We have become so committed to the fluid and malleable sense of history that the existence of facts or truth has lost its moorings and, more than that, you are considered unreconstructed if you believe in such things. This is especially true in academia where the “social construction of reality” rules the day. History is considered to be the result of myths, subjective narratives, flawed memory, social construction, or written by the victors with all of their self-serving perspective.
I’m thinking in particular about the Klinghoffer Opera currently being staged at the Metropolitan in New York. This is a controversial opera by John Adams called “The Death of Klinghoffer” which has generated protests in New York and demonstrations in front of the Met. These protesters take serious objection to the portrayal of the Palestinian terrorists who killed Leon Klinghoffer on the cruise ship Achilles Lauro. Note: I have not seen the Klinghoffer Opera but I’m not writing about it as if I had. You can read some background on the controversy here.
Very briefly, in 1985 Palestinian terrorists hijacked the cruise ship Achilles Lauro and singled out Jewish passengers. One passenger was a wheelchair bound Jew by the name of Leon Klinghoffer. The terrorists shot Klinghoffer in the head and threw him and his wheelchair overboard. It has always been considered a vicious act of murder, terrorism, and anti-Semitism.
The opera “The Death of Klinghoffer first appeared in 1991 and it was accused of sanctioning blatant murder and rationalizing and legitimizing the terrorism that took place on the Achilles Lauro. The play apparently was sympathetic or at least asked the audience to consider its sympathies for the Palestinians. The opera has since been edited with scenes removed and is being re-staged at the Metropolitan Opera. John Adams, the composer of the opera, and the librettist Alice Goodman have been accused of portraying false moral equivalence between the historical plight of Jews and that of the Palestinians. Adams talks about his work in the opera here.
The Klinghoffer daughters stated that the opera “perverts the terrorist murder of our father and attempts to romanticize, rationalize, legitimize and explain it. The political approach of the composer and librettist is evident with the opera’s disingenuous and dangerous juxtaposition of the plight of the Palestinian people with the coldblooded, terrorist murder of an innocent disabled American Jew.” The arts are central to the full expression and comprehension of political issues, but the Klinghoffer Opera does not critically examine world events; rather, it rationalizes violence and manipulates the historical truths that make up the Palestinian narrative.
History As a Lump of Clay
History can be changed and molded and even if it isn’t particularly easy, over time, and with systematic efforts, what was once true can now be false. The campaign against Israel and the redefinition of Zionism and the historical plight of the Jews is relentless. Even the Holocaust, which is associated with Jewish particularity and the primary stimulus for the creation of the state of Israel, of which there is reams of evidence, is chipped away at, challenged, denied, and ultimately turned back on the Jews. The Palestinians now blatantly claim that they were put in internment camps by Israelis and suffered the same Holocaust.
These issues remain difficult because a committed group of people can always be relied on to daze and confuse others. And they will always be successful with at least some group of people. Part of the answer is to become more rigorous about language. We must continue to try and recognize the distinction between narrative and flagrant manipulation. Of course, the hell of it is that we will never be completely successful at such a distinction. But we must try.
Everyone has seen the images of the poor fellow on his knees with the hooded executioner standing over him. The imminent death of the captive is sufficient existential horror, as we all have a momentary absorptive identification with what it must be like, that moment, but the real focus of our identification is the violence made visible by the idea of a severed head. There are many quick and efficient ways to kill somebody, especially in the modern era. Then why behead someone? ISIS and like extremist groups are skillful users of media and savvy about manipulating images so they know that beheadings have a long history and carry a symbolism that resonates not only with Islamic traditions but captures the attention of the audience. The beheadings may be part of Islamic true believer’s traditions – of which I will say more about below – but they also hold a special horror in the West and have a long tradition of literary and artistic representation. Since beheadings are not the most rational or simplest way to kill somebody, they must carry extra social significance. Moreover, “ritual” beheadings are particularly symbolic and infused with cultural symbols. Beheadings, in fact, constitute a system of meanings that serve strategic as well as internal group purposes. It is always is difficult to draw a line from religious and cultural precepts to contemporary events. But it also is a mistake to pretend that these things don’t matter.
