Language and its Power

terrorism and language

Language certainly has the power to direct you towards pre-selected portions of reality. It makes it possible for false comparisons and confusion over categories of meaning. For example, there is a common statement that circulates in the public that is not only a facile generality but dangerous. If you actually believe this statement, if you are ensnared by its rhetorical trickery and literally accept the two propositions as being equal, then it reveals you as a less than rigorous thinker who cannot recognize or make important distinctions. If you accept the equivalence of the two propositions you are likely to put yourself and others in danger by being paralyzed with an inability to act and justify definitional clarity that allows for clear decision-making. The dangerous cliché I’m talking about is:

One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter.

If you believe this then Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda are the same as what might be considered a defensible national liberation movement. The semantic foundation of the cliché implies that nothing matters except perspective. It’s a cliché championed by terrorists because they want to present their own causes as positive and justified. And the logical extension of this thinking is that no violent act can be too odious because it is all in the service of national liberation. Terrorists love this phrase because it blurs the distinction between goals and the means to achieve the goals, when in fact no political movement can serve as a justification for terrorism.

This issue has emerged again given the events in Paris. And interestingly, ISIS is so extreme there has been very little political justification for their violence.
This cliché cannot stand and we need more political leaders and public intellectuals to condemn it. There needs to be public discussion and argument. Freedom fighters who are truly struggling against oppression do not kill innocent people and sow panic and confusion – murderers do. Why would the democracies and liberal political regimes around the world allow the word “freedom” to be used in this way? ISIS does not bring freedom they carry fear and oppression. The best reading on this is by Boaz Ganor and can be found here. It is crucial to make the distinction between terrorism and national liberation.
Let’s try to be a little clearer about terrorism. As Ganor describes, terror is (1) violent. Peaceful protests and demonstrations are not terrorism. Terrorism is (2) political. Violence without politics is simply criminal behavior. And (3) terrorism is against civilians with the goal of creating fear and confusion. It mixes with the media to produce anxiety. So what is not terrorism? Terrorism is not accidental collateral damage when the original target is military. Using citizens as shields places the onus of responsibility on those manipulating the citizenry, not those who initiated the attack if it was against a military target. It is also important to recognize those situations where targets of violence are clearly military and uniformed soldiers. Using guerrilla tactics does not necessarily mean terrorism.
It is important, too, that motives be taken into consideration. The real thorny problem is the idea that any form of national liberation – believed sincerely by a presumably oppressed group – justifies violence that is not considered terrorism. This perpetuates the dangerous relativism of the cliché. The hard mental work of distinguishing terrorism from other forms of violence is important if we are going to pass legislation to protect the public, have effective international cooperation, and assist those states struggling with terrorism.
If enough people genuinely accept this relativist cliché then all bets are off. Any sort of violence can be justified and the international community will have a collective shrug of its shoulders essentially saying, “who cares” because someone considers the violent group “freedom fighters” wrapped in vacuous rhetoric designed to justify violence. As difficult as it is to fashion a precise definition of terrorism, it is equally as difficult to imagine accepting ISIS and jihadist attacks against the French as the work of “freedom fighters.”

Note: This post was first published December 23, 2013

ISIS Burns Paris and Commits Genocide Against the Yazidis?

A man holds a placard reading "Yazidi children want to live" and sporting the Yazidi flag next to others holding placards during a demonstration mainly by Yazidi refugees in support of their community in Iraq, on August 20, 2014 in Angers, western France. Yazidi refugees living in France's Maine-et-Loire department, whom arrived in the region in the last 10 years, demonstrated along with Kurdish speakers on August 20 in Angers in support of Yazidis persecuted in Iraq by the Islamic State (IS). AFP PHOTO / JEAN-FRANCOIS MONIER (Photo credit should read JEAN-FRANCOIS MONIER/AFP/Getty Images)

A man holds a placard reading “Yazidi children want to live” and sporting the Yazidi flag next to others holding placards during a demonstration mainly by Yazidi refugees in support of their community in Iraq, on August 20, 2014 in Angers, western France. Yazidi refugees living in France’s Maine-et-Loire department, whom arrived in the region in the last 10 years, demonstrated along with Kurdish speakers on August 20 in Angers in support of Yazidis persecuted in Iraq by the Islamic State (IS). AFP PHOTO / JEAN-FRANCOIS MONIER (Photo credit should read JEAN-FRANCOIS MONIER/AFP/Getty Images)

How long do you stand on the sidelines? How long do you wait? France has declared war finally and the US still isn’t doing enough against ISIS. The Kurds are brave and powerful allies who are the tip of the sword in the fight against ISIS. They need more support and our relationship with Turkey be damned.

