Future Work in Deliberation Will Tackle the Problem of Religiously and Ethnically Divided Societies

The essence of deliberative communication One of the biggest tensions in both politics and culture is the balance between membership in an ethnic community and the sense of belonging it provides versus a more capacious mentality with respect to respecting democratic ideals of inclusiveness and fairness. Many current cultural and political problems trace their roots to multicultural situations and settings where social cohesion is lost as settings become more diverse. Consequently, politics is essentially about the management of differences. And one of the most difficult differences to manage is ethnic identity which offers a strong sense of belonging but is quite dumbfounded when it comes to developing intergroup cooperation and an identity sufficiently broad enough to include both sides of a conflict.

The “received” deliberative democracy literature is mostly broad and normative focusing on abstractions about how to reconcile differences in a democratic manner. But one of the underappreciated difficulties of the more theoretical approach to deliberation is that it fails to sufficiently embrace the matter of power asymmetries. These are when values and interests are deeply entrenched and inequality is part of the natural state of affairs between two groups such that one side is economically and militarily superior.

The first and most important question is how one imagines deeply divided societies or groups coming together. Ethnopolitically divided societies might live near each other and tolerate a side-by-side existence, but they can’t share trust and a sense of community. The two sides must ultimately work to transform the context, the individuals, and their cultural differences in order to create a relationship rooted more in mutuality than rank group identification. On one level, this involves transforming identities – which is theoretically possible because identities are described as social constructions which means they can be constructed, deconstructed, and reorganized. This is the transformative and epistemic sense of deliberation which believes in the gradual process of creating new relationships and shared communities. Again, the question remains as to how this transformation happens. Or, what is the mechanism or interaction pattern responsible for achieving this new state of affairs.

Rigorous and serious deliberation is an antidote to communication based on bargaining, trading off interests, and manipulations designed to achieve private goals. Deliberation is about interest and preference formation. But in the case of deliberation for divided societies power asymmetries must be accounted for. In fact, it makes little sense to ignore just the defining issue that is the root of the conflict. Differences between divided societies are usually moral and cultural in nature but it is close to impossible to arrive at moral consensus between ethnopolitically separated groups. This is where what I call “Reasonable Disagreement” (Chapter 3 in my most recent book Fierce Entanglements: Communication and Ethnopolitical Conflict) can be helpful. Reasonable disagreement – the details of which are beyond the concerns of this posting – begins by treating the other not as an enemy but as an adversary as Iris Young argues. Reasonable disagreement is simply the assumption that there is more than one defensible way to make an argument or hold a belief. It recognizes that one group’s worldview is not necessarily or clearly superior or correct. There is simply no way to manage differences and develop cultural sensitivity between groups without their remaining gaps of meaning and understanding that simply must be tolerated.

Viewing the other side of a divided society as an “enemy” requires vanquishing him or her because the other side is typically considered wrong and worthy of annihilation (either literally or symbolically). “Adversaries”, on the other hand, are respected worthy opponents that cannot be thoroughly vanquished. Reasonable disagreement has two senses: the first is as a political value to be nurtured and developed in a democratic society. It is a foundational plank of the requirements for tolerance and diversity in liberal democratic societies. The second sense is as an epistemic value responsible for new and creative decision-making.

I think the challenges of ethnopolitically divided societies are going to be the subject of increasing research and theoretical attention in the future – and rightfully so.

 

 

 

Obama and the Language of Contention

I’ve been a little surprised at the number of people who want the President of the United States, a man of dignity and diplomacy, to sound like some macho character out of a movie. Obama has lately been chastised for not labeling ISIS an Islamic threat and identifying its specific religious motivations. I personally have no problem recognizing the religious roots of ISIS despicable behavior and have even pointed it out myself on occasion. But it is not fitting for the President who speaks to numerous audiences and is responsible for maintaining the peace and representing the interests of diverse groups (even mainstream Muslims).

When it comes to the language of contention as soon as you label a group that label begins the construction process – the construction of characteristics and emotional responses associated with the group. “Naming” is the first step in the stereotype and prejudice formation process. As soon as ISIS or some other jihadist group is named and becomes increasingly defined as “Muslim” the name becomes the basis for perceptual discriminability and these characteristics are more likely to become the basis for defining groups.

