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.
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.
When grappling with the difficult issues of intractable conflicts and how to moderate them one always encounters the “contact” solution; in other words, the two competing groups must get together and begin the process of communicating in such a way that the differences dissipate. There is sound research supporting such a suggestion and my own work, along with many others, is deeply focused on the processes of difficult conversations – or, as some term, dialogue.
There is always then a chorus of people who chuckle and say “this won’t work”. The depth and intensity of the conflict between the two parties, so the claim goes, is so great that talk is a waste of time. Well, this is true sometimes. I know of no serious scholar who believes that talk is magic, but I also know of no serious scholar who doesn’t recognize the centrality of interaction, contact, and some properly controlled form of dialogue.
What do you do about situations we’ve been reading about recently? I’m talking about the reports of fan racism in soccer in Israel. Israel has suffered a few difficult instances in the last few years with respect to violence against Arabs and Palestinians. But the sports context seems to exacerbate the problem and provide a context for a poison cocktail of attitudes, energized competition, and ignorance that produces a combustible mixture of racism.
Recently, plans by Beitar Jerusalem soccer club to add its first Muslim players prompted violent and racist incidents in Israel. During a recent match between Beitar and a team from Umm El Fahm hundreds of police had to be deployed. Beitar Jerusalem fans held up the banner above(which reads “Beitar will remain pure forever”) which connotes very unpleasant references to “group purity” an attitude that Jews – at least most Jews – would like to forget. Beitar gets its name from the youth movement, linked to Herut the forerunner of Likud, which opposes Israel’s Arab neighbors. The team name symbolizes a position of honor in Israeli youth movements. Some Beitar fans lead chants calling the Arabs offensive names, which prompts the Arab teams to call out “Allahu akbar.” Some Israeli teams do include Arabs but not Beitar.
The sports environment activates group level perceptions that cause fans and players to identify even more strongly with their national and ethnic group. Sports is a team activity and it is thus easier to foreground a collective group identity. The “individual” versus “group” level of perception is exaggerated in the sports context. People can feel threatened or vulnerable and they can feel this on an individual basis or a group basis, and the two levels of perception can be quite distinct with some situations, such as during heated competition, causing greater distance between the two. For example, if a Jew were asked whether or not he feels vulnerable or threatened he might say “no.” He personally feels secure and not threatened. But if you ask that same person whether or not his group (Jews) is vulnerable or threatened he might say “yes” my group the Jews are vulnerable and threatened. Some studies show that the more one feels his or her group is vulnerable or threatened the more conservative they are with respect to social policies and security.
It’s clear that Israel is expressing its insecurities and hardening its own political stances because it increasingly feels threatened and vulnerable at the group level. The sports context and public displays of demands for “purity” (meaning no Arabs) are troubling examples of the increased polarization in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Nothing is separated from politics in Israel because conflicts of such intractability permeate the entire society. The whole culture participates in the conflict ethos. Ultimately the goal is to play soccer without charging ethnic tensions. Talk will not solve the problem at the moment but it will one day.
Imagine the following double-bind relationship of an intractable conflict: An Israeli Jew feels so victimized by historical discrimination and anti-Semitism that the state of Israel was created as a consequence of the Holocaust. Moreover, he now feels doubly victimized by Palestinians who refuse to recognize Jewish cultural and historical rights and blame the Zionist entity for their oppression. At the same time a Palestinian feels victimized by Jews and Zionism. Each denies that he is the oppressor and they continue a pattern of accusation-counter-accusation that often leads to violence. Each considers the other responsible for its lived experience. And each time one group denies the claims of the other the denial is heard as additional oppression providing additional evidence for the truth of the claim in the first place. Every defense is an offense and thought to justify additional offenses. This is a classical double bind logic that cannot be escaped within its own system but must be redefined. What kind of communication helps the redefinition – is it dialogue or deliberation? Can you debate your way out of this problem? Is dialogue a special form of communication that allows for solutions to these double-bind conflicts?
Click here and take a look at debate-dialogue table.
The table is a nice distillation of the differences between dialogue and debate. It is reprinted from the book “Moral Conflict” by Pearce and Littlejohn. I take differences like the one described above as a given; that is, resources, skills, perceptions, and ideas are not equally distributed amongst people and this makes for the politics of difference. Hence the goal of communication and problem solution in general is to manage these differences – whether they are political, ideological, commercial, or ethnic – and communication is the primary mechanism for managing these differences, for reaching across the divides that separate people. Some form of communication has to be capable of breaking double-bind conflicts.
