Changing the attitudes, beliefs, or values of someone else has always been a central research concern in the social sciences. Theories of social influence, group decision-making, contact, and conflict resolution are all concerned with solving problems or getting one party to change in an effort to redress differences or keep the peace. Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton, and Sheila Heen in their book, Difficult Conversations, write about strategies for talking to one another when the subject is anything you find difficult to deal with. This could be political opinions expressed in a newspaper or relational issues between couples concerning gender, equity, or housework.
In my own book, Fierce Entanglements: Communication and Ethnopolitical Conflict, I write about difficult conversations between ethnopolitical groups where ethnicity and religion are implicated and the conflicts are contentious and intense with deep implications for identity and nationalism. So this issue of change or solving problems runs the gamut from mundane micro issues to politically significant macro concerns.
We see this distinction expressed in the realm of politics in the contrast between those with a slow hand and diplomatic sensibilities who search for common ground and invoke a strategy of engagement, compared to those who carry a bigger stick and keep an opponent in check out of fear or raw power. Scholars continue to argue over the basic theory here about whether or not reaching out to opponents and overtures of engagement and mutual reciprocity actually have any effect on adversaries, or whether or not a strong stance forcing adversaries into submission is more effective. This question is even more interesting when posed as an option for dealing with strong autocratic forces that have little history of democratization or facilitative engagement. The oppositional stance differences between Obama and Trump is an example.
But I would argue that the historical record, and the brunt of research efforts, clearly favors a strategy of accommodation rather than intimidation – a strategy of communicative contact and reciprocity. During the last few decades in the United States those with a more confrontational stance have claimed they favor engagement and reciprocity but demand conditions be met first by the other side such as democratization. Telling Iran or some ethnopolitical group they must democratize before the US will engage in respectful reciprocal relations is a grand goal but pretty unattainable. There are reasons to engage the other side without requiring them first to be more democratic.
For example, business relations and interdependent economic and financial exchanges are typically thought to be a form of rational engagement that promotes cooperation and has economic benefits. The standard thinking is that such economic arrangements promote peace and rapprochement, but there are arguments for the other way around that peaceful and cooperative relationships must come first and business exchanges follow. Clearly, a politician like Obama was attacked for referring to such a strategy and called “weak.” In fact, it went further than that because Obama was described as putting the country in jeopardy and subjecting us to disrespect.
But cautious engagement is better than mutual hostility that can escalate at any moment. Surely, cautious engagement requires the participation of both sides and reciprocity and this will take time. These “difficult conversations” must be developed and nurtured along a pathway to peace and their complexities are many. But still, by the standards of history and scholarship it is better than the alternative.
I know, I know. Dichotomies like the ones below are typically exaggerations and overly simplistic. But such distinctions also represent the real world of how people think. And even if differences such as the ones below are not perfect, they are the sorts of differences that must find their way into solutions. These distinctions also necessarily simplify issues and make them more manageable. Besides, they are better than the cartoonish “Clash of Civilizations.”It is simply true that two cultures such as Islam and the West do not share universal standards of argument and reasoning. It is not that they are incommensurate, but they are sufficiently different such that certain points of articulation must be discovered and addressed. Moreover, the religious versus the pragmatic traditions of the East and West respectively make for numerous points of disagreement.
A Islam-West conflict will be considerably different than other international relations conflicts, which might be more subject to rational negotiation and decision-making. But any conflict between an Islamic and Western tradition will be filtered through identity and made more difficult and sensitive by identity. A conflict will always have to recognize the centrality of identity issues and find ways to manage them.
Differences between Islam and the West with Respect to Conflict Resolution
Islam The West
|1. Believe an image of violent Islam is predominant in the West.
2. Peace is defined by the presence of Islamic values.
3. Issues of “face” and “honor” are particularly important.
4. Discourse of peace is the exception.
5. Modern social science is not very relevant.
|1. Islam and the West are incompatible and Islam is a threat
2. Peace is the absence of war and found in pragmatism.
3. These issues are important but somewhat less so.
4. Discourse of peace is normal.
5. Importance of the social sciences and managing conflict.
In my book “Fierce Entanglements” I cite 20 of these dichotomies but have only a few here for the sake of brevity and space. I think issues such as these deserve attention and I find that they get relatively little. One of our conundrums is that we currently live in an age of tremendous cultural difference recognition. Subgroups in a society demand recognition of their distinctiveness and the right to practice their culture even though it is at odds with the dominant culture. As a society, we increasingly take great pleasure in pointing to cultural differences.