Perlmutter, in her explication of honor killings and ritual murder, begins with a basic Islamist tribal code originally designed to recognize proper social values, establish differences between right and wrong, and bind the community together. These evolved into Sharia law and have maintained their tribal commitments to ancestry worship, solidarity, purity, and powerful ingroup-outgroup mentalities.
It is purity that is most associated with the evolution of the moral code and this is true in most fundamental religions including Orthodox Judaism and Christianity as well as Islam. But Islamism in particular observes moral and purification rights by establishing prohibitions and practices on everything from dietary laws to sexual behavior. Ritualization inculcates these principles into the social unit and assists with learning and repetition. When an individual is afforded status or respect in the group it is because he or she is representing honor and adherence to the code. Dishonor and humiliation are to be avoided and when they are present in an individual or the community, then restoration in the form of vengeance is called for. Beheadings are form of vengeance and restoration.
As Perlmutter explains, ritualized killing of enemies is even more barbaric than honor killings because the enemy represents the threat of eradication. A beheading is a masculine response that restores honor because it is particularly vile but represents the group as brave, powerful, and heroic. Westerners may not recognize it, but the hooded fellow standing over the debilitated and restrained victim is experiencing an orgiastic sense of power, status, and honor.
In a symposium on violence, terrorism and Islam, participants made regular reference to “shame” cultures and the honor-shame continuum. Shame is associated with feminine qualities of weakness, defeat, acquiescence, and the loss of masculine identity. Shame requires a culture to move it more toward the honor end of the continuum and the shame is redressed by restoring masculine qualities such as violence. Shame resides in two places – the sexual organs and the face. One results in “honor” killings, and the other in the killing of enemies. The face is the focal point of human interaction and the location on the body that carries meaning, insights, and communicative expression. Beheadings, then, represent a strike at the core of one’s humanity and a form of mutilation that robs the other of manhood.
In her book titled Losing Our Heads, Beheadings in Literature and Culture, Janes identifies five types of severed heads: venerated, trophy, presentation, sacrificial, and judicial, corresponding to five types of traditionally authorized beheadings in human culture. There is the ancestral head, removed after death; the trophy head, taken in warfare or raid; the sacrificial head taken from a living person by decapitation in the performance of a religious rite; the presentation head, taken in a political struggle to remove a contender or rival; and the public execution, proceeding from a legal decision.
Beheadings, thus, are infused with meanings. They are the visible signs of deep cultural meanings and make manifest the inner workings of the culture. Knowledge of such workings is a crucial first step toward some sort of reconciliation, if not transformation.
Lately, Thomas Friedman and a few others have been talking about pluralism and pointing out how extremist groups like ISIS live in a pluralistic world but have no concept of “pluralism”. They have no concept of the many viable approaches to life and knowledge and that these differences can coexist and thrive in non-rancorous competition. Liberal democracy is the political and communication condition most conducive to achieving pluralistic relations. I don’t mean to imply that Western democracy must be forced on Islam in some triumphalist sense, but it remains true that a diverse and respectful peace will not be achieved if one or both sides of the conflict hold a single overarching philosophical idea they consider unassailable and necessary to force on the other. A pluralistic mentality stresses the beneficial consequences of cultural differences and works to guard differences with legislation and accommodate all groups and centers of power as much as possible. This accommodation is steeped in argument and communication processes designed to incorporate minority views, respect differences, and work out solutions to competing demands.
Pluralism as a political and communication theory emerges from the philosophical tradition of liberalism which challenged monism and dominant ideologies in favor of individual rights and especially the right to association and speech. Such rights are considered in the Western tradition “inalienable” since they cannot be given away. And pluralism requires a vigorous and healthy regard for discussion and communication to solve problems. Pluralism remains a complex theoretical concept not in principle but in practice. The recognition of other sources of knowledge and power, and the argument for their advantages, even between Muslims and Westerners, is not that controversial. But the practice of pluralism is difficult and more controversial. And it is not the case that pluralism is simply the imposition of American liberalism. The logic of intercultural contact designed to solve or control conflict by definition requires the conditions of pluralism. Terms like compromise, mutual respect, accommodation, dialogue and deliberation, and other relational terms are all definitionally tied to the foundations of pluralism. Countries such as Germany, Italy, and Japan established the conditions of a pluralistic society after World War II and became increasingly stable. If politics is about the management of differences, then pluralism is the highest expression of the management of differences.
