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Striving for “Collective Reasoning”

Consider the example below from Sunstein of “incompletely theorized agreement.” Incompletely theorized agreement is when two groups in disagreement agree on the preferred outcome but disagree on a more general theoretical rationale. A deeply religious Christian and a scientist might both want to protect a living species from extinction and work together to accomplish that but for different reasons. The Christian may be motivated by the belief that the species is part of God’s grace, and the scientist justifies his preferences on the basis of a balanced ecological system. The solution is incompletely theorized because they agree on the most practical problem solving level but disagree at a deeper theoretical rationale. Israelis and Palestinians disagree on a deeper fundamental level. An Israeli Jew might believe the land was bequeathed to them in the Bible and they are doing little more than returning to a historic homeland. A Palestinian would hold that the Jews were colonialist in their domination of the land, and that the Arabs are the indigenous population. The goal is not to battle it out trying to change the mind of the other on such fundamental issues, but to move to a different more practical level of cooperation that is shared by the participants rather than focusing on the theoretical rationales that divide them so. This is collective reasoning.

You have heard the quip “come let us reason together.” Well, it is possible to reason together and during quality deliberation it is termed “collective reasoning.” It is primarily concerned with what is termed “rational cooperation” with particular emphasis on conflicts between divided groups. Collective rationality involves more than decisions about desirable outcomes that benefit only an individual’s judgment about value. For example, if everyone in a community contributes a small amount of money to improve the road in their community and incurs an individual cost, but a collective benefit (improved roads in the community), then this is a decision based on collective rationality. It is sensible for the whole group to accept such a decision. Of course the individual cost can be too high for some or repugnant to others, and there can be debate about the actual cost and required contribution, but this entire process still represents a form of collective rationality. A decision to contribute in this example is not governed by pure individual rationality otherwise an individual might decide to free ride or not contribute at all.

Part of the power of deliberation is its reliance on collective reasoning which is mutually beneficial cooperation. This prompts the question if collective reasoning is based on mutually beneficial cooperation then the deliberative theorists must ask how do we produce this cooperation, and how do people benefit from it? The communication patterns and social conditions that move people from their individual rationality to collective rationality are also of considerable interest. Most people begin a conflict with a clash of individual perspectives, narratives, and data. The first impulse is to conclude that one’s own choices are best for him or her and then go about the individually rationalistic process of trying to maximize your own rewards and not deviating from these efforts. It is only when groups continuously fail, or when they are experiencing a hurting stalemate, that they begin to shift their thinking toward cooperation rather than conflict. At some point when the efforts at resolution get serious, or when the likelihood of failure and loss increase, participants in conflict begin to reason seriously and collectively. But if deliberation is assumed at one point to be worthy, and not only for its democratic proclivities, but for its epistemic possibilities then cooperation in tasks such as gathering information, challenging interpretations, and making inferences is germane.

Collective reasoning is a communicative exchange designed to manage a problem. It is distinct from conversation in that collective reasoning seeks to answer questions and solve problems and is a more structured form of social contact. It includes justified judgment which is a conclusion or decision supported by relevant information and reasoning. To be a little more specific, collective reasoning expects the participants to acquire a justified judgment that would be superior to their individual reasoning. This superiority includes the benefits of cooperation; in other words, the collectively justified judgment may not meet all the desires of an individual but it satisfies them sufficiently as well as others. By way of illustration, if everyone in a group had the same information and made the same judgments about it then there would be simple agreement and deliberation to solve problems would be unnecessary. But if the group is characterized by unjustified judgments, and the accompanying tensions and disagreements, then they must expose themselves to some exogenous input – new information contact with someone outside their group experiences that can contribute to additional collective reasoning. This is conceptually similar to Simons’ problem of bounded rationality which is that individuals cannot go beyond the boundaries of their own abilities and knowledge. Deliberation and collective reasoning improves the availability of information and allows for the cooperative advantages that come from deliberative discussion. Even if someone else has inappropriate, inaccurate, or manipulative information such conditions can still sharpen my own considerations and potentially lead to new ways of solving problems.


The Conditions of “Difficult Conversations.”

Below are the conditions most likely to make for “difficult” conversations. They can be considered part of deliberative and decision-making processes that must be taken into account in order for communication that will be the most workable. The citations can be unearthed for additional insight.