But we’re much more hesitant when it comes to actually recognizing those differences legally and morally. When we generalize or categorize another culture we are quickly reprimanded and reminded of exceptions and variations. So, I do not know if all the distinctions referred to in the table above are justified, but they do represent a common template and for starters are worthy of discussion.
What do you think?
The table below represents the three levels at which conflicts can and must be confronted and managed. All have implications for different types and assumptions about communication.
Approaches to Conflict
Level Idea of conflict Approach Outcomes
|Macro level: Political conflict||Problem of political order; structural problem of national unit||Diplomacy and power moves||Political settlements||Bargaining and negotiation; media symbolism; promoting understanding|
|Conflict management||Natural homeostatic state of conflict that leads to change but must be kept in control||Civil society development; education; contact between groups||Improved relationships and communication; respect for group identity||Problem-solving groups; civil society coordination; communicative relationships; legal channels; forms of conflict resolution|
|Transformational conflict||Conflict as a means for justice and problem resolution||Inclusive of minority groups; intergroup contact||Power-sharing; grassroots change in dialogue; leveling of differences; respect for different identity groups||Communication competency skills; dialogue; intercultural contact; deliberative communication|
This classification table permits conceptual clarity including characteristics of successful outcomes. It is an adaptation of a Table by Ropers (2004). The first macrolevel political approach seeks to stabilize the political order in an environment of violent conflict. The solutions within this framework are thought to be a balance of interests between competing groups. Communication occurs at the level of advisors, leaders, and diplomats. Bargaining, negotiation, and diplomatic processes are typical types of communication when working with problems on the level of political order. Negotiation is a second order discourse that has goals and procedures of its own. The goals are to maximize interests and construct a particular understanding of problems and potentialities. Parties to conflicts experience negotiation phases where individuals pursue their own preferences. Arguments are important in negotiations but they are tethered to power situations. One party can threaten another if they hold such a power position. A key concern about negotiation communication is that change is possible but usually leaves interests in attitudes intact. An Israeli or Palestinian might negotiate away property or sacred land and although certain negotiation goals would have been met, neither side would be satisfied. A decision might have been based on common understandings of the current situation, but those understandings would not have been subjected to critical reflection. Dialogic communication can have positive effects if the media projects it into the negotiation atmosphere. Citizen participation is typically rejected by official politics but positive influences by grassroots organizations is still possible by working toward socialization of future leaders in the creation of networks of communication with influences that find their way into the political process. Kelman groups are a good example of contact communicatively-based experiences designed to serve the policy process to produce changes in individuals and policy.
The difference between official diplomatic and power approaches to conflict and more “unofficial” interactions is more than simply an opinion about differing legitimacy; rather, to many conflict theorists interaction-based approaches represent a fundamentally different understanding of the conflict. Intractable conflicts are sign of failure to satisfy basic needs with respect to identity, recognition, and participation. The conflict management level deals with conflicts over issues of substance but also with the relationships between the various parties. The goal of communication is not necessarily to win arguments and maximize outcomes as much as it is problem-solving and forming new coordinative communication relationships. The parties begin with a joint recognition of shared problems and work to resolve these problems together. Dialogic forms of communication are important for conflict resolution because they clarify perceptions and help to improve communication. If more citizen level communication can be initiated and sustained over a period of time the chances are higher that the process will create a group of people that have close links and are able to influence political institutions. The problem is always a matter of how to take grassroots communication patterns and move them into the realm of practical consequences for political efficacy. Civil society institutions are important for conflict management because they serve as a legitimate outlet for problem resolution. Work by Varsheny, mediating tensions between Hindus and Muslims in India, demonstrates the importance of civil society and of rationalizing contact between groups. This results in improved relations and respect for group identity.
