Trends in Press Freedom and the 10 Worst Countries in the World

reporters without Borders Even the United States has lost a little ground when it comes to press freedom because of secrecy and security issues. Recently, some new data has emerged on press freedom around the world and the picture is disappointing. Freedom House has released its 2014 data and reports a decline in press freedom around the world with an estimate of only one person in seven living in a country where political news and press freedoms are encouraged and robust. The Freedom House data is available here.

The Freedom House report indicates two reasons for the decline in press freedom: an increase in restrictive laws constraining the press typically justified on national security grounds, and the difficulty a journalist has reporting from a particular country. It is becoming more difficult for journalists to move around in order to properly report a story. Curiously, in this age of information explosion it is so difficult to get information firsthand.

As you might expect, there seems to be a correlation between increasing restrictions on press freedom and the political conditions of the country. Obviously those countries guilty of atrocities or engaged in war continue to see declines in press freedom (e.g., Syria, Sudan, Libya). A few other trends are noteworthy. (1) There seems to be an increasing distain for democratic standards. Authoritarian regimes used to cover themselves in the language of elections and human rights, now they blatantly flout democratic values and argue for the superiority of their own political conditions. (2) The escalation of terrorism is increasingly used to apply repressive measures under the guise of security. And the debate about how democracies should respond to terrorism is a legitimate one, but in the meantime more regimes are silencing dissidents and restraining the media. (3) What was once pretty extensive Internet freedom is beginning to fade. Censorship and surveillance are increasingly of more interest to governments than access. There is increased monitoring of online communication, even in the “freer” countries, such that places like South Korea increased monitoring and censorship, and even Israel imposed stricter constraints on social media pertaining to the Gaza Strip. (4) The percentage of countries that are classified as “free” stands at 46% which represents a small decline.

So! What are the top 10 (or bottom 10) worst countries or territories when it comes to press freedom?

The world’s 10 worst-rated countries and territories, with the lowest Freedom House scores were Belarus, Crimea, Cuba, Equatorial Guinea, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Syria, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan. Crimea and Syria joined the bottom-ranked cohort in 2014. Any sense of independent media is nonexistent in these countries or barely workable; the press is little more than a mouthpiece for the regime or so biased and restrictive that it barely qualifies as useful information. Iran continues to earn its place among the worst of the worst. Iran regularly monitors citizens and newspapers and jails journalists for the slightest criticism.

Democracies are currently struggling with the balance between freedom and control. The observation that authoritarians and terrorists can take advantage of the openness and tolerance of democratic societies is true enough. Some might even take it a cynical step further and suggest that these trends are no advertisement for democracy. But the report also highlights a few positive trends. There were citizen uprisings in Ukraine demanding increased press freedom, and ramped up pressures on the Chinese leadership to adhere more closely to democratic principles.

Democracies just have to wait out authoritarian regimes. Sooner or later their own people will challenge the regime or it will begin to stutter under its own oppression. But, clearly, it would be a mistake to think that democracies are weak in the face of authoritarianism because increased press freedom and access to information literally guarantee a bleak future for repressive political systems.

Originally posted May 3, 2015

 

 

 

 

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ISIS Communication Strategies

Like any social or political institution, ISIS needs communication strategies, information campaigns, propaganda, and technological access in order to manipulate its audiences, inspire volunteers, and complete the general tasks of public communication. ISIS is sophisticated and relies on any number of communication strategies in order to further its goals. ISIS’s leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, has set numerous persuasive goals: He seeks to reestablish the caliphate and must convince others of the worthiness of this achievement; ISIS competes with al-Qaeda and must position itself competitively as the two groups compete for status and recognition. And, for lack of a better word, propaganda plays an important role in motivating and encouraging fresh recruits into the ISIS psyche so they will carry out brutal acts of violence and further jihadist propaganda. Essentially, ISIS uses two general strategies of persuasion. You can read more about ISIS persuasive strategies here.

