Am I Naïve about Communication and Political Conflict?

Typically, when I write about communication and conflict resolution, or the role of interaction and changing relationships and solving problems, especially with respect to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, I get comments from a few friends who suggest my naïveté (you know who you are Paul, David, and Joey). In other words, using communication theory and techniques to reach across the divides that separate people is by many people assumed to be too idealistic. These intractable conflicts, so the charge goes, are primordial or so defined by hate and vengeance that simply talking to the other side is a waste of time.

And sometimes I do question myself. Sometimes I think group encounters or problem-solving workshops, where conflicting parties confront one another and work out problems, are not effective and, more importantly, fail to address the issues correctly. But the research indicates otherwise. See chapter 6 of the recent book When Groups Meet: the Dynamics of Intergroup Contact. It can be purchased here. This book is a comprehensive treatment of intergroup dynamics, the sort of dynamics that characterize the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Face-to-face communication is crucial if conflicting parties are going to overcome distorted and invalid cognitive perceptions of the other. Communicating with our conflictual counterpart is a special kind of discourse that allows the parties to examine each other’s concerns and penetrate the perspective of the other in order for solutions to emerge that are responsive to both sides.

The problem is, however, that groups in political conflict such as the Israelis and the Palestinians are characterized by tremendous power asymmetry and intractability. We typically think of power as simply the ability to control others. Yet, in conflict resolution power is a relational idea that is more than simply the control of rewards and punishments but based on influence and persuasion and consequently normal communication is impossible because of the inescapable presence of the power relationship. Hence, it makes little sense to try and work out solutions to problems when, by definition, the relationship is characterized by power asymmetry. This means that before addressing practical and material problems conflicting parties must do something about the natural power difference between them. They must engage in consciousness-raising about their power differences before confronting one another to redress differences. If they fail to do this, then resolution strategies used by each party usually simply maintain or increase favorable asymmetries and reproduce the inequalities that characterize the conflict.

An interesting theoretical question presents itself: do you work on the problems of the powerless first in an effort to approach equality, or do you try to solve practical problems on the assumption that power differences will dissipate over time. Some scholars of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict argue that issues of justice and reconciliation must come first. In other words, it is wrongheaded and immoral to start with the solutions to practical problems when the solutions will take place in a context of inequality and power asymmetry. In addition, an analysis of conflict that takes place under asymmetric condition will avoid issues of moral responsibility, truth, and justice and fail to achieve desired goals.

Attempts to resolve conflict through communication are not naïve. The conflict resolution enterprise is designed to advantage the disadvantaged and solve problems based on mutual satisfactions. Conflict resolution assumes that violence and communicative distortions must be understood if they are going to be managed. Moreover, conflict is assumed to be natural and unavoidable. Conflict is not to be avoided but to be managed.

In a recent essay by Fisher in the journal Dynamics of Asymmetric Conflict he noted that intractable conflict between identity groups with strong power asymmetry were the least amenable to intervention and resolution. However research continues to support that certain transfer effects, that is, new ideas, novel proposals, and emergent realizations were characteristic of these groups. There are any number of successful encounters between conflicting groups that forge new agreements and created mechanisms for coexistence.

Again, communication between asymmetrical groups has been shown to clarify perspectives, change perceptions, and build important trust that provided a context for successful policy decisions in negotiations. The empirical data demonstrates clearly that communication contributes to both tangible and intangible elements of the peace process. It is true that communication is not magical, it does not easily and efficiently solve all problems. In fact, communication has to be done correctly in order to be effective. Certainly, communicative contact has to be designed to maximize the likelihood of transferring a particular group experience to the larger conflict groups. And this is not easy.

I would close with the observation that if members of conflicting groups really want to solve problems, if they enter a communicative exchange with a genuine goal of solving problems then communication is not only inevitable but the only mechanism of use. Talking just to go through the motions or to use the experience as a context of manipulation designed to maximize self-interest will render few real results and contribute to the sense that communication and group engagement is a waste of time.

But just imagine for a moment that the parties to a conflict are at a hurting stalemate and genuinely decide to encounter the differences between themselves, learn more about the other group, and to focus on more general interests shared by both groups. The communicative power of this condition is significant.

So, no, I don’t think I’m naïve. In fact, if one brackets out war and violence as a problem-solving technique – and I understand the political reality of violence – then communication as I describe it is the only alternative.

About Donald Ellis

Professor Emeritus at the University of Hartford.

Posted on April 8, 2011, in Communication and Conflict Resolution and tagged . Bookmark the permalink. Comments Off on Am I Naïve about Communication and Political Conflict?.

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