Monthly Archives: June 2014

Jihadists Humiliate Us: What Can We Do


I had a good chuckle the other day at the story of the Iraqi insurgents who captured the city of Mosul and found five nice American-made helicopters. They noted that the helicopters were pretty new and said in a posting on Twitter, “We expect the Americans to honor the warranty for these helicopters and service them for us.” Apparently even one of the most brutal jihadist groups has a sense of humor. But there is more than a prideful display of humor here. The comment was meant to humiliate. Even though it is a rather benign attempt at humiliation, and aimed at a strong target, it meets the conditions of humiliation as a communicative act between groups engaged in intergroup conflict.

Humiliation is an attempt to subjugate or diminish the pride and dignity of the other. Moreover the recipient of the humiliation is forced to feel helpless and if the humiliation is potent and long-lasting it can have deep psychological effects. Traditional societies rely on a sense of order and hierarchy and keeping the lower ranks “down” is expected. But when someone of status or higher rank is humiliated it is especially unacceptable because it does not serve the social order of the group, and it is especially painful for the higher status recipient. Acts of revenge and retribution are common. Jealousy, which is a powerful jailhouse emotion, is rooted in humiliation and the sense of being rejected, inferior, and disrespected. You can read a little more here.

Violence is especially likely when a formerly humiliated group feels powerful enough to humiliate its former tormentor. That many Middle Eastern Arabs and Muslims feel humiliated by the West is commonly enough understood. But now that the formerly subjugated are in positions of power – or at least are feeling powerful – they will return the humiliation. Considerable historical violence (Hitler, Osama bin Laden, Rwanda, South Africa, colonial violence) is associated with humiliation. Moreover, trauma and victimhood are intertwined with humiliation in some complex ways. Anger, rage, and antagonism are strongly associated with political conflict and violence and very dangerous when associated with humiliation.

So what are we to think of our jihadist friends and their gleeful humiliation of the United States? We can ignore it which is often a good strategy and consistent with the popular ideology that says “nobody can humiliate you unless you let them.” This is not a platitude I consider very effective but it is the case that I have some control over how I feel. This little slight humiliation is insignificant enough such that ignoring it is easy. There is always dialogue and reconciliation and attempts to reconstruct relationships such that humiliation is not part of the new relationship. This is ideal and desirable, but difficult.

These jihadists fellows are feeling their oats with respect to military victories and this effort to exercise autonomy and stand up to the humiliater make for feelings of joyful catharsis. But if they were serious about problem-solving of any type they would take the next step which is to transition to a more balanced and respectful relationship. Former underlings who change their own consciousness first are in a position to change the other.

Then again, all of this is laughably idealistic as we read about the savagery of these ISIS (Islamic State in Iraq and Syria) groups who casually execute prisoners, behead rivals, and loot the communities they conquer. On second thought, a little humiliation does not sound so bad.



The Paralysis of Choice


Ever since Kahneman and Tversky’s groundbreaking work we have accepted the fact that humans just aren’t very good at choices and keeping the best interest of everyone in mind. We believe our thinking and decision-making processes are clear and logical when in fact we are inconsistent in many ways. I presume most readers of this blog are familiar with this general pattern and I will not elaborate on it except to say that we make many types of mistakes: we exaggerate what we know; we overvalue some objects for illogical psychological reasons; quality information sometimes does not matter; we shift choices for ideological reasons; we unconsciously seek out confirming information; on the average, humans are more unreflective, impulsive, and subject to illogical influences than we are “rational.” A recent article in The Nation captures these issues.

But those of us interested in deliberation, political communication, group decision-making, and group processes cannot easily abandon the issue of choice or making decisions. We cannot simply throw up our hands and say “people are irrational.” We must continue to explore these matters and find ways to improve.

For starters, we should confront our historical ideology about the value of choice. As a liberal democracy and market economy we naturally believe that choice is better, and the more choices you have the freer the market and the richer the environment. But some who have written about this issue demonstrate how we are constantly anxious and unsure of ourselves because of so many choices. We are constantly in the state of insecurity and questioning whether or not we have done the right thing whether it is a choice of a school, a food item in the market, a financial plan, or any number of other choices.