The US Holocaust Museum has called the Islamic state’s treatment of the Yazidis genocide. It is unfortunate that terms such as “genocide” get tossed about too often and therefore drained of their power. When people claim genocide for rhetorical purposes only the term becomes weakened and then, like the little boy who cried wolf too often, no one believes him when the wolf is actually at the door. And as much as we want to avoid foreign entanglements and stay out of the business of others, how long do you stand on the sidelines watching one group of people being destroyed by another. I’m careful about Holocaust comparisons and invoking the Nazis as the epitome of evil because it also drains the reality of its power. Moreover, anti-Semitism and the Jewish Holocaust are particularistic enough such that comparisons fail.

But below is the United Nations definition of genocide and it is pretty clear. Every one of the five conditions certainly applies to the Jewish Holocaust and the first three are quite descriptive of the Islamic state’s treatment of the Yazidis.

General Assembly Resolution 260A (III) Article 2. In the present Convention, genocide means any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part.

(a) Killing members of the group;

(b) Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;

(c) Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life;

(d) Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;

(e) Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group

But still, there are similarities and it’s important to find consistencies and defensible comparisons of genocide in one case so that we can recognize it in another.

Who are the Yazidis?

I’ll let the reader go to Wikipedia or some convenient Internet site for additional information on the Yazidis. But quickly, the Yazidis are a monotheistic religious community that lives in Iraq. They have been discriminated against religiously for centuries because their chief God is equated with a fallen angel in other religions and therefore Satan. In 2014 they were specifically targeted by ISIS in an effort to purify Iraq of non-Islamic influences. This unleashed a wave of rape and murder and calls for the destruction of the Yazidis by ISIS. Reports of Yazidis fleeing the town of Sinjar where they were being killed by ISIS forces in a genocidal manner are common enough. Young Yazidis women who had been raped by ISIS fighters were committing suicide.

The ISIS digital magazine Dabiq has claimed that slavery and the absorption of Yazidis women and children has religious justification. The US Holocaust Museum has identified the attacks on the Yazidis as genocide. This is based on evidence gathered by the Deputy Director of the museum during a visit to Yazidis camps.

There is clear evidence that the Islamic state has committed genocidal war crimes against the Yazidis as well as other religious offshoots. Every person interviewed claimed the violence against the Yazidis was systematic and more vicious than they had ever seen. Secretary Kerry should formally accuse ISIS of committing genocide and begin an international investigation.

Once again we are confronted with an extremist ethnopolitical group whose hate is of hallucinogenic proportions. Whether it be Jews, French citizens in a restaurant or at a concert, or Yazidis the question remains: how long do you wait before you do something?



The Republicans Are Wimps: How to Have a Deliberative Presidential Candidate Debate


10-commandments-of-LogicRemember, quality adversarial debate does not arise spontaneously. It is a public good that must be nurtured.

Is it really too much to ask that the political parties (but essentially the Republicans this year) work harder to turn even the primary debates into something a little more deliberative? These debates are structurally flawed and result in confusion and a cacophony of voices that are incoherent and fail to provide a line of reasoning for citizens to observe and learn from. Any debate structure put in place will have its strengths and weaknesses, but any structure will also be better than what we’ve been witnessing.

Running for president is not for sissies. You have to be able to stand up and respond to criticism and make your case to the public. And when attacked the candidate should, ideally anyway, respond with argumentative detail that demonstrates a full command of the issues. The Republican candidates who complained about “gotcha” questions and thought questions about one’s personal behavior and finances were out of line were more interested in manipulating the debate format into kid-glove treatment rather than vigorous engagement. If it seems like a candidate is going to bend under the pressure of a journalist asking him or her a “mean” question, then the candidate might have problems shouldering the burdens of the world.