Very simply, by labeling these groups as Islamic the act of categorizing them triggers negative stereotypes associated with the term “Islamic.” Consequently, the problem is exacerbated rather than managed. Moreover, labeling extremist groups as Muslim exaggerates ingroup-outgroup biases and increases the sense of essentialism that accompanies the definition of outgroups. Having a world leader label the international criminal behavior of groups such as ISIS just makes them more salient.

The Narcissism of Small Differencesnarcissism of small differences

Hate is a powerful unifying passion and it is even more dominant in extremist movements. As soon as a movement or ideology is associated with “hate” other meanings creep in – meanings such as disgust, fear, contempt, and others. Elites and those with regular public voices (such as the President of the United States) can more easily energize the feelings of ordinary people against groups labeled negatively in some way. And this activates what Freud called “the narcissism of small differences.” The story below exemplifies the fragile state of group relationships when they are isolated and differentiated to such a degree that “any difference seems to be a difference”.

I was walking across a bridge one sunny day, and I saw a man standing on the edge, about to jump. I ran over and said: ‘Stop. Don’t do it.’
‘Why shouldn’t I?’ he asked.
‘Well, there’s so much to live for!’
‘Like what?’
‘Are you religious?’
He said: ‘Yes.’
I said. ‘Me too. Are you Christian or Buddhist?’
‘Christian.’
‘Me too. Are you Catholic or Protestant?”
‘Protestant.’
‘Me too. Are you Episcopalian or Baptist?’
‘Baptist.’
‘Wow. Me too. Are you Baptist Church of God or Baptist Church of the Lord?’
‘Baptist Church of God.’
‘Me too. Are you original Baptist Church of God, or are you reformed Baptist Church of God?’
‘Reformed Baptist Church of God.’
‘Me too. Are you Reformed Baptist Church of God, reformation of 1879, or Reformed Baptist Church of God, reformation of 1915?’
He said: ‘Reformed Baptist Church of God, reformation of 1915.’
I said: “Die, heretic scum,” and pushed him off the bridge.

If the President of the United States begins to label mainstream Muslims, who are more like us than not, as dangerous or violent or any other even minor characteristic then the narcissism of small differences triggers because according to Freud and a few that follow him we reserve our most intense dislike and feelings of threat for those who are more like us than not like us. The very strange “other” can certainly be threatening but we don’t identify with that person or group. But the more a group or an individual is “nearly-me” the more I project my own distasteful qualities. The narcissist’s natural tendency to distinguish and separate himself from others causes him to exaggerate differences in the service of his narcissism. So, small differences that should be ignored or evaporate become big differences. The President of the United States can halt or prevent this process by carefully choosing his language and avoiding the “language of contention.”

Blaming the US for Trouble in the Middle East Is Simply a Stretch

coalition against terrorLast week a respected friend and colleague sent me an email making the standard claims about how all the problems in the Middle East are the result of imperial borders, colonialism, and US foreign policy. It’s the “blame the US” refrain. If you believe the West is responsible for ISIS and Middle East violence then you are easily manipulated by the Islamic state into believing just what they want you to believe. Sure, there is much to criticize about colonialism but borders are not so central to contemporary problems. Let’s take up the case of Iraq (for additional reading go to an article in The Atlantic available here). The three provinces of Iraq – Mosul, Baghdad, and Basra – were historically treated as the one area (called Mesopotamia) and Iraq’s eastern border with Iran dates back to the early Ottoman Empire. The boundaries of Iraq are not so arbitrary. Interestingly, the country with some of the newest Western carved out borders is Jordan and it is the more stable country as a result of King Abdullah.

We fool ourselves into believing that how the Middle East was carved up after World War I and the fall of the Ottoman Empire is responsible for all the problems. Did you ever ask yourself what it is about a political culture that allowed extremism to take root in the first place! I can give you five explanations for the spread of fundamentalist violence and jihadism. The answers to these issues are always complex, and surely the United States is not completely innocent, but the list below better captures the realities of the political system that absorbs extremism.