Incommensurate cultural narratives. Difficult conversations are more apparent when the two cultures in conflict are particularly distinct or even incommensurate with respect to cultural qualities. And there is no shortage of descriptors and statistics that report differences between cultures. But our concern here is not with general differences such as those posed by Hofstede (1980) but with those differences that represent cultural conflict. Conflicting cultures such as the Israelis and the Palestinians delegitimize each other and have qualities that exacerbate the differences thus making conversation or contact between the two groups “difficult.” The Israeli-Palestinian narrative  represents significantly different accounts of the same historical events. They differ on how they selectively emphasize and organize events and motivations. But neither narrative recognizes very much legitimacy or pain of the other. Each blames the other and offers little recognition of its own behavior and how it has contributed to the conflict. Each sees the other as a threat and focuses on its own fears and reasons. Both sides demonize the other with historical events and have hardened their positions into mutually exclusive categories. The conflict captured by these competing narratives have certain cultural and psychological features that characterize them and these features are useful for understanding more precisely how cultural qualities make conversations difficult.

Cultural conflict becomes more restricted and difficult when both sides are heavily locked into the past, the myths of the culture’s birth and evolution. The Israeli narrative, for example, has been analyzed by many scholars with respect to its images of the past, parade of heroes and villains, and development of a worldview (Zerubavel, 1995). A key point is that these contemporary identities are constructed to meet contemporary needs by fashioning the modern narrative out of the past. The past is understood on the basis of the present. This is clearly the case for the Palestinians whose conflict ethos is completely directed toward its contemporary political conditions with the Israelis. This incommensurability with respect to interpretation of the past is particularly powerful because lessons drawn from the past are viewed as timeless and hence resistant to change. The past becomes glorified as a timeless truth that is a steady beacon of light. Consequently, conversations calculated to unlearn these lessons or change them are particularly “difficult.” There have been occasions when narratives converge and there is a movement toward mutuality. The Oslo Accords and Sadat’s visit to Jerusalem are such occasions in the case of the Israelis and Palestinians. Although they are no guarantee, historical events such as these underscore the importance of leadership and identity widening.

Narrative particularity. Difficult conversations focus on particular emotional experiences that are presented as objective. There is a difference between narrative in history where history is more rooted in collective agreement about events and their meaning. But narrative focuses on particular events and weaves them into a story designed to serve group interests. Groups focus on emotional events such as victories or defeats and spend more time concentrating on the strength and character of their ingroup narrative than they do on the nature of the outgroup narrative. Hence, one’s own narrative becomes sharp and precise with clear defenses and the outgroup narrative is more opaque. Israelis overweight the “war of independence” or the “Six-Day War” while Palestinians interpret these events as a “Nakba” (disaster) or glorify the intifada.

A sharp and precise narrative produces high within-group agreement about the interpretation of events and results in intensified links between people. Consequently, any disagreement within the narrative becomes disloyalty and dissenters are particularly stigmatized as outgroups. Conversations become particularly difficult because high within group pressure is a powerful deterrent to change. Such pressure directs a wall of resistance to the exposure and adoption of new information and perspectives. But a regular discourse of deliberation or resolution does make the accumulation of new perspectives possible because we have seen new attitudes and beliefs emerge from intractable conflicts in a number of cases. The Israeli Zionist narrative, for example, has broken up with the rejection and alteration of many of its tenets and the narrative has somewhat less appeal than it did historically including the diminution of its emotional appeal.

Existential threat. This is a common characteristic of intractable conflicts which of course makes conversations difficult. When a group fears for its very existence it will respond in difficult and defensive ways. But in intractable conflicts the two groups often have a deep history of existential threat. Jews have a long history of discrimination and defeat from Masada to the Holocaust, and the Palestinians also described their history as one of occupation and oppression. Related to existential threat is victimhood and the feeling that one’s own group is vulnerable. Groups that feel vulnerable or weak do not give up very easily and are particularly protective of themselves. Jews have an interesting history of both victimhood but are now in a power position. South African Blacks, Irish, Palestinians, Bosnians, Tamil in Sri Lanka all feel threatened. Such groups desperately hold onto an identity that categorizes everything the other side does as representative of their victimization. This mirror image psychology makes conversations difficult. Group members feel as if they’re going to be attacked both physically and symbolically.

