Monthly Archives: November 2013

Stories and Arguments: How Real People Communicate

A narrative is an argument because it is an interpretation of evidence that explains some version of reality. As scholars explain, narratives provide a foundation for reasons. If a Palestinian tells a story of lost land and injustice then he or she is making an argument supporting a position. In the case of ethnopolitical conflicts, personal narratives set with national narratives and define the political environment of the participants. Each party to a conflict uses stories to justify their position. The stories are the basis for competing claims about resources, political events, and the assignment of blame for one’s condition. Moreover, narrative must be included in the deliberative process because it is simply a fundamental way that people communicate. And although narratives can become deceitful and misleading, and subject to manipulations designed to elicit emotional responses, they remain part of the folkways of communication. Narratives often involve an appeal to a moral standard. And these are some of the most difficult issues for deliberators. Making the claim that narrative is part of the argumentative structure for deliberating groups is a departure from the Habermasian ideal which purges folk rhetoric from the deliberation process in order to keep deliberation pure. Still, even Habermas would recognize that all arguments need to be accounted for and can be expressed in diverse ways. Such narratives draw attention to issues and injustices that cannot escape deliberative attention. Finally, such forms of communication as narrative and stories are often characteristic of a more popular form of rhetoric, or patterns and styles that are more culturally distinct. Including these forms of communication in the argumentative process helps achieve sensitivity toward pluralism and diversity that must be included in political discussion. If deliberative communication is as epistemic and effective as it is capable of then the full range of rhetorical styles must be accommodated. There is the reasoned argument tradition of Habermas stressing the public sphere and the ascendancy of the best argument, and the second tradition that stresses popular social relations, emotions, and folk theories of communication. These will meld together.

Clearly, theorists and practitioners of deliberation have worked too hard to try to purify the process by removing emotions and identities in the pursuit of rationality. And this has resulted in the exclusion of communication and rhetorical styles that are separate from the history of logical debate. I make this point not because of political correctness or a sense of social justice but in order to improve the quality of the deliberation and dialogue process. By including narratives and identities in deliberation it improves our understanding of the communication process and actually forms a more accurate foundation for problem resolution.

We cannot ignore the fact that intergroup conflicts are over material resources and the rational allocation of these resources is typically part of the solution. But in intractable conflicts a rather straightforward disagreement about material resources is intensified and made salient through narratives and identities. This is one more reason that narratives, which are easily part of the dialogue process, must be expanded to include deliberation. And the more material conflicts are filtered through and associated with identities the more intractable they become. Conflicts in which progress is genuinely possible often become “impossible” because the conflict has moved beyond resource allocation and become identified with the fundamental nature and definition of the national group. We see this clearly in the case of the Israel-Palestine conflict where every aspect of society is politicized and the political conflict is refracted through the culture. The pathway from a manageable conflict to a difficult identity that exacerbates problems is typically through stories and personal narratives. Stories allow members of conflicting groups to voice perspectives and express values relevant to the issues. Stories also help move the groups to dialogue because stories are a natural way to express experiences and communicate genuine emotions.

Islamic and Western Approaches to Peace

Whether your intellectual tradition is that of the Enlightenment, or the religious patterns of Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, Christianity, or Judaism along with modern liberalism each provides horizons of meaning that offer a picture and a future of peace. All of these intellectual systems have an end state that is, if not utopian and glorious, at least peaceful and orderly. But how do we begin to interrogate and engage these systems? What do we have to know about the cultures that are most representative of these belief systems?

In the micro world of interpersonal relations, or the more detached pedagogical stance one can take in the classroom, it is easy enough to make references to cultural generalities. We talk quite prolifically about cultural differences and enjoy citing examples of cultural variation. But when it comes to defending these cultural generalities, when one is asked to stand up in front of an audience and say things that involve generalities about cultures to which we do not belong, things get a little bit more difficult. I have participated in many conversations where generalities about culture were invoked (and I’m not talking about humorous stereotypes) but the participants would be hard-pressed to defend these generalities; they shy away from expressing cultural descriptions because they realize that such generalities are always a little bit on shaky grounds.