The first is based on the value of establishing cultural resonance between individuals and the traditions of Arabic and religious rhetoric. More specifically, sermons delivered by ISIS leaders exploit the rhythm and metaphors of liturgical sermons. These sermons have a long history and theory of oratory and narrative that defines the Arab world. ISIS leaders will invoke the structure of the Quranic verses – which include prayers, invocations, quotations, and sermons – all in the service of messages designed for religious or political purposes. al-Baghdadi’s speech announcing the establishment of the caliphate is a good example of his use of narration and religious invocations to justify his arguments. Moreover, he invoked religious symbols and structure to justify ISIS’s policy of violence including execution, imposition of sharia law, taking of hostages, and violence if necessary toward rival political and religious factions.

The second predominant persuasive communication strategy is the adept use of various communication channels designed to reach targeted audiences. ISIS’s early use of the Internet was quite successful at maintaining anonymity, finding specific audiences, and presenting innovative forms of propaganda. The Internet is able to handle longer disquisitions on politics as well as shorter messages and video. But the Internet is also full of misinformation, potentially poor security, rumor and innuendo, as well as a host of other mistakes and distortions. Consequently, the Internet has lost some of its power and effectiveness although it is still an important persuasive tool.

ISIS’s magazine called Dabiq remains a successful publication outlet that seeks to provide religious and political justification for ISIS. You can read about it and retrieve a copy of Dabiq from its Wikipedia page here.

In addition to online magazines and Internet sites, ISIS broadcasts on a radio station (al-Bayan) as well as a TV station. The TV station makes for sophisticated possibilities with respect to programming and high quality visuals. Social media are often used very skillfully to create characters that signify historical leaders and powerful individuals who speak the language of jihad and express opinions and historical claims consistent with the ISIS political agenda.

ISIS could not succeed without some communication and persuasive strategy designed to produce messages that direct their desired audiences toward a particular definition of reality. ISIS has been particularly adept at discovering effective channels of communication and exploiting them. And, of course, their use of traditional Arabic religious symbols and liturgy has been crucial to their success. But we should remember that all forms of communicative contact have security vulnerabilities capable of being breached. This is a breach we must step into in order to moderate, if not defeat, these messages.

Beware of Sinclair: The Next Wave of Fake News

As if the propaganda and distortions that ooze out of Fox News isn’t enough to damage to the quality of public discourse, Fox has a younger sibling who is growing and gaining strength and influence. This is Sinclair news and “Media Matters” recently reported on their newfound influence. We are in the middle of an unprecedented war with the press prompted mostly by the President and his conscious attempts to manipulate the public impressions of what the press is trying to do. The Sinclair corporation has focused on local news and blatantly controls content so as to propagate conservative influences.

Sinclair is known for some particularly manipulative tactics: acquiring and consolidating local news stations and then deceitfully blending advertising with news, including cutting budgets and taking shortcuts with any production of content that meets journalistic standards.

Sinclair has been around for some time but it recently is gaining in strength and influence. It is increasingly—and blatantly—running a right wing message and has taken its cues from Roger Ailes and Fox when it comes to ensuring that its political perspective is foregrounded. Sinclair has hired a Trump aide (Boris Epshteyn) who is charged with ensuring that Sinclair’s right wing proclivities find their way properly into the content of the media.

What is even worse, according to Media Matters, is that the Trump presidency is assisting Sinclair with changing FCC regulations that currently limit its ownership so that Sinclair can grow. And, it should be noted, that Sinclair is trying to operate in markets deemed most useful to meeting the needs of national elections.

Boris Epshteyn is known for his strict adherence to his own policy of “must run.” That is, he forces the affiliates to run certain segments that meet the political preferences of the corporation. His policy at times has been so outrageous that it prompted John Oliver to make fun of it (video is 19 minutes long but should watch at least 10 minutes) which is yet another indication of its growing presence.

Sinclair has made a conscious choice to focus on “local” news for three reasons. First, data show that local news is more respected and considered more trustworthy than national news. Viewers simply think that organizations like CNN or CBS are more biased. Second, the policy of “must run” means that the prepared statements are from the hand of corporate headquarters but the words are spoken from the mouth of the local newscaster who is typically more trusted. The local newscaster, who is recognizable and congenial and even speaks in the local dialect, is forced to utter and account for the political message. And third, local markets are less saturated and developed and ripe for exploitation.