Power differences. Conversations are most difficult and challenging when they are asymmetrical with respect to power (Deveaux, 2003). Power obstructs the pressures toward normative argumentation bound by norms of rationality. A clear position of power by one participant in a conversation pressures the person to use the power and makes him or her less amenable to listening and giving up strategic interests. Power distorts the issues and to the detriment of the process power becomes an issue itself. Dryzek (2010) reminds us that the deliberative and communicative processes involved are supposed to transform participants. They are supposed to help us clarify issues as well as deep commitments. But power makes it possible to exclude others and, more interestingly, it stunts normative reasoning. The conversation is clearly more difficult when the communication processes are distorted because of power asymmetry. And if one party is primarily concerned with its own status, or more concerned about one’s own gain and has the power to realize this, then there is not much incentive for good arguments and reasons in the deliberation process. The powerful party does not feel compelled to seek valid justifications because other easier power moves are available. In fact, an idealized version of deliberation might only reinforce the advantages of powerful participants. This would be especially true if the more powerful party has more symbolic capital than the less powerful party.

Delegitimization. Bar Tal and Teichman (2006) write comprehensively about the psychology of delegitimization that is most fundamental to groups in conflict and perhaps most associated with the experience of difficult interactions. As part of intractable conflicts, where the parties have prolonged violent conflict and are existentially threatened, delegitimization adds stereotypes and distorted communication patterns to the mix. Delegitimization is categorizing the other group as outside the sphere of humanity and subject to moral exclusion (Opotow, 1990). Interaction between the two groups, either individually or on the group level, is more than difficult; it is often impossible. Intergroup relations such as that between Hamas and Israel is an example of delegitimization such that each group refuses to recognize the other and considers the other as undeserving of human recognition. The information received about delegitimized groups is not only distorted but dominated by conflict themes. Negative traits are attributed to the other including troublesome political labels, biased group comparisons, and homogenization of the other group that does not allow for individuality or member differentiations. Bar Tal and Teichman (2006) explain how delegitimization involves stigmatizing the other group, which of course makes conversations difficult. When a group fears for its very existence it will respond in difficult and defensive ways. But in intractable conflicts the two groups often have a deep history of existential threat. Jews have a long history of discrimination and defeat from Masada to the Holocaust, and the Palestinians also described their history as one of occupation and oppression. Related to existential threat is victimhood and the feeling that one’s own group is vulnerable. Groups that feel vulnerable or weak do not give up very easily and are particularly protective of themselves. Jews have an interesting history of both victimhood but are now in a power position. South African Blacks, Irish, Palestinians, Bosnians, Tamil in Sri Lanka all feel threatened. Such groups desperately hold onto an identity that categorizes everything the other side does as representative of their victimization. This mirror image psychology makes conversations difficult. Group members feel as if they’re going to be attacked both physically and symbolically.


The Reptilian Sensuality of Hate

The noted cognitive scientist and Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman introduced the concepts of System 1 and System 2 or fast and slow thinking. System 1 is fast, instinctive, and emotional. System 2 is slower, logical, and deliberative. System 2 came later in our evolutionary development. System 1 thinking is intuitive and uses quick judgments that we rely on for most decisions. It is also the process that leads to far greater biases in judgment. System 2, our more deliberative thought processes, can be used to dampen the negative effects of our intuitive judgments. System 1 or fast thinking is reptilian and automatic. It has evolved from deep in our evolutionary history. So we respond quickly and easily to sexual associations and danger. System 2 is thoughtful and cognitive. It requires slower thinking and patience.

The experience of hate is I think a System 1 cognitive process but we often try to treat it with System 2 solutions. In other words, the bigot, anti-Semite, and the racist are typically confronted with System 2 rational thinking as if the person is simply experiencing unjustifiable beliefs and misinformation. We try to change the person or educate him by presenting facts, correcting errors, and revealing logical inconsistencies. Curiously, we are dumbfounded and dismayed when this doesn’t work. When our attempt to reason the other person into correct thinking is useless we are chagrined.

The truth is that bigots and racists and anti-Semite’s don’t want to hear it. They are immune to the closed fist of logic that characterizes reasoning. Also, even though it’s a little bit counterintuitive, these people enjoy the experience of hating. It’s a powerful biologically-based experience of information that doesn’t require much from them and is sensually pleasing psychologically. The System 1 experience of emotional engagement for the racist and anti-Semite is fun! The quick and automatic conclusions of System 1 thinking are enjoyable and require little of the hater.

The person’s beliefs are firmly established and foundational to the experience of hating. There’s no questioning or insecurity. Anti-Semites stand sure in their beliefs and the power and pleasures of self-righteousness, condemnation of others, and sense of intense kinship with those who think like them is climactic in its joy.

