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How to Make Friends

Changing the attitudes, beliefs, or values of someone else has always been a central research concern in the social sciences. Theories of social influence, group decision-making, contact, and conflict resolution are all concerned with solving problems or getting one party to change in an effort to redress differences or keep the peace. Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton, and Sheila Heen in their book, Difficult Conversations, write about strategies for talking to one another when the subject is anything you find difficult to deal with. This could be political opinions expressed in a newspaper or relational issues between couples concerning gender, equity, or housework.

In my own book, Fierce Entanglements: Communication and Ethnopolitical Conflict, I write about difficult conversations between ethnopolitical groups where ethnicity and religion are implicated and the conflicts are contentious and intense with deep implications for identity and nationalism. So this issue of change or solving problems runs the gamut from mundane micro issues to politically significant macro concerns.

We see this distinction expressed in the realm of politics in the contrast between those with a slow hand and diplomatic sensibilities who search for common ground and invoke a strategy of engagement, compared to those who carry a bigger stick and keep an opponent in check out of fear or raw power. Scholars continue to argue over the basic theory here about whether or not reaching out to opponents and overtures of engagement and mutual reciprocity actually have any effect on adversaries, or whether or not a strong stance forcing adversaries into submission is more effective. This question is even more interesting when posed as an option for dealing with strong autocratic forces that have little history of democratization or facilitative engagement. The oppositional stance differences between Obama and Trump is an example.

But I would argue that the historical record, and the brunt of research efforts, clearly favors a strategy of accommodation rather than intimidation – a strategy of communicative contact and reciprocity. During the last few decades in the United States those with a more confrontational stance have claimed they favor engagement and reciprocity but demand conditions be met first by the other side such as democratization. Telling Iran or some ethnopolitical group they must democratize before the US will engage in respectful reciprocal relations is a grand goal but pretty unattainable. There are reasons to engage the other side without requiring them first to be more democratic.

For example, business relations and interdependent economic and financial exchanges are typically thought to be a form of rational engagement that promotes cooperation and has economic benefits. The standard thinking is that such economic arrangements promote peace and rapprochement, but there are arguments for the other way around that peaceful and cooperative relationships must come first and business exchanges follow. Clearly, a politician like Obama was attacked for referring to such a strategy and called “weak.” In fact, it went further than that because Obama was described as putting the country in jeopardy and subjecting us to disrespect.

But cautious engagement is better than mutual hostility that can escalate at any moment. Surely, cautious engagement requires the participation of both sides and reciprocity and this will take time. These “difficult conversations” must be developed and nurtured along a pathway to peace and their complexities are many. But still, by the standards of history and scholarship it is better than the alternative.


A Quick Primer on Communication and Peace Education

Peace education remains a lofty goal. Some certainly consider it naive but not those who know better. Communication plays an essential role.

Apart from research about interventions into other circumstances, most work about interventions into conflict is described in the online forum and listserv of the Rockefeller Foundation’s funded Communication Initiative ( The foundation of this area of research is the pioneering development communication research that first began with UNESCO’s commissioned studies of National Farm Radio Forums in low-income states.

Communication and media studies inform the workings of peace education (PE). Communication is about the generation of meaning. This simple definition follows a weak constructivist line of reasoning in which meanings are generated by the interpretive practices of individuals who confront and work to make sense of messages. This interpretive process is operational whether the messages are verbal or nonverbal, or delivered through mediated or face-to-face interaction. The idea of “communication” is subject to cultural implications. Culture is a dynamic interaction where knowledge and experiences are not passively received but actively constructed. Culture may define groups of people in a work place such as office culture, or groups of people in a state—e.g. civic culture. From a cultural standpoint, these people’s knowledge is the result of a cultural context. Meanings in cultures develop on the basis of distinct ways of interpreting symbols and artifacts. Thus, issues such as whether or not communication has occurred, and definitions of “good” and “bad” communication are all dependent on cultural practices. Cultural groups, whose ethnicity, race or religion become invoked for political reasons, namely ethnopolitical groups, are again, those groups that experienced the most conflict. PE, in turn, requires understanding the interpretive practices of the “other” group and learning new ones. The basic challenges of PE cannot escape the centrality of the communication process to conflict resolution; and, moreover, these challenges can clearly benefit from the power of communication technology to shape and distribute effective messages.

Communication and media studies scholars seek to assess, or recommend methods for improving the impact of contact between groups at the face-to-face level and evaluate the impact or capabilities of contact on achieving their desired outcomes. For example, these scholars would evaluate whether use of strategic messages (whether in a face-to-face setting or via a radio program), actually leads to a particular outcome and if so, relate how that outcome helps to manage some aspect of ethnopolitical conflict. While PE scholarship has been sparse, a plethora of assessments and evaluations about interventions into other contexts have been conducted that readily contribute knowledge about how to create and study peace promoting interventions. These areas of scholarship cover matters of cognitive development, health, and voting behaviors The reader looking specifically for communication and media studies research about interventions into conflict will find most of it organized under the category communication for social change.

The above is from the essay below which I suggest as a excellent starting point for examining the relationship between peace education and communication.