The structure of the debates is consistent with the structure of the television medium. These 30 second time limits and response times are responsive to the commercial nature of television and the belief in the audience member’s limited processing capabilities. The debate format is not conducive to the engagement of complex issues such as Iraq, healthcare, gun control, race relations, and the like. Consequently, we get sound bite debates with simplistic images of “good guys” and “bad guys” who stand on the stage waiting for the right moment to insert a pre-prepared statement that is semi-related to the issue at hand and typically doesn’t advance an issue.

The 14 Republican candidates have the nerve to pose problematic and sometimes wild ideas such as deporting 10 million people, building walls to seal off immigrants, cutting a 70,000 page tax code to three pages, and then whimpering when they were challenged on these ideas. If these fringe Republican candidates get their way it will only be Fox News who gets to ask them softball questions.

Outline of a Deliberative Format

The following issues must be addressed in order to increase the communicative value of these debates and come closer to the commission’s goals for informing the public and fostering a truly deliberative environment. Read more about related issues in an article by Collier.

  1. The model of dialogue and reasoned deliberation has always expected the participants to be mutually joined and engaged in the same issue. In other words, they need to be talking about the same thing at the same time. Inserting canned and pre-prepared comments that are designed for nothing but manipulation and desperate attempts to make mini campaign speeches are an anathema to the dialogic and deliberative process.
  2. The Commission on Presidential Debates should first direct its attention away from what it believes to be its role in structuring debate formats and concentrate more on the constitutional right to receive information. This means structure the questions and the format of the debate so that specific controversial issues (gun-control, healthcare, the war in Iraq, fighting ISIS, taxes) receive required attention and time. The current debate structure deprives listeners of this information.
  3. There must be meaningful opportunities for response. As of now, no bad argument goes unpunished. There should be fact checkers working during the actual debate and candidates would be required to respond to discrepancies at a selected period of time at the end of the debate. These fact checkers could also provide additional context for misleading and manipulative quotes taken out of context.
  4. The opportunity to correct mistakes and challenge misleading comments is not trivial because unchallenged and uncorrected comments find a life of their own circulating in media discussion and among citizens. Lies, exaggerations, and out of context information becomes reified and assumes a truth value.
  5. A common strategy for aggressive campaign operatives is to make a false statement or accusation, uphold it for a couple of new cycles, and then disappear. Even if the statement is later shown to be a complete falsehood the damage has already been done to the opposing candidate. This “name-calling” tactic degrades the process and increases the magnitude of falsehoods circulating in the discourse.

I will have more to say on debates and their deliberative structure in future posts. But it would behoove us to keep in mind that citizens prefer to receive information from like-minded others. This causes distorted processing and polarization of the type we see today. It’s imperative that political candidates be exposed to a diversity of opinions in order to improve their own.



ISIS is Weak and Under Performing

waiting for ISIS food

Famished and queuing despondently as far as the eye can see, these images will have the Islamic State’s slick propaganda unit spitting feathers.

In scenes more familiar in the most impoverished refugee camps, scores of downtrodden Syrians wait in line for hours for food in the terror group’s self-declared capital Raqqa.

It’s a far cry from the all-conquering image of prosperity its jihadi PR machine would like the world to believe.

The pictures were posted on Twitter by a member of the anti-ISIS campaign group Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently who risk their lives every day by documenting atrocities from inside the city.

ISIS looks like a nightmare from the past. Its tactics are brutal, it’s religiously extreme and it is certainly dangerous. By way of their own words, they want to eliminate infidels, impose strict religious law, and establish the “caliphate.” Many feel already psychologically defeated by ISIS; there is a sense that ISIS’s growth in the future is inevitable and that their sophisticated propaganda will succeed in helping them build the foundation of a genuine state and territory it controls.

But as Stephen Walt has pointed out in Foreign Affairs ISIS is not the first extremist group to pose a threat. Similar movements have been associated with France, Russia, the Chinese, Cuba, as well as Iranian revolutionaries. They were all ruthless and sought to demonstrate their power and determination to everyone else. The good news is that these historically violent and revolutionary groups were all contained and their threats, while in some cases still viable, have all been diminished.

Thomas Lynch III, in a recent report that I highly recommend from the Wilson Center, is quite critical of ISIS and argues that they have underperformed in South Asia and failed their constituents in many ways. They pose no serious threat to Al Qaeda in the global Salafi jihadist project. Lynch compares them to the mythological Icarus by writing that ISIS has flown too close to the sun and engaged in brash and risky strategies that will consume it.

