Monthly Archives: September 2015

Stories as Arguments

Stories play an important role in asymmetric ethnopolitical conflicts with each side using stories to legitimize their own experiences. Sometimes stories contribute to polarization between the two sides and strengthen the tendency to exclude others and classify them as morally objectionable. But stories play a particularly important role in asymmetric conflicts because the root of such conflicts is the relationship between adversaries and the influences of culture and history on these relationships. It is stories that carry meaning and narrate culture and history. Stories are the data that conflict participants in asymmetric conflicts use to support their version of history. Consequently, stories serve as powerful expressions of subjective reality that on the one hand must be taken seriously as a picture of the lived world of the participant, but are also used as arguments that can be examined and challenged.

narrative as argument

Stories as Arguments

Treating stories as arguments is a powerful form of communication analysis that resonates with human experiences. For asymmetrical conflict, narrative can be a communicative technique for pursuing common interests. In other words, a narrative is a story that relates to events and people. It has a plot, a storyline, and cast of characters. When someone tells a story, even an ethnopolitical narrative characterized by loss or violence, the story illustrates a reality of their life. The narrative has personal and ideological value to the individual and represents a lived experience that must be made sensible. A story that relates a real experience is the basic mechanism for conveying the nature of reality including judgments and the truth value of certain statements. It is both an individual subjectivity that is susceptible to all of the confusions and distortions individuals are capable of, as well as a story built on argument principles. If an Israeli is listening to the story of a Palestinian and the Palestinian tells the tale of oppression and difficult circumstances, along with subplots of personal experiences concerning confrontations with the military and violence, then that story is real to the individual and subject to debate and discussion, albeit difficult debate and discussion. The same is true for a Palestinian listening to an Israeli talk about historical discrimination, the state of Israel, and the moral and legal difficulties of the conflict. The stories are part of personal experiences and representative of the different ways of speaking and knowing that must be explored in dialogue by all participants.

The high standard of argument proposed by deliberation theorists is realistically out of reach and not descriptive of actual deliberation, which is more emotional than rational and rooted in “conversation argument” rather than theoretical models of argument. In the traditional description of an argument it is a formal structure that exists independently of individuals. Hence, it is not unusual to see diagrams illustrating formal relationships about claims, data, and conclusions. But conversational reasoning, which is where storytelling that functions as argument is expressed, views communication as pragmatic. A “conversational” argument is concerned with presumptive reasoning rather than logic.

Presumptive reasoning is based on pragmatics and draws conclusions from context in general usage of the term rather than from formal structure. This type of conversational reasoning is statistical in that it assumes a certain relationship exists. For example, I might say John (x) supports government welfare programs (A) and is therefore a Democrat (B). The relationship between (A) and (B) is presumptive or statistical in that the association is defensible but certainly not logically required. There are situations where (A) is not (B) and there can be conversational inconsistency. Certainly the idea of “supporting government programs” and “being a Democrat” can be definitionally inconsistent.

Reasoning processes like these develop their own standards of defensibility. The form of argument that occurs in everyday interactions is not dependent on logic but is informed more by how people reach acceptable conclusions. It is a frequent and persistent form of communicating between members of asymmetric groups. The presumptive relationship between supporting government welfare programs and being a Democrat will change over time and be influenced by many communication variables including contexts. The implications of this relationship between (A) and (B) and the questions and critical inquiry it stimulates are central to the deliberation process. Various psychological factors and levels of commitment will also influence deliberative communication. One could believe in the presumptive relationship and be emotionally committed to it even though it is indefensible on numerous evidentiary grounds. Arguments can be more easily inconsistent as well as failing to meet principles of proper inferential reasoning but still be influential. This is the nature of stories as argument.

Is Ending History Possible?

Liberal Democracy1Liberal Democracy2

I’ve always been a little bit partial to Francis Fukuyama’s argument that liberal democracies and market economies represent the natural gravitational pull for all political cultures. Fukuyama argued in his provocatively titled book “The End of History” that even the most repressive regimes could not escape sprouts of resistance that led to more democratic processes and freer markets. These were not only ideologically and economically superior but they were natural to humans. Of course, some pundits at the time suggested that this supposedly natural pull toward market economies and liberal democracies was grounds for repressive or oppressive behavior and would lead to a sort of conservative triumphalism that forced political systems on other cultures. The hard-core diversity stance also naturally resisted this argument suggesting that alternatives and variations were certainly possible.