Just look at the joys of hating:

  1. That anti-Semite gets to compare Jews to Nazis. What an orgiastic pleasure it is to take the group you hate most (Jews) and compare them to the great symbol of evil Nazis. Hatred is a purifying experience and perhaps the height of its titillating pleasure is the sense of superiority it confers on one. The bully, the self-righteous, the judgmental, and the ignorant are all soldiers in this army of those who feel superior. The expressions of their beliefs are immediate and instinctual. And since they have little cognitive analytic sensibility and are incapable of genuine information processing, they don’t even see themselves as anti-Semitic.
  2. The racist who feels his group is superior transcends the pleasures of superiority and can think of himself as “morally” purified. Everywhere he looks he sees evidence – the confirmation hypothesis at work a System 1 heuristic – of his group’s moral clarity. The history and traditions of the outgroup are the subject of propaganda and deceit as any “good” in the outgroup is automatically attributed to the environment rather than the group thus maintaining the racist’s own sense of purity.
  3. The instinctual and exaggerated language of the hater quickly categorizes the other and relieves him of the burden of real moral scrupulousness. So one can accuse Israel of violation of human rights or colonialism without doing the hard analytical work of defining and understanding these ideas. These pleasures extend to the Westerner who hates Islam as well. His sense of political supremacy and rectitude produces the same gut feeling that Islam is backward and tribal, thus reproducing his own moral superiority.

Deliberative and thoughtful exchange about others is slow and plodding. It requires correction and revisiting of attitudes and beliefs that must be modified or discarded. The scrupulous attention to cognitive errors and misinformation is evolutionarily new and we are not yet so good at it, especially when deliberation has to compete with the reptilian joys of hate.

First published at HartfordFAV

Managing Extreme Opinions during Deliberation Between Deeply Divided Groups

Even during those heavy late-night conversations in college about God the guy with an unmovable opinion, who just couldn’t see outside his own boundaries, was annoying. Extreme voices, and the harsh opinions and rigid sensibilities that accompany them, are always a problem during deliberation or any attempted genuine discussion. The practicalities of deliberation require manageably sized groups that are small enough for sufficient participation in genuine engagement with the other side that is not defused throughout a large network of people. In fact, smaller deliberative groups provide a more empirical experience one that is more easily observed and measured.

Originally, deliberation was associated with existing political systems working to solve problems through liberal democratic means that include all of the normative expectations of deliberation. The “rationality” associated with deliberation is most realistic for intact political systems. Deeply divided groups – groups divided on the basis of ethnicity and religion – were thought incapable of such discourse. But in the last few years authors such as Sunstein and myself have made a case for deliberation and ethnopolitically divided groups on the basis not of rationality but of the “error reduction” that communication can provide. And as the empirical work in deliberation has evolved numerous practical issues focusing on how people actually communicate has been the subject of research attention. Moreover, researchers form smaller deliberative groups that are more practical.

One of the variables or issues that emerged from the research that the smaller deliberative groups make possible is the matter of extreme opinions. Deliberators in the true sense are supposed to be engaging one another intellectually for the purpose of preference formation, along with all of the normative ideals of deliberation. But in the “real world” of deliberation people behave differently and sometimes badly. Individuals with polarized opinions and attitudes are supposed to moderate them and work toward collaboration, but this is an ideal that is not often achieved. There are individuals who do not fully appreciate or respect deliberative ideals.

This difficulty of extreme opinions is particularly pertinent to conflicts between ethnopolitically divided groups where the conflicts are deep and intense. Conflict such as that between the Israelis and the Palestinians is characterized by highly divergent opinions and tension. People hold firm and unshakable opinions and discussions between these competing groups are filled with individuals who hold rigid and extreme opinions. At first glance, you would think that rigid opinions would be disruptive and certainly damaging to the deliberative ideal. And, of course, that is possible. Research has shown that sometimes when groups get together and talk the result is a worsening of relationships rather than improvement. Efforts to reduce stereotypes by increasing contact with the target of the stereotype can sometimes simply reinforce already present stereotypic images.

Almost all decision-making groups of any type, deliberative or not, struggle with the problem of members who have extremely rigid opinions and cannot be or will not be moved. Subjecting one’s influence to the better argument is an ideal of deliberation and this is thwarted if group members resist exposure to the other side. Those with rigid opinions typically pay little attention to any collaborative strategy since their goal is the imposition of their own opinions. But the communication process can once again come to the rescue and at least increase the probability of moderation mostly through the process of continued exposure to information, ideas, and counter positions. And although it’s more complex than that the basic communicative process is the initial platform upon which change rests.

