipped toward acceptance.
There are more than a few rational voices populating this conflict and there’s a fair amount of agreement over what solutions could look like if people were truly willing to achieve peace. Solutions are not so difficult; there are plenty of them. The difficulty is getting people to the discussion table. In the table below is a proposed final status package deal. It deals with final status issues and covers what many specialists considered to be the key points. It is rational, sensible, and workable.
In a study conducted by the principal investigators sponsored by the Program for Public Consultation both the Israelis and the Palestinians were presented this package. Each side generated arguments for and against the proposal.
So the terms of the package deal are as follows:
1. A sovereign Palestinian state would be established. The boundaries would generally be based on 1967 borders, but Israel would annex 3-4% of the West Bank that includes major settlement blocks with comparable land swaps to be
2. Gaza and the West Bank would have a secure, unobstructed link, either in theform of a tunnel, highway or bridge.
3. For Jerusalem, Israel would have sovereignty over Jewish neighborhoods,while the new Palestinian state would have neighborhoods. The Walled City would be under a special regime that would include both international control, and Israeli and Palestinian participation.
4. Neither Israel nor the Palestinians would have military forces in the Palestinian state, but Palestinian Security Forces would handle internal security in the Palestinian State. International military forces, such as NATO forces possibly under American command, would be stationed along the Jordan River.
5. Palestinian refugees would be compensated for loss of property, would be allowed to return to the Palestinian state, with a limited number being allowed to return to Israel.
6. Palestinians would recognize Israel as a state of the Jewish people and of all its citizens.
7. Israel and Arab and Muslim states would establish full diplomatic relations and open trade.
8. Israel and the Palestinians state would explicitly agree to end the conflict and Palestinians would relinquish all claims pertaining to the conflict.
Although the original report contains considerably more detail, the primary conclusion is that each side after evaluating the arguments found the negative arguments to be substantially more convincing. About 50% of the participants from each side would recommend accepting the package. That is not a bad number. The Israeli Jews who preferred rejection were asked their reasons and it was because they did not believe the Palestinians would accept the framework so there was no point in them accepting it.
Moreover, both sides said that if the other side accepted the agreement the likelihood of additional acceptance was strong. The key issue here is that these arguments are rejected or held at a distance because of failures of trust and additional communication – just enough additional communication to alter the landscape and manage the arguments that are the primary points of contention.
The study also reported that the two issues most widely cited as a problem where the division of Jerusalem and the establishment of a Palestinian state with land swaps. Recognition of Israel as a home of the Jews and a Jewish state is also a difficult issue.
The issues here are no longer one of achieving the best Habermasian ideal argument. The influence of psychological resistances, the difficulty of change, trust, and the willingness to form new relationships are the barriers to improving the landscape. Continuing to confront the arguments along with civic, interpersonal, and political engagement will alter the landscape such that the flowers bloom brighter and the weeds shrivel up.
Dying and Killing for Sacred Objects
By Richard A. Koenigsberg
Scott Atran developed the concept of “sacred values” to explain terrorism and suicide bombings. Does this concept illuminate Western forms of political violence as well?A Library of Social Science Newsletter (February 2006) was entitled “Dying for the Sacred Ideal.” More recently, my article “Killing and Dying for the Sacred Ideal” appeared in the journal Psychoanalysis, Culture and Society (2009).
I discuss how people attach to sacred objects that are conceived as “more significant than the self.” Collective forms of violence arise based on the identification of “enemies” imagined to be acting to destroy a sacred object.
Warfare constitutes a vehicle allowing people to demonstrate devotion to a sacred object. Terrorists die and kill for Allah, for a Palestine homeland, or for the Caliphate. Western people in the 20th Century died and killed for sacred objects given names such as Germany, France, Great Britain and America.
Suicide bombers die and kill for Allah. A similar “moral proposition” lies at the heart of Western political culture: “It is sweet and fitting to die for one’s country.”
Atran observes that devoted actors in the Middle-East commit to a sacred cause and make “costly sacrifices,” including dying and killing. These devoted actors die and kill in the name of moral imperatives “independently of concrete material goals.”
Based on 25 years of research on the First World War, I find it astonishing that historians and political scientists cling to a “rational choice” model of political behavior. Nothing was gained or accomplished by virtue of fighting this war—unless one views mass-slaughter and monumental destruction as an “accomplishment.”
Jay Winter—one of the best and most prominent historians of the First World War—concludes his magnificent eight-part video series (The Great War and the Shaping of the 20th Century, 1996) in a tone of baffled bewilderment, summing up as follows:
Using Atran’s terminology, it is clear that the way the First World War was fought “defied cost-benefit calculations” (to put it mildly). Actions undertaken by participating nations were “all out of proportion to prospects of success.”
Comprehension of the First World War begins by viewing what occurred through the lens of sacred values. The First World War constituted a monumental demonstration of devotion. One might even characterize this war as a sacrificial competition, as each nation fought fanatically in the name of the “transcendent object” with which citizens had fused their beings.
Nazism, similarly, is a case study of how “sacred values” may generate death and destruction on a vast scale. Heinrich Himmler—speaking of the extermination of the Jewish People in a speech delivered to SS officers and Nazi officials at Posen in October 1943—declared: “We had the moral right, the duty to our own people, to kill these people who wanted to kill us.”