Still, one of the most interesting and creative ways to think about choice is the role it plays in a democratic society. In other words, choice can be related to political ideology such as those choices explained in Gladwell’s The Art of Choosing or Ben-Porath in Tough Choices. One political argument for the role of government is that it levels the playing field; when the distribution of money and resources becomes unequal government steps in and constrains choice markets. Clearly we do not make choices in a perfectly rational market – some members of that market have fewer choices than others and of less quality – so a middle force such as a government steps in and levels the playing field choices.

Again, part of this intervention is “behavioral economics” where the state or a business manipulates the environment so you will make certain choices. For example, automatically transfer a portion of payroll to a savings account and require the individual to “opt out” rather than “opt in” which increases the statistical likelihood of saving.

No, those of us interested in the communication process, the deliberation process is epistemic; that is, communication can produce new knowledge and new possibilities. Difficult problem solving is not simply a matter of choosing a correct choice that is more rational than another, or selecting an option that has maximized value. Much of this work in “choice” and the processes that influence choices is less relevant to deliberative theorists. Deliberative communication emerges from the literature on deliberative democracy and is rooted in the advantages that accrue from reciprocity. “The basic premise of reciprocity is that participants owe one another justifications for their institutions, laws, and public policies that collectively bind them.” This means that justice and the legitimate acceptance of social and political constraints on a group must emerge from a process where all parties have had ample opportunity to engage in mutual reason-giving. From reciprocity flows respect for the other. Scholars also refer to publicity and accountability as essential conditions of deliberative democracy. That is, discussion and decision making must be public to ensure justifiability, and that those who make decisions on behalf of others must be accountable. Binding decisions lose moral legitimacy to the extent that they have been made in a manner unavailable to the public, or by individuals who are not accountable to their constituencies.

What is particularly important about deliberation from a communication perspective is its ability to transform the perspective of the individual. Election-centered and direct democratic processes value the individual, but focus primarily on the opportunity to participate. Deliberative processes draw on communication in the form of discussion and argument with the aim to change the motivations and opinions of individuals. The deliberative process contributes to a changing sense of self and identity because participants are immersed in a social system that manufactures new ways to think about problems and orient toward others. This deliberative social system moves people out of their parochial interests and contributes to a broader sense of community mindedness, as well as providing new information that clarifies and informs opinions. The issues pertinent to categorical choices are relatively inconsequential to deliberation.



Unleashing the Blogs of War

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The blogging community is growing, stretching its muscles and increasing its influence. Blogs are, according to a number of studies, providing more insight and more thoughtful analysis than traditional media. Clearly, there are amateurish and ineffectual blogs that contaminate the blogo sphere but these will always be with us as long as communication environments are unrestrained.

In a study by Johnson and Kaye (Media, War & Conflict, Vol 3, 2010) they discovered that the Iraqi war was a significant event with respect to blogs when people began to see them as more thoughtful and often more accurate than traditional media. Until then, blogs were mostly annoying sideshows dismissed by quality journalism as something not to be taken seriously. But soldiers in Iraq who began to write war blogs and report on what they were seeing, including a natural view of the military and the culture of military life, began to acquire support. These military blogs were popular and attracted the attention of traditionally trained journalists as well as the public.

But a strong majority of Americans who supported the war up until the toppling of Saddam Hussein began to fade away as the war effort shifted to state building in Iraq. Attention to blogs began to wane and it appeared that military blogs were consistently the most popular and blogs lost some of their appeal as things moved to routine politics. Still, the public recognizes that government sources control wartime news and these sources of course have their limitations and biases. The beginning of the Iraqi war and the hunt for Saddam Hussein produced more cheerleaders than journalists.

In time of war blogs written by soldiers are particularly popular for some rather straightforward reasons. They offer up more detail, insight, and perspective as well as assumed to be more authentic. Moreover blogs by soldiers, or more detached participants, can write in a subjective and breezy style that does not adhere to normal journalistic standards. And although this can have disadvantages it makes for more enjoyable reading. The interactive features of blogs are also very popular where readers can respond and initiate extended discussions.