“Media Matters” has provided a full list of stations owned or operated by Sinclair on its website, and here is the full list of stations Sinclair is set to acquire with its purchase of Tribune Media.

The key issue here is not necessarily that a station leans left or right since all media has at least some political leaning. But that is not what we are seeing in the contemporary discourse. Rather, it is the purposeful distortions and deliberate attempts to manipulate the discourse based not on argument or reason preference but on implications, conspiracies, and factoids. When “real” news is called “fake” news, and millions of people casually accept this distinction, the quality of the political culture is threatened, and Sinclair takes a step forward.

 

More Jerusalem for Dummies

The legal and political standing of Jerusalem remains unclear and subject to confusion. Recall from last week’s post that when the United Nations decided to divide Palestine into a Jewish and Arab state Jerusalem was not included. It was to be administered by an international group until some equitable agreement could be reached as a result of negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians. Some such third-party administering unit is still a viable idea that may be a part of an end-of-conflict solution. It recognizes the importance of the religious sites for all groups and keeps the various sides engaged with one another. Still, the likelihood that Israel will forgo sovereignty over the old city is slim.

But the Arabs did not accept the partition plan and war was the result. At the end of the war in 1948 Israel had taken West Jerusalem and Jordan East Jerusalem including the old city, the center of the religious life. During the 19 years that Jordan occupied East Jerusalem the Palestinians grew into a nationalist movement and made increasing demands on Jerusalem as a future capital. But after 1967 Israel expanded the city’s borders and added Jewish residents to the neighborhood. As of 2015 Arabs made up 38% of the population (Central Bureau of Statistics) of Jerusalem.

The incorporation of Arab neighborhoods into the municipality of Jerusalem has created a regular tension between Palestinians and Israelis. For example, the Palestinians do not participate – or participate minimally – in civil society governance and therefore suffer from poor services with respect to roads, schools, garbage collection etc. The Palestinians are designated as permanent residents but such a status can be revoked at any time.

In East Jerusalem Israel has also incorporated some neighborhoods that were never a part of Jerusalem in the first place, and has built new neighborhoods intended for Jews only. This, of course, is the settler problem along with the aggressive appropriation of land designed to create “facts on the ground.” Interestingly, much of this policy has made things even worse as it becomes increasingly difficult to divide Jerusalem and assign sections of the city to the Palestinians and others to the Israelis. And Palestinians consistently maintain that there will be no Palestinian state that does not include Jerusalem as its capital.

Finally, any future Jerusalem that has the Palestinian capital in East Jerusalem and Israel’s capital in the West must be the result of mutual agreement and acceptance because there cannot be a dividing line strictly separating the two sides. There must be free and easy movement if the religious sites of the old city are to be available to everyone.

The notion that the two state solution is dead because the United States will move (not until 2020) its embassy to Jerusalem is indefensible. A two state solution with Jerusalem as a capital for both sides has been a part of just about everybody’s proposal from Clinton, to Barak, to Olmert.

Trump’s speech did recognize a reality that negotiations and discussions between Israelis and Palestinians are still viable. And, on the contrary, this move by the United States does not distort the peace process but stimulates it.

 

Jerusalem for Dummies

The essay title “Jerusalem for Dummies” has been taken (go here) but I thought it was sufficiently descriptive so I appropriated it. There are of course any number of places where one can read about the history of Jerusalem and its various twists and turns with respect to legal standing, cultural icon, religious center, and capital. But below is a brief overview that helps place Trump’s announcement in context. You can listen again to Trump here: Trump’s bold statement about Jerusalem and the Jews.