Walt explains that outside efforts to destroy revolutionary movements usually backfire because they harden positions and give these movements more possibilities for expansion by enlisting others in the fight against an outsider. A strong US presence with the stated goal of destroying ISIS would likely aggravate the hostility to the West and encourage ISIS’s claim that infidels and outsiders want to encroach upon their land and culture. The US would be better off “leading from behind” which means to stay in the background and provide quiet support. ISIS controls very small amounts of land and has very few military resources to enforce its doctrines. The Soviet Union could impose communism because of its powerful military establishment. ISIS has relatively few troops and no real military power. Moreover, Lynch poses problems for ISIS and their decision to declare an Islamic State. I elaborate a little on these below. All of these are serious weaknesses or mistakes for ISIS any one of which could potentially lead to their downfall.

  1. The decision by ISIS to declare an Islamic state has encouraged an international coalition of jihadists to oppose it. The declaration of a Caliphate did not resonate with established groups who differ on how they believe the Caliphate should come into being and when the time is right. ISIS will receive no support from various Islamic groups for its proposed Islamic state.
  2. The declaration of the Islamic state is a significant break and a challenge to Al Qaeda’s that only it will make such determinations. ISIS, for example, believes in violence against local opposition groups where the Al Qaeda believes that infidels (that would be Americans and Westerners) must be eliminated as a first priority. ISIS believes in unbridled violence where Al Qaeda is more willing to temper violence – difficult as that is to imagine.
  3. Lynch explains that Al Qaeda supports the slow evolution of Islamic Emirates that one day will merge into a caliphate. This strategy is too slow for ISIS who have declared a caliph now (al-Baghdadi). This has again caused a break in Salafist ideology.

The establishment of a caliphate is unlikely to generate much emotional intensity. It has caused divides among the various groups and will weaken everyone’s credibility. ISIS’s methods might scare Americans and attract some fanatics but it is not popular with many Muslims. And it must compete successfully with many Middle East identities that are national, sectarian, religious, and tribal. There’s a good chance both Al Qaeda and ISIS will implode. This means containment is the most sensible avenue at the moment. Let the United States remain cool for now and treat the main actors as an annoyance that we must keep our eye on, and our pistols cocked, but we will still bide our time.









Essentialism: Gender and Islam

boy and wheelchair-- essentialismname tag essentialism

boy and wheelchair but with classLook at the top picture first and notice the little boy in the wheelchair. He is clearly defined as “different” from the other children and is both spatially and psychologically defined by the chair. He is separate from the class and the chair fundamentally defines him. Now look at the bottom picture. The same little boy is on the right in the stripped sweater. The chair does not define his essence.

The basic tenet of psychological essentialism is the idea that humans have a core belief that unobservable essences are causally responsible for the surface features (behaviors) we observe. As such, the world is divided up into essences from which behaviors can be inferred. It’s the belief in an underlying reality or a true nature that cannot be observed.

At its ugliest, essentialism applied to ethnic groups is a form of racism because we assume that all members of a particular group share an unchangeable core reality with respect to physical or intellectual proclivities. It’s a pretty aggressive verbal attack to accuse someone of essentialism – especially in academia. Note what happened to Larry Summers, then President of Harvard, when he suggested that the scarcity of women in science and engineering might be because of gender differences in intrinsic aptitude. There was an outcry of protest and he no longer holds his coveted position. Moreover, if you believe someone’s behavior is governed by an essentialist property then other avenues of inquiry or explanation are eliminated. Why care about other explanations–social, economic, familial, political, educational–when this unseen essentialist quality explains everything.

Psychological essentialism can function as a “placeholder” in that one can believe that a given category possesses an essence without knowing what the essence is. Seen this way essentialism is a reasoning heuristic. But the reasoning is bad reasoning. The essentialist quality is mysterious and unknown and usually evolved as a result of inductive experiences that lead to mostly unjustified generalities.

One of the most common responses to essentialists is to pose a cultural explanation. But that has become problematic because it trades one orthodoxy for another. The essentialization of culture is no different than the essentialization of women or any other category. Women, for example, have been overgeneralized to the private sphere; that is, their domestic duties have been justified by essentialist explanations. They are assumed to be homogeneous. This has sanctioned the economic and sexual exploitation of women along with a host of distorted opinions, discriminatory practices, all known to be old-fashioned sexism.