It turns out that educating people about how policies and positions actually work tends to increase their exposure to other perspectives and improves the quality of debate. This is one more weapon in the “difficult conversation” arsenal that can serve as a corrective and ameliorate the polarization process. Rigid opinions will not disappear but improving knowledge promises to be an effective unfreezing of attitudes procedure.

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.

Stories and Arguments: How Real People Communicate

A narrative is an argument because it is an interpretation of evidence that explains some version of reality. As scholars explain, narratives provide a foundation for reasons. If a Palestinian tells a story of lost land and injustice then he or she is making an argument supporting a position. In the case of ethnopolitical conflicts, personal narratives set with national narratives and define the political environment of the participants. Each party to a conflict uses stories to justify their position. The stories are the basis for competing claims about resources, political events, and the assignment of blame for one’s condition. Moreover, narrative must be included in the deliberative process because it is simply a fundamental way that people communicate. And although narratives can become deceitful and misleading, and subject to manipulations designed to elicit emotional responses, they remain part of the folkways of communication. Narratives often involve an appeal to a moral standard. And these are some of the most difficult issues for deliberators. Making the claim that narrative is part of the argumentative structure for deliberating groups is a departure from the Habermasian ideal which purges folk rhetoric from the deliberation process in order to keep deliberation pure. Still, even Habermas would recognize that all arguments need to be accounted for and can be expressed in diverse ways. Such narratives draw attention to issues and injustices that cannot escape deliberative attention. Finally, such forms of communication as narrative and stories are often characteristic of a more popular form of rhetoric, or patterns and styles that are more culturally distinct. Including these forms of communication in the argumentative process helps achieve sensitivity toward pluralism and diversity that must be included in political discussion. If deliberative communication is as epistemic and effective as it is capable of then the full range of rhetorical styles must be accommodated. There is the reasoned argument tradition of Habermas stressing the public sphere and the ascendancy of the best argument, and the second tradition that stresses popular social relations, emotions, and folk theories of communication. These will meld together.

Clearly, theorists and practitioners of deliberation have worked too hard to try to purify the process by removing emotions and identities in the pursuit of rationality. And this has resulted in the exclusion of communication and rhetorical styles that are separate from the history of logical debate. I make this point not because of political correctness or a sense of social justice but in order to improve the quality of the deliberation and dialogue process. By including narratives and identities in deliberation it improves our understanding of the communication process and actually forms a more accurate foundation for problem resolution.

We cannot ignore the fact that intergroup conflicts are over material resources and the rational allocation of these resources is typically part of the solution. But in intractable conflicts a rather straightforward disagreement about material resources is intensified and made salient through narratives and identities. This is one more reason that narratives, which are easily part of the dialogue process, must be expanded to include deliberation. And the more material conflicts are filtered through and associated with identities the more intractable they become. Conflicts in which progress is genuinely possible often become “impossible” because the conflict has moved beyond resource allocation and become identified with the fundamental nature and definition of the national group. We see this clearly in the case of the Israel-Palestine conflict where every aspect of society is politicized and the political conflict is refracted through the culture. The pathway from a manageable conflict to a difficult identity that exacerbates problems is typically through stories and personal narratives. Stories allow members of conflicting groups to voice perspectives and express values relevant to the issues. Stories also help move the groups to dialogue because stories are a natural way to express experiences and communicate genuine emotions.

How to Understand “Reasonable Disagreement”

Ever have a political discussion with a friend and have it degenerate into incompatible positions that cause tension, anger, and exasperation? You have to learn how to appreciate “reasonable disagreement.” This is not a contradiction in terms; you can disagree and be both reasonable about it.

In the culture-laden and pragmatic world of communication disagreement is the norm, so we have to deal with it. Some people are taught that specific sources of information are the true guides to knowledge. Scripture and religious communities which include all sorts of information about the earth and animal species can be cited as a supreme source of knowledge. If people take no critical stance toward these issues and accept them thoroughly then they are justified in their beliefs. There can be a debate about what is true and what is not but this does not change the normative system. The beliefs of the religious person are justified; they are part of a system of relationships their empirical content notwithstanding. A “creationist” and “evolutionist” produce disagreement because they live in different knowledge worlds. They may be polarized and the position of the other may be unimaginable but this is the “stuff” of disagreement and must be managed.

