After drawing attention in last week’s post to the Scott Atran article on how ISIS is a genuine revolution and should be taken seriously, I had a friend observe that I sounded more like a conservative than in the past. It sounded more like I was taking ISIS seriously and perceived them as a genuine threat. I had posted once before (see entry for October 31, 2015) that ISIS was failing and underperforming. This was interpreted by some as not taking ISIS seriously and assuming that they were some sort of upstart movement that would die out easily and quickly.
Nothing could be further from the truth. I agree with Scott Atran that ISIS is a “real” revolution, that it is growing and increasingly attractive to many, that something should be done about it, and whatever we are doing now is probably not sufficient. Unlike many of the Obama haters I do not consider his patience, diplomacy, and slower hand to be signs of weakness. But there was recently a story in the New York Times making essentially the same point. What we are doing now to fight ISIS is not sufficient, but we should be approaching the problem from the long-game perspective and ultimate victory will take time.
ISIS’s violence is transcendental in that it is appeals to a sense of the sublime and gives serious meaning to its adherents with respect to their own destiny, power, and sense of the ultimate. ISIS does not need to see itself as composed of overwhelming numbers. No, it sees itself as a revolutionary vanguard leading the masses and informing them about what is to come. ISIS seeks a tremendous transformation. And the sublime appeal should not be taken lightly. ISIS is increasingly credited with technological and political sophistication and seems to be appealing to the 18-24-year-old group who report that they have some favorable attitudes towards ISIS. This is especially true among the downtrodden whose anger fits nicely into ISIS’s co-option of this anger. And, as Atran points out, these young people attracted ISIS are more willing to fight and engage in violence to defend principles they are not even sure of than are other young people willing to fight and defend democratic values against an onslaught.
ISIS is emerging as consistent with historical revolutions (e.g. French Revolution) where an abstract but powerful commitment to a spiritual force justifies about anything. Visions of universal equality or economic fairness have held equally as powerful sway as have dreams of the future governed by sharia law.
Finally, the rhetorical skills of ISIS and AQ must not be underestimated. They have, for example, reconstructed the concept of a caliphate – a political concept challenged by many historians – as an alternative to a meaningless material world. The caliphate justifies an expanded notion of jihad and holy war against infidels. ISIS leaders have changed maps and bulldozed territorial boundary signs as the remnant of Western colonialism and Sykes Picot rather than holy land that will be part of the caliphate.
Talking to ISIS will probably be futile for some time to come. The two sides are classically incommensurate in that the West engages in moral disagreement from a pragmatic perspective that is without foundational principles. And ISIS is steeped in Islamic foundational principles that are generative of its discourse. Perhaps one day there will be sufficient bridging discourse that the two sides have at least initial commonalities that can strengthen the bridge rather than only the supporters on each side.
The foundational logic of governing is this: resources, both material and symbolic, are not equally distributed among people. Individuals and groups differ with respect to their personal abilities, education levels, talents, environmental resources, and particular skills. The fact that people in groups are organized around this inequality of resources makes for the “politics of difference.” In other words, politics is fundamentally about managing differences and making it so these differences and the tensions associated with them are under control. It also means that a culturally plural society that demands group-differentiated policies is the norm. Finally, it is a truism that groups seek to maximize their own desired outcomes and it is the communication process that controls these forces. Deliberation, dialogue, bargaining, negotiation, and all sorts of agonistic discourse are part of the political process.
But even though the politics of difference is the norm there are typically forces that are historically more powerful and responsible for driving differences between people and groups. Religion, for example, has become a symbolic resource that separates and marks groups as “different” or an object of distrust. The ISIS revolution is real and a genuine threat. Read Scott Atran on how ISIS is growing and winning its revolution. ISIS is a growing and dynamic counterculture that in two short years has expanded its territory and recruited thousands. It is a radical Sunni revivalism that is beginning to succeed at historic proportions. As a Atran explains, ISIS possesses the largest and most diverse volunteer fighting force since the Second World War.
