Daily Archives: October 15, 2012
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.