Monthly Archives: October 2012

“Political Friendship” A New Kind of Weak Tie Deliberative Relationship

Solving ethnopolitical conflicts involves initiating the two conflicting groups into the larger cultural conversation, where the understanding is that the conversation is about the relationship between the two groups. This involves creating a relationship where members of each group understand that they must engage in reasonable discourse, accept the burdens of justification, and reject illiberal attitudes and behaviors. Another way to think about it is as a network of weak ties. Weak ties are important forms of relationships that are more casual friendships or work relationships (e.g., acquaintance or coworkers) and engage in less intimate exchanges and share fewer types of information and support than those who report stronger relationships. Strong ties include in their exchanges a higher level of intimacy, more self disclosure, emotional as well as instrumental exchanges, reciprocity in exchanges, and more frequent interaction. We have fewer strong ties and they are more important to our personal lives. Facebook and electronic contacts create numerous weak ties that serve important functions.

What Danielle Allen (2004), in her book “Talking to Strangers”, describes as “political friendship” is a sort of important weak tie. This is the sort of friendship that goes beyond the close relationships we have with family members and intimates. Political friendship is a set of practices and habits used to solve problems and bridge difficult differences. Emotional attachment to the other is less important than the realization of interdependence and the need for practical problem resolution. This form of a communicative relationship serves as a useful outlet for conflict resolution, and allows minority groups in multicultural societies to establish mature relationships with the dominant group. The polarization described by Sunstein that currently characterizes the American political environment is a consequence of the degeneration of political friendships. Allen’s political friendships treat opponents as respectful adversaries that have common interests in problem resolution as much as anything else. The issue sophistication that comes with political friendship is quite compatible with the ability to sustain “reasonable disagreement.”

The concept of political friendship is important and deserving of some elaboration. It is necessary to develop a healthy path to the resolution and reconciliation of group conflicts in order to provide either citizens or members of competing groups with political and interpersonal agency. The idea of political friendship is particularly associated with citizenship which is not necessarily a matter of civic duties but a communicative role that values negotiation and reciprocity. It is an excellent relationship to cultivate between members of different cultural and political groups because it is based more on trust than self-interest. Political friendship recognizes self-interest but develops a relationship that rests on equitable self-interest; that is, a relationship where each attends to the utilitarian needs of the other. As Allen (2004) writes, “Equity entails, above all else and as in friendship a habit of attention by which citizens are attuned to the balances and imbalances in what citizens are giving up for each other.” (p. 134). Political friendship is less concerned with intimacy because intimacy is reserved for relatively few relationships that are more absorbing and based on sacrifice and strong identity with the other. But utilitarian political relationships can apply to large numbers of people and is focused on the pragmatics of problem solving or resource gratification. Parent-child, ruler and ruled, or superior- subordinate relationships are not political relationships because they limit the autonomy and agency of one person (the child, ruled, or subordinate) and are based on maximization of differences. In short, the political friendship relationship is central to the problems associated with multicultural contact and the ability of groups to develop their capacities for trust and communication. As Allen (2004) points out, we have to teach people how to “talk to strangers.”

It is necessary to identify some conditions of political friendship. These are habits of communication that facilitate the relationship. They include recognizing and publicly acknowledging groups and their differences as well as promoting deliberative environments and intelligent judgment. Many of these communication behaviors require exceptional sensitivity and tolerance. Recognizing a group, for example, that is less talkative or more remote from Western habits of thinking and either accepting the differences or trying to meld cultural norms is difficult. So minority groups simply need to learn communication skills most associated with success depending on the nature of the dominant culture. Diverse groups must understand their problems as “public” problems. Under the best conditions different groups will have secure knowledge of each other and a similar level of understanding about what is occurring between them.