While the West dithers and considers ISIS’s behavior to be nonrational and horrific it fails, as a Atran explains, to make the distinction between “rational” actors and “committed” actors. Horrific violence is coded into the ISIS religious consciousness so that statements such as “paradise lies under the shade of swords” or there will be “volcanoes of Jihad” become alluring images for the development of a combination of violent and religious consciousness that justifies monstrous behavior with all the power of the “word of God.” What else would prompt a mother to abandon her baby so she could murder innocent people in San Bernardino and then sacrifice her own life. ISIS controls something more than the West controls when it commands behaviors that are infused with significance, when it makes its members feel as though they are part of an authentic consciousness that makes their life worth living. This they are “committed” to. Their behavior is not rational in any practical sense of the term but symbolic of their commitment to this authentic consciousness.
Patriotism, fidelity, obedience, and courage are all abstract psychological conditions that distort the secular motivations of those who are “rational.” These emotions are for ISIS tied to God or Allah and thus held in higher standing. Subjecting them to rationality (e.g. “I will not fight because I might get hurt.” “I must maximize my personal interests.” “My ideals are not worth hurting someone else.”) is ineffective. No, they are subject to commitment. ISIS fighters are committed to obedience and fidelity which makes it easier for them to do anything in the name of obedience and fidelity to God and cause.
Read the Atran article and think more about the “committed.”
The participants in intractable conflicts are not “rational” actors; they are, as Scott Atran explains, “devoted” actors. Intractable conflicts are intergroup conflicts and are on the rise. The actors use a logic of identity (I must preference the maintenance of my identity) rather than a logic of consequences (I must maximize my gains) and thus set into motion the construction of ingroup-outgroup distinctions that produce communicative distortions (e.g., false polarization, stereotypes, and attribution errors) and generate misunderstanding and confusion at best, and violence at worst. Identity conflicts and the chauvinism that accompanies them are a major obstacle to peace and a major challenge to a liberal society based on pluralism and respect for differences. The most typical explanation for these ethnic conflicts is Samuel Huntington’s clash of civilizations thesis which is seen as replacing the competition between communism and capitalism with fault lines attributable to ethnoreligious groups. These are intergroup conflicts that require changes in how members of communities interact and perceive one another. Such conflicts are particularly defined by intense ethnic and religious forces and are a recent and virulent form of group conflict.
Divided societies have been studied in an effort to understand their causes and possibilities for resolution. Accordingly, analyses of psychology, economics, politics, and security dilemmas are typical. But a few exceptions notwithstanding , the role of communication has received less attention. There has been a strong tradition of using rational choice theories to explain these conflicts along with social psychologically informed research tradition. Security studies and economic theories represent a second and third strand of research each of which draws on rational choice theoretical assumptions. Rational choice theoretical models assume that group behavior is driven by the consequences of a reward- cost payoff. The utility maximization assumption has been criticized as expecting humans to be cyborg-like maximizers assuming decisions are made in a world of perfect information, when they are not, and failing to understand humans as creative information processors that are subject to more than rational forces. Identity and cultural processes are at the heart of group conflicts and it is essential to explore how culturally constructed identities connect individuals through perceived common experiences. These connections, which are communicative contact links, organize behavior and are responsible for interpreting reality in such a way that conflicts can be mitigated.
Communication is central to understanding and working with these intractable conflicts for four reasons. First, communication is elemental to the conflict; microlevel interactions structure behavior, and actors in intractable conflicts think about the communication process. They strategize, discuss, and manipulate symbols, all in an effort to control others and define themselves. The significant meanings of these conflicts do not reside in individuals but are accomplishments of the participants driven by social and political circumstances. Secondly communication is relevant to both micro and macro levels of society. At the micro-interactional level people argue, persuade, inform, and develop relationships. And then these interactions accumulate into macro structures such as institutions, media systems, and cultural forces that constrain behaviors with respect to racism, sexism, prejudice, and a host of other cultural stereotypes and distortions. These symbolic processes of communication are what bind individuals to political systems. Third, simplistic communication processes cannot resolve intractable conflicts; we know conflicts require interaction. Diplomacy, dialogue, mediation, negotiation and any form of conflict resolution is fundamentally communicative in nature. It is the communication process that reaches across cultural divides and provides the mechanisms by which conflicts are processed. Finally, modern intractable conflicts are ethnopolitical in nature and identity conflicts. They are deeply symbolic and complex with unclear boundaries. Such conflicts require deeper communicative engagement designed to widen the circle of identity and inclusion.
These processes are not naïve or soft, they are the requirements of problem solving.
Peace education remains a lofty goal. Some certainly consider it naive but not those who know better. Communication plays an essential role.