  1. It is not a stretch, and an easy connection to make, when one blames so many leaders in the Middle East who failed to deliver a semblance of prosperity and freedom. Countries like Egypt modeled their secular world on the Soviet Union rather than Western market economies and have paid the price ever since.
  2. Political participation is one of the last things authoritarian leaders want so they have encouraged citizens to take solace in mosques. Consequently religion and the language of religion is the most common currency. Saudi Arabia has directly supported the fundamentalist Wahhabi strand of Islam.
  3. Ruling elites must give up something and guide the transition to democracy and open economies, but they have failed to do so in many places. Elites are crucial for the transition to modern political systems.
  4. The Middle East has lived by oil and will die by oil. An economy based on one resource is doomed to fade away in time but for now provides tremendous wealth to some but not others. The Gulf economies have failed to develop in certain economic areas and once again Islam stepped in as a refuge. The work of diversifying economies has yet to be done.
  5. Finally, the Muslim confrontation with modernity has partially damaged the culture rendering it less able to adapt and once again reinforcing religion as the common identity binding language.

It’s natural to look for explanations for things but reducing the violence, and confusion, and complexity of the collection of countries in what we call the Middle East to American foreign policy or humiliations is not very productive.

ISIS, which probably constitutes the most stable future threat, was created by all sorts of forces very few of which are rooted in US foreign policy. An excellent reading on this matter is “Who is to blame for the rise of ISIS?” It explains how the Iraqi Army has failed to defend borders and people; the Iraqi people have not challenged ISIS sufficiently; Nouri Al-Maliki the leader of Iraq failed to put together a majority power-sharing government; and even premature troop withdrawal is partially the blame for the rise in ISIS’s power.

In the end, ISIS came to power because individuals made the choice to adopt and support the movement. They chose violence over reconciliation. The vile quality that allows ISIS to consider itself murderously superior is well enough understood in history and social scientifically. Western democracies such as the US are not primarily responsible for the creation of ISIS, but will certainly have to play a major role in its elimination.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Sin of Sanctity

Below is a video of Obama’s comments at the prayer breakfast where he compared the Crusades to the religious extremism of ISIS. It was a clumsy comparison and I probably would have counseled him to find another way to make the point. But he was speaking casually. Still, he was not wrong. The general principle that any exclusivist claim to truth – whether it be religious or secular – creates a psychology of sanctity and sets into motion extreme justifications is defensible.

The sense that a group or an idea is larger than us and we identify with it is basic to our evolutionary psychology. Group and ideational identification has a survival value and it is deeply set in our consciousness. That’s why people identify so strongly with political groups, national entities, belief systems of various types (communism, socialism, capitalism, Stalinism), and of course religions. But it remains true, as others have quipped before, that you will die for your ethnic or religious group but not for your golf club. You might belong to a book group and acquire some group identity as a result, but you cannot imagine dying for your book group in the same way you would for your country or your religious group. The difference is sanctity or the belief that your national or religious group and its actions have divine reality. Nobody believes their book group is divine.

In the most extreme cases death and an afterlife become a truer reality for believers. One Muslim extremist group commented after a bombing that they “chose death as a path to life” a sentiment that on its face makes no sense but upon reflection refers to a truer and higher reality yet to come. They seek and believe in a divine reality that transcends individuals and requires integration. Violence in the service of this higher divine reality is simply a tool. The Rev. Paul Hill, who killed a doctor at a women’s clinic, spent his days in jail exclaiming that “the Lord had done great things through him.”

When something is sacred it takes precedence over everything else. In the heart of the true believer nothing stands in the way of duty to God, sacred land, or artifacts. Yet it remains worth asking the question why some resort to such vicious violence and others do not. Some Christians, Jewish religious settlers, and Hindus (BJP) have all engaged in violence, and have a strong sense of the sacred, but not on the scale of ISIS. One explanation is the centrality and intensity of sanctity along with the politics that requires purification. The more this world is considered “unclean” and the next world is “more real than this reality” then moral and ethical frameworks that soften judgments of others begin to melt away.