The conflict transformation approach is devoted to settling differences and conflict resolution, but particularly expresses the importance of structural change as well as fundamental changes resulting in peace. Intractable conflicts and highly divided societies – those traumatized by violence and the ethos of conflict – require conflict approaches designed to moderate inequalities and develop political capacities for deep change. The type of communication most associated with dialogue and deliberation is characteristic of this level of conflict including power-sharing and intercultural sensitivities designed to respect differences and identity groups. Intergroup contact is used to create change by strengthening disadvantaged groups and establishing a dispute settlement political culture. A transformational approach to conflict is necessary for identity-based conflicts. The mirror victimization identities described above between Israelis and Palestinians sense of victimization makes satisfying solutions elusive. Macro level and conflict management approaches to resolution are based on tangible interests and resources. But identity-based conflicts involve existential needs and values. The underlying issue in the conflict is not a disagreement over tangible resources such as food or land but the denial of identity, including respect and recognition, or the experience of humiliation. Such conflicts are about intangible communication and psychological issues rather than scarce resources. On the one hand, the identity issues are more symbolic and thus more difficult to manage. But on the other hand, the establishment of different relationship patterns through a dialogic process along with practical interdependent activities will force identity adjustments to coalesce.
Read more and about some related issues in: Fierce Entanglements: Communication and Ethnopolitical Conflict
Do You Want to Stop Extremist Groups? Don’t Change Messages, Change the Receivers for These Messages
Communication perspectives have a long history of trying to teach people which particular message produces which affects, as if the message were a bullet traveling through space that simply needed to be aimed properly. I’m just as guilty as anyone else of thinking about communication as an instrumentality that is constantly looking to push the right button to achieve a predetermined desired effect. So, for example, my own work in dialogue and deliberation still often – not always – reads as if success is simply finding the optimal input conditions that lead to some output.
But there is another way of thinking about how to achieve particular effects. Rather than thinking of the receiver of a message as a passive mechanism with an absorptive sponge for a brain, and then spending your time trying to find the right message that will be absorbed as you designate, change the receiver rather than the message. Make new receivers that will be more or less poised to receive particular messages. Let me explain.
The U. S. is currently struggling to defeat extremist groups such as the Islamic State, Hezbollah, Hamas, Al Qaeda, and a host of other radical groups. Most of the news about our efforts to degrade these extremist groups is pretty bad. Terrorist and violent groups are successfully recruiting new members, winning their share of battles, raising money, and generally prospering. Our military, mighty as it is, will not defeat the Islamic State and no informed counselor to the president believes military force is the only answer – important as it is. So what are we to do?
One answer is to change the terrorists and make them less interested in violence. A more traditional approach consistent with the silver bullet metaphor above is to “lecture” terrorists on democracy, and pluralism, and liberalism, and all those good things and assume that if we can only find the right words with the right pedagogical strategy then these ideas will “take” and we will turn them all into liberal democrats. Well as a popular quip goes, “good luck with that.”
But a second way to approach the problem is to change social structures and business arrangements such that they foster capitalist enterprises and market economies. Don’t try to change people, change social systems and the people will follow. Hernando De Soto wrote about this some months ago in the Wall Street Journal. The idea is to raise living standards and inject the cultures with some imagination and capital especially for the poor. And interestingly, turns out that the poor in many cultures, both Latin American and Middle Eastern, are not poor because of simple unemployment as conventional wisdom would hold. Rather, they are small businessmen and women operating “off the books” in an underground and informal economy.
If economic leaders and advisers in Middle Eastern states would eliminate regulation, and bureaucratic extremes including recognizing the importance of property rights, they would create customers for businesses and leave extremist groups with fewer customers. This is consistent with the goal of leaving groups like ISIS without constituencies, which is currently the goal in Iraq after the deposition of Malaki. On the political front of the strategy is to bring Sunnis into the political system including official bodies of governance on the assumption that they will not turn their attention to outside extremist groups. The same logic can work on an economic basis. The perceptions of these communities must change so they are seen as future vibrant markets rather than training grounds for violence. There is some history, according to De Soto, of these capitalist strategies working in Peru, China, Botswana, and others. And finally, it’s fairly well established that businesses rationalize human relationships. Former intergroup enemies can be interdependent on the basis of a commercial exchange. And if you change the relationship you can change attitudes and values.