In response feminist groups have demanded respect for the diversification of women and recognition of cultural differences resulting in categories such as “African Women,” “Muslim Women,” “Western Women,” “Third World Women,” and the like. These new cultural categories represent a homogeneous collection of heterogeneous people.

There is a conundrum in the feminist literature that depends on belief in women sharing certain properties but also seeks diversity and recognition for individuality. The feminists’ widespread rejection of essentialism has threatened to undermine feminist politics.

How legitimate is it to affix the modifier “Islamic” to some noun. Is there such a thing as “Islamic terrorism?” What essence are we drawing on when we refer to “Islamic art,” “Islamic politics,” “Islamic philosophy,” and “Islamic culture?” Do Islam, or Christianity, or Judaism, have an essence? Irfan Khawaja in his article on essentialism and Edward Said’s Orientalism, asked the question “how can one possibly talk about a single essence of Islam when what we see is irreducible variety?” Said goes about the business of claiming an essence for Orientalism while at the same time philosophically challenging essentialism.

In the end, essentialism is truly a psychological phenomenon in that we believe in essences because they are composed of a logic attributable to the “psyche.” The human belief in essences that represent terminal explanations becomes so reductionist that they are soon reduced to nothing.




The Concept of Peace in Islam

peace in Islam

In the West peace means predominantly the absence of war. Peace is the result of institutional agreements or the regulation of behavior and mutual negotiations about what is considered threatening or unacceptable to each side. Solving conflicts is a rational problem-solving activity and reason is primary. It is possible to settle Islamic conflicts and make peace, but it must be done within the conceptual context of the Koran. And in many ways this is not so different from other religions.

In the Muslim tradition peace is associated with human development and justice, but justice that is rooted in the Koran more than secular reason. Peace implies the maintenance of human dignity and a sense of balance and coherence in society. Peace in Islam is associated with God and considered to be one of the names for God. There are roughly 5 approaches to peace.

Power: In Islam sometimes it is necessary to simply assert political power and use secular tools to manage disorder; disorder and chaos are considered threats to Islam and must be dealt with. This approach emphasizes political necessities because the population or some aspect of the community is threatening the good order of Islam.

Peace Based on Koranic Law: Peace is a condition of the Koran and violations of rules are inconsistent with peace. The values of the Koran must be in place or the community is characterized as unstable and disorderly. A situation in which these values are not present may be characterized as disorderly, unstable and un-Islamic. Sometimes this approach can be abused because of the easy or casual assertion that Islamic law is being violated and thus harsh consequences are justified.

Peace Through the Power of Communication: There is a tradition of mediation and arbitration (these are fundamentally communicative in nature) in Islam. The concept of balance remains important here. This is the notion of peace which is consistent with the West and some secular approaches. It recognizes that balance in society is not only maintained by religious precept but by restorative justice. Consequently, those who have experienced loss can be compensated or when one family is disadvantaged by another balance is restored through repayment or restoration of some type.

Peace Through Power: Islam also calls for nonviolence and the maintenance of security even when these things must be maintained through traditional power. Again, the approach is rooted in a concept of coherence and balance where peace is maintained by responding to the other’s needs. Secure and authentic peace must be rooted in human dignity.

Peace Through the Regard for the Other: The love of God in the precepts of Islam make for a broad and encompassing harmony. Again, this is a place where the religious and the secular can meet because one is expressed by the other. Each person is able to turn inward and find the value in the other through Islam. There is room here for change and transformation including the possibility of redemption.

Islam recognizes that humans are social and must live together. Thus, there has developed a line of thinking from religious documents to the daily organization of society. This is essentially the relationship between Islam and the state. There is much in Islam that puts the community’s interest first. But most important of all is the consistency between religious principles and the political system which always provides an avenue of redress. The community always has its mundane and routine needs but these are rooted in tradition, respect, and consistency with Islamic law. Islam is a classically collectivist culture where individuals are less important than the collectivity. Individuals are punished or judged to the extent that they disturb the good order of the community. The individual counts little by himself – a concept quite different in the West. It is the clan or society that has the right to protect itself by punishing a recalcitrant individual. Someone’s guilt or innocence is couched in the context of threatening or sustaining the community. And there must be an authority (textual or human) responsible for maintaining community order. This is regarded as absolutely necessary since society without authority is impossible.