Acting in the name of a nation or the simple politics and power of resource acquisition is a mundane concern that has pragmatic value only. But when a territory or an idea is sacred boundaries close in and walls go up with almost no room for interpretive latitude. Moreover, the actions of an individual or group hold no value when they are simply pragmatic and consequently it is easier to perpetrate violence against them. And one reason managing conflict with the sanctity motivated is so difficult is that the very act of changing your behavior either for others or because of secular incentives is understood as a violation of the sacred. It becomes proof that the “true path” is being violated.

So, it is nothing doctrinal about Christianity, or Judaism, or Islam that supports greater violence; rather, it is the intensity of the sacred.

The Media’s Distorted Relationship with Israel

Media Bias and IsraelMatti Friedman writing in The Atlantic wrote a trenchant article about what the media gets wrong with Israel. Friedman makes the point that the press is failing the public when it comes to its duty to inform and provide a platform for issues and debate. In a number of publications Friedman has pointed out stories that are purely ideological, an overemphasis on stories with a certain perspective, and a disproportionate amount of media attention on the conflict without being particularly informative. You can read The Atlantic article here.

His analysis is important because it recognizes the banality of news gathering (the pressure of deadlines, journalist fatigue, financial constraints, distractions) and how it influences news gathering and results in mistakes and minor distortions. But Friedman claims that the true explanation lies elsewhere and that the flow of information is intentionally manipulated. Here’s his explanation.

First, international journalists in Israel live in the same social context and have a certain uniformity of attitude and behavior. The people in these groups know one another and that’s why four or five stories written by different people sound alike. There is a uniformity to the stories because this group of people share information and talk on a regular basis. Journalists also tend to be liberal and that’s one reason that the Israeli story, according to Matti Friedman, is less known and understood then the Palestinian story.

The same is true for NGOs and humanitarian organizations. Journalists view them through a positive humanitarian filter and consequently write about them in the language of public relations puff pieces. The truth is that these NGOs and humanitarian organizations have political agendas, plenty of funding from international sources, and are happy to buy drinks in the American Colony Courtyard.

A disdain for Israel is almost a prerequisite for admission to this journalist social club. The conscientious new reporter arriving in Israel will spend time educating himself or herself about the conflict including its history, religion, and cultural implications. But many new journalist arrivals to Israel cling to their colleagues who already have a framework and a “story” about who’s a good guy who’s a bad guy. Many of the standard criticisms have already been described and producing a story is little more than coordinating and repackaging stories that have already been written. The Middle East is full of failed governments that are authoritarian and corrupt, but there is more likely to be a story critical of Israel than anyone else.

Friedman bluntly indicts the Associated Press for having moved from a journalistic tradition of careful description to one of advocacy. Moreover, there has developed a narrative, or a story with standard plot lines and characteristics, that is increasingly consistent and coherent for both Palestinians and Israelis. But the Israeli narrative is fueled more by ideology than facts. The standard script for Israel has more bad guys (settlers, far right politicians, IDF, Netanyahu), but the only Palestinian “bad guys” are abstract groups (e.g. Jihadists).

There has always been a gap between what journalists write and what is actually going on, but in the case of the Israel-Palestine conflict the gap is too large and the distortions too intentional. The Israeli narrative, in addition to its long list of bad guys, portrays the Palestinians as weak and innocent victims and the Israelis as oppressors. Groups like Hamas choose journalists to talk to carefully and use them to magnify messages.

There is a cynical attitude about truth in the modern world which denies its existence and claims that any agreed-upon truths are social constructions anyway. Such an argument might be defensible on the basis of philosophical discourse but less so on the basis of political discourse. Much of what is written about Israel fits that narrative constructed by others and is either completely untrue or “untrue enough.” Ferreting out and reviewing as much truth as possible is a continuing journalist challenge.

How New Digital Technology Encourages Terrorism and Threatens Democracy

digital media and securityThere was a time when surveillance and security concerns did not trample on the rights of individuals or democratic principles because the entire matter was too difficult and cumbersome. In the old days when the threat was only ideological (e.g. communism) security issues were far less immediate and gathering information was a slow and lumbering process. But now there is a marriage of violence and digital technology. It is no accident that the correlation between terrorism and media presence and sophistication is strong and positive. As digital technology has advanced, along with the ease and availability of violence, so has terrorist activity and the technology and security requirements necessary to control it.