Historically, Jerusalem was a small town on the outskirts of the Ottoman Empire. It was mostly significant for religious reasons as water and natural resources were scarce and not particularly strategically located. But as time went on Jerusalem became symbolically more important and a tense mixture of politics and religion. One of the nearby hills in Jerusalem was called “Zion” and it became the term to refer to the entire area and the base of the word Zionism which is the modern movement calling for the reestablishment of the Jewish people and state.

Still, Jerusalem was never automatically assumed to be “Jewish” because of its significance for both Christianity and Islam. Jerusalem is significant to the three Abrahamic religions Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. The Al-Aqsa Mosque on the Temple Mount is believed to be the place where Mohammed ascended to heaven. There is no denying the significance and importance of these religious sites and whatever ends up happening Jerusalem must ensure access to these holy places.

The Zionist leaders were mostly secular and were unsure about the significance of Jerusalem Or, shall we say, they were uncomfortable with the power of the religious connection to Jerusalem and did not want a future Jewish state to be overly religious.

It is significant that when the United Nations divided Palestine into two states (one Arab, one Jewish) in 1947, it left Jerusalem out of this equation. Jerusalem and its surroundings were designated as a separate territory to be overseen by an international body. Many Jews were unsure about this but were satisfied with relinquishing Jerusalem in order to establish the state. But when the Arabs rejected the plan to divide Palestine and attacked Israel Jews considered themselves no longer bound by the UN partition plan and moved in on Jerusalem militarily. At the end of the war of independence Israel had taken the Western part of the city, the Jordanians the Eastern part including the old city and significant religious sites. By now the significance of Jerusalem was increasingly apparent and Jews fixated their identities more on Jerusalem. The city was divided by the new state of Israel and Jordan.

Israel declared Jerusalem as its capital after annexing West Jerusalem. The Jordanians annexed East Jerusalem and there were two capitals up until the Six-Day War in 1967. For 19 years, 1948-1967, tensions between Israel and the Arab world remained and no progress was made on the status of Jerusalem or its unification. The city was not recognized as either Israeli or Jordanian. During the Six-Day War Israel captured East Jerusalem along with a few neighborhoods that were not historically in Jerusalem. Israel has moved all of its government offices to Jerusalem including the Knesset and has consolidated their presence in the city.

Israel’s position is that they are not bound by the UN partition plan or the original partition of Palestine because they acquired Western Jerusalem while defending themselves. The two sides have hardened their position as Israel would now never give up Jerusalem as its capital and the Palestinians maintain a belief in their rights to the city also. Very little progress has ever been made on the status of Jerusalem and the city remains confused according to international law as well as the contradicting claims of each side.

For these reasons official recognition of Jerusalem has been moot for most countries. But Donald Trump changed all that.

Incomplete Theorization: A New Way to Think about the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

Some problems can’t be solved. The fundamental assumptions and philosophy of two competing sides ensnared in the problem cannot be reconciled. Let me elaborate with an example:

There is a concept used by myself and conflict resolution specialists, a concept in particular associated with work by Cass Sunstein, called incomplete theorization. Sunstein, as a lawyer, is concerned with constitutionalism and how you write such constitutions that are effective when people disagree about so many things. Here is how Sunstein poses the issue. Again, he is talking about constitutions but tell me whether or not incomplete theorization sounds like the primary conundrum for the Israelis and Palestinians.

Incompletely theorized agreements help illuminate an enduring constitutional puzzle: how members of diverse societies can work together in terms of mutual respect amidst intense disagreements about both the right and the good.

People often agree on practices but not on theories. Therefore many problems have to be solved as incompletely theorized agreements. Sunstein continues:

The agreement on particulars is incompletely theorized in the sense that the relevant participants are clear on the practice or the result without agreeing on the most general theory that accounts for it. Often people can agree that a rule—protecting political dissenters, allowing workers to practice their religion—makes sense without entirely agreeing on the foundations of their belief.

Incomplete theorization has the advantage of turning attention away from difficult philosophical issues which are typically a combustible mix of foundational beliefs that cannot be reconciled. Moreover, attention to concrete practices has a better chance of success and acceptance which can likely lead to other areas of agreement as participants practice the habits of agreement.