Still, historical analyses and observations of pressures that emerge in political systems, not to mention a sort of inescapable common sense, make it difficult to escape the natural superiority of democratic processes and market economies. Given the advent of science, the Enlightenment, modernity, and the political and economic stability of Western democratic societies, it does seem like the world is evolving in that direction. It’s not that there are not branches and deviations (Pol Pot, Nazi Germany, Marxism) from this supposed march toward openness and democracy for the route is not a straight line. But it does seem to be the case that if we take a step backward we can over time take 1 ½ steps forward and on the average – even according to measurements of democracy around the world – continue to progress.

Then, we encounter ISIS. A nightmare from history that you thought we had awakened from centuries ago. Even after the US won the battle with communism and China turned its head toward capitalist practices the advent of ideologies like ISIS is a bracing reminder that maybe these democratic values are not so universal after all. Sometimes other cultures recognize the benefits of liberal democracies and free markets but they resent the preaching of the West and always feel a little humiliated and pressured by the United States. They sometimes reject liberal values simply because they are espoused by the US. Additionally, conservative sensibilities about the role of women, religion, and communicative rights make for common ground between authoritarian cultures like Russia and religious cultures in places like Africa or the Middle East.

Even the liberal advances of the West, which can be considered part of American exceptionalism, are relatively new and in some cases quite shallow. The US continues to hope that others will copy us, that they will see the errors of their ways. But waiting for others to simply “get it” will make for a pretty long wait. We don’t even know what it is we are asking them to copy. And it is true enough that we could turn this into a political scientist’s playpen with all sorts of theories, foreign policies, and suggestions on how to establish democratic sensibilities. But this doesn’t seem the best agent for change either.

The simple essence of democracy, which is popular sovereignty and individual rights, probably cannot be forced or imposed on anyone. There is an obvious logical contradiction here. How can democracy and individual rights be a “natural” evolution if it is being forced on someone? Surely it is best if such values emerge from inside political cultures but the counter forces of power and self-aggrandizement by a few can prevent the flowering of democracy for a long time – maybe forever.

It’s true enough that US preaching and heavy-handed manipulations may be counterproductive but that does not weaken the core value of democratic systems which is the notion of human rights, or that people have a right to legitimate participation in the political process. No society can hold together its multiethnic and multireligious subgroups without some sense of what it means to have human rights that are genuine and culturally authentic. Such authenticity is crucial because values forced by other cultures will always be resisted. Moreover, the attractions of nationalism and religious identity are powerful. They will be overcome only by something more powerful such as a social contract that guarantees the legitimacy of everyone’s participation, and the protected sound of their voice.

How to Beat ISIS

defeating ISIS map

ISIS or the Islamic state is one of the most vicious and retrograde political and military forces to emerge in recent history. Their cruelty and wanton destruction of culture and history, along with a desire to install a restrictive and punishing religious order such as the caliphate, has attracted attention and stimulated jihadists. Most even minimally enlightened world leaders believe ISIS is a sufficient threat to warrant some sort of action. The issue is how to do it. Do we send in troops composed of Americans or do we maintain some distance and simply try to contain ISIS?

ISIS is a political system with a religious basis. It claims to be a state but rules primarily by force rather than political principle. It is also a terrorist organization. It must be stopped from acquiring territory or controlling geographic communities because that simply legitimizes them further and increases their capacity to operate. ISIS is determined and sophisticated (note their skilled media use) and the combination of their religious, political, and ruthless nature poses a particular difficulty and dilemma.