I’m naïve you say? Maybe.
It’s just unconscionable how much time is spent analyzing and criticizing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and how little time is spent working on positive and productive solution possibilities. There are, of course, lots of solution proposals and options but the force of communicative energy is directed toward critique and justifications for why something cannot be done rather than the hard work of grinding out durable solutions that take into account the “facts on the ground.” True enough, many elements from both sides don’t actually want to work on solutions because their identities are wrapped up in the conflict but this is one of the stages in the conflict process the two sides must overcome. Listen to the sound file here from the “Voice of Israel” and their shallow criticism of the New York Times. They fail to make the distinction between bias and perspective and have slipped into a series of minor perspective differences informed more by defensiveness than serious engagement.
An animated video that you can watch here is a better and more productive presentation of the conflict because it presents the pragmatic issues that must be addressed rather than small matters that do not carry any traction. Here’s an alternative from IPCRI – a serious solution that clearly requires additional difficult conversation but seems “rational” to the extent that it addresses the needs of everyone.
IPCRI (the Israeli-Palestinian Center for Research and Information) is a welcome alternative. IPCRI has been working on detailed solutions designed to create “Two States in One Space.” You can access the “Two States in One Space Research Paper” here. The paper tries to balance a separation mentality with a cooperation one that requires somewhat less sacrifice and ameliorates potential trauma. The core idea of the paper is to avoid evacuation of hundreds of thousands of Jews and Palestinians by creating different categories of political participation. For example, on that portion of the land that will be Israel one group will be citizens (Israeli Jews) with all the privileges of voting, decision-making, and shaping the national identity. The minority group will be residents, not citizens, but who will have certain guaranteed liberal rights just not the same as citizens. The same will hold for the Palestinian state where Jews (many of them now are settlers) will be a resident minority but not citizens.
This model mitigates demographic fears, responds somewhat to the right of return issues, prevents massive population movement which is rarely easy or successful, and allows for independent nation building. Individuals can move to their own nation state or remain a resident granting the fact that population movement and control will be demanding.
But Most Important!
But most importantly the model sets up the conditions for the development of integrated cooperation and interdependence. The current asymmetrical relationship between Israelis and Palestinians will be softened as the two sides cooperate on security, regional and local governance, and the establishment of necessary shared institutions of government. Israeli Jewish needs for a democratic state devoted to Jewish particularity will be met and there will be no political possibility for the Jewish nature of the state to be challenged. And, Palestinians will have their own state devoted to cultural, political, artistic, and religious matters all in the service of a Palestinian political identity.
Of course, these things remain difficult with lots of work ahead but both sides have to assume that they are not going to get everything they want. This proposal is a matter of entering into a voluntary union that requires a certain amount of cooperation and allows for less sacrifice. And finally, it represents a sensible integration model rather than the separation mentality that characterizes most political solutions. Spend some time reading the documents at IPCRI.
ze lo y’gamer im lo n’daber
This won’t stop if we don’t talk
It is probably unimaginable to think of Hamas and Israel actually talking civilly but getting to the negotiating table is the only answer. Here are some thoughts on doing that.
The above phrase in transliterated Hebrew is going around Israel. It means “this will not stop if we don’t talk” and it appears on protest signs, news stories, and casual conversation. It rhymes in Hebrew. Truer words have never been spoken. The issue is not how to talk to each other or what form those talks should take, the issue is getting to the table. All of our knowledge and skill at communication, dialogue and deliberation, is wasted and unavailable if you cannot get the two parties to the table. If Hamas or Israel insists that the other side must be destroyed or their incompatibilities are irreversible and there’s nothing to talk about, then the violence and conflict will simply continue.