So, let’s incompletely theorize an issue for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The division of Jerusalem into municipalities will not be solved by weighty discussions of Jerusalem’s history and who has rights conferred by kings or gods. But East Jerusalem neighborhoods are home to 300,000 Palestinians–and no Jews. The parties can’t wait for philosophical issues to be solved about historic Jerusalem. Separating the neighborhood would reduce the number of West Bank Palestinians subject to direct Israeli rule and remove a serious point of contention. Also, it would lighten Israel’s economic burden. Moving the security fence away from a hostile population, rather than moving people, would certainly be easier and less traumatic. Both Israelis and Palestinians would benefit without agreeing to any kind of philosophical supporting rationale.

Here’s another incompletely theorized condition.

Israel has serious security issues and must remain in control of the “West Bank.” However, Palestinians should have full autonomy as an “unincorporated territory.” Until the Palestinians agree to peace with Israel, they could be welcomed as partners in the Israeli economic system and should be able to fully participate in Israel’s commercial and creative life. Even without statehood, in less than a generation the Palestinians could become more prosperous and prepare one day for peace.

If one thought this through I would expect there are many practicalities that could be achieved without the burden of deeper philosophical rationales.

 

Democracy under Siege: Modern Stresses on the Power of Political Talk

Democracies are rooted in communication and citizen talk is the most fundamental form of that communication. But I have noticed in the last couple of years that talk has become more difficult, more contentious and impatient. I spend a lot of time talking politics but I have noticed increased levels of anger and recalcitrance. I suppose this is all an easy reflection of our national discourse and polarization.

But citizen communication should be treated as a national inheritance. It is still important and too precious to let wither; democratic talk has been called by various communication scholars the “soul of democracy.” Citizen talk is associated with sharpening political opinions, motivating engagement, contributing to social integration, and improving decision making. As Mutz and others have demonstrated, the opportunity for exposure to cross-cutting perspectives is crucial to quality deliberation.

But there is growing evidence that democratic practices such as citizen talk are breaking up with an increase in animosity and retreats to highly circumscribed ideational enclaves. Again, this fractured talk is correlated with similar processes in society; that is, economic inequality has produced more divergent lifestyles and limited exposure to opinions outside a narrow range of preferences. Talk and general social interaction is supposed to transcend and overcome these differences but it is proving too difficult. Talk seems to be losing the battle to establish more integrated cohesion to the muscular forces of anger, tribalism, and general contentiousness.

In an article by Wells et al., in the Journal of Communication (vol. 67, 2017, pages 131-157), they pose the direct research question: “Can talk and its benefits tolerate fierce partisanship and contentiousness…” The authors find that talk struggles against the influence of elite rancor, and everyday communication fails because of simmering historical divisions, resentment, economic crisis, and elites pushing their partisan advantage. You might ask “why doesn’t political talk increase during times of engaged political differences?” Wells et al found that some groups did, in fact, increase their political talk and others decreased. But in either case the increased communication made it difficult to continue when disagreements increased.

Moreover, the increased political tension was responsible for politicizing identities which inserted more subjective and emotional attachment into the discussion which makes it more difficult to compromise and generally consider the side of the other. So you have the interesting conclusion that contentious issues both increase and decrease the politicization of one’s interaction environment such that politics is still pretty invasive.

Social media does not contribute much to the solution because it exacerbates political enclaves. In other words, those on social media are typically like-minded and messages are “preaching to the choir.”

Depressive effects on citizen political interaction are a reflection of social problems that must be addressed. Quality political talk is associated with cultural integration, tolerance, and civic participation. These are not pleasant generalities that simply “sound nice.” They are central to a pluralistic society composed of the politics of difference because it is just that form of communication that manages the politics of difference. Through a combination of new media and cultural cleavages American citizens are less exposed to others, and less capable of the sort of communication that serves both a personal and political culture.

Finally, it’s important to understand that the existential life-world of the individual is different than the larger divides that circulate in the media. There must be an interaction between the individual life-world and the macro social world such that one does not overwhelm the other. For now, the battles between Fox News and MSNBC are defining and damaging the organic democratic culture that emerges from citizen contact.