Once you get past its noble expression of basic principles pluralism produces a messy and difficult system of working out problems and trying to achieve stability and morally balance interests. Then pluralism gets us to communication. Its basic principles may be foundational and quickly recognized, even if one selfishly ignores those principles, as the only acceptable moral philosophy. But after that, after the statements about respect for differences, the real lived world, the life-world of human beings, is subject to the communication process. The differences and divides that separate people can only be closed or moderated by the process of interaction. Hence, intercultural contact and all those activities designed to achieve peace or manage conflicts are discursive in nature. Participants in conflicts, carrying their arsenal of plurality assumptions, begin with incommensurability and cultural divides and move toward communication in its full expression. It is the communication process that reaches across the divides and the gaps that define differences between groups. Certainly communication is more contestatory in the beginning of the conflict management process but must proceed to dialogue and deliberation as conditions dictate.
Some authors are clear with respect to the strong peace building and dialogue traditions of Islam. Muslim politics is not predetermined by a rigid category of religion that prevents them from inclusiveness, plurality, and dialogue for problem-solving. There is no way Islam can confront peace building without responding to issues in pluralism, secularism, and civil society. But too few people are aware of the work that has already taken place in this arena. Scholars have explained how there is no necessary contradiction between Islam and the embrace of pluralism and democratic processes. In fact, many Muslims admire Western engagement with secular knowledge and pluralism. Islamic principles of unity, mercy, subjugation of passion, and accountability emerge from the Koranic concept of nurturing alliances with other groups. And these groups are typically non-Muslims including Jews, Christians, and others. It is easy to make the argument that pluralism is a major issue for peace building in Islam. The discourse of pluralism and nonviolence is the cornerstone of interreligious dialogue and mediation of East-West differences.
In their USIP report on “New Media and Contentious Politics” Aday and associates identified five levels of analysis in which new media and political conflict intersect. The five levels are pretty straightforward but useful. Still, I find two things most interesting about the evolution of new media: they are the fact that new media is not so “new” anymore, and secondly that new media relies on old media more than we thought. There is an interdependence and dependency on the two media (new and old) that organizes itself according to bridging structures. Quickly, the five levels are individual such that individual attitudes and behaviors are changed. The society is a second-level evidenced by things like polarization, protests, and participatory events. Collective action is a third level of analysis which points to the ability to organize and catalyze political activity. Regimes are also affected by new media because information and stories, accurate or not, can circulate in the society and stimulate regimes to respond impressively. And new media brings international attention which was especially potent during the Arab uprisings.
Again, Aday and colleagues in another Blogs and Bullets report explained in more detail the functioning of new media during contentious politics. When the audience is local new media such as Facebook serve mostly an information function. And of course it is increasingly important for mobilizing protests and organizing the community. But when the audience is more global new media plays a megaphone role in that it attracts international attention to local issues.
It remains interesting that new media are not so central to the news process as some people were beginning to think because it turns out that their relationship with traditional media is more complementary. Sometimes traditional media cannot cover a story because they are restrained or simply organizationally unable to manage coverage. Consequently, new media which are smaller and more mobile can cover a story and then make it available to traditional media and their often superior resources. And if new media and traditional media are both available then they make up a more complex media ecosystem that enriches the information value available.
The location of click data, reported in the Blogs and Bullets report, indicates that the majority of them came from outside the country thus reinforcing the notion of new media as an international megaphone. But the international community has a short attention span and they turn away from the story rather quickly. The Blogs and Bullets report suggests that counter to the popular conclusions about the local organizational role of new media (Facebook, Twitter, various webpages), they actually had more effect outside the region and internationally. Moreover the report underscores the fact that disentangling traditional media effects from new media effects is difficult if not impossible. The two media systems if you will have mutually influential effects on one another and are not quite so distinct as some believe.
