Monthly Archives: December 2013

Academic Boycotts Are Damaging, Anti-Intellectual, and Political Posing

There is truly little more distasteful than boycotting academic institutions for questionable political reasons. I mean if any organization is committed to problem-solving, analysis, and understanding it is academia. The American Studies Association (ASA) is an insignificant but highly politicized minor academic organization that is regularly critical of the United States. Last November the ASA was manipulated by an anti-Israel organization into supporting a resolution to boycott Israeli academic institutions. The ASA has about 5000 members and approximately 16% of them voted. A majority of that biased 16% voted in favor of the resolution and it technically passed. Additional details are available at Scholars for Peace in the Middle East. For now, let’s look a little more closely at what happened.

Who is the American Studies Association?

The ASA focuses on the study of American culture in general but with a strong anti-American sentiment. On the website you can find numerous resolutions critical of the US and imbalance with respect to the consideration of many political issues.

What is the justification for this resolution according to ASA?

The basic argument is that Israeli academic institutions are part of the system that discriminates against Palestinians. Moreover the playing field between the Israelis and the Palestinians is unequal because academic freedom is denied to Palestinians. And finally, Israeli universities are part of state policies that discriminate against Palestinians. The resolution claims not to discriminate against individual scholars engaged in research. The ASA asserts that this resolution is a form of social justice.

What has been the response to the resolution?

The response has been overwhelmingly negative with many of university presidents and leaders calling for the rejection of the boycott and for the resolution to be rescinded. Moreover, the ASA is a tax-exempt academic organization but such exemptions are denied if an organization is blatantly political. Lawyers are beginning to work on removing the tax-exempt status of the ASA. Lee Bollinger’s statement opposing the boycott appears here.

Still, the media coverage of the boycott has been strong and successful at raising the issue in the consciousness of most people. Many of the distinguished newspapers across the country have been critical of the ASA and these criticisms range from the left (e.g. The Nation) to the right (Commentary). Some criticisms from the left have claimed that the ASA resolution will weaken other causes, and some from the right simply defend Israel’s right to defend itself and question the political and legal challenges in the West Bank. The president of the Palestinian Authority Mahmud Abbas also rejects boycotts against Israel except in certain instances, and these refer to particular products, beyond the green line. The ASA appears to be stunned by the negative reaction and has begun manipulating its website and adopting a stance designed to minimize the damage.

The ASA has shown itself to be counter to the traditions of academic freedom and even potentially dangerous to inquiry and progress. If the resolution has any effect at all it will probably be to damage and make more difficult the work of just those individuals most able to work toward the resolution of the problems between Israelis and Palestinians. Resolutions such as these are typically political posing designed to attract attention rather than solve problems. And although attracting attention is a key component of the political communication process, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is beyond such simplicities and in need of serious attention by serious scholars – not the kind of attention that comes from the safe stances of fashionable progressives who make pronouncements but don’t “get in the fight.”


Language And Its Power

Language certainly has the power to direct you towards pre-selected portions of reality. It makes it possible for false comparisons and confusion over categories of meaning. For example, there is a common statement that circulates in the public that is not only a facile generality but dangerous. If you actually believe this statement, if you are ensnared by its rhetorical trickery and literally accept the two propositions as being equal, then it reveals you as a less than rigorous thinker who cannot recognize or make important distinctions. If you accept the equivalence of the two propositions you are likely to put yourself and others in danger by being paralyzed with an inability to act and justify definitional clarity that allows for clear decision-making. The dangerous cliché I’m talking about is:

One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter.