Why Putin’s Support of Syria Is Okay for Israel

Putin and Netanyahu

Even at the risk of overstating the point, Russia has an increasingly more accommodating stance toward Israel than most people realize. One reason for this is Russia’s claim to support political systems that defend their citizens. Edward Luttwak, writing in Tablet, sang Putin’s praises for his “defense of his friends” and criticized the Obama administration for abandoning their partners every time the police shoot at a protester. Putin supports Syria surely because he wants to keep his base at Tartus, but he also wants to establish Russia as a friend who can be counted on.

Putin expresses the same sensibilities about Israel – he respects their right to defend themselves. The more general and encompassing relationship between Russia and Israel is accommodating even though there is a history of contentious disagreement. The Soviet Union did align themselves with Arab nationalist governments and Israel and the Soviet Union were estranged for many years. But they exchanged ambassadors again in 1991 and continue to have a certain amount of trade. Israel occasionally sends fighter-bombers over Syria to hit Hezbollah targets and Netanyahu and Putin have agreed to inform each other about flight plans. Think about this a moment. Russia has accepted Israel’s right to bomb in Syria when Russia has troops and equipment on the ground. That requires a fair amount of trust and cooperation.

According to Michael Katz in the Middle East Quarterly Putin has worked to upgrade Russia’s relations with Israel. There are numerous flights each day from Tel Aviv to Moscow and a large Russian population in Israel. Still, we can’t be too sanguine about this because serious differences remain. Moscow supports Iran’s nuclear development and provides many of the construction contractors. This support for Iran is certainly puzzling because Russia may be a practical political system, but it clearly opposes and objects to ISIS and all the efforts to establish an Islamic state be it Sunni or Shia. Stopping the Islamic state, a goal he shares with Israel, is one of its stated justifications for its Syrian support.

Russia has had its own problems with the Chechnyans and can sympathize with Israel’s struggle with Palestinians and Jihadist Islam. In fact, the declaration of “no negotiations with terrorists” is probably the most characteristic statement that binds Israel and Russia. Putin has pointed out the similarities between the Israeli conflict with the Palestinians and Russia’s with the Chechnyans and this has translated into mutual sympathy. But is sharing terrorism experiences sufficient to move the Russians more toward Israel? I think not. Katz in the article referenced above believes a more recent Russian pro-Israel attitude is the result of Putin’s personal preference. Putin has a deep dislike for the Chechnyans and believes they have no justification for complaints against Russia. He refuses to recognize their complaints or negotiate with them. Couple this with Israel’s general agreement and sympathy for Russia’s stance toward the Chechnyans, and you have the makings of a common enemy resulting in Israel-Russian alignment.

In the end, the relationship between Russia and Israel will remain as complex and multifaceted as the situation in Syria. Israel is certainly gratified that Russia is bombing ISIS targets and considers them a threat. But, on the other hand, Israel has no sympathy for maintaining the Assad regime and will never align with Russia on this matter. Then again, to make matters even more confusing, Russia is attacking militias some of which are supported by the United States – a great friend of Israel.

Before you know it the United States will be siding with its enemy Iran (Shia Muslims) against ISIS (Sunni Muslims) and asking the Russians to stop supporting Alawite Muslims (the Assad regime) and join with the United States and Iran to fight ISIS, while Israel sits safely on the sidelines. Wait a minute! That’s what’s happening now.






Individual Decision-Making Is a Rat’s Nest of Distortions

bad decision-making

As Daniel Kahneman describes, there are two types of thinking. The first called System 1 thinking is quick, immediate, impulsive, emotional, and reptilian. It has its foundation in our early evolutionary development and has the advantage of being responsive quickly and almost automatically. So, sexually charged messages are processed without much thought and on the basis of an immediate emotional and physiological response. System 2 thinking came later in human development and it is slow, deliberative, and reflective. This is how decisions are supposed to be made in democracies and in the context of complex data and argument.

Cass Sunstein in his work on decision-making explains how there are not enough System 2 thinkers and, moreover, there is a tendency to think decision-making is mostly subject to System 2 thinking when much of it is corrupted by the anger and emotions of System 1 thinking. This is the trap of believing that individuals mostly maximize rational preferences and are rational actors. Sunstein and his associates in a number of their publications (cf. Wiser: Getting beyond Groupthink to Make Groups Smarter) claim that groups should be more deliberative and subject to System 2 thinking and therefore make better decisions. But they don’t.