Apart from research about interventions into other circumstances, most work about interventions into conflict is described in the online forum and listserv of the Rockefeller Foundation’s funded Communication Initiative (http://www.comminit.com). The foundation of this area of research is the pioneering development communication research that first began with UNESCO’s commissioned studies of National Farm Radio Forums in low-income states.
Communication and media studies inform the workings of peace education (PE). Communication is about the generation of meaning. This simple definition follows a weak constructivist line of reasoning in which meanings are generated by the interpretive practices of individuals who confront and work to make sense of messages. This interpretive process is operational whether the messages are verbal or nonverbal, or delivered through mediated or face-to-face interaction. The idea of “communication” is subject to cultural implications. Culture is a dynamic interaction where knowledge and experiences are not passively received but actively constructed. Culture may define groups of people in a work place such as office culture, or groups of people in a state—e.g. civic culture. From a cultural standpoint, these people’s knowledge is the result of a cultural context. Meanings in cultures develop on the basis of distinct ways of interpreting symbols and artifacts. Thus, issues such as whether or not communication has occurred, and definitions of “good” and “bad” communication are all dependent on cultural practices. Cultural groups, whose ethnicity, race or religion become invoked for political reasons, namely ethnopolitical groups, are again, those groups that experienced the most conflict. PE, in turn, requires understanding the interpretive practices of the “other” group and learning new ones. The basic challenges of PE cannot escape the centrality of the communication process to conflict resolution; and, moreover, these challenges can clearly benefit from the power of communication technology to shape and distribute effective messages.
Communication and media studies scholars seek to assess, or recommend methods for improving the impact of contact between groups at the face-to-face level and evaluate the impact or capabilities of contact on achieving their desired outcomes. For example, these scholars would evaluate whether use of strategic messages (whether in a face-to-face setting or via a radio program), actually leads to a particular outcome and if so, relate how that outcome helps to manage some aspect of ethnopolitical conflict. While PE scholarship has been sparse, a plethora of assessments and evaluations about interventions into other contexts have been conducted that readily contribute knowledge about how to create and study peace promoting interventions. These areas of scholarship cover matters of cognitive development, health, and voting behaviors The reader looking specifically for communication and media studies research about interventions into conflict will find most of it organized under the category communication for social change.
The above is from the essay below which I suggest as a excellent starting point for examining the relationship between peace education and communication.
Donald G. Ellis and Yael Warshel(2010). The Contributions of Communication and Media Studies to Peace Education, In G. Saloman and E. Cairns (Eds.) Peace Education (pp. 135-153).
The article can be accessed here
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.
In a recent issue of Foreign Affairs Nick Danforth likens the caliphate to an abstract concept such as the “dictatorship of the proletariat” that has very little historical basis and is largely made up as different leaders need the concept. Danforth calls the caliphate a fantasy that has been exploited by political and military leaders in order to strengthen their claim to Islamic leadership. Westerners have confused the dream of a unifying religious power, a caliphate, with a cruder military and economic power claiming religious authority.
After Mohammed died in 632 there was no heir to his leadership and the conflict about who should succeed him began. The word caliph means succession and the caliphate is a governing body that manages political and religious affairs of state. You can begin to read more about the caliphate here.
The distinction between Shia and Sunni has its roots in the competition for leadership after Mohammed. Some believe that his son-in-law Ali should serve as leader and he was the rightful heir and they became “Shia.” Those who believe that Mohammed supporters and the people around him were eligible for leadership are the Sunni.
The caliphate is in the tradition of messianic Islam where at some point at the end of times the souls of all Muslims will join Allah. This resurrection is related to the Christian resurrection, but one difference is the restoration of the caliphate. Supposedly, an Islamic state under sharia law will be governed by a Caliph who has authority over all Muslims. The true caliphate will come after unjust kingdoms are destroyed.
But the caliphate has never been much of a governing organization and there are controversies over whether Islamic law is part of the state or not. But the notion of the caliphate has been used to exploit Muslim claims of control of their own rights and the rights of other Muslims. The caliphate is also used as justification for eliminating the borders that Europeans drew between countries and arguing for a transnational Muslim empire.