If you believe this then Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda are the same as what might be considered a defensible national liberation movement. The semantic foundation of the cliché implies that nothing matters except perspective. It’s a cliché championed by terrorists because they want to present their own causes as positive and justified. And the logical extension of this thinking is that no violent act can be too odious because it is all in the service of national liberation. Terrorists love this phrase because it blurs the distinction between goals and the means to achieve the goals, when in fact no political movement can serve as a justification for terrorism.
This cliché cannot stand and we need more political leaders and public intellectuals to condemn it. There needs to be public discussion and argument. Freedom fighters who are truly struggling against oppression do not kill innocent people and sow panic and confusion – murderers do. Why would the democracies and liberal political regimes around the world allow the word “freedom” to be used in this way? Terrorists do not bring freedom they carry fear and oppression. The best reading on this is by Boaz Ganor and can be found here. It is crucial to make the distinction between terrorism and national liberation.
Let’s try to be a little clearer about terrorism. As Ganor describes, terror is (1) violent. Peaceful protests and demonstrations are not terrorism. Terrorism is (2) political. Violence without politics is simply criminal behavior. And (3) terrorism is against civilians with the goal of creating fear and confusion. It mixes with the media to produce anxiety. So what is not terrorism? Terrorism is not accidental collateral damage when the original target is military. Using citizens as shields places the onus of responsibility on those manipulating the citizenry, not those who initiated the attack if it was against a military target. It is also important to recognize those situations where targets of violence are clearly military and uniformed soldiers. Using guerrilla tactics does not necessarily mean terrorism.
It is important, too, that motives be taken into consideration. The real thorny problem is the idea that any form of national liberation – believed sincerely by a presumably oppressed group – justifies violence that is not considered terrorism. This perpetuates the dangerous relativism of the cliché. The hard mental work of distinguishing terrorism from other forms of violence is important if we are going to pass legislation to protect the public, have effective international cooperation, and assist those states struggling with terrorism.
If enough people genuinely accept this relativist cliché then all bets are off. Any sort of violence can be justified and the international community will have a collective shrug of its shoulders essentially saying, “who cares” because someone considers the violent group “freedom fighters” wrapped in vacuous rhetoric designed to justify violence. As difficult as it is to fashion a precise definition of terrorism, it is equally as difficult to imagine accepting Al Qaeda and jihadist attacks against the United States as the work of “freedom fighters.”

Deliberation and Exposure to Differences: The Importance of “Hearing the Other Side”

The below is adapted from my book on deliberative communication. A full citation appears on the “deliberation issues” page.

One of the key issues for the news media, either print or broadcast, with respect to its contribution to deliberation is its ability to expose people to the other side of a conflict. This is an essential component of any conflict-resolving endeavor on the part of the media. Ethnopolitical conflicts face the problem of cognitive and moral differences that emerge from different conceptual frameworks used by different cultural groups. These differences can undermine the possibility of finding common ground. It is true that different conceptual frameworks surface from a lack of common ground and the different moral and cognitive grounds are greatest between groups with the greatest cultural and political differences. But the first requirement for invigorating the discourse of opposing views is exposure to the other side, or exposure to disagreement. The media in a conflict can play a particularly important role in exposing one party to the arguments, perspectives, and emotions of the other side.

Exposure to conflicting groups with different political and conceptual moral domains is the essence of the media’s role in the deliberative and democratic process. It is the media’s most fundamental contribution to conflict resolution. Peace and conflict resolution does not depend on similarity among conflicting parties because such a condition will never be met. Rather, the ability to create meaningful discourse between divergent groups is most important. The psychological tendency to balkanize and polarize ourselves is powerful and has become a concern to conflict specialists as a result of increasing tendencies toward emphasizing differences and distinctions. The press has been increasingly remiss at stimulating significant discussion across differences and people retreat into media enclaves and are exposed to different political discourse. In general, as Mutz (2006) reports, exposure to divergent opinions is a positive quality of democratic values because it helps people understand the arguments and rationales for those who think differently. And democratic values are even more encouraged when people actually reach across differences and try to engage others. True, that engaging those who are different than us can be dangerous and risk termination of the relationship, but the rewards are considerable if the risk is overcome. The elite press in particular must confront the effects of fewer opportunities to learn about others by making conflicting discourses available to its audience.