Individuals who are making decisions are a rat’s nest of biases, distortions, and prejudices. They are overconfident, emotional, and will follow the herd. Their thinking is clouded by interpersonal relations including status hierarchies they wish to respect; they repress information that might upset someone; they seek information that confirms what they believe already and they are overly influenced by other individuals who are either attractive, particularly persuasive, or maintain some psychological “hold” on the individual. People who hold on to ideological beliefs with great fortitude and refuse to budge from their belief system, who automatically incorporate every position other than their own as either a threat or something to be embraced devolve into System 1 thinkers. This describes the Congressional Republicans as well as nationalistic and religious zealots.

System 1 thinking is so typically distorted and commonplace in decision-making groups that research has shown that decisions can be improved if members don’t meet. Statistical groups are sometimes superior because they focus on the task and eliminate social influences. But statistical groups do not have the epistemic advantage of communication which, if participants can overcome their distortions and improve their argumentative skills, has the potential of producing new knowledge and creative outcomes.

Statistical non-interactive groups may offer some decision-making advantages that accrue through the cumulative effects of individual knowledge and information. But they are quite deficient when dealing with deep differences and those who are intolerant and prejudice prone. The value and effectiveness of the contact hypothesis is a well-established and even demonstrates positive results with the most intolerant and ideological. Threat and anxiety reduction are one of the theoretical benefits of contact and these apply also to the highly intolerant.


Stories as Arguments

Stories play an important role in asymmetric ethnopolitical conflicts with each side using stories to legitimize their own experiences. Sometimes stories contribute to polarization between the two sides and strengthen the tendency to exclude others and classify them as morally objectionable. But stories play a particularly important role in asymmetric conflicts because the root of such conflicts is the relationship between adversaries and the influences of culture and history on these relationships. It is stories that carry meaning and narrate culture and history. Stories are the data that conflict participants in asymmetric conflicts use to support their version of history. Consequently, stories serve as powerful expressions of subjective reality that on the one hand must be taken seriously as a picture of the lived world of the participant, but are also used as arguments that can be examined and challenged.

narrative as argument

Stories as Arguments

Treating stories as arguments is a powerful form of communication analysis that resonates with human experiences. For asymmetrical conflict, narrative can be a communicative technique for pursuing common interests. In other words, a narrative is a story that relates to events and people. It has a plot, a storyline, and cast of characters. When someone tells a story, even an ethnopolitical narrative characterized by loss or violence, the story illustrates a reality of their life. The narrative has personal and ideological value to the individual and represents a lived experience that must be made sensible. A story that relates a real experience is the basic mechanism for conveying the nature of reality including judgments and the truth value of certain statements. It is both an individual subjectivity that is susceptible to all of the confusions and distortions individuals are capable of, as well as a story built on argument principles. If an Israeli is listening to the story of a Palestinian and the Palestinian tells the tale of oppression and difficult circumstances, along with subplots of personal experiences concerning confrontations with the military and violence, then that story is real to the individual and subject to debate and discussion, albeit difficult debate and discussion. The same is true for a Palestinian listening to an Israeli talk about historical discrimination, the state of Israel, and the moral and legal difficulties of the conflict. The stories are part of personal experiences and representative of the different ways of speaking and knowing that must be explored in dialogue by all participants.

The high standard of argument proposed by deliberation theorists is realistically out of reach and not descriptive of actual deliberation, which is more emotional than rational and rooted in “conversation argument” rather than theoretical models of argument. In the traditional description of an argument it is a formal structure that exists independently of individuals. Hence, it is not unusual to see diagrams illustrating formal relationships about claims, data, and conclusions. But conversational reasoning, which is where storytelling that functions as argument is expressed, views communication as pragmatic. A “conversational” argument is concerned with presumptive reasoning rather than logic.

Presumptive reasoning is based on pragmatics and draws conclusions from context in general usage of the term rather than from formal structure. This type of conversational reasoning is statistical in that it assumes a certain relationship exists. For example, I might say John (x) supports government welfare programs (A) and is therefore a Democrat (B). The relationship between (A) and (B) is presumptive or statistical in that the association is defensible but certainly not logically required. There are situations where (A) is not (B) and there can be conversational inconsistency. Certainly the idea of “supporting government programs” and “being a Democrat” can be definitionally inconsistent.