Traditionally, the type of communication most conducive to closing gaps between people has been termed “dialogue.” I tend not to use the word dialogue in my own writing very much because it carries a certain baggage. That baggage is mostly centered on a sense of unachievable authenticity and openness that includes deep engagement, attentive listening, empathy, and a host of other idealistic abstractions. I’ve resisted the word and you will not find it very often in anything that I’ve written. Moreover, there is sometimes the expectation that “dialogic” communication is of the highest form and most desirable, when in fact debate that it is contrasted with is an equally important and useful pattern of communication.
But over time I have become increasingly unable to distinguish dialogue as it is usually written about from other types of engaged interaction, namely, deliberation. As I write about deliberation (see my recent book here), which is a more controlled discussion, the lines that once separated dialogue and deliberation are blurring. Oh, distinctions can be made, and we will save those for another time, but those distinctions are less clear. I think the table that distinguishes debate from dialogue is a very good presentation of two types of communication. Certainly the presidential debates in the United States are more “debate like.” Nobody would call the exchanges between Romney and Obama a dialogue. Most discussions between international actors contain more of the qualities of debate rather than dialogue. The two participants (a) prepare cases designed to be presented, (b) represent positions that they want to force on the other, (c) present a dominating persona, (d) speak as representatives of groups (political parties, constituencies) rather than for themselves, (e) try to “win” rather than solve problems, (f) offer little new information, and (g) work to defeat the other side by winning argument strategies.
Deliberation is more “debate like.” It is concerned with evidentiary credibility, reasoning, consistency, and a tenacious concern for inclusion in legitimacy. But deliberationists recognize the limits of debate and that alternative forms of communication are often called for. Moreover, deliberation must still confront culturally grounded rhetorical forms of communication that do not meet standards of reason and rationality. Language and meaning are situated and designed to direct attention toward selected portions of reality. So deliberation, like dialogue, must confront talk that is required to transform how one understands others and themselves. If two competing groups or individuals seek to transform the other or develop new realities more shared between them then there must be a willingness to risk change. This is certainly true if any progress is to be made on double-bind conflicts
Deliberation turns out to require some of the same assumptions as dialogue. For example the recognition that communication is not linear but multifaceted. Or that deliberation always bumps into tangential issues of identity, emotions, and incommensurate attitudes and beliefs. This is perhaps the thorniest issue that deliberation and dialogue share. If problem-solving were automated and purely rational then cultural rhetoric’s and peripheral issues would not interfere and therefore not be a problem. But even the strictest deliberation practitioner runs into “real” people whose communication and lifeworlds must be accommodated.
An important point pertaining to dialogue, and one often overlooked or misunderstood, is that requirements such as finding “common ground” or “resolving differences” are not necessarily the central goals of dialogue. Rather, dialogue recognizes the maintenance of differences and that conflict and contradiction are natural enough such that a goal of unity or problem resolution is typically elusive. Deliberation is very grounded in its epistemic function such that deliberation results in new knowledge and new ways of seeing problems. This epistemic function can also apply to traditional notions of dialogue. Both deliberation and dialogue except that individuals or groups can hold their ground and defend a position, but only require them to remain open to engagement with the other. Both dialogue and deliberation also have a critical stance one that refuses to privilege a single perspective or ideology or at least insists on a serious confrontation with such a perspective or ideology. Although I do not want to completely conflate dialogue and deliberation they share more space than not. The role of each in solving double bind conflicts remains an empirical question.
that tolerate and manage diversity are among the most sophisticated and
evolved. Even if there is a tendency toward maximizing self-interest, and
favoring one’s group, modern theory assumes that such narrow interests can be
“learned away.” In other words, the skills and habits of
multiculturalism and diversity will supersede the harsher consequences of
narrow tribal identity. Such assumptions are the foundation of conflict
On August 14,
2011 the New York Times reported a
story about how the Dutch are confronting the question of their own identity in
the face of rising fear of Muslims and the right wing anti-immigration
political party of Geert Wilders. The Dutch have a long history of tolerance
and political liberalism so the racism and hate speech circulating in their
culture is alien to them. But the Dutch cohesion and social solidarity has been
based on a history of cultural and ethnic homogenization. It is easy to enforce
rules of behavior on large groups of people when everyone is alike. In
relatively small groups composed of people with similar values and attitudes it
is easy to produce social cohesion and consistency.