Hearing the other side, which makes one aware of legitimate and defensible arguments from the other side, also improves tolerance for differences. The ability to see more than one side of an issue translates into tolerance because recognition of a defensible argument makes it easier to accept the argument or lend it credence. I may not accept the opposing argument in the full sense of the word, but I can tolerate it. I will be more willing to compromise my own position and extend recognition to the other. This tolerance for differences is invigorated should the differing parties to a conflict have any sort of personal relationship. Typically during protracted ethnopolitical conflicts, where peace processes are often started and stopped, the participants to the conflict have contact with one another which results in trust improvement and some sense of a personal relationship. This development of even an imperfect personal relationship between “enemies” can weaken the identity-based differences between the two and lessen the probability of conflict erupting because of differences. Even a small personal tie will contribute to tolerance.

By demanding that the media expose publics to disagreement and different opinions, I am not suggesting that the media fail if they do not meet an idealized standard of perfect balance. Such balance is probably impossible to define, let alone attain. And it is impossible to impose such a requirement on any one news outlet. It is probably true, however, that the marketplace of ideas works well enough as long as there is sufficient diversity and competition in the information environment. Competition for news and information is effective and clear ideas will find their way into both conflicting communities. The crucial factors for a deliberative media are competition and diversity. When opposing viewpoints contend shared values are more likely to emerge. The online environment poses an interesting example because as Wojcieszak and Mutz (2009) discovered, exposure to the others who disagree occurs more with nonpolitical groups. They studied chat rooms and message boards and discovered that politically oriented networks tended to agree with one another in the first place. Thus, one is more likely to be exposed to political disagreement in casual networks not devoted to politics.

The War and the Digital War

I suppose it was inevitable that the union of war and new media would spawn some strange offspring that looked like a combination of hip media and varieties of war. Terrorists, revolutionaries, and disenfranchised citizens are carrying laptops, hand-held cameras, and phones into battle and posting real-time and unedited messages on Twitter and Facebook.

In 2003 we saw the early effects of new media when telephones were able to capture images such as Abu Ghraib and turn the site into an international symbol of torture. You can watch YouTube videos of Syrian rebels fighting government forces in real-time. The video takers are now part of the battle and have specific assignments and training. You can hear the video takers cry “Allahu akbar” when he successfully captures a photographic moment. We could call this the “YouTube war” because of the union of cell phones and social media that make it possible to furnish the world with real-time war. And YouTube does not delete very many videos; thus, there are some graphic pictures and raw scenes that even amount to crimes.  You can see an example here but be forewarned .

The rebel videos in Syria are accompanied by English translations and commentary which touts the successes of the Syrian rebels. According to one article in the Wall Street Journal in September 2013 the rebels have hired accomplished graphic designers with stylized script to enhance the effects. It is not uncommon to leave cell phones and cameras on dead bodies so their content will be picked up. Some videos are designed for religious audiences and contain religious messages. A good reading on the use of social media in revolutionary movements appears in the online publication Small Wars Journal. It is free and easily available.

Some Ways New Media Has Changed Revolutionary Movements

Authoritarian regimes have always tried to control traditional media (radio and television) and have usually had the upper hand. But now the rebels have increased information and can gather intelligence more skillfully. Sophisticated American intelligence tries to understand the battlefield but revolutionaries now do it with amateur videos uploaded from handheld devices. Moreover amateur video legitimizes the narrative of partisans and insurgents. It is the first real countermove in the effort to weaponize information against authoritarian regimes. Propaganda is now a tool everyone has access to.

Secondly, the public sphere aspect of new media allows for mobilization. In Egypt in 2011 the phrase “We are all Khaled Said” on Facebook was a significant aid to youth mobilization during the 18 days in Tahrir Square. In one interesting development rebel fighters have Twitter and Facebook accounts in which they reveal their identity and answer questions “on the field.” They do not divulge locations but other than that the fighters use these social media to disseminate information and establish an online identity. They are completely comfortable with exposing themselves probably because they are simply used to sharing one’s identity online.