But on the other hand, there are characteristic qualities of cultures. We classify cultures as either individualistic or collective, self oriented or other oriented, modern or traditional, along with any number of other descriptions. These generalities often have some claim to legitimacy but they also are rarely a universally valid framework. We have to grapple with differences and try to avoid shallow cultural blather but at the same time improve the depth of our knowledge about cultures, especially cultures in conflict trying to resolve differences. Below, and in the next few posts, I explore some differences we might claim separate Islam from the West with respect to concepts of peace and conflict resolution. A good reading on this topic is Islamic Approaches to Peace.

When it comes to understanding Islam and its conceptions of peace and conflict management, we are in a difficult historical period because of “Islamism” and it’s narrow and aggressive discourse that is seen as a threat to peace. The concept of peace in the Islamic culture is typically misrepresented or ignored. But there are differences between Western and Islamic concepts of peace that must be understood. The differences between the two cultures form the basis for dialogue and deliberation. Yet, you actually see very little contact and very little theorizing about Islamic-Western dialogue. There are any number of reasons for this, but one of the most pertinent is that Western literature is more concerned about stating differences rather than commonality, and emphasizing the incompatibility of Islam with Western ideas about conflict.

There is a shameful lack of contact between Islam and the West with relatively little grassroots dialogue. There is a need for a new attitude and framework in order to organize knowledge about Islam for Westerners and organize knowledge about the West for Muslims. For example, there does seem to be a tendency to define Western approaches to conflict resolution as the “norm” or the ideal to strive for. We simply don’t have attitudes that expect Islam to be serious about peace. And although everyday contact between Muslims and Westerners is fine wherever it is possible (e.g. educational institutions), it still falls short of the structured and guided form of communication that results from dialogue and deliberation.

It is commonly accepted among conflict scholars that peace between deeply divided groups requires a global conception of peace that is integrated; in other words, problems will not be solved on the basis of narrow self-interest or the belief in one’s own cultural superiority with respect to ideas about peace. Peace will not come and problems will not be solved on the basis of a single dominant cultural attitude. Religion, for example, is essential to the attitudes about peace for Muslims but far less important for the secular West. And it is the West that must accept the role of religion and integrate it into the process.

All major religious, philosophical, and secular systems of belief and knowledge claim that peace will be the result of the full expression and recognition of the systems. And in a new world where boundaries are more porous and once separated groups must now confront the other there is an even more profound need for intercultural communication.

How to Understand “Reasonable Disagreement”

Ever have a political discussion with a friend and have it degenerate into incompatible positions that cause tension, anger, and exasperation? You have to learn how to appreciate “reasonable disagreement.” This is not a contradiction in terms; you can disagree and be both reasonable about it.

In the culture-laden and pragmatic world of communication disagreement is the norm, so we have to deal with it. Some people are taught that specific sources of information are the true guides to knowledge. Scripture and religious communities which include all sorts of information about the earth and animal species can be cited as a supreme source of knowledge. If people take no critical stance toward these issues and accept them thoroughly then they are justified in their beliefs. There can be a debate about what is true and what is not but this does not change the normative system. The beliefs of the religious person are justified; they are part of a system of relationships their empirical content notwithstanding. A “creationist” and “evolutionist” produce disagreement because they live in different knowledge worlds. They may be polarized and the position of the other may be unimaginable but this is the “stuff” of disagreement and must be managed.

Relationships that are “fiercely entangled”, such as between ethnopolitical groups in conflict, are characterized by the incommensurability that accompanies situations where the parties in conflict are divergent. Conflicting groups must be able to experience disagreement; they must, as Benhabib describes, treat the other as an “adversary” and not an “enemy.” The ability to tolerate disagreement as well as work with it is central to the communicative and resolution process.

There is more to reasonable disagreement than a gentleman’s agreement to respect differences. Clearly, communities, cultures, social networks, and groups establish different sets of standards and principles regarding beliefs and drawing conclusions. And while there are overlaps between groups in terms of standards of knowing (e.g. science) there are also sharp differences between them. For this reason, reasonable disagreement is a defensible philosophical position and a communicative state that usually cannot be avoided.

Some theorists are relativists in that they do not believe there is any overarching cultural norm of rationality. Others want to argue for more objective standards. One problem is that for one side of a cultural disagreement to be “correct” there must be a standard that determines such correctness. Such standards are difficult to establish. Still, rampant relativism is equally as indefensible and it is possible for certain positions to be more justified than others. The central question is posed as the following: is it possible for two cultures or conflicting groups, both of which have epistemic standards, to both share evidence and have reasonable disagreement. In other words, one group believes a proposition and the other group does not. An explication of the clash of narratives between Israelis and Palestinians present a good example. Zionism, for example, as stated in historical documents and instances can be interpreted as a noble effort to return a historically oppressed people to their homeland, or as a European colonialist enterprise with an expansionist ideology. The two groups (Israelis and Palestinians) are in disagreement such that one believes a proposition to be true and the other disbelieves it.