Generalities about “new media” or “social media” have to give way to more precise questions and relationships. Thus, Facebook seemed to have some definite effects in Egypt but it did not another places. Why would that be? What are the lines that connect new media with traditional media? In other words, how do they work together to create an effect and can we parse out these effects?
The term “new media” continues to be a convenient shorthand and is communicative to the extent that it refers consistently to network-based asymmetrical forms of communication made possible by digital technology. But more work needs to be done on just how preferences and concepts are formed and spread, and which medium (new or old) is responsible for which affect.
The media in general, and new media in particular, are increasingly effective tools used by extremist in Syria or ISIS. Even their extraordinary brutality is no match for the skill in which they are using new media to attract new recruits, send propaganda messages, scare the enemy, and promote their goals of a single Muslim state. ISIS is now one of the more sophisticated users of technology and they are intent on strutting their stuff to show the world what they can do. You can read more by Gabriel Wiemann on new technology and terrorism here and here.
First, ISIS begins with a historical frame or a brand if you will that marks them as epochal and steeped in the language of historic Islam and religious triumphalism. This brand frame is consistent and deftly designed for particular audiences. Hence, they refer to the current organization of states in the Arab world as “colonial” or “Crusader” partitions. They use video messages to challenge the arrangement of states and call for a single Muslim nation under the protective covering umbrella of Islam. Like all ethnopolitical groups, they claim to have been oppressed, mistreated, and brutalized such that they are justified in righting an ancient wrong. They frame messages designed for young recruits on the basis of ancient injustices and deep threats to their primordial claims of truth and geography. These messages must be working well enough because recruitment is up along with supplies and weapons.
You have to give ISIS their due with respect to rhetorical sensitivity and their ability to adapt to technology and message strategy. With just about the same skill as any Hollywood producer, ISIS creates a sense of importance, urgency, and participation in something greater than yourself. Messages are crafted differently for Westerners then Arabs (the Westerners get a softer less violent sell). Long boring speeches by Osama bin Laden on video sent to Al Jazeera were replaced by jihadists who were familiar with colloquial English and could speak to American youth about liking their next-door neighbor because you borrow their lawnmower, but how that neighbor was really an enemy of Islam. Now ISIS has mastered twitter, Facebook, and has many messages translated into various languages. They send images through Instagram and travel with a camera person who takes video of battles and dramatic moments to be used later in the other images.
The website ask.fm (you need to logon and get an account) has a section where you can ask questions about how to travel to a particular location and join ISIS including suggestions on what to bring. There are instant messaging programs designed for communication that can be kept secret and are not made public.
Terrorist and extremist groups have been using social media for some time now but the effectiveness of these media will only grow. These new communication technologies are cheap, accessible, and highly interactive. They promote more individualized contact as well as coherent yet dispersed communities. Combating these new forms of connectivity is increasingly more interesting and challenging than understanding how ISIS are other groups use them.
Maybe some of you saw the article from the Wall Street Journal on August 30, 2014. It graphically depicted (see the accompanying screenshot) all the various relationships among political actors in the Middle East and how they changed from enemies to friends or discovered common interests. So, historically Iran and the United States have been at loggerheads but Iran is a Shiite country and ISIS is a Sunni movement therefore Iran and the United States are in league with one another against the common Sunni enemy. Shiite Iran and Sunni Saudi Arabia have been fierce competitors but both parties now have the same enemy in the radical Islamic movement. It’s the old story that “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.” You can read more about it at the link above.
The various combinatorial factors of allegiance can be actually quite humorous if we carry out this “enemy of my enemy is my friend” shibboleth far enough. ISIS is a threat to Al Qaeda therefore Al Qaeda and the United States can form common cause. Syria has no love loss for ISIS so we can coordinate with them. Even Israel, who almost nobody chooses as a dance partner, shares interests with Egypt in opposing Hamas.