Relationships that are “fiercely entangled”, such as between ethnopolitical groups in conflict, are characterized by the incommensurability that accompanies situations where the parties in conflict are divergent. Conflicting groups must be able to experience disagreement; they must, as Benhabib describes, treat the other as an “adversary” and not an “enemy.” The ability to tolerate disagreement as well as work with it is central to the communicative and resolution process.

There is more to reasonable disagreement than a gentleman’s agreement to respect differences. Clearly, communities, cultures, social networks, and groups establish different sets of standards and principles regarding beliefs and drawing conclusions. And while there are overlaps between groups in terms of standards of knowing (e.g. science) there are also sharp differences between them. For this reason, reasonable disagreement is a defensible philosophical position and a communicative state that usually cannot be avoided.

Some theorists are relativists in that they do not believe there is any overarching cultural norm of rationality. Others want to argue for more objective standards. One problem is that for one side of a cultural disagreement to be “correct” there must be a standard that determines such correctness. Such standards are difficult to establish. Still, rampant relativism is equally as indefensible and it is possible for certain positions to be more justified than others. The central question is posed as the following: is it possible for two cultures or conflicting groups, both of which have epistemic standards, to both share evidence and have reasonable disagreement. In other words, one group believes a proposition and the other group does not. An explication of the clash of narratives between Israelis and Palestinians present a good example. Zionism, for example, as stated in historical documents and instances can be interpreted as a noble effort to return a historically oppressed people to their homeland, or as a European colonialist enterprise with an expansionist ideology. The two groups (Israelis and Palestinians) are in disagreement such that one believes a proposition to be true and the other disbelieves it.

The disagreement is “reasonable” to the extent that each side is justified in holding the belief or disbelief. Ideally anyway, members of both groups should have equal access to evidence and documentation including the benefit of full discussion. In many cases this condition is not met. Differences in education and availability of information will also account for disagreements. To make matters even more complex, we must include the fact that people have graded beliefs based on subjective probabilities.

Participants in groups who disagree are working on the basis of a proposition that states that their own system of information justifies their beliefs. The simple act of observing Jews migrate to Israel justifies both the belief in “noble return” as well as “colonialism.” And from a communicative and discursive standpoint there is nothing malevolent about these differences. Both beliefs are justified and linked to some system of information. One side of the argument is not more correct than the other.

One solution to the condition of reasonable disagreement is for the two parties to converge on what counts as evidence. Some progress here is possible but slow and difficult. Then again, we always note that the process of communication and decision-making is slow and difficult.

New Media and “Information” versus “Deliberation”

New media cloud

The answer to the question about what exactly defines “new media” is usually a list of new technological developments. Web 2.0 is most associated with new media because of its interactivity and user-generated design capabilities. Rather than passive viewing of content on a screen content can be created and shared by users. Examples are blogs, wikis, Facebook, twitter, you tube, pod casts, social networking, RSS feeds, and each have numerous marketing and social applications. The most popular of these are the social networking sites (SNS) such as Facebook, Myspace, and YouTube. For our concerns here, it is necessary to locate these technological developments within communication and deliberative political processes. We can begin by making the distinction between “mediated information” and the “deliberative experience.” New media is mostly helpful with the mediated information environment; that is, it stresses an information environment composed of the press, television, blogs, talk radio, etc., and the quality of discussion among people. It contributes more to the information community rather than the public. New media makes information available in asynchronous time and space. Except for research on online discussions new media is not usually associated with the deliberative experience which involves a form of dialogue to seek a new consensus. This is not to diminish its importance in the information society. Facebook, for example, has been successful at establishing discussion forums that facilitate public discourse. In fact, ideal speech conditions are enhanced in some instances.

During the 2008 presidential election, Facebook was used seriously for political communication. The campaigns followed traditional communication strategies, but included Facebook as well. Facebook can facilitate communication. It combines the features of local bulletin boards, newspapers and organization and places them in one location that is available any time any place. Also, political leaders can use Facebook as a medium to communicate with members of the public or their own group. It thus provides leaders with an effective way in which they can reach the public. The Israelis and Palestinians have numerous Facebook pages devoted to peace, friendship, the two-state solution, the nature of the conflict as well as partisan and ideologically narrow pages.