The best soldiers, the most ideal, would be Sunni who oppose ISIS. If you compose an opposition force of Shia then ISIS will just be further convinced that they are surrounded by an enemy that must be stopped. A Sunni opposition force requires money and training and this puts the US in the same place it is now – training a foreign force to fight the battles we want but are often a little bit less motivated. Between Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan, we have not had all that much success at training soldiers in other cultures to fight the enemy we choose. The reasons for this are complex but it remains so difficult that it’s worth considering other avenues of influence. There is a tendency to fantasize about powerful and skilled US troops simply overwhelming and outsmarting the evil ISIS. Almost a movie version of how the good guys prevail. But it’s time we wake up from this dream and try more diplomatic maneuvering. Clearly, there is a place for military action and we should exploit it whenever possible.

Consequently, an alternative approach would be to persuade supporters of Syria to remove Assad but do it in a way that an Islamic state does not replace it. The presence of Assad is a recruiting tool because many extremists join ISIS pleasured by the thought of eliminating Assad and overthrowing a minority Islamic leader who is killing Sunnis. ISIS is a Sunni organization and no friend of Shia Iran. In fact, we have experienced US-Iran cooperation and coordination in the battle against ISIS. We should continue to cultivate a more cooperative relationship with Iran and enlist their help whenever possible. The nuclear treaty might play a significant role in improving the relationship between the United States and Iran (that’s one of its goals). The US should also be prepared to offer considerable humanitarian aid to the disadvantaged people of Syria.

We have to remember how difficult and intractable religious wars are. They are the most vicious and resistant to change because of the deeply held beliefs rooted in theology by both sides. Religious wars in Europe lasted for centuries. Borders were unclear and populations where displaced, destroyed, and disadvantaged. I would not expect such religiously motivated wars to be any different in the modern Middle East.

Finally, we have to remember that we are fighting an ideological war. Military action is called for but will certainly be insufficient by itself. The US and its allies will require a deep penetration into the workings of ISIS and the jihadist states that support it. There is a tendency to believe that ISIS is an independent operator when in fact they are supported by jihadist states. It is also typical to think that ISIS and jihadist states are so religiously committed and motivated that they cannot be deterred. There is some truth to this but it does not diminish our ability to weaken them and deter their supporters such as arms dealers, financiers, and other institutional forms of support. Defeating this aggressive, subversive, and expansionist politico-religious movement will not be easy.





The Donald Trump Help File: The Difference between Hamas and Hezbollah


I don’t usually write about domestic politics in this blog space but since Trump is so uninformed, and proud of it, I thought I would help him out a little bit. Trump barely knows what he’s talking about – and on other occasions knows nothing about what he’s talking about – but is actually one of the few candidates who has turned that into a positive because he gets aggressive with anybody who questions him. During a radio interview the other day he was asked about the differences between has Hezbollah and Hamas. When his ignorance is challenged he returns the aggression by accusing the questioner of asking “gotcha” questions, as if the leader of the free world isn’t supposed to know anything. Trump continues to claim he’s is an excellent delegator who will get the best people in place and five minutes after he’s President he’ll be thoroughly informed and know more than everybody else. I guess Trump believes that the American people are electing a delegator not a leader. In one interview when Trump was asked what he would do about Obama care he answered by saying, “I’ll get rid of it and replace it with something terrific.” It was comforting to hear that his health care program will be “terrific.”

Trump whines like a baby every time someone asks him a question that requires a substantive answer. So I thought I would help him out a little bit since the issues do fall within the confines of this blog. I’ll briefly outline some distinctions for him that should be sufficient to get him through the next debate. If he wants more detail – and I’m sure he doesn’t – he will have to dig it up himself or have one of his delegates do it.

For starters, Hamas and Hezbollah share a few things in common as both oppose the West and Israel and they are fundamentally animated by Islamic extremism. But the differences remain clear enough and the Donald can strut his stuff if he learns them. If Trump offers up even a morsel of accurate information his credibility will soar.

Hamas is based in Palestine and has a military wing. It was founded by Shaeikh Yassin and is rooted in the Muslim brotherhood. It operates primarily in the West Bank and Gaza and when it’s not challenging Israel it emphasizes social services for the people of those areas. The Israelis started out by supporting Hamas because they thought it would be a counter influence to secular Fatah. But after a number of Hamas attacks Israel altered its relationship.