The NRA is a Domestic Terror Organization

I rarely devote this blog space to domestic political matters. But every once in a while I am just compelled to comment on some absurdity or outrage in our political sphere (Trump has widened this Lane). I have convinced myself that this is a matter related to international terrorism so I’m not too far from my normal concerns which are more international in nature.

I’m talking about how the National Rifle Association (NRA) should be officially designated as a domestic terror organization, listed by the government as a terrorist organization subject to the same treatment as any terrorist group. This argument is not so unique with me. The Daily News is called for the recognition of the NRA is a terrorist organization. They make the argument that the NRA is responsible for the death of many citizens and, interestingly, is equivalent to a state-sponsored organization because of its powerful lobbying, finances, and influence. Guns don’t kill people, our elected officials do. In other words they are not sufficiently engaged in the identification and capture of threats to society in particular limiting gun use and availability. For another article making the case for terrorism look here.

Actually, the NRA is particularly heinous when it comes to who they are responsible for. They are directly implicated in the murder of mothers try to protect their children, families praying together, innocent minorities, young people out for an evening of music, and first-graders learning to read in what they thought was the safety of the classroom.

The president and the NRA assume all responsibility is that of the individual. They believe that guns don’t kill people, crazy people do. They just refuse to accept the data that clearly support the argument that the simple availability of guns increases the likelihood of their use. Just look at the gun data. The United States has close to 300 million guns in circulation and more mass shootings by far than any other country. According to these data the correlation is clear. The only thing that explains the number of mass shootings is the availability of weapons. America is about 4.4% of the world population and has 42% of the guns. A particularly powerful statistic is that the likelihood of getting robbed in London, New York, or Paris is about the same. But the probability of getting killed or shot during that robbery in the United States is 54% higher. This is simply because of the availability of weapons. If I have easy access to a weapon I am simply more likely to use them.

The NRA should take its rightful place on the list of terrorist organizations. They are more of a threat to US citizens than ISIS. Increasingly, gun advocates argue that if more people were armed and legally carrying weapons in public they would be in a better position to protect themselves. So the NRA’s response to too many guns is – more guns! And these people carrying guns and stockpiling automatic weapons  usually have a swagger about them and certainly feel confident in their 2nd amendment rights. But the association of the 2nd amendment with individual constitutionally protected gun  rights is one of the most successful misinterpretations in  history. But we will save that argument for another time.

 

 

 

New Technology and Attacks on Democracy

Free expression, transparent information, and trustworthy and reliable elections are the hallmark of a decent democracy. And although the open and available nature of the Internet is democratizing, it is also easily manipulated in the service of inaccuracies, fake news, and inaccurately represented information. Russia’s full-on assault on American media and democracy is designed to weaken democratic processes and sow confusion. They have engaged in a sophisticated campaign designed to influence the operation and political processes of not only the United States but the Ukraine, the Netherlands, and Western Europe. Their goal is to shake the confidence of democratic institutions, exaggerate differences and divisions amongst groups, and use new technology to underscore a Russian frame and perspective.

This is a form of asymmetric warfare organized around weaker states using their available resources to combat stronger states. Theoretically anyway, it is the same principle as a less powerful ethnic group (e.g. Palestinians, Tamil, Rohingyas, Basques) using terrorist and guerrilla warfare techniques to combat a dominating ethnic group. The United States must now consider these threats as typical and persistent threats to its political existence. And, it is only a matter of time before other countries adopt these techniques and deploy them against other states.

Russia boldly used proxies to set up phony webpages, Facebook accounts, and Twitter messages designed to influence the public discourse surrounding the election between Trump and Hillary Clinton as well as social issues. The perpetrators of these phony web accounts met with little resistance and had their faith in their own hacking skills reinforced. The Russians would find a division in society and then try to exaggerate it for their own purposes. Such instability is very debilitating and contributes to what is most damaging which is a loss of confidence in the electoral process. Few things are more damaging to a democratic system than a widespread belief by participants that elections are not fair. Of course, the Russian goals were not to facilitate rigorous debate but to challenge confidence and maintain social strife. They had ability to manipulate voting patterns and electoral results.