At the moment I’m concerned about getting to the table. Essentially, this is the issue of “ripeness” which you can read more about here. Ripeness refers to the right time or the belief that the conditions are best for talking and solving problems. Right now no one would consider the time “ripe” for conflict management between Israel and Hamas for example. The time might be necessary or the most urgent given the violence but the situation is not ripe. “Ripeness” is a delicate matter because it is a little subjective and difficult to know when exactly is the “right time.” One can move too early, too late, too fast, or misjudge the other. Moreover, conflicts usually have more than one ripe time.
But I do not advocate sitting around waiting for the ripe moment. Participants in a conflict sometimes avoid ripe situations because they get more out of prolonging the conflict. Hamas always says it has “time on its side” because the status attributions it receives from war with Israel outweigh any benefits of negotiation and talk. One question becomes then how you create ripeness, how do you construct conditions that will increase the chances of bringing two sides to the table? Here are some strategies:
1. Third parties are always good sources of incentives. The Middle East has been most calm and in control when there is a significant international polity (the Ottoman Empire, the British Mandate, the United States,) that can provide incentives for talks. Actually, anytime a third-party is willing to intervene and try to mediate the conflict it is a good indication of ripeness.
2. The second strategy for getting people to the table, although a less pleasant one, is waiting until things are so bad that negotiation becomes attractive. As the saying goes, “sometimes things have to get worse before they can get better.”
3. Sometimes it’s possible to get people to the negotiating table by promising them more than they expect. Perhaps some symbolic recognition that was earlier denied, or a tangible resource.
4. New ways to be interdependent that benefit both sides are always strong strategies. Interdependence creates common interest and overlapping concerns and the two parties will talk if the reward possibilities are sufficient.
5. Pre-negotiations or “talking about talk.” Finally, it is sometimes useful to get the two parties to talk about how they would organize and develop dialogue or deliberation. Don’t engage in actual discussion and deliberation and do not term the conversation as official negotiation or discussion. But get the two parties together and have them imagine what the process would look like. This should move them closer to the actual experience of problem-solving deliberation.
Persuading the two parties to talk and find a way to negotiate a settlement – to get them to the table – is typically more difficult than constructing an actual settlement package. There are lots of solutions and proposals to end and contain the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Many of them are understood and accepted by both parties and not very controversial. But none of this matters if the two parties do not talk.
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.
If we want to treat Moscow’s interventions into Eastern Ukraine and Crimea seriously for the moment we might ask about any legitimate concerns on the part of Moscow. But the issue of “legitimate” concerns that justify aggression against others conjures up the rhetorical history of the Soviet Union and their claim to have spheres of influence. Hitler and Stalin used phrases such as this to intervene in the business of others and claim their “legitimate” rights to land and military presence in order to protect Russian citizens or interests.
This is exactly the situation in Eastern Ukraine on the lands that border Russia. Even though these territories have culture contact with Russia and a history of political engagement, the current tensions are not so much the result of locals agitating for stronger associations with mother Russia but with interference by way of propaganda and Russian adventurism. Moreover, it continues Russia’s persistent attention to breakaway regions of the former Soviet Union. Russia has desperately tried to hold on to influence in some of the states (e.g. Georgia, Azerbaijan) but this typically backfires. Ukraine and Kiev will probably be even more oriented toward the West and Ukrainian nationalism will soar.
Ethnic Conflict without the Conflict
The old Soviet Union, like so many political actors, wore blinders that allowed them to see primarily the colors of ethnic groups. The Soviet Union divided and assigned groups to territorial units predominantly on the basis of ethnic heritage. Stalin in particular created ethnic territories and established a broad array of territorial units defined as states. These states were supposed to be homelands for particular national groups (Azeris, Armenians, Uzbeks, etc.). The strategy was to keep groups separate so they could not easily organize against Moscow. It worked for a long time until various groups began to demand independence. Soon, there was ethnic violence and Moscow had its excuse to maintain influence by stepping in and claiming to calm the situation.
Russia has felt quite comfortable intervening in the affairs of its former territories. Russia felt, in fact, very secure and justified by its movement into Crimea. About 58% of the population of Crimea is Russian so the claim to a sphere of influence has some standing. But if Russia feels as if some international commitment has been violated, then they should use diplomacy and the avenues available to them through international law.