The threat to individual rights and democratic processes is always easy to defend when faced with rank violence. Of course we cannot let extremist ideologies and easy violent behavior dictates the political environment. But digital technology allows nonstate actors as well as other participants to engage in violence with ease by historical standards. Again, during the relatively simple period of security issues during the Cold War if an individual were a potential threat to the United States he could be detained or we could even enlist the help of others and subject the individual to legal processes. In the modern digital age the means and techniques of interrogating individuals and gathering information are less compatible with legal principles and offer more options – some of them unpleasant and questionable legally and morally.

In the Cold War if we wanted to learn secrets about somebody someone could be assigned to “tail them” and see what they could learn. This was slow, unreliable, and not a very productive use of resources. It was impossible to have enough people assigned to potential sources of information. Searching your person or your property required legal permission. New digital media can gather vast amounts of information from your cell phone, websites, credit card purchases, etc. The state has the legal right to gather information from organizations and it can all be done by a few people in a single place. Moreover, all of the electronic data about you is potentially more informative and revealing than any information obtainable from a coworker or close friend. Purely human information is fallible; people are not paying attention to what you’re doing, or you forget what you did at a certain time and place. But your cell phone and computer don’t forget. It’s all there in simple searchable form.

In the Cold War there was no technology available for massive data-gathering like collecting phone messages from entire communities. Today, the technology is available along with the software sophistication for massive meta-data collection. In fact, Facebook does the equivalent every day.

The security issues in the modern era are serious because of the easy availability of violence and technology. The security sector of the state measures itself by its ability to prevent incidents and is thus motivated to do more and more, regardless of how far the edges of acceptability are pushed, to ensure that there are no more 9/11s. These conditions threaten our democracy as they push the pendulum more towards the security side of the continuum. Still, surveillance and security are part of any state and targeting an opponent of the state capable of violence is legitimate.

Practical limits and approval from proper chains of authority are the only answer to maintain the balance between security and democracy. But new challenges and interesting questions still are on the horizon. Google and Apple, for example, are planning on encryption devices in new versions of cell phones. Security forces are legitimately concerned that this will make important information even more difficult to obtain. But such devices will strike a blow for privacy and individual rights while maintaining the tension between security and democracy.

 

How to Create a Terrorist – Criminal Justice or War

indexThe newspapers are full of stories about how these Jihadies get created. The typical headline reads “The Journey to Extremism,” or “The Radicalization of Mohammed,” or “From Amateur to Slaughter.” The “from-to” structure is apparent as the story always tells a tale of the evolution (or should we say devolution) of the terrorist’s political consciousness and radicalization.

The fact is that we know quite a bit about this process. Terrorism has been the subject of study for some time with an accepted enough definition regarding the use of violence against noncombatants for the purpose of political goals. The problem is that the distinction between combatants and noncombatants has been getting fuzzier for some years. The US killed lots of innocent people during the bombing of Serbia and even during World War II.

The Western, and shall we say more developed world, continues to be chagrined at the creation and presence of terrorists because our first reaction is that they must be psychologically damaged or “crazy.” But we have known for some time that psychopathologies are no more likely among terrorist than non-terrorists. In fact, if terrorists were truly crazy and psychopathological it would be easier to track them and prevent their destructive ways. So, how does it happen? Does a terrorist just decide one day to be a terrorist?

First, from the work of Horowitz and McCauley we know that terrorists kill for a combination of ideology and group dynamics. They are attached to a cause that is worth dying for but more importantly the cause and the ideology are seen as greater than the individual even leading perhaps to immortality. The most normal person believes in something greater than himself (a religious group, a political party, the social ideology).