In his speech at Posen, Himmler concludes—speaking about the extermination of the Jews: “We can say that we have carried out this most difficult task out of love for our own people.” Just as a terrorist may claim that he carries out acts of violence for love of Allah, so does Himmler claim that genocide was undertaken out of love for the German people.
Hitler framed the moral imperative as follows: “We may be inhumane, but if we rescue Germany we have performed the greatest deed in the world.” Think of any case of political violence with which you are familiar. Doesn’t Hitler’s logic apply?
Political actors are usually aware that they generate violent acts that result in death and destruction. Under ordinary circumstances, these actions would be considered inhuman. However, when undertaken in the name of rescuing a sacred object, all other moral values are abandoned. Political violence constitutes a rescue fantasy: performing the noble, necessary task of saving a sacred object.
— Richard A. Koenigsberg, PhD. (718) 393-1081
Why does ethnicity figure so centrally in political conflict? One explanation is primordial in nature and suggests that ethnicity is an enduring propensity to gather and support those like us and this is the wellspring of solidarity and mistrust of those not like us. This explanation remains popular among many and seems to explain violence between ethnic groups. It resonates with immigration biases and racist attitudes invoked by certain organizations and groups of people. If ethnic differences are so fundamental, then violence and separation become obvious solutions. But antipathies toward outgroups and preference for ingroups might not be a sufficient explanation for much political behavior marked by ethnic differences. Some theorists posit two alternatives one of which claims that group members work together not because of primordial preferences but because of the efficiency: language and access to information in an environment of scarce resources produces political coalitions along ethnic lines because it’s easier to reap rewards and accomplish necessary tasks. A second explanation is that favorability norms have developed and even if there are no efficiency gains by working with members of your own kind there is a form of reciprocity that advantages your group and protects it from various harms. It is important to distinguish among plausible explanations because each suggests strategies for managing conflict. If the conflict is primordial then separating groups is probably a good idea. But if it is that one group is at an advantage because of efficiencies such as language and information then discovering new ways for cooperation and communication might be more successful. And finally if relying on your own group is the only way to reap the advantages then perhaps investment in institutions and government organizations that will level the playing field and prevent cheating will be most helpful.
But these competing perspectives can be reconciled by noting the results of the study that put people in communicative situations with members of their own and other ethnic groups. The authors did not find evidence that there was a preference for the welfare of one’s own ethnic group. They found that individuals were equally as generous with outgroup members as they were their own group members. Moreover, participants in a study of success rates in accomplishing a task where equally as successful with outgroup members as their own group members. They concluded, therefore, that efficiency gains from regular contact with members of your own group did not account for the results. It was reciprocity that enabled ethnic groups to cooperate for gain. When individuals have to rely on group membership more than legitimate institutions of a government, such norms of reciprocity are important. Conflict resolution, then, would benefit from creating credible institutions that promote cooperation between groups. The importance of these reciprocity norms are particularly activated when individuals have few institutions to rely on. When opportunities to solve problems along with institutions are in place then cooperation across ethnopolitical lines is increased. This is consistent with ideas that emphasize processes for making ethnicity salient rather than the existence of ethnicity itself as a group category. Maintaining reciprocity norms, including boundaries that define who can participate and who cannot, results in defined groups that share advantages.
Others draw some similar insights by pointing out that ethnicity can be used as a marker to recognize group boundaries including enforcing membership and identifying infiltrators. When an ethnic group is large and strong it can compete successfully for resources with another group primarily on the basis of reciprocity norms that advantage one group. Reciprocity norms depend on clear recognition of who is in the group and who is out. When two ethnopolitical groups compete with one another (Blacks and Whites, Israelis and Palestinians, Catholics and Protestants), there is always some bid for resources, and the group that is more clearly defined will be better able to compete partially because of the efficiencies that accompany well understood group boundaries rather than porous ones. It is also the case that predicting the emergence of ethnic conflict is dependent on the distance between contenders. Distance is the degree of differences between group members. Thus, when group membership is dependent on physical differences such as skin color group boundaries are clear and it is impossible to infiltrate the group. It is easy to detect a stranger. But group differences marked by history, psychological identity, or religion give rise to fairly porous boundaries because it is easier to “pass.” This leads to the logic of intergroup conflict which is that smaller minority groups have more to gain by conflict, but larger groups engage in repression against minority groups in order to prevent them from attempting such things.
The model of exploitation identifies resources that groups compete for and concludes that the stronger group will compete successfully even though minorities can mobilize resources (protests, terrorism). Groups maintain and intensify their own identities because switching to another group identity is difficult and costly. The psychic costs are some of the most expensive. If a Palestinian decided to politically and culturally identify with a Zionist Jew then this would mean a serious loss in location-specific capital as well as a host of other identity issues. This results in the typical asymmetrical conflict situation where one group is more powerful with respect to political systems, military, and access to resources. And, interestingly, contemporary ethnopolitical conflicts are characterized by weak groups finding strategies of success. The weak actor strategy that best explains success in asymmetrical conflict is resolve. Regardless of material resources the actor with the most resolve often succeeds. Large and strong groups become more vulnerable politically because they are less resolute because of frustrated publics and required democratic processes.