Breaking Double-Bind Intractable Conflict Relationships – Dialogue or Deliberation

Imagine the following double-bind relationship of an intractable conflict: An Israeli Jew feels so victimized by historical discrimination and anti-Semitism that the state of Israel was created as a consequence of the Holocaust. Moreover, he now feels doubly victimized by Palestinians who refuse to recognize Jewish cultural and historical rights and blame the Zionist entity for their oppression. At the same time a Palestinian feels victimized by Jews and Zionism. Each denies that he is the oppressor and they continue a pattern of accusation-counter-accusation that often leads to violence. Each considers the other responsible for its lived experience. And each time one group denies the claims of the other the denial is heard as additional oppression providing additional evidence for the truth of the claim in the first place. Every defense is an offense and thought to justify additional offenses. This is a classical double bind logic that cannot be escaped within its own system but must be redefined. What kind of communication helps the redefinition – is it dialogue or deliberation? Can you debate your way out of this problem? Is dialogue a special form of communication that allows for solutions to these double-bind conflicts?

Click here and take a look at debate-dialogue table.

The table is a nice distillation of the differences between dialogue and debate. It is reprinted from the book “Moral Conflict” by Pearce and Littlejohn. I take differences like the one described above as a given; that is, resources, skills, perceptions, and ideas are not equally distributed amongst people and this makes for the politics of difference. Hence the goal of communication and problem solution in general is to manage these differences – whether they are political, ideological, commercial, or ethnic – and communication is the primary mechanism for managing these differences, for reaching across the divides that separate people. Some form of communication has to be capable of breaking double-bind conflicts.

Traditionally, the type of communication most conducive to closing gaps between people has been termed “dialogue.” I tend not to use the word dialogue in my own writing very much because it carries a certain baggage. That baggage is mostly centered on a sense of unachievable authenticity and openness that includes deep engagement, attentive listening, empathy, and a host of other idealistic abstractions. I’ve resisted the word and you will not find it very often in anything that I’ve written. Moreover, there is sometimes the expectation that “dialogic” communication is of the highest form and most desirable, when in fact debate that it is contrasted with is an equally important and useful pattern of communication.

But over time I have become increasingly unable to distinguish dialogue as it is usually written about from other types of engaged interaction, namely, deliberation. As I write about deliberation (see my recent book here), which is a more controlled discussion, the lines that once separated dialogue and deliberation are blurring. Oh, distinctions can be made, and we will save those for another time, but those distinctions are less clear. I think the table that distinguishes debate from dialogue is a very good presentation of two types of communication. Certainly the presidential debates in the United States are more “debate like.” Nobody would call the exchanges between Romney and Obama a dialogue. Most discussions between international actors contain more of the qualities of debate rather than dialogue. The two participants (a) prepare cases designed to be presented, (b) represent positions that they want to force on the other, (c) present a dominating persona, (d) speak as representatives of groups (political parties, constituencies) rather than for themselves, (e) try to “win” rather than solve problems, (f) offer little new information, and (g) work to defeat the other side by winning argument strategies.

Deliberation is more “debate like.” It is concerned with evidentiary credibility, reasoning, consistency, and a tenacious concern for inclusion in legitimacy. But deliberationists recognize the limits of debate and that alternative forms of communication are often called for. Moreover, deliberation must still confront culturally grounded rhetorical forms of communication that do not meet standards of reason and rationality. Language and meaning are situated and designed to direct attention toward selected portions of reality. So deliberation, like dialogue, must confront talk that is required to transform how one understands others and themselves. If two competing groups or individuals seek to transform the other or develop new realities more shared between them then there must be a willingness to risk change. This is certainly true if any progress is to be made on double-bind conflicts

Deliberation turns out to require some of the same assumptions as dialogue. For example the recognition that communication is not linear but multifaceted. Or that deliberation always bumps into tangential issues of identity, emotions, and incommensurate attitudes and beliefs. This is perhaps the thorniest issue that deliberation and dialogue share. If problem-solving were automated and purely rational then cultural rhetoric’s and peripheral issues would not interfere and therefore not be a problem. But even the strictest deliberation practitioner runs into “real” people whose communication and lifeworlds must be accommodated.