While these political associations have some element of truth to them, they are highly temporary, ad hoc, and abstract. They might cooperate for a couple of minutes behind the scenes but don’t count on the development of quality new relationships. There are too many problems and inconsistencies to forge much of a relationship. Moreover, if the United States does cooperate with one group they antagonize another. Can you imagine the US actually getting closer to Iran and the implications of that for our relationship with Israel and Saudi Arabia? That would be a complex dance indeed. Actually, the potential alliances are quite confusing and our judgments about the various alliances are probably distorted by media images and their general lack of information about ISIS.
Still, they do represent examples of commonalities that we are always calling for. We are surrounded by media messages pertaining to violence when it comes to news and information about ISIS. The availability heuristic would predict that we use and overemphasize information that is easily available to us. Since we can imagine images of violence easier than ones of peace and reconciliation, simply because these images are more available, we tend to think that such images and relationships are more characteristic of the conflict. And certainly the same is true of the negativity bias, which holds that negative information is more easily attended to and brought to mind than positive information. So when we think of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict we think of negative things such as violence, religious differences, and a whole host of tragedies that cause us to remember those more than anything else. These heuristics of negativity and availability can fundamentally define an intergroup conflict and contribute significantly to its intractability.
There is no escaping the requirement that any genuine and diligent effort to resolve Islam-West differences must confront extremism and violence. The first step, and this will be difficult for many, is to view extremism as a genuine relational term that is a reaction to economic and cultural issues. Hence, the issue is a problem that requires efforts from both sides. Defining a problem relationally implies a similarity dialectic; it forces the two parties to interpret differences as similarities or at least the recognition of mutuality of the problem. These common enemy situations can play a part. If there is going to be a compatibility perspective rather than a rivalry perspective, which is an initial crucial step toward ameliorating conflicts, then extremism must be confronted. These temporary relationships are opportunities for contact and defining problems more relationally. They at least provide entrées into the issues.
The current conflict represents simplistic belief systems that reduce the other side to essentialist practices and end up rendering everyone uninformed. For Muslims the fundamentalism gravitates toward puritanical religious ideology that defines offenses and outsiders. For Westerners fundamentalism equates liberal democracies with the natural flow of history and market economies as beyond criticism.
Real security is not a private good but one that is achieved by developing consensus, and cooperation, and interdependence – all relational terms. Justice cannot be imposed by one side but must be a concept that binds the two sides into a just relationship. They need a bigger story, another narrative that continues to develop the narrative of complementarity and compatibility. These temporary interdependencies formed against common enemies allow at least a toe if not a foot in the door.
There is a tendency, even for those who know better, to think of language as a simple carrier of meaning. That is, language is the mechanism that packages up meaning and does the work of transferring it from one person to another. So we refer to the “war” in the Middle East and this term “war” carries the vast and complex array of images and meanings that attend to the concept of war. But language is a symbol system that connects a sound or visual image with meaning and this connection is tenuous and changeable. It is not stable and simple. Language not only reflects cultural differences and nuances of meaning but also” constitutes” and creates meanings. Calling the Israel Palestine conflict a “war” implies images of purposeful behavior on the part of both parties to engage in violence, identify territory that one side is defending, and images of clashes between the two sides. But this does not describe the Israel Palestine conflict very accurately.
There are two qualities of language that are pertinent here: the first is this constitutive quality of language where if I refer to something in a particular way I can influence your perception of it and “constitute” a version of reality. This is a relatively simple notion. If I use a racial or ethnic epithet to describe someone or their group I am creating an image of them. I can manipulate the importance of an issue by changing the way I refer to it. During the Vietnam War there used to be “search and destroy missions” but this made the image of the American soldier to aggressive and violent so the term was changed to “reconnaissance in force.” Labeling the unintended killing of innocents as “collateral damage” is a well-known example of constituting desired meaning. These sorts of things are not simple verbal trickery but attempts to alter how you understand an action. A recent article in the Forward noted how the situation in Gaza changed Hebrew and the Hebrew adapted to the conflict. In the beginning the Israelis referred to the fighting in Gaza as mivtza or an “operation” and not as milhama which is the everyday term for “war” in Hebrew.