ISIS is trying to create a pan- Islamic moral order that does not recognize national boundaries. The idea of a caliphate is of course consistent with the Empire mentality of ISIS and their desire to speak with one voice. The presence of a caliphate is threatening to more secular democratic interests and for this reason the notion of a caliphate was outlawed by Ataturk. But Muslim societies are assumed to be fractionated at the moment and not held together by any common authorative source. The idea of a caliphate is pleasing to many and is viewed as a binding and coherent structure that keeps Muslims together. Osama bin Laden was attracted to the idea of a caliphate as one way to redress the humiliations and grievances heaped on Islam.
Finally, Danforth concludes that it would be a mistake to think that the idea of reviving the caliphate is anything but a power move with no basis in clear Islamic principles. The Syrians, Turks, Iraqis, Afghanis etc. are surely bound together by Islam but also represent political and cultural historical differences that would be obliterated by a pan- Islamic power organization called the caliphate. Westerners should not be duped into believing that the caliphate holds Islamic legitimacy; rather, it might slip easily into an unpleasant dominating authoritarian force.
The Republicans have lied so systematically and pervasively that they now have created a new lying monster and it is loose in the streets and no one seems to be able to capture him. It’s Frankentrump. The fact checking websites are ablaze with Trump’s lies. Of course, no one expected Frankentrump to last this long, no one thought the little monster was anything other than annoying and while he might terrorize the streets for a few days he was mostly entertainment value.
But it turns out that the monster Frankentrump has escaped from the laboratory and is staying alive by continuing to terrorize the streets with even more lies and unsubstantiated statements. In fact, Frankentrump is moving into the mainstream population. The village elders in the GOP are worried because they are losing control of him. And, he is upsetting the GOP establishment because his lies and misinformation are not being corrected properly which means this monstrosity continues to feed, grow, and is difficult to contain. How was Frankentrump created?
Frankentrump is the monster that was born of three maniacal mothers all related to the GOP. It’s common enough and facile to say that all politicians lie or that both Democrats and Republicans manipulate information but it does not mean that the two parties do it the same way or have equal skill. The Republicans are far more skilled at lying than the Democrats and they have now created this beast slouching toward the presidency.
Frankentrump’s three mothers are (a) the Republican reality bubble created by their own system of media ownership and think tanks, (b) the era of “post-truth politics,” and (c) new media. You can read more about Trump and the media here.
(a). It’s fairly common knowledge that in the last decades the GOP has successfully created think tanks, media outlets (Fox News), cable programs, talk shows, and publication opportunities all designed to perpetuate a conservative agenda. There is nothing inherently wrong with this except in the case of the GOP it has produced a toxic side effect which is that so many GOP candidates live in a bubble that is disconnected from reality. They have distorted the truth so frequently and so aggressively (e.g., Obama is a Muslim, Obama is not a citizen, veterans Swift-Boating Kerry, weapons of mass destruction, the Clintons killed Vince Foster) that they live in an increasingly insular world. Just look at this list of GOP presidential candidates – listen to how people talk about them as crazy, or scary, or embarrassing – and tell me they are not little monsters challenging conventions of evidence and reasoning.
(b). Post-truth politics is the fact that voters use crude heuristics to assess legislative proposals. This runs somewhat counter to the idealized Enlightenment view which to gather facts, draw conclusions, create policy on the basis of those conclusions, and implement. Post-truth thinkers identify with a group, adopt the position of that group, and then do nothing but seek confirmatory information. The Republicans have been particularly effective at finding heuristics. Every Democratic proposal is met with an unpleasant group identification. The proposal is socialism, or weak liberalism, or class warfare, etc. You can read more about post-truth thinking here.
(c). There is a loss of credibility and traditional media. The era when journalists were informed and asked tough questions and pointed questions designed to inform the public is slipping away. There is so much new media and user generated content that the power of the media has been drained in this sense. There are so many opportunities for expression that no one credible and respectable source can dominate the narrative. And most importantly perhaps is the strategy of simply accusing the other side of something outrageous, knowing it is false, but walking away from the accusation over time because the damage is done even though the accusation is false or constructed. Hence, Hillary Clinton is accused of negligence in Benghazi or inappropriately using a server in the State Department. These are non-issues that are blown way out of proportion and the goal is simply to make the accusation and damage the other person casting care about facts or truth to the wind.
And so the newest incarnation of this entire poison cocktail is the monster known as Frankentrump. The party elders have lit their torches and are trying to chase the monster from the village, but as of now they can’t catch him.
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
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?
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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.