The Basic Instruments of International Conflict Management
For my money, Russia has never been particularly good at managing ethnic conflict. Even though historically they oversaw with the old Soviet Union 15 Soviet socialist republics all of which had minority groups, Moscow is sort of a “bull in the china shop.” There are typically four intervention possibilities – military interventions, economic interventions, diplomacy, and dialogue – but Russia relies mostly on military options. In designing a macro level institution meant to facilitate ethnic conflict resolution, the Russians have never been very innovative or creative. Take the case of the Chechens for example. In the northern Caucasus of South Russia Chechens are increasingly a higher percentage of the population, and there are about 20% Russians. Even without Russia agreeing to Chechnya’s autonomy assuring fair treatment, increased cultural autonomy, and more political rights would be reasonable.
When it comes to designing macro structures for divided societies Russia seems to ignore all of them. First, an ethnic group must address the issue of territorial organization of the state. The Crimea, Eastern Ukraine, Chechnya and territories, Georgia, and other points of Russian interest are yet to resolve these territorial issues properly. Secondly, is the matter of the governmental relationship between the minority and the majority. And finally, Russia rarely concerns itself with the protection of identity groups and individual rights.
Putin may have successfully grabbed territory in the Crimea but he is increasingly competing with the West rather than a lesser prepared minority. And he may be banking on the fact that the EU will never consider Ukraine a proper European project, but this may be a dangerous wish as Ukraine increasingly turns its attention to the West and thereby makes progress on territoriality, sound governmental relations, and the protection of identity and minority groups.
Terminological note: I realize that drawing generalities about cultures and religion (e.g. “Islam” or “the West”) is perilous business and many distinctions and semantic nuances are either exaggerated or ignored. But peacemaking and problem resolution is called for nonetheless. I continue with this Islam-West distinction because it is characteristic of how the public formulates the conflict. Some will surely be critical of this supposedly simplistic distinction but it does represent the level at which the conflict is talked about. Funk and Said’s discussion of competing narratives categorizes the conflict as between “Islam” and “the West” and uses these categories as the level at which dispute in consciousness operate. It is also a better capture of the conflict then phrases such as “civilizational conflicts,” a terminology probably worth avoiding.
There is no escaping requirement that any genuine and diligent effort to resolve Islam- West differences must confront extremism and violence. The first step, and this will be difficult for many, is not to view extremism as confined to Islam but to view it as a genuine relational term that is a reaction to economic and cultural issues. Defining a problem relationally implies similarity dialectic; it forces the two parties to interpret differences as similarities or at least the recognition of mutuality of the problem. The current cultural insularity means that each side establishes meaning and interpretations about the other independently and separate from broader political and historical frameworks. If there is going to be a compatibility perspective rather than a rivalry perspective, which is an initial crucial step toward ameliorating conflicts, then extremism must be confronted by each group and also avoid insularity. The current conflict is a clash of symbols (including headscarves, religious symbols, and clothing) that act like a clash of stereotypes. They represent simplistic belief systems that reduce the other side to essentialist practices and end up rendering everyone uninformed. This process results in an intergroup pathology where both sides reduce their beliefs to a small subset of meanings which are difficult to communicate about. When this small subset is politicized the result is fundamentalism as each side works to seal off their beliefs and maintain control. For Muslims the fundamentalism gravitates toward puritanical religious ideology that defines offenses and outsiders. For Westerners fundamentalism equates liberal democracies with the natural flow of history and market economies as beyond criticism.
Intergroup images of the other must be replaced and counteracted. Consistent with a long literature on intergroup contact both ingroup and outgroup images must be modified. Dialogue is the mechanism for uncovering the existential reality of the other. In addition, a compatibility framework must appreciate similarities and differences in order to avoid militants and fundamentalist. If a provocation is responded to in a narrow and mechanical manner then fundamentalism is reproduced. Another simple truth is that we are surrounded by media messages pertaining to violence when it comes to news and information about Islam and the West. The availability heuristic would predict that we use and overemphasize information that is easily available to us. Since we can imagine images of violence easier than ones of peace and reconciliation, simply because these images are more available, we tend to think that such images and relationships are more characteristic of the conflict. And certainly the same is true of the negativity bias, which holds that negative information is more easily attended to and brought to mind than positive information. So when we think of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict we think of negative things such as violence, religious differences, and a whole host of tragedies that cause us to remember those more than anything else. These heuristics of negativity and availability can fundamentally define an intergroup conflict and contribute significantly to its intractability.