New media played a role in the 2009 Iranian elections as well as providing information and contact with the outside world during protests. Twitter was used by people outside Iran to spread information and report on what was happening. These media also made it possible for women, whose participation is restricted by Islamic law, to play a more significant political role. The mainstream media also benefited from new media because new media users send out information when the traditional media are banned. In other examples, social media played an increasingly significant role in the Gaza war of 2008-2009 termed “Operation Cast Lead.” Israel mounted its own YouTube site to show off the accuracy of its weapons, and Hamas used blogs to demonstrate their strength (Arab Media, 2009). Banning the traditional media, as was the case in Gaza, makes it possible for a political entity (e.g. Israel or Hamas) to have more control over the message. This empowers so called “citizen journalists” and gives them some control over content, but still lacks the depth and breadth of professional journalism. Not all new social media is very successful. Facebook, for example, receives a lot of media attention and can attract support, but its group formation requirements are so low that individuals show little commitment. People join Facebook groups to express personal identity and solidarity with others because it cost little and requires even less from them.

What we call new “social media” has a few unique qualities that sometimes, but not always, makes them adversative to the political process. The Habermassian public sphere is a communicative arena for rationale, inclusive deliberative discourse; it is an environment where participants in a conflict can get together for debate and discussion under maximally communicative conditions. But new social media are characterized by deterritorialization, that is, a mediated publicness of non-localized space. The participants are spread out geographically and the interaction is an attempt to be intimate and authentic rather than rational and focused on the common good. But this multiplicity of voices remains important to the deliberative process. As Mouffe explains, there must be a place for the expression of dissensus and this is especially true in political conflicts where, according to Mouffe, conflict is constitutive of the political. This is the notion that a fully constituted democracy emerges out of conflict or the clash of identities and political interests. The more there is a clash of differences the more fully articulated is the democratic polity or, in the case of ethnopolitical conflicts the more fully realized is the solution potential. One of the most powerful features of new social media is the extent to which they extend networking and linking. It is simply easy to tap into new networks of information and establish contact with others. There is, for example, a considerable amount of contact between Israelis and Palestinians. But none of this represents revolutionary implications for deliberation. Moreover, new media can be controlled, exclusionary, and fragmented: States actively filter the internet, bloggers are harassed, and users are often intimidated. Cammaerts warns that it is difficult to produce a deliberative sphere on the internet. And although there is potential for serious participation, these technologies are rife with contradictions.

Someday Hamas and Israel Will Talk

There is only one solution to the current fighting in Gaza and that is some sort of negotiated agreement. It sounds naïve I understand but until that time we will have little more than the standard conflict resolution mistake of “more of the same.” Deliberation in any form is impossible until the two sides are sufficiently willing and we are certainly not there with respect to the Israelis and Palestinians, especially the Palestinians in Gaza. But if that day ever comes the deliberative conditions below will be important.

Deliberation is a powerful normative ideal to strive for and in its heart it is concerned with the careful and balanced consideration of alternatives under conditions of democratic fairness. To transform the deliberative ideal into actual communication is essentially to operationalize deliberation and lower its level of abstraction. It is to take a theoretical ideal and convert it to symbolic behavior. But this operationalization is never easy or direct. Deliberative democracy is also primarily concerned with democratic decision making, whereas deliberative communication is, shall we say, messier. Deliberative communication includes broader intersubjective meaning creation and is inclusive of many forms of discourse and linguistic structures. Moreover, the polysemic nature of communication, where messages can take on a variety of meanings depending on context and other factors, makes identifying qualities that make communication “deliberative” even more difficult. But as I have noted in other places, deliberation is not one big philosophy seminar characterized by rational argument only. It must include the possibility that judicious argument and sound decision making can take many communicative forms.  In general, deliberative communication has the following five characteristics.

(1)   There is a confrontation of perspectives and argument is the primary communication mechanism for adjudicating differences. Argument takes the form of reasoned opinion where a speaker is required to support reasons and defend against critique. This includes evaluating materials, judging the quality of sources, and defending background assumptions. It is also true that some forms of reasoning maintain ideological dilemmas.

(2)   There is a relational component to deliberation whereas participants respect the other and genuinely listen to their perspectives. Participants actually engage one another and avoid monologues that do not take up the perspective of the other. Participants acknowledge autonomy and mutuality in a civil and respectful manner.

(3)   Consensus is the goal to strive for. This includes will formation such that the collective is ultimately committed to decisions. In order for consensus to be a goal deliberators must be concerned with disagreement. Disagreement is an indication of the diversity that is inherent in divided groups. Deliberative communication should include participants having their own views critically examined because of the presence of disagreement. This improves the quality of opinions. Consensus is a goal but lower levels of agreement are acceptable.