Secondly, the group dynamics become even more important as death or violence becomes nearer because the group membership gives it meaning. The group becomes the same as a family or culture allowing members to embrace its values. And any set of important values will do. The common refrain is that religion accounts for so much death but secular ideology (Maoists, Shining Path, Red Brigade, Baader Meinhof, communism, Stalinism) accounts for and justifies more death than religion. Although these secular ideologies have met their match in jihadist Islam.

Third, there are few conditions more potent than a collection of highly focused intense like-minded people who reinforce one another. We all belong to lots of groups but when one group becomes dominant and foregrounded in our consciousness with respect to identity the group becomes particularly powerful. Other members of the group become like family with intense interpersonal commitments fueled by a belief in a just cause. The psychology of extremist behavior is normal psychology but just intensified.

Criminal Justice or War

How do we handle the French terrorists or the Boston Marathon bombers? Are they criminals engaged in illegal activity in which we must provide evidence of illegal behavior, or is this a war? For starters, describing something as a war moves it away from individual responsibility toward group responsibility. But this just feeds into terrorist goals which are to convince you that their individual behavior represents the will of large groups. It is true enough that we should always examine foreign policy to see how we might be contributing to discontent, but this is certainly no excuse for the typical violence associated with terrorism. When we call for a “war” on the terrorists we are using language that justifies broader military operations and of course different legal implications.

It is time to move beyond simple questions about where these terrorists come from and how they are created. We know a lot about the development of violent behavior and under the right conditions most people are capable of it. We need, instead, a concerted effort to understand how we might defuse these conditions. This would include a more systematic defense of liberal values by Western leaders as well as efforts by group leaders (e.g. mainstream Muslims) to direct grievances away from violence.

 

 

 

 

A Very Impressive and Important Opportunity

Summer Fellowship all expenses paid. You really need to seriously consider Brandeis University’s summer travel and study. Stimulating academic and intellectual preparation for teaching and scholarship–at no cost to you. More information from below.

Keren Goodblatt
Communications Specialist
Schusterman Center for Israel Studies
Brandeis University
781-736-7310
www.brandeis.edu/israelcenter
Faculty: Just a few places left for Summer Institute for Israel Studies. Apply now!

“I Make No Effort to Indulgently Understand Tyranny. I Am Charlie”

Free speech In the wake of the attack in France on the satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo, I call on all news and publication outlets to reprint satirical articles from the magazine and publish images that Jihadis object to. This should be done in the name of freedom, symbolic expression, and solidarity with those killed in France. I consider myself a pretty decent democrat committed to liberal values that includes such qualities as tolerance, diversity, compromise, pursuit of the best argument, deliberative processes, and respect. But these Islamic extremists who kill people because of some flimsy insult push the boundaries of all of these.

They consider nothing to be outside the realm of their own decisions about what is deserving of violence, and represent the type of political sensibilities the world has been evolving away from for 200 years. They care about nothing except their own ideological purity, always a dangerous condition. And we certainly have not seen the last of these. The communities that ring the city of Paris have become infested with radicalized extremists who advocate mass murder and even genocide in certain cases. These are the kinds of extremes that call for restrictions on liberty and that’s always a dangerous moment. But what can you do? Can we make it easy to blowup soccer fields, performing arts centers, kosher grocery stores, and schools just because we object to inspections and security profiling?

And this sort of extremism in the name of religion is not the result of weak economies or abstract political theories objecting to US foreign policy. It increasingly looks like an ideological system bent on imposing its doctrines on others.

I turn at these times to the Euston manifesto with respect to democracies which advocates a muscular democracy. That is, it clearly defends the limits of tolerance and acceptability. I quote two paragraphs below but it is the very last sentence of paragraph 2 that is the most muscular. In other words, democracy is not about that spectrum of the left that knows no group that is not oppressed and gives all sorts of groups a free pass with respect to responsibility being associated with individual volition rather than abstract social forces.

1 For democracy.
We are committed to democratic norms, procedures and structures — freedom of opinion and assembly, free elections, the separation of legislative, executive and judicial powers, and the separation of state and religion. We value the traditions and institutions, the legacy of good governance, of those countries in which liberal, pluralist democracies have taken hold.