Johnson and Kaye found that blogs were influential in establishing perceptions and had the power to influence opinions. Readers of blogs in their study reported increased influence and attributions of credibility about the blog as time went on. There are of course a number of political and foreign-policy explanations for this including the influence of changing popularity from traditional media.

Also of interest is the predominance of Republican and conservative ideology among blog readers and users. We would expect military blogs to be largely conservative but overall blog attention increases among Republicans and conservatives. In the same way that conservative radio and television is more popular or “works better” than liberal programming, conservative ideologies seem to seek out alternative media probably because of their general belief in liberal media bias.

Some years ago it seemed quite unlikely that citizens would drift away from CNN and traditional news and start partaking regularly of blogs for war news, a time when blogs were considered more hardscrabble upstarts then respected and reliable. But the blogosphere is growing and shaping itself into something significant as well as genuinely challenging traditional news. The blogs of war were unleashed during the Iraqi war just at the moment where technology and politics intersected.

News from the Palestine Papers: Wikileaks and Media Foreign Policy

Four years ago in 2010 Al Jazeera acquired a set of documents known as “The Palestine Papers.” These were classified documents characterizing behind the scenes comments pertaining to the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations as far back as the Madrid conference and the Oslo agreements in the early 1990s. They included emails, minutes, transcripts, reports, strategy papers, and draft agreements all detailing the US mediated negotiations. The Palestine papers can be accessed in English at this site: The Palestine papers. Moreover, a more detailed analysis of the Palestine papers and the issues discussed below appears in Zayani (2013) in the journal Media, War & Conflict.

Of course, the release of these documents can be and was hailed as a blow for freedom of information, greater exposure to the truth, and a gold mine for scholars. Al Jazeera began by holding the documents closely but then found it too overwhelming to deal with and decided to make them available on a website for all to examine. But what is the main news value of these documents? What information is truly relevant and informative? It was tantalizing to read some memos and examine what were thought to be private opinions, but what are the real political effects?

It turns out that the release of these documents was pretty damaging and just possibly might have set the entire negotiation process back. They are a good example of how media can reorganize relationships can cause changes in the issues. We can see this with respect to issues if we compare the state of negotiations in 2010 to the present. First, in 2010 the Palestinian Authority was trying hard to keep Hamas out of the picture. The Palestinian Authority was trying to minimize Hamas and establish themselves as the dominant Palestinian political unit. This was the preference of the United States and Israel each of which assumed that negotiations would be more middle ground and mainstream without Hamas. There was even documentation representing a covert operation between the Israelis and the Palestinian Authority against Hamas and cooperation between the US, Israel, and the Mubarak regime.

The Palestinian Authority was under critical scrutiny and embarrassed by the state of affairs. There were additional revelations about the weak performance of the Palestinian negotiating team and the strength of the Israelis including Palestinian concessions that made them look like they were outmatched by the Israelis and the United States. The Palestinian community felt their pride was eroded and even perhaps their leadership was in an unhealthy collaboration with Israel.

The exposure of these issues has had the effect of hardening the Palestinian position and essentially made negotiations more difficult. The recent formation of a unity government between the Palestinian Authority and Hamas is probably in some way a response to the WikiLeaks documents. Behind the scenes the Palestinians were seeking to marginalize a more extreme group, but the presence of new media that exposes these behind-the-scenes strategies put the Palestinian negotiating team in the untenable position. They have incorporated Hamas into the negotiations, and even though as I argued in an earlier post this might have some salutary effect, it is also possible that it will push the Palestinian Authority into more hardened and extreme positions.

Al Jazeera played an important role in the release of these documents. Some accuse them of making a conscious attempt to embarrass the Palestinians and empowering Hamas. The documents reconfigured the relationship between the Palestinians and other Arab groups by taking backstage behavior and pushing it to the front stage thereby redefining everyone’s role. But then again, this is what media does.




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