The cybersphere is a perfect environment to operate an anonymous and clandestine project such as this one. Even if they fail to achieve desired results they can still do damage to the confidence and institutions as well as spread distrust and cynicism.

Some answers

First, the electoral process must be reviewed for security breach possibilities with checks and double checks that contain a complete review of the electoral process including access to machines, software, and computer security. This might include the use of paper ballots along with computers to ensure material backup systems.

Second, there needs to be more transparency with respect to funding elections and the nature and integrity of businesses hired to provide electoral services including machines and software.

Third, the tracking of foreign actors and their involvement in US companies should include more monitoring and oversight. This might include attention to various “media buys” and who is supporting them along with an examination of rules and regulations governing foreign control and ownership with respect to financial limitations and elections.

And finally, the detection of deception must be improved. This includes stories containing inaccurate information that seem to be designed to sow discontent and manipulate information. Twitter and Facebook are working on these issues trying to improve their ability to recognize questionable story structures including techniques for “re-informing” the public. Cyber attacks are a new form of threat in an asymmetric conflict that has revealed vulnerability in our democracy. It will require a concerted effort and some thinking “outside the box.”

 

How to Make Friends

Changing the attitudes, beliefs, or values of someone else has always been a central research concern in the social sciences. Theories of social influence, group decision-making, contact, and conflict resolution are all concerned with solving problems or getting one party to change in an effort to redress differences or keep the peace. Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton, and Sheila Heen in their book, Difficult Conversations, write about strategies for talking to one another when the subject is anything you find difficult to deal with. This could be political opinions expressed in a newspaper or relational issues between couples concerning gender, equity, or housework.

In my own book, Fierce Entanglements: Communication and Ethnopolitical Conflict, I write about difficult conversations between ethnopolitical groups where ethnicity and religion are implicated and the conflicts are contentious and intense with deep implications for identity and nationalism. So this issue of change or solving problems runs the gamut from mundane micro issues to politically significant macro concerns.

We see this distinction expressed in the realm of politics in the contrast between those with a slow hand and diplomatic sensibilities who search for common ground and invoke a strategy of engagement, compared to those who carry a bigger stick and keep an opponent in check out of fear or raw power. Scholars continue to argue over the basic theory here about whether or not reaching out to opponents and overtures of engagement and mutual reciprocity actually have any effect on adversaries, or whether or not a strong stance forcing adversaries into submission is more effective. This question is even more interesting when posed as an option for dealing with strong autocratic forces that have little history of democratization or facilitative engagement. The oppositional stance differences between Obama and Trump is an example.

But I would argue that the historical record, and the brunt of research efforts, clearly favors a strategy of accommodation rather than intimidation – a strategy of communicative contact and reciprocity. During the last few decades in the United States those with a more confrontational stance have claimed they favor engagement and reciprocity but demand conditions be met first by the other side such as democratization. Telling Iran or some ethnopolitical group they must democratize before the US will engage in respectful reciprocal relations is a grand goal but pretty unattainable. There are reasons to engage the other side without requiring them first to be more democratic.

For example, business relations and interdependent economic and financial exchanges are typically thought to be a form of rational engagement that promotes cooperation and has economic benefits. The standard thinking is that such economic arrangements promote peace and rapprochement, but there are arguments for the other way around that peaceful and cooperative relationships must come first and business exchanges follow. Clearly, a politician like Obama was attacked for referring to such a strategy and called “weak.” In fact, it went further than that because Obama was described as putting the country in jeopardy and subjecting us to disrespect.

But cautious engagement is better than mutual hostility that can escalate at any moment. Surely, cautious engagement requires the participation of both sides and reciprocity and this will take time. These “difficult conversations” must be developed and nurtured along a pathway to peace and their complexities are many. But still, by the standards of history and scholarship it is better than the alternative.

 

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