So is Israel engaged in an “operation” or a “war?” The implications for word choice are clear enough. War implies a greater commitment of effort and resources along with potential existential threats and of course the legal right to benefits for soldiers of various types. This is all less true of a simple “operation.” A culture, especially the military dimension of the culture, tends to build a linguistic structure and vocabulary around its own narrative and political interests. This is fine and understandable but remains an obstacle to peace and changing the language into a structure of peace and conflict management that is necessary for resolution.
The second maddening quality of language is the obverse of its power to parse reality and define it. It is the fact that language is never sufficiently precise to describe the reality you desire; it never quite captures or always falls a little short of just what you want to express. For example, we have the words “tall” and “short.” We use these words easily and regularly and describe people who are tall” or “short.” We are comfortable with these two terms and they easily describe the realities of “tall” and “short.” But what about all those places between “tall” and “short?” What about all those portions of reality that don’t fit into “tall” or “short?” We are stuck with clumsy modifiers such as “sort of tall,” or “a little bit short.” Is the conflict in Gaza an “operation” or “a war?” And if it is something in between or “sort of” both then what language do we use to describe it? It is an asymmetrical conflict but what all is exactly included in that semantic category?
Language is powerful enough and has the ability to either stimulate or constrain conversations. Perhaps one day the structure of language around the conflict between the Israelis and the Palestinians will include some of the following: “dialogue” (the search for mutuality), “pluralism” (a recognition and respect for differences), “kiyum mishutaf” (a true shared in common experience), “Sulha” (Arab conflict resolution).
The noted political theorists Charles Tilly and Sidney Tarrow have recognized how culture laden language is. They have demonstrated how examining changes in language help understand long-term changes in behavior. In particular these two theorists have studied the language of contention and demonstrated how it can be creative and facilitative of a transformation from one state of contention to something else – namely, something less contentious.
I’ve got an idea that is not really so bold as much as it is ignored. My idea responds to what I consider to be a weakness in the political considerations that characterize the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. And that weakness is the failure of sufficient input from the general populace. I mean meaningful input taken seriously. Polls in both Israel and Palestine indicate that upwards of 60% of the population wants peace and find the two state solution to be sensible. It is true, according to a new poll of Palestinians, that the two state solution is falling away in popularity. But it can be reinvigorated and it does represent something the Palestinians support. A few people (e.g. Hamas, settlers, elites) cause a lot of problems and their messages are sometimes confused with consensus. Moreover, political elites cannot always be trusted and are subject to their own strategic manipulations. We’ve seen nothing but failure in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict even though it has been characterized by diplomatic influences.
In spite of all the political contact between the two sides the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is mired in complexity partially because the approach to peace building is not sufficiently multifaceted or inclusive of popular consciousness. Any sort of “people-to-people communication” can improve grassroots contact between the two sides, build coalitions, and engage ordinary citizens. But these forms of contact must also bubble up to influence political leaders.
I’m calling for groups of Palestinians and Israeli Jews to organize themselves into participatory groups characterized by democratic mechanisms that parallel the spread of recent nondemocratic dynamics. There are five other qualities that should be descriptive of these groups: first, these groups should be deeply integrated into the various communities; participants should be representative of the population, not elites. Two, these groups must be interdependent such that what happens in one group influences another group. Borders, population characteristics, and security matters are examples. Three, these groups have to be repeated often enough to discover consistent patterns that represent defensible conclusions. Four, they must be governed by principles of deliberation – some of which are discussed below – and democratic and public sphere criteria are expected. Finally, these groups must produce some sort of product and make it available to the public, which should be following the discussions anyway.
I do not intend for these groups to be revolutionary. They are grassroots movements designed to achieve a sustained message that typifies as much as possible population sentiments. The gap between public opinion and the perspective of the elected elites should be closed or constrained. The goal is to drive a reform agenda that improves the relationship between the populace and the government. These discussions should be as open and public as possible with the media performing their best function as a megaphone that reaches broad populations. The meetings should perform a legitimizing function and help find a path leading to some productive solutions.
There are more models and procedures for citizen participation then we can respond to here (click here for a description six models of citizen participation), but a standard model of participatory democracy is best. This is a general term that refers to democratic procedures and representative decision-making. That is, nonelected citizens have decision-making power and the communication within these groups empowers individuals and promotes their cooperation. Participatory democracy is a model for social justice and the relationship between civil society and the macro political system.