But third, social media cannot put weapons on the battlefield so it has its limitations. And state regimes have their resources and instruments of oppression that can easily overwhelm social media. Moreover, social media are particularly good at forming weak ties that are not accompanied by energized activism. Those who are members of Facebook networks make few real sacrifices and are “weakly tied” to the cause.

Finally, it is a little frightening to imagine the worst of all possible outcomes. Although new media in the form of videos uploaded on YouTube were instrumental in prompting debate about Western intervention in Syria and use of chemical weapons, there were also thousands of recorded atrocities before that and nobody paid attention. We might end up being increasingly entertained and narcoticized by images of war, and at the same time feeling just fine about doing nothing.

Are You Offended by This Picture?

Are you offended by the picture below? Perhaps not but many people are.   It violates  a variety of moral foundations with respect to the interpretation of political messages  (see a review here).


The photo is of an American soldier hugging a Muslim woman in a niqab. It is an actual ad inspired by a real couple. At first glance it looks like a political statement with respect to American forces and their concern for local citizens in Iraq or Afghanistan. But the billboard is an ad for a throat spray that is supposed to help people stop snoring and thus keep them “together.” The ad does successfully pass the first rule of advertising which is to capture attention. But for some people this togetherness is too soon after 9/11, and for others it is shoving political correctness down our throats. Others find the ad endearing.

Some research did reveal that the soldier is real and one question that can be asked is why is an American soldier in uniform doing an ad for a commercial company? Well, that’s a good question but not what I’m interested in. It’s more interesting to examine the various responses to the ad and why some find it loving and inclusive and others distasteful and offensive. How you respond seems to be a matter of what sort of moral issues you are concerned with.

Jonathan Haidt of course in his book Moral Foundations Theory ( has explained how liberals and conservatives differ with respect to which moral systems they respond to. Haidt identifies six moral foundations and they are briefly: care/harm, liberty/suppression, fairness/cheating, loyalty/betrayal, authority/subversion, and sanctity/degradation. I won’t elaborate on them all for space considerations but a few insights are worthy.

The care/harm distinction evolved from the need to care for children and is now stimulated by messages about suffering in distress. Compassion is a strong emotion here. For conservatives, however, that compassion is more associated with members of your own group than an outgroup. Conservatives are more likely to help members of an ingroup rather than an outgroup. For liberals, care and compassion are more universal and might be triggered by anyone suffering. There is a subtle element of this in the photograph as the soldier seems to be caring for the woman. Liberals who are more responsive to universal care are more likely to accept the photograph and find it less troublesome.

The sanctity/degradation continuum is also particularly important to those with a conservative ideology. Early in our evolutionary history there was a survival advantage to avoiding human waste, decaying food, and health threats of all types. Haidt argues that many objects as a consequence became sacred and we wanted to protect them against desecration, thus setting into motion “sacred” images, flags, and words. American conservatives tend to bestow sanctity quite easily on objects such as flags, ideologies such as capitalism, and desecration on the other things such as homosexuality and foreign objects. The image of the Muslim has become contaminated and clearly by many with strong conservative ideologies seen as a threat and something to be avoided. The most conservative viewers of the photograph are the most “put off” because they see the sanctity of the American soldier being degraded by contact with an impure other.

We respond to things not only according to our economic interests our moral ones. The argument that we have evolved these moral standards over time and as a result of evolutionary needs does seem to be defensible enough. A few of these moral standards such as “caring,” “fairness,” and “sanctity,” are clearly the divides that separate moral reasoning. A strong liberal will be more supportive of using government to level the playing field and achieve a sense of fairness; whereas, a conservative who is consistent with conservative values will defend traditions and infuse some objects and ideas with “sanctity.”

The soldier in the photograph is more sanctified than the woman and that’s why we immediately perceive his threat and express suspicion about her. So what you see and how you interpreted is certainly not an objective processing of an image, but an interpretive act that includes the interaction of your political predispositions with the object of interest.

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