2 No apology for tyranny.
We decline to make excuses for, to indulgently “understand”, reactionary regimes and movements for which democracy is a hated enemy — regimes that oppress their own peoples and movements that aspire to do so. We draw a firm line between ourselves and those left-liberal voices today quick to offer an apologetic explanation for such political forces.

Two groups of leaders need to denounce these attacks and speak up in defense of liberal values. Muslim leaders are one of these groups and they need to go beyond simply objecting to violence. They must begin a program of explanation and clarification about Islam making clear that the God of Islam does not endorse such behavior. And secondly the leaders of Western countries must systematically explain, clarify, and defend the liberal state. Many immigrants as well as citizens of a country – whether it be in the outskirts of Paris or to the United States – need to understand more clearly and sharply what it means to live in a democracy and the boundaries of diversity and tolerance. This will include proper forms of protest. I might make the argument that a news outlet should be aware of too much satire and criticism of one group and respect in a diverse society requires limiting such copy. But this sort of criticism or humor still exists in the realm of symbolic behavior and is protected speech. The only way to object to what someone writes is more writing and the power of the better argument.

 

 

Do You Want to Stop Extremist Groups? Don’t Change Messages, Change the Receivers for These Messages

terrorist and capitalistCommunication perspectives have a long history of trying to teach people which particular message produces which affects, as if the message were a bullet traveling through space that simply needed to be aimed properly. I’m just as guilty as anyone else of thinking about communication as an instrumentality that is constantly looking to push the right button to achieve a predetermined desired effect. So, for example, my own work in dialogue and deliberation still often – not always – reads as if success is simply finding the optimal input conditions that lead to some output.

But there is another way of thinking about how to achieve particular effects. Rather than thinking of the receiver of a message as a passive mechanism with an absorptive sponge for a brain, and then spending your time trying to find the right message that will be absorbed as you designate, change the receiver rather than the message. Make new receivers that will be more or less poised to receive particular messages. Let me explain.

The U. S. is currently struggling to defeat extremist groups such as the Islamic State, Hezbollah, Hamas, Al Qaeda, and a host of other radical groups. Most of the news about our efforts to degrade these extremist groups is pretty bad. Terrorist and violent groups are successfully recruiting new members, winning their share of battles, raising money, and generally prospering. Our military, mighty as it is, will not defeat the Islamic State and no informed counselor to the president believes military force is the only answer – important as it is. So what are we to do?

One answer is to change the terrorists and make them less interested in violence. A more traditional approach consistent with the silver bullet metaphor above is to “lecture” terrorists on democracy, and pluralism, and liberalism, and all those good things and assume that if we can only find the right words with the right pedagogical strategy then these ideas will “take” and we will turn them all into liberal democrats. Well as a popular quip goes, “good luck with that.”

But a second way to approach the problem is to change social structures and business arrangements such that they foster capitalist enterprises and market economies. Don’t try to change people, change social systems and the people will follow. Hernando De Soto wrote about this some months ago in the Wall Street Journal. The idea is to raise living standards and inject the cultures with some imagination and capital especially for the poor. And interestingly, turns out that the poor in many cultures, both Latin American and Middle Eastern, are not poor because of simple unemployment as conventional wisdom would hold. Rather, they are small businessmen and women operating “off the books” in an underground and informal economy.

If economic leaders and advisers in Middle Eastern states would eliminate regulation, and bureaucratic extremes including recognizing the importance of property rights, they would create customers for businesses and leave extremist groups with fewer customers. This is consistent with the goal of leaving groups like ISIS without constituencies, which is currently the goal in Iraq after the deposition of Malaki. On the political front of the strategy is to bring Sunnis into the political system including official bodies of governance on the assumption that they will not turn their attention to outside extremist groups. The same logic can work on an economic basis. The perceptions of these communities must change so they are seen as future vibrant markets rather than training grounds for violence. There is some history, according to De Soto, of these capitalist strategies working in Peru, China, Botswana, and others. And finally, it’s fairly well established that businesses rationalize human relationships. Former intergroup enemies can be interdependent on the basis of a commercial exchange. And if you change the relationship you can change attitudes and values.

I’m naïve you say? Maybe.

 

 

 

 

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