(4)   The position of authorities, tradition, and power are up for discussion in deliberative communication. Participants must meet the objective of the meeting but other foundational assumptions are acceptable topics for deliberation. As Young explains, “Truly democratic deliberation must not rule out self interest, conflicting interests, or relatively emotional or intuitive expressions. . .” (p. 472) (Young, 2000).

Deliberative communication must allow for equality and symmetrical power relations as much possible. People must be on equal footing and no one should unfairly dominate the interaction. Reciprocity would be an important indicator of equality. These forms of communication are specifically suited to diversity  and pluralism that are consequences of ethnopolitical divides.

For more detail see Donald Ellis (2012). Deliberative Communication and Ethnopolitical Conflict. Peter Lang Publishers.

“Political Friendship” A New Kind of Weak Tie Deliberative Relationship

Solving ethnopolitical conflicts involves initiating the two conflicting groups into the larger cultural conversation, where the understanding is that the conversation is about the relationship between the two groups. This involves creating a relationship where members of each group understand that they must engage in reasonable discourse, accept the burdens of justification, and reject illiberal attitudes and behaviors. Another way to think about it is as a network of weak ties. Weak ties are important forms of relationships that are more casual friendships or work relationships (e.g., acquaintance or coworkers) and engage in less intimate exchanges and share fewer types of information and support than those who report stronger relationships. Strong ties include in their exchanges a higher level of intimacy, more self disclosure, emotional as well as instrumental exchanges, reciprocity in exchanges, and more frequent interaction. We have fewer strong ties and they are more important to our personal lives. Facebook and electronic contacts create numerous weak ties that serve important functions.

What Danielle Allen (2004), in her book “Talking to Strangers”, describes as “political friendship” is a sort of important weak tie. This is the sort of friendship that goes beyond the close relationships we have with family members and intimates. Political friendship is a set of practices and habits used to solve problems and bridge difficult differences. Emotional attachment to the other is less important than the realization of interdependence and the need for practical problem resolution. This form of a communicative relationship serves as a useful outlet for conflict resolution, and allows minority groups in multicultural societies to establish mature relationships with the dominant group. The polarization described by Sunstein that currently characterizes the American political environment is a consequence of the degeneration of political friendships. Allen’s political friendships treat opponents as respectful adversaries that have common interests in problem resolution as much as anything else. The issue sophistication that comes with political friendship is quite compatible with the ability to sustain “reasonable disagreement.”

The concept of political friendship is important and deserving of some elaboration. It is necessary to develop a healthy path to the resolution and reconciliation of group conflicts in order to provide either citizens or members of competing groups with political and interpersonal agency. The idea of political friendship is particularly associated with citizenship which is not necessarily a matter of civic duties but a communicative role that values negotiation and reciprocity. It is an excellent relationship to cultivate between members of different cultural and political groups because it is based more on trust than self-interest. Political friendship recognizes self-interest but develops a relationship that rests on equitable self-interest; that is, a relationship where each attends to the utilitarian needs of the other. As Allen (2004) writes, “Equity entails, above all else and as in friendship a habit of attention by which citizens are attuned to the balances and imbalances in what citizens are giving up for each other.” (p. 134). Political friendship is less concerned with intimacy because intimacy is reserved for relatively few relationships that are more absorbing and based on sacrifice and strong identity with the other. But utilitarian political relationships can apply to large numbers of people and is focused on the pragmatics of problem solving or resource gratification. Parent-child, ruler and ruled, or superior- subordinate relationships are not political relationships because they limit the autonomy and agency of one person (the child, ruled, or subordinate) and are based on maximization of differences. In short, the political friendship relationship is central to the problems associated with multicultural contact and the ability of groups to develop their capacities for trust and communication. As Allen (2004) points out, we have to teach people how to “talk to strangers.”

It is necessary to identify some conditions of political friendship. These are habits of communication that facilitate the relationship. They include recognizing and publicly acknowledging groups and their differences as well as promoting deliberative environments and intelligent judgment. Many of these communication behaviors require exceptional sensitivity and tolerance. Recognizing a group, for example, that is less talkative or more remote from Western habits of thinking and either accepting the differences or trying to meld cultural norms is difficult. So minority groups simply need to learn communication skills most associated with success depending on the nature of the dominant culture. Diverse groups must understand their problems as “public” problems. Under the best conditions different groups will have secure knowledge of each other and a similar level of understanding about what is occurring between them.

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