But now the Dutch
are faced with social and religious groups in their society that are different
from the dominant group. Now it is time for the test of Dutch political
liberalism. Tolerating diversity has been so easy for the Dutch for so long
that they have forgotten the power of group identity. They have forgotten that
humans developed an evolutionary advantage by recognizing and favoring their
own group. The evolution of Dutch social graces and tolerance means that most
members of Dutch culture do not talk about ethnicity and race. But no one
objects to the hateful things that Wilders says, and a number of those
interviewed in the New York Times
article stated that Wilders was only saying what most people think. The Dutch
are struggling with group identity and will have to relearn its power. It is
group identity that justifies extreme and violent behavior.
why there is such a long line of people waiting to blow themselves up? How
could it be that anyone except the most crazed outlier can strap Centex to his
waist and blow himself up? There are so many terrorists in the form of suicide
bombers that we have to conclude that any “normal” person is capable
of becoming a terrorist. Individuals in groups that have been frustrated or
insulted in some way are capable of expressing the most extreme anger. A frustrated
and threatened group identity (such as the Dutch identity threatened by Islam)
is far more dangerous than a threatened individual identity. It is the
identification with a group or cause that is the most potent explanatory factor
power of group identity is clear. A terrorist will do unspeakable things in the
name of their group or cause that they would not consider doing for personal
reasons. I should add that the benevolent and compassionate person who is
motivated to self-sacrifice (the medal of honor winner who dives on a hand
grenade) is no different than the terrorist when it comes to powerful group
identification. Rick McCauley in The
Psychology of Terrorism explains these processes and clarifies how
terrorists are typically not poor, miserable, and uneducated. They know what
they are doing and do it willingly.
(either ethnic, religious, or political) has the evolutionary advantage of
providing safety as well as obvious reproductive opportunities. But ethnic
identity is particularly potent. It represents a long history of the
convergence of interests. Numerous classical studies of group formation have
demonstrated how easy it is to form a group identity. That’s why people
identify so strongly and so easily with sports teams, organizations, clubs, or
any number of social and economic groups. But ethnic groups are a principal
source of values and individual identity. The fact that states and political
systems have so much trouble incorporating ethnic groups into the state is one
example of the strength of this identification. People will tolerate unjust
economic conditions, but will react violently if their ethnic group is
humiliated or dishonored in some way.
I will close
by pointing out that ethnicity is discussed in academic circles these days as subject
to the vagaries of interaction and a social construction. It is true enough
that people are not “born” with group identities. One does not emerge
from the womb as an “Irish nationalist,” or a “Norwegian,”
or a “Red Sox fan.” But one does emerge from the womb determined to
develop group identities. And the most basic group identities are based on what
we see immediately in front of us – gender and physiology. That’s why gender
and ethnic group identities are so powerful. And that’s why people will die for
their ethnic group, but not their book club.
The word on
the street in Israel is that Palestinians don’t have much problem with Israel
being a “Jewish state” but they do have problems with the Zionist
enterprise. Of course, they won’t recognize Israel as a Jewish state just yet
and refuse to recognize its existence as such. This is some sort of symbolic
denial of Israel and silly in many ways because the partition in 1947 was
designed to create a Jewish state. The whole idea of Israel doesn’t make much
sense if it’s not Jewish. And some day in the distant future when and if there
is truly an end of conflict Israel will be known as a “Jewish state.”
is heavily driven by the Arab refusal to recognize Israel as a Jewish state.
And even though many Palestinians have more problems with Zionism than Judaism,
they use the denial of Israel as a Jewish state strategically to argue for the
rights of Arab citizens. By denying the Jewish nature of the state they leave
the door open for a Palestinian population that will continue to burrow into
the state of Israel. Palestinians have a strong argument in human rights. About
20% of the population of Israel is Arab and they cannot be denied basic human
debate emerges, however, by posing the question as to whether or not Israel
being a “Jewish state” automatically means discrimination against
others. Can Israel be a Jewish state and not discriminate against the Arab
minority? Well, probably not in the purest sense. Activist Palestinians use
this point quite regularly; that is, they make the argument that if Israel is
Jewish it will mean discrimination against its minority citizens. There are two
problems and inconsistencies here.