The disagreement is “reasonable” to the extent that each side is justified in holding the belief or disbelief. Ideally anyway, members of both groups should have equal access to evidence and documentation including the benefit of full discussion. In many cases this condition is not met. Differences in education and availability of information will also account for disagreements. To make matters even more complex, we must include the fact that people have graded beliefs based on subjective probabilities.

Participants in groups who disagree are working on the basis of a proposition that states that their own system of information justifies their beliefs. The simple act of observing Jews migrate to Israel justifies both the belief in “noble return” as well as “colonialism.” And from a communicative and discursive standpoint there is nothing malevolent about these differences. Both beliefs are justified and linked to some system of information. One side of the argument is not more correct than the other.

One solution to the condition of reasonable disagreement is for the two parties to converge on what counts as evidence. Some progress here is possible but slow and difficult. Then again, we always note that the process of communication and decision-making is slow and difficult.

Just a Little More on Israel As a Jewish State

In this post I want to spend just a little bit of time dealing with a few more specific and down-to-earth issues with respect to Israel being a “Jewish” state. I received my share of responses last week ranging from those who thought it was just another slap in the face of Palestinians, to those who are sure the state will become a theocracy and oppressive. Below I enumerate key issues and respond directly. I will avoid the historical arguments about the legitimacy or illegitimacy of the establishment of the state and what transpired in 1948. Rather, I focus on more mundane issues.

1. Many people get depressed about Israel as it fumbles forward increasingly divided by religion, secularity, and politics. The truth is that Israel is already ahead of most with respect to democracy. It has not made peace yet but that is a relational concept that requires help from the other side. Israel is currently the “state of the Jews.”

2. All Israel needs to do is establish a state that tilts toward the protection and development of Jewish life, culture, and religion. Israel will always be diverse but groups will always have a right to their own identity and protection under the law as long as they do not actively advocate for the destruction of the Jewish state. All groups have a right to advocate for their interests – even the majority group as long as it does it within democratic principles.

3. So, what do you do about an institution such as education? The role of an educational institution, especially public education, has always been to promote Jewish identity and citizenship in the public schools. But why is this any different than in the United States where schools promote American cultural values. And being socialized into a community through the public education system is not a mindless activity; there is no reason that the Jewish education cannot expose students to the conflicts and contradictions of this society as well as others.

4. The law of return is often cited as a discriminatory act that allows all Jews to settle in Israel but not those Arabs from earlier generations who lost property in the war or had it taken from them. The right of return could make it possible for Jews to return but not guarantee their actual return. That was always up to individuals and families. A significant ingathering of a particular group is a clear demonstration of a population’s readiness to establish formal legitimacy. The state fulfills the legitimate aims of a large group of people.

5. What about things like national symbols such as the flag of the state of Israel, the Star of David. Such a flag certainly does not represent symbolically in any way the Arab minority population. Still, many countries have religious symbols on flags and the Star of David would have to remain as a significant symbol for Israel and the Jewish people.

6.Or, even more divisive and impossible would be the singing of Hatikva the Israeli national anthem. The state of Israel cannot be neutral on these matters and still claim its Jewish identity. But it is also true that the obligations to democracy require as much neutrality as possible. But solutions to these things are possible. Gavison suggests, and I agree, that a second national anthem could be written acceptable to the Arab community. We would hope that one day the two sides might listen politely to each anthem.

7. Or what about the national calendar including the recognition and observance of holidays, public festivals, and school closings? This too is a solvable problem. Schools and institutions could be organized around the holidays of both significant groups. Jews are off during “Christmas” break in the United States which is based on a Christian calendar.

We should remember that a Jewish state creates conditions for a powerful cultural Jewish life. Works of literature, philosophy, art, and science rooted in Jewish life and tradition will have the opportunity to flourish. All ethnoreligious conflicts must strike a deliberative balance between what divides them and their necessary interdependence. Doing this successfully requires communication and democratic conditions, both of which continue on striking a homeostatic balance.


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