The Twisted Logic of Cultural Differences

Israeli-Palestinian face-off

One of the most pressing and distressing cultural and communication problems is how you talk to the “other.” Group and cultural polarization is no longer an interesting insight posed by an academic or intellectual. No, it is common knowledge and easy enough to see even for the most disengaged citizen. It is the problem of perceived incommensurability when the belief that two cultures – especially cultures in conflict – are irreconcilably different. These differences cause distortions in the communication process resulting from the cognitive and political consequences of intergroup contact and the absence of bridging discourse that closes or shrinks cultural gaps. These distortions are apparent in discourses and interactions between the two groups that sustain violence. Although this results in damages and injustices to both sides there are ways to mitigate effects and work to transform the conflict into morally acceptable democratic argument.

The term incommensurability was introduced to refer to scientific values that were so different that they lacked any common unit by which they could be measured. Aristotelian versus Newtonian mechanics is an example. But over time incommensurability became associated with other ideas including concepts related to the humanities and social sciences. Cultures have been termed incommensurable and cultural incommensurability has been associated with diversity and other social agendas. Strong diversity advocates cherish incommensurability as a sign of cultural uniqueness and claim that all group and cultural differences lack some common units by which they can be compared. So, the difference between Palestinians and Israelis, for example, is equivalent to the differences between Aristotelian and Newtonian mechanics. There is no bridging language.

Thomas Kuhn explained that incommensurability referred to “irreconcilable differences” because two or more paradigms involve different sets of problems, definitions, and standards. It is possible to “interpret” the two incommensurable paradigms in a language other than the paradigm, which is what conflict resolution specialists do, but this will always be limited.

Cultures and groups polarize because they engage in a process of increasing differentiation. They develop negative identities such that part of the definition of group or cultural membership involves the rejection of the other. This produces extremes: being Israeli is defined as not being Palestinian, or being a Republican is defined as not being a Democrat.

Increasing differentiation explains how the discourse of difficult conflicts can devolve into contradiction, paradox, and double binds. The natural consequences of differentiation is to gravitate around binaries including binaries of ethnicity (Arab-Jewish), gender (male-female) religion (sacred-secular), history (war of independence-nakba), cultural narratives (victimization-displacement), politics (Republican-Democrat), and so on. Even when groups engage in communicative contact the result can be communication that dissolves into debates, arguments, and blame. These then harden into fixed positions and the sort of interest-based thinking that is not able to deal with identity-based conflicts. The doubly bound messages of conflict groups continue to stimulate the process of differentiation; that is, these groups reify incommensurability through the differentiation described above which results in a type of deformed communication where individuals are trapped by the accusations of the other. Each side of the conflict interprets the other as being responsible for its own oppression and the act of denying such a claim is understood as simply providing additional evidence of the claim in the first place. Thus, you have the twisted logic of group differences.

Attempts to win arguments such as “who started it” or what historical event is responsible for the current situation are typically futile and mostly damage the possibilities for dialogue. These binaries and double binds are so exhausting that the communication resources of both sides are depleted and continuing conflict differences becomes the accepted reality.


About Donald Ellis

Professor emeritus at the University of Hartford.

Posted on April 11, 2016, in Communication and Conflict Resolution, Peace and Conflict Politics and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. This is an elegant and useful description of the process by which adversaries dig their opposing trenches deeper, blowing up the bridges that might otherwise connect them and blur somewhat their perfected differences. The process of constructing a condition of incommensurability is, among other things, an act of selectivity. That dynamic should also be taken into account if we are to think about ways of improving the prospects of dialogue. What, we might ask, is being left out of the polarizing narratives to make their differences artificially absolute. And on what principles (symbolic substances) might they legitimately bridge or transcend their alienation from one another enough to at least tolerate the other but not so much as to lose their sense of identity?

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