does “discrimination” mean? That will depend on how Jewish the state
is. If it is an Orthodox Torah state then discrimination will be considerable
against everybody. But let’s assume Israel becomes a “reasonable”
Jewish state that recognizes Jewish history and culture but still makes the distinction
between the public and private sphere. In other words, anyone will be able to
practice their own religion and culture within the private confines of their
own home. The state will make certain accommodations for Judaism such as rules
of kashrut, the Sabbath, the calendar, cultural touch points such as street
names, religious holidays, education, and the like. The United States certainly
is not a Christian state but Christian influences are pervasive. School
calendars, government offices, and institutional life all respond to Christian
traditions. As a Jewish state, public schools in Israel will teach some Jewish
history and Zionism. But the matter of private schools and whether or not it
will be possible to avoid the state religion will be debatable. There is a
distinction between discrimination and differences. Just because two groups are
different does not mean one is discriminated against.
It is also
curious that this problem emerges with respect to the Jewish state of Israel
with little or no mention of other religious states. This is an easy point to
make: a number of countries contain the name of the religion in the name of the
country such as the Islamic Republic of Iran or the Islamic Republic of
Pakistan. Turkey is increasingly an Islamic country even with its secular
military tradition. Jordan’s constitution says that no one can be king who is
not Muslim and this includes converts. All of these countries have minorities,
and to be sure they’re not treated very well, but these countries also come
from different political and cultural histories. They do not have Israel’s
history of democracy and equal rights, a history that should serve them well as
Israel works out these issues.
countries with more democratic traditions such as Denmark, Norway, in England
also have institutionalized religious identities. The Queen of England is the
guardian of Anglican Christianity. The Danes and Norwegians are all part of an
official Church of Denmark and Norway and these are countries that do not
receive the brunt of the world’s criticism.
The problem of Israel being a “Jewish”
state is really very minor. It is true that the legal aspects of certain
minority rights have yet to be argued through, but these problems should not be
insurmountable. And although conservatives in Israel are increasingly trying to
limit civil rights in an effort to ensure the Jewish nature of the state
through legislation, Israel still has no religious test to hold major office
and the Israeli Supreme Court has a strong tradition of guaranteeing human
rights. I understand that some have fundamental objections to any state with an
official religion, but this is a challenge for another time.
Conflict transformation is concerned with relationships.
This includes both face-to-face interactions and the ways in which we structure
our social, political, economic, and cultural relationships. It is
communicative in nature because conflict transformation focuses on interaction
and communicative processes associated with evolving change. Ethnopolitical
conflicts almost always involve intercultural exchanges and the problems
associated with managing the distortions that result from ingroup-outgroup relationships.
And deliberation is a democracy building activity, along with being a moral,
political, and decision making process that facilitates conflict resolution. My argument here is that the deliberative process can
produce productive change and can draw on existing social psychological and
communication theories to explain how this change occurs.
The essence of
deliberative communication is to transform preferences of conflicting parties in
order to account for the point of view of others. As scholars such as Dryzek
explain, preferences must be transformed in the interaction. The communication
between conflicting parties is organized around the idea of building a common
good. This is the essence of change from a deliberative perspective. Its
transformative capacity is measured by the amount of change from one side to
the other and the epistemic quality of decisions. Deliberative communication
can best be transformative when a diversity of participants has access to each
other in a public sphere of some sort. This maximizes subjectivity and is important because subjectivity is an anecdote
to undue influence from sources of power that seek to manipulate the process
for their own interests. Subjectivity guarantees the inclusion of multiple
deliberative discussion utilizes principles of communication designed to pool
considerations in order to form higher quality decisions and produce both
individual and decision-making changes that are more significant. Deliberation
differs from arguing because argument is designed to win others over to the
speaker’s side. In deliberation, participants act to engage each other’s
considerations in order to derive new possibilities. Although deliberation does
not always work, it has been shown to be associated with significant changes
with respect to improved decision quality, opinion quality, understanding the
other side, and other individual benefits. The better argument is most cited
reason for the success of deliberation. But even quality arguments, if they
have any chance at all of becoming common beliefs, must capture attention and
remain foregrounded in memory. This is one reason other rhetorical and
communicative issues factor into the success or failure of the deliberative
process. There is an important distinction between deliberation and argument such
that in deliberation reasons precede opinions; that is, in genuine deliberation
one’s opinions are not formed yet and they process reasons in the service of
developing quality opinions. In the case of argument one expresses opinions and
then reasons follow in defense of those opinions. The reasons-opinions
distinction is important for the epistemic quality of deliberation. The act of
deliberation – weighing reasons before forming an opinion – causes people to
think more intensely and deeply about reasons thus producing reasoning of
higher quality. Giving reasons simply to defend already expressed opinion is
unrelated to deriving new ideas and less complex. The expectation of
open-mindedness improves the likelihood of behaving deliberatively.