An important point pertaining to dialogue, and one often overlooked or misunderstood, is that requirements such as finding “common ground” or “resolving differences” are not necessarily the central goals of dialogue. Rather, dialogue recognizes the maintenance of differences and that conflict and contradiction are natural enough such that a goal of unity or problem resolution is typically elusive. Deliberation is very grounded in its epistemic function such that deliberation results in new knowledge and new ways of seeing problems. This epistemic function can also apply to traditional notions of dialogue. Both deliberation and dialogue except that individuals or groups can hold their ground and defend a position, but only require them to remain open to engagement with the other. Both dialogue and deliberation also have a critical stance one that refuses to privilege a single perspective or ideology or at least insists on a serious confrontation with such a perspective or ideology. Although I do not want to completely conflate dialogue and deliberation they share more space than not. The role of each in solving double bind conflicts remains an empirical question.

The European Union Gets Nobel Prize for Conflict Resolution

The European Union just received the Nobel Peace Prize. This seems like an odd political unit to receive the Nobel Prize. It usually goes to an individual or organization making significant contributions to peace. But people often forget that the European Union, along with the legal and philosophical justifications, was created as a conflict resolution mechanism. The abstract political entity called the EU just received the Nobel Prize for peace. Can you imagine an integrated entity called the Middle East Union (MEU) one day receiving the same prize? Probably not, but take some comfort in the fact that a generation ago the same thing would have been said about Europe. Up through World War II European countries had fought one another on a regular basis at least once a decade for the previous 200 years. The development of common currency, economic cooperation, and promises to use established institutions to resolve conflicts was first and foremost an experiment in peace. And even though the EU has rejected Turkey’s membership they required Turkey to make a variety of political changes as preparation for membership and even that has had the salutary effects on Turkey and their relationship with European countries.

The primary goal when solving conflicts anywhere, whether it is in the Middle East or Europe, is to avoid segmentation and cultural and political distance. There is simply no substitute for quality human contact (read communication). I underscore the term quality because contact alone is not sufficient. After World War II secular political theorists fantasized about the unification of states and about how old differences would fade away. They thought that values would converge and political entities would harmonize. Coupled with new technology and less reliance on religion and ethnic identity, human institutions were supposed to recognize their dependence on one another for stability.

But alas, this dream is been deferred. And although new technology does increase contact and facilitates the values of weak ties and organization, it also permits increased parochialism and opportunities to reinforce existing beliefs and values rather than integrating them with others. Political polarization in the United States is a commonplace enough example. Citizens are even less informed than ever and more reluctant to encounter differences in a constructive manner. They have trouble making the distinction between bias and perspective, and are easily “upset” and put off by argument. Even those who endorse the whining generality that political campaigns are too negative are usually only being squeamish about drawing genuine contrasts between candidates. Americans consume almost 95% of news produced only in America and have very few opportunities and exposure to news from other countries.

Still, the EU is an important experiment. There are clear divides amongst European countries and certainly important differences that exacerbate pressures toward divergence and segmentation. But governing a divergent and multilateral set of organizations is very difficult and typically results in chaos. Nevertheless, integrated contact and interdependence is the only solution. We must not be naïve about convergence and recognize not only the inevitability but the naturalness of differences all the while energizing points of commonality.

New media are in a strong position to effect some of these changes necessary to increase convergence and decrease differences. Traditional mainstream media often perverts conflict and seeks not only violence but issue dualism. But new social media – even with all of the recognized limitations in mind – does present a public sphere capable of meaningful interaction where ideas are formed. New media can change the communication order by transforming traditional structures of communication (hub and spoke) into a more distributed model that maximizes connections. These do, as we have seen in places like Egypt and Tunisia, have innovative potential. A resonance and sense of shared experiences is an oft cited difference between political leaders and citizens in cultures in conflict. Citizens typically have more commonalities and a greater capacity for empathy. We have seen for example Israeli citizens use new media to reach out to Iranians during times of deep tensions over nuclear capabilities (go here for story). This is made possible by a networked public and not that different conceptually from EU integration.