In 2006 Hamas was successful at winning a majority of seats in the Palestinian legislature thus establishing themselves as the representatives of Gaza. Interestingly, Hamas and Hezbollah share a common hatred and opposition to Israel but differ fiercely with respect to their own brand of Islam. Hamas is primarily a Sunni organization and Hezbollah is Shia. This is a significant difference between the two.

Hezbollah is based in Lebanon not Palestine and fights Israel from southern Lebanon. Hezbollah means “army of God” and carries out suicide bombing, kidnappings, along with support from Iran.

Both of these groups are dangerous threats to Israel and have easy access to weapons, especially Hezbollah who receive sophisticated military support from Iran.

I could provide Trump some reading but how simple it is to Google these two groups and just do it himself. Or, Trump could delegate the task since he is such a skilled delegator. Have one of his delegates Google it for him.


The ISIS Group Nightmare

ISIS T-shirt

Just when you thought you had heard of about every atrocity and psychotic group behavior, ISIS creeps into your dreams like a nightmare from ancient history. Beheadings, chemical warfare, mass murder, destruction of cultural, religious, and artistic sites are all tools for new political theory. Then, as the world sort of drifts into a coma rather than sleep we get nightmare 2.0 in the form of theocratized rape and slavery. Apparently, the Quran justifies rape and slavery as long as you pray properly beforehand and stay within the religious leaders “Handbook Governing Rape”. Yes, as David Brooks reported in the New York Times on August 28, ISIS leaders have a handbook to govern how to handle rape and slavery and it even has a helpful question and answer section. The example section below is from the David Brooks opinion article on Friday, August 28, page A21. Question 13 below is from the religious leader’s handbook of when rape and slavery are theocraticly justified

“Question 13: Is it permissible to have intercourse with a female slave who hasn’t reached puberty?

“It is permissible to have intercourse with a female slave who hasn’t reached puberty if she is fit for intercourse; however, if she is not fit for intercourse it is enough to enjoy her without intercourse.”

Anonymous, writing in the New York Review of Books, and Paul Berman writing in Tablet have confessed to confusion about how ISIS seems to defy some of the standard explanations for revolutionary movements. ISIS continues to succeed in gaining the respect of local communities, attracting foreign fighters from all sorts of cultures (some Islamic some not) and even managing an infrastructure of administrative efficiency, police services, military strength, and economic development.

How can this be!? Most experts, as Anonymous explains in the New York Review of Books, don’t get it. They admit to being confused. One explanation is that ISIS inherited Saddam Hussein’s Baathist administrative structure including a security apparatus and an officer corps. There is probably some truth to this but it’s not much of an explanation for the barbarism that defies human history. ISIS has transgressed every tick of human progress. Just when you thought there were times in history when the moral carcass of human nature lifted its head to inch forward in progress – the times of democratic flowering in Greece, the Reformation, religious tolerance, the Enlightenment, the Magna Carta, the Declaration of Independence, world organizations for peace – when you thought we had learned something and were progressing, ISIS comes along and reminds us that mankind has not really learned its lesson.

I suppose we are not capable of learning. Some generation seems to make progress, and we experience something like the Nazis and assume we’ve learned a lesson. But the lesson is for naught because a new generation is born of a blank slate; we can’t pass the lessons onto the next generation except through education which is itself subject to so many influences the that it is an unreliable teacher.

ISIS is raw and naked group identity. The individual members share a set of basic values and belief in enduring characteristics. This sense that a group’s history is unique and its traditions preserve the group’s identity and comprise it is particularly true of religious groups. ISIS’s desire for positive evaluation is so great that they can justify anything. They make intergroup comparisons and of course value their own group to such an extreme that anything, even the most despicable violence, is justified in the service of their group identity.

Durkheim theorized, probably correctly, that all societies made the distinction between the sacred and the profane and something becomes sacred the more it is associated with the collectivity and the power of the collectivity to protect, reward, and punish. The sense of tribal or group identity is the building block of religion.

Future posts will take up this issue and explain how intergroup conflict is particularly recalcitrant when it comes to religious group identities – but “recalcitrant” is too mild a word for the existence of ISIS.

You can read more about these issues here


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