Listen to Dr. Harvey Jassem’s interview concerning the flotilla.
The radio interview above is worth
listening to because it gives good perspective on Israel and issues related to
Gaza. Some students at a campus radio station reported positively on the
flotilla incident, and Professor Jassem in the interview above provides a
The flotilla spectacle seems to be
fading. The UN’s inquiry into the incident last year found that Israel’s
blockade was legal. But what’s even more important is that a crude attempt to
diminish Israel has been stopped. The flotilla activists, wrapped in their
symbolic kafiyehs, have had the wind taken from their sail as participants have
bailed out. It’s important to underscore that the flotilla was never about
human rights. It was about trying to embarrass Israel. Actually, I always
chuckled at the slogan referring to “liberating Gaza.” Liberating
Gaza from what? Hamas? Fine, have a good time. The organizers were also
embarrassed by the regular disclosures of the connections between Hamas and the
flotilla organizers. Some Dutch journalists reportedly pulled out after having
discovered the extent of Hamas’s involvement in the flotilla stunt.
This is another one of those situations
where some people end up defending barbarism. Moreover, many of them are
hopelessly uninformed. They actually believe Gaza is under Israeli occupation,
when Israel pulled out of Gaza in 2005. Others will claim that it is only the
blockade that they are protesting, and Israel is denying medical supplies and
humanitarian aid to the people of Gaza. Again, this is a simple falsehood because
Israel allows all sorts of aid and supplies into Gaza, but does have security
issues. Israel simply must be sure that only aid and humanitarian supplies are
finding their way into the hands of the Gazan leaders – namely, Hamas. If these
human rights activists really cared about helping the downtrodden, there are
numerous other places in the world they would be traveling.
The issues that define the conflict
between Israelis and the Palestinians are complex enough. It simply is not
helpful when one group tries to turn the Israeli-Palestinian conflict into a
world conflict, or a conflict between Israel and the world. Although any
thinking person realizes that the flotilla is designed to delegitimize Israel
rather than provide humanitarian aid, it is nice to know that various legal and
international groups have supported Israel on this matter. Israel remains in
the security dilemma; that is, it cannot ignore the rockets and violence aimed
toward Israel from the Gaza Strip. Yet, the more Israel responds by maintaining
its own security, the more it exacerbates the problem.
Benny Morris, writing in the National Interest, explains the origins of the relationship
between Israel and Turkey, and Turkey’s current role in the flotilla incident.
Ben-Gurion early in the history of Israel decided to reach out to the region’s
non-Arab and non-Islamic states such as Turkey. Hence, the relationship between
the State of Israel and Turkey over the decades began to mature and develop
into full diplomatic relations. But the recent rise of an Islamic government in
Turkey has changed all that. Turkey had become a source of support for the
flotilla. But the US is not happy with the turn of events in Turkey, and Turkey
would still like to appeal to US interests. There is some speculation that the
US has tried to cool Turkey’s involvement in the flotilla. Thus, the second
flotilla will not float.
involving religion and ethnicity, along with the host of economic and political
issues, are the most deep-rooted and difficult. The Israeli-Palestinian
conflict is not about religion, but religion lurks in the background and is
implicated. Still, one important implication for intractable conflicts is that
simple negotiable material interests are less important than the recognition of
basic needs, and these needs such as religious and identity confirmation are
entrenched and not subject to negotiation. And to make things even more
complex, these needs are not subject to the traditional models of conflict
management; that is, they are not satisfiable within a framework of bargaining,
negotiation, third-party interventions, or expressions of authority. Most of
these models, especially the use of authority or force, will make things worse
and entrench cultural attitudes even more deeply. But the good news is that
intelligence can be applied to these issues and there are strategies for making
progress on satisfying the basic needs of the two parties. Within a proper
respectful political framework, and with sufficient cultural knowledge and
sensitivity, a zero-sum negotiation can be turned into an integrated solution
that meets the needs and interests of both sides.