Reasoning processes like these develop their own standards of defensibility. The form of argument that occurs in everyday interactions is not dependent on logic but is informed more by how people reach acceptable conclusions. It is a frequent and persistent form of communicating between members of asymmetric groups. The presumptive relationship between supporting government welfare programs and being a Democrat will change over time and be influenced by many communication variables including contexts. The implications of this relationship between (A) and (B) and the questions and critical inquiry it stimulates are central to the deliberation process. Various psychological factors and levels of commitment will also influence deliberative communication. One could believe in the presumptive relationship and be emotionally committed to it even though it is indefensible on numerous evidentiary grounds. Arguments can be more easily inconsistent as well as failing to meet principles of proper inferential reasoning but still be influential. This is the nature of stories as argument.

Is Ending History Possible?

Liberal Democracy1Liberal Democracy2

I’ve always been a little bit partial to Francis Fukuyama’s argument that liberal democracies and market economies represent the natural gravitational pull for all political cultures. Fukuyama argued in his provocatively titled book “The End of History” that even the most repressive regimes could not escape sprouts of resistance that led to more democratic processes and freer markets. These were not only ideologically and economically superior but they were natural to humans. Of course, some pundits at the time suggested that this supposedly natural pull toward market economies and liberal democracies was grounds for repressive or oppressive behavior and would lead to a sort of conservative triumphalism that forced political systems on other cultures. The hard-core diversity stance also naturally resisted this argument suggesting that alternatives and variations were certainly possible.

Still, historical analyses and observations of pressures that emerge in political systems, not to mention a sort of inescapable common sense, make it difficult to escape the natural superiority of democratic processes and market economies. Given the advent of science, the Enlightenment, modernity, and the political and economic stability of Western democratic societies, it does seem like the world is evolving in that direction. It’s not that there are not branches and deviations (Pol Pot, Nazi Germany, Marxism) from this supposed march toward openness and democracy for the route is not a straight line. But it does seem to be the case that if we take a step backward we can over time take 1 ½ steps forward and on the average – even according to measurements of democracy around the world – continue to progress.

Then, we encounter ISIS. A nightmare from history that you thought we had awakened from centuries ago. Even after the US won the battle with communism and China turned its head toward capitalist practices the advent of ideologies like ISIS is a bracing reminder that maybe these democratic values are not so universal after all. Sometimes other cultures recognize the benefits of liberal democracies and free markets but they resent the preaching of the West and always feel a little humiliated and pressured by the United States. They sometimes reject liberal values simply because they are espoused by the US. Additionally, conservative sensibilities about the role of women, religion, and communicative rights make for common ground between authoritarian cultures like Russia and religious cultures in places like Africa or the Middle East.

Even the liberal advances of the West, which can be considered part of American exceptionalism, are relatively new and in some cases quite shallow. The US continues to hope that others will copy us, that they will see the errors of their ways. But waiting for others to simply “get it” will make for a pretty long wait. We don’t even know what it is we are asking them to copy. And it is true enough that we could turn this into a political scientist’s playpen with all sorts of theories, foreign policies, and suggestions on how to establish democratic sensibilities. But this doesn’t seem the best agent for change either.

The simple essence of democracy, which is popular sovereignty and individual rights, probably cannot be forced or imposed on anyone. There is an obvious logical contradiction here. How can democracy and individual rights be a “natural” evolution if it is being forced on someone? Surely it is best if such values emerge from inside political cultures but the counter forces of power and self-aggrandizement by a few can prevent the flowering of democracy for a long time – maybe forever.

It’s true enough that US preaching and heavy-handed manipulations may be counterproductive but that does not weaken the core value of democratic systems which is the notion of human rights, or that people have a right to legitimate participation in the political process. No society can hold together its multiethnic and multireligious subgroups without some sense of what it means to have human rights that are genuine and culturally authentic. Such authenticity is crucial because values forced by other cultures will always be resisted. Moreover, the attractions of nationalism and religious identity are powerful. They will be overcome only by something more powerful such as a social contract that guarantees the legitimacy of everyone’s participation, and the protected sound of their voice.


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