It is true that participatory democratic discussions are historically idealistic and can be abstract but there are a number of success stories and advantages under certain circumstances. Organizing such groups is not easy and requires political will but it remains a relatively unexplored avenue. Finding a pathway to peace is a social construction that must include public debate and discussion. If these proposed participatory groups can establish themselves and maintain consistency they will be less vulnerable to the destructive influences of extremists on both sides. And managing these extremists – these few people who cause a lot of trouble – is particularly important in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict because these extremists will do anything to prevent productive solutions. Deep and widespread citizen engagement is probably necessary to build a foundation for a new political order that will be necessary if this conflict is going to be at least managed if not resolved.
There will be more on how to develop, organize, and structure these proposed public discussion in future posts.
There is a well-known study conducted in 1985 that ran a perfectly simple clean little experiment. One group favorable toward Israel and another group supportive of the Arabs were exposed to identical news stories about the violence in Lebanon in 1982. Even though both groups saw the same story, and all conditions of the experiment were the same, each believed the coverage was distorted and biased with respect to their own side; that is, they thought the media was hostile to their side. This is termed “the hostile media effect” and it very simply refers to the tendency to prefer your own group (either pro-Israel or pro-Arab) and distort perceptions of an “out” group and thus believe that the media are hostile to your side but lenient and supportive of the other side.
Given the orgy of news coverage surrounding the war in Gaza, and the inevitable outcry about media bias, I thought I would clarify some distinctions and explain the social scientific foundation of media bias. More journalists and reporters work more diligently to present a balanced view of the conflict then the public gives them credit for. But the same journalists will tell you that their good efforts to be balanced are for naught and they are flooded with mail claiming bias regardless of what they do. This tells you that the bias probably comes from the consumer of the message rather than the producer.
The general tendency to see bias is common enough. One of the most well-established relationships is between message distortion and group identity. If you sort people into two groups (e.g. Israelis-Palestinians) this immediately sets into motion a series of processes that influence how messages are interpreted. And, these interpretations always favor one group or another including interpreting messages as biased against their own side. The results of the 1985 study referred to earlier have been replicated with numerous topics and events. We prefer to think of ourselves as treating people equally or respecting diversity of all sorts but the truth is we strongly identify with groups and define ourselves according to group membership.
From a rather straightforward evolutionary perspective, any exposure of your ingroup to negative information is perceived as a potential threat. This stimulates our sense of self protection, which takes precedence over other cognitive processes, and causes us to question the nature and quality of the information. Claiming that the media are biased against us or the information is substandard allows group members to minimize the inconsistency between their group favorability and information inconsistent with maintaining their ingroup status.
Moreover, the more one intensely identifies with their group – such as a religious group or ethnic identity – the more individuals feel potential threat and the more intense is the relationship between group identity and sensitivity to information threats. These relationships are further intensified when group members consider their group to be particularly threatened or vulnerable. If you ask a strong supporter of Israel or a Palestinian whether or not they feel their group is vulnerable, or threatened, or disrespected they will certainly answer in the affirmative and consequently are more responsive than most to information threats.
There are of course numerous consequences to the distortion of perceptions and information resulting from group identity – sometimes deadly consequences – but the threat to democracy is a problem that receives less attention than psychological ones. There are three of them: one, the quality of information failure. Information is discounted or judged negatively sometimes when it should not be. It becomes difficult to find common information acceptable to both sides which is necessary for conflict resolution. Secondly, group identity distortions result in political polarization. The two sides of an issue see themselves as more extreme than they might actually be and retreat to more extreme positions which makes it even more difficult to manage problems. And third, the sense of being threatened or the recipient of hostile media attention creates conditions that justify more extreme or even violent behavior. The group considers its existence to be in jeopardy and this justifies more extreme behavior in the interest of “protecting themselves.” It is analogous to increasing constraints on civil rights in the face of terrorist activity.
How do we moderate group identity affects? We will pay some attention to that issue next week.