Still, there is a reason conflicts such as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are called intractable. They are particularly resistant to resolution because an appeal to shared values and aspirations may not be sufficient. In fact, it would be naïve to think otherwise. The conventional discourse of the West and Islam is filled with assumptions that reinforce ingroup and outgroup mentalities. Security is not a private good but one that is achieved by developing consensus, and cooperation, and interdependence – all relational terms. Justice cannot be imposed by one side but must be a concept that binds the two sides into a just relationship. But neither the West nor Islam can thrive in the midst of extreme antagonism. They need a bigger story, another narrative that continues to develop the narrative of complementarity and compatibility. Neither Islam nor the West can drift into deep bounded subjectivity that fixates on fundamentalism but must discover the active process of dialogue and deliberation capable of generating new forms of communication.
One way to track the power and influence of a culture is by watching the shifts in language use. People are attached to the language they speak and the culture it embodies. When a group speaks a language it’s because they perceive that language to have standing and relative importance.
Russia may have just asserted itself and flexed its muscles but it’s really a weakened national polity as evidenced by the erosion of the Russian language around the world. As Marshall Singer reports, in his Foreign Affairs article “Language Follows Power” Russia is no longer the official language among many of its republics and the countries of the old Soviet bloc. Many state powers are turning away from Russia and its language and showing preferences for English and French.
Languages get used when they are functional and vital. A vital language is responsive to new usages and terminology and changes to reflect an active culture. Hebrew is a good example of a restored and revitalized language that is only spoken by about 8 million people but exercises a power beyond its numbers because of its ties to sectors of the economy and popular culture as well as traditional religious groups.
As nationalism broke out among non-Russian nationalities they began to reject Russian culture and especially the language. Singer also reports that the publication of books and the production of television programs has decreased in Russian but increased in other native languages. The Russian language has faded with the power of the Russian political entity – recent militarism notwithstanding.
Hebrew, on the other hand, within its national boundaries is so strong that it has drowned out some minority languages. Freeburg in a study of the revival of Hebrew offers interesting data on how other smaller languages in Israel (Karaim, Ladino, and Yiddish) have almost been threatened out of existence. The revitalization of Hebrew is typically pointed to as a tremendous success story but Freeburg suggests that the negative consequences of the revitalization of Hebrew have been overlooked. Still, as Russian and Hebrew evolve they change their relationship with the process of conflict resolution.
The Role of Language and Conflict Resolution
The assumption of universality is one of the first mistakes conflict resolution theorists make. In other words, they emphasize the common structural features of conflicts. Or, at least what they believe to be the common features. A Westerner will talk about “negotiation” or “reconciliation” and assume that these concepts are shared by the conflicting parties. The Westerner will assume common patterns and regularities even if terminology is different.
But Raymond Cohen has written cogently about emphasizing variations rather than resemblances. The differences between conflicting parties are important because meanings carry cultural weight and depict different versions of reality. Peace may seem to be a familiar enough idea but its use by various cultures contains characteristic distinctions and meanings. As Cohen explains, in English to “compromise” means to balance concessions and is a very laudable and positive term. But Arabic lacks such terminology and even the ones they use can imply a compromise over a principle of honor or justice which is to be avoided not embraced. Moreover, Israelis argue in a direct and pragmatic manner and consider deep philosophical arguments over principles to be paralyzing. But in Arabic there is no word for pragmatism and it is offensive to neglect principles.
Managing and resolving conflicts is an unavoidable human activity that is steeped in cultural values and differences. Consequently, meanings and implications of conflict resolution have accumulated over the millennia and found their way into the deep semantic structure of language. These semantic structures must be extracted and re-formed until conflicting parties see the nature of conflict from the same perspective – or at least the perspective that is “close enough.”