Something interesting to read on social media’s potential for increasing integration between groups in conflict can be accessed here. It’s definitely a moment in media history when human volatility can be moderated.

New Media and Political Conflict

Claims that new media such as Facebook, Twitter, and the Internet have significant impacts on political activity and protest continue to swirl around in the academic world in particular. It takes little more than a local citizen to be interviewed and report his use of Facebook for the world believe that these fancy new media are responsible for protest and the outbreak of Jeffersonian democracy. Consequently, there is contentious debate about the role of social media in crystallizing events in certain countries. The long-term research on these matters is sparse but we can introduce a scholarly perspective and at least “sum up” our current state of knowledge. There is a review article pertaining to the Internet and politics here. Below I will intertwine some commentary with a statement of the general direction of this research.

It is true that social media play a role in political protest and organization. But it is important not to overstate the role. The riots and eventual overthrow of Mubarak were influenced by social media but not caused by them. This is especially true as a protest spreads because it becomes more difficult to contain information. If the social upheaval gains traction, if it refuses to fade away and the size of the crowds swell, then many participants will begin documenting and sharing images. This becomes a self reinforcing cycle as it becomes apparent that more people are participating and thus encouraging others to participate.

The opportunity for what is termed “user generated content” is a special feature of new media. This means that information and stories about political activity are removed from the sole hands of the official journalist community. Bloggers and users of Facebook and Twitter begin to produce content, write stories, and take pictures and essentially become citizen journalists. A so-called “citizen journalist” will have a different perspective than the professional journalist. He or she will have a more subjective and “on the ground” view with a more hard hitting human impact. That is one reason why social media are better at coordinating leaderless challenges to authority than they are at organizing democratic processes. Dramatic photographs that come to characterize a political movement (burning flags, violent police or security people, dead innocents) are increasingly likely to be taken by citizens with new media capabilities. The amount and quality of user generated content is also dependent on the richness of the media system of the country. Egypt, for example, had greater use of Twitter with more tweets from organizations and activists then did Tunisia. It is not surprising that Egypt and Tunisia, which have more new media users than any country in the region, experienced greater social upheaval and pressure toward change. An interesting future research question will be to explain why some countries have experienced unsuccessful protests (Algeria, Bahrain) or no protest at all (Saudi Arabia) even though these are cultures with access to new media.

New media lowers the cost of collective action. It makes organization cheaper and available to more people. A key challenge in all social organization is to take networks of people with weak ties and coordinate and motivate them. The quick, inexpensive, and pervasive contacts available through Twitter or Facebook make this easier. But the downside is that the ease of contact and organization made possible by new media makes it more difficult to build permanent and durable social structures. This is related to the term “slacktavist” or the tendency for new media to be an easy way to contribute, a way that does not require much effort, but make people feel like they are doing more than they actually are.

This tendency to make dramatic claims for the effects of new media continues: Jay Carney, a spokesman for the White House, claimed that the video offensive to Islam caused the riots in Libya. We know now of course that the video had no such potency. Still, because the Internet is not confined by physical boundaries it provides political actors with a number of opportunities. It becomes easier to destabilize social systems from afar. There are now electronic diasporas that enable ethnic or religious communities to stay in touch with their home countries and maintain identities rather than assimilate into a host country. Muslim communities that ring the city of Paris are one example. Lack of cohesion, difficulty with language and employment, and regular cultural tensions are consequences of failing to assimilate and maintaining an identity within ethnic homeland. It is also important not to forget that the Internet is more vulnerable to censorship than you might think. There is an association between Internet use and democratic processes in a country, but this is probably more likely the result of democracies allowing widespread Internet use.

In the future it will be impossible to study social protest or conflicts without including the Internet and the tools that it makes available. New technologies are increasingly integrated into our political consciousness and more than anything else are influencing the information process. In other words, it will affect what news becomes available to different cultures, how fast it reaches various subgroups, and as exemplified by Wikileaks it will make new information available. In the end, social movements are increasingly dependent on new media but it remains the case that such movements have ethnopolitical explanations and that politics and history come first.

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