groups in conflict can involve interventions on numerous levels of analysis. Political
scientists might design institutional arrangements conducive to democratic or
citizen rights and these institutions will have a “trickle-down”
effect such that they affect individual psychologies and attitudes. But the
political science approach remains primarily interested in political
institutions. The same is true for a relational and communication approach. The
entry point might be individual psychologies or group relations but as these
change and development they will influence expectations about larger social
structures. Deep-rooted intractable conflicts can benefit from political
arrangements designed to foster equality and democratic values, but such
intractable conflicts begin with distorted relational and psychological
patterns that result in what Bar
Tal and Teichman (2005) called the “ethos of conflict.” A
conflict ethos is a repertoire of stereotypes, images, myths, and societal
beliefs that constitute a relationship between two conflicting parties that
defines how they perceive one another and how they communicate. The conflict
ethos is coherent and implies attitudes toward the two groups that legitimize
the ingroup and delegitimize the outgroup. This ingroup-outgroup contrast
fosters integration in one’s own society – albeit integration based on
distorted understandings – and various dangerous misperceptions of the other
society. The conflict ethos can be clustered around eight societal beliefs most
associated with resistant intractable conflicts. A fuller development of these
ideas appears in Bar Tal and Teichman (2005).
would add that this repertoire of beliefs applies equally well to the
generalized conflict between the West and Islam. We live in a historical period
characterized by the perception of a clear divide between the West and the
Muslim world. This is captured in Samuel Huntington’s unfortunate but appealing
phrase referring to the “clash of civilizations.” The strength and
depth of this divide between the West and the Islamic world is evidenced by the
outrage over events such as the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten printing the
Mohammed cartoons in 2005. The subsequent violence reproduces the perception of
dichotomous cultures. The “conflict” between East and West is usually
described in intractable terms. Each of these below plays an important role in
conflict resolution. They must be the subject of discussion, moderation,
adaptation. They are issues ideally for the public sphere as well as the macro
political realm of institution creation.
first primary theme of intractable conflicts is the sense that your own cause is just. Both
Palestinians and Israelis believe that their version of history and the conflict
are correct and worthy of support. Muslims believe their religious tenets
produce “justice” in the eyes of God, just as Americans believe
strongly in democracy and its encouragement. Americans and Muslims, as well as
Palestinians and Israelis, will shed much “blood and treasure” for
the justice of their cause. Secondly conflicting parties stressed the
importance of security. The Israelis
feel existentially threatened. They are convinced that the enemy is committed
to their destruction. Palestinians invoke the language of occupation to justify
their own violence. Security discourse is harnessed to justify any sort of
violence. Security is a basic human need and an easy rationale for the
legitimization of violence. Third is a powerful sense of patriotism where group members attach themselves to country and
land fusing the identity of both to individual identities. Without a powerful
internalized sense of patriotism group members will not sacrifice. Patriotism
mobilizes members of intractable conflicts in the face of heavy costs both
human and material. The United States has experienced a surge in patriotism and
identification with soldiers as a result of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The fourth is unity or the
expectation of agreement in the face of the threat. This creates pressures to
conform to your own societal group and discourages disagreement that might be
an impediment to the cause. The fifth element of the conflict ethos is the
discourse of peace. Each group in the
conflict expresses themselves in utopian and vague terms with respect to peace.
This discourse maintains the image of the peace loving society, and encourages
support for one’s group, but rarely takes the form of the hard work and
sacrifices relevant to true peace. Victimization
is a sixth quality of intractable conflicts and a powerful psychological
self-image that emphasizes group vulnerability and the evil intentions of the
opponent. Israelis have a long history of victimization, and Palestinians have
developed the victim image that garners international sympathy. The seventh
quality of intractable conflicts is a belief that reflects ethnocentric attitudes about your own group. The culture develops a
positive self image and sees itself as moral and heroic as it confronts a less
than human enemy. The United States has demonized Islam and regularly
characterizes the religion as “unevolved.” Finally, there is a very
sharp set of beliefs concerning negative
qualities of the adversary. Stereotypes, poor communication, and
psychological distortions compose society’s image of the other.
These societal characteristics are deep rooted and
require serious analysis and consideration. Democratizing the conflict
resolution process is one way to approach these problems. More on how to do
that in coming posts.