Donald G. Ellis and Yael Warshel(2010). The Contributions of Communication and Media Studies to Peace Education, In G. Saloman and E. Cairns (Eds.) Peace Education (pp. 135-153).

The article can be accessed here




The Concept of Peace in Islam

peace in Islam

In the West peace means predominantly the absence of war. Peace is the result of institutional agreements or the regulation of behavior and mutual negotiations about what is considered threatening or unacceptable to each side. Solving conflicts is a rational problem-solving activity and reason is primary. It is possible to settle Islamic conflicts and make peace, but it must be done within the conceptual context of the Koran. And in many ways this is not so different from other religions.

In the Muslim tradition peace is associated with human development and justice, but justice that is rooted in the Koran more than secular reason. Peace implies the maintenance of human dignity and a sense of balance and coherence in society. Peace in Islam is associated with God and considered to be one of the names for God. There are roughly 5 approaches to peace.

Power: In Islam sometimes it is necessary to simply assert political power and use secular tools to manage disorder; disorder and chaos are considered threats to Islam and must be dealt with. This approach emphasizes political necessities because the population or some aspect of the community is threatening the good order of Islam.

Peace Based on Koranic Law: Peace is a condition of the Koran and violations of rules are inconsistent with peace. The values of the Koran must be in place or the community is characterized as unstable and disorderly. A situation in which these values are not present may be characterized as disorderly, unstable and un-Islamic. Sometimes this approach can be abused because of the easy or casual assertion that Islamic law is being violated and thus harsh consequences are justified.

Peace Through the Power of Communication: There is a tradition of mediation and arbitration (these are fundamentally communicative in nature) in Islam. The concept of balance remains important here. This is the notion of peace which is consistent with the West and some secular approaches. It recognizes that balance in society is not only maintained by religious precept but by restorative justice. Consequently, those who have experienced loss can be compensated or when one family is disadvantaged by another balance is restored through repayment or restoration of some type.

Peace Through Power: Islam also calls for nonviolence and the maintenance of security even when these things must be maintained through traditional power. Again, the approach is rooted in a concept of coherence and balance where peace is maintained by responding to the other’s needs. Secure and authentic peace must be rooted in human dignity.

Peace Through the Regard for the Other: The love of God in the precepts of Islam make for a broad and encompassing harmony. Again, this is a place where the religious and the secular can meet because one is expressed by the other. Each person is able to turn inward and find the value in the other through Islam. There is room here for change and transformation including the possibility of redemption.

Islam recognizes that humans are social and must live together. Thus, there has developed a line of thinking from religious documents to the daily organization of society. This is essentially the relationship between Islam and the state. There is much in Islam that puts the community’s interest first. But most important of all is the consistency between religious principles and the political system which always provides an avenue of redress. The community always has its mundane and routine needs but these are rooted in tradition, respect, and consistency with Islamic law. Islam is a classically collectivist culture where individuals are less important than the collectivity. Individuals are punished or judged to the extent that they disturb the good order of the community. The individual counts little by himself – a concept quite different in the West. It is the clan or society that has the right to protect itself by punishing a recalcitrant individual. Someone’s guilt or innocence is couched in the context of threatening or sustaining the community. And there must be an authority (textual or human) responsible for maintaining community order. This is regarded as absolutely necessary since society without authority is impossible.





The Agony of Contentious Language in the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

bomb GazaThere is a tendency, even for those who know better, to think of language as a simple carrier of meaning. That is, language is the mechanism that packages up meaning and does the work of transferring it from one person to another. So we refer to the “war” in the Middle East and this term “war” carries the vast and complex array of images and meanings that attend to the concept of war. But language is a symbol system that connects a sound or visual image with meaning and this connection is tenuous and changeable. It is not stable and simple. Language not only reflects cultural differences and nuances of meaning but also” constitutes” and creates meanings. Calling the Israel Palestine conflict a “war” implies images of purposeful behavior on the part of both parties to engage in violence, identify territory that one side is defending, and images of clashes between the two sides. But this does not describe the Israel Palestine conflict very accurately.

There are two qualities of language that are pertinent here: the first is this constitutive quality of language where if I refer to something in a particular way I can influence your perception of it and “constitute” a version of reality. This is a relatively simple notion. If I use a racial or ethnic epithet to describe someone or their group I am creating an image of them. I can manipulate the importance of an issue by changing the way I refer to it. During the Vietnam War there used to be “search and destroy missions” but this made the image of the American soldier to aggressive and violent so the term was changed to “reconnaissance in force.” Labeling the unintended killing of innocents as “collateral damage” is a well-known example of constituting desired meaning. These sorts of things are not simple verbal trickery but attempts to alter how you understand an action. A recent article in the Forward noted how the situation in Gaza changed Hebrew and the Hebrew adapted to the conflict. In the beginning the Israelis referred to the fighting in Gaza as mivtza or an “operation” and not as milhama which is the everyday term for “war” in Hebrew.

So is Israel engaged in an “operation” or a “war?” The implications for word choice are clear enough. War implies a greater commitment of effort and resources along with potential existential threats and of course the legal right to benefits for soldiers of various types. This is all less true of a simple “operation.” A culture, especially the military dimension of the culture, tends to build a linguistic structure and vocabulary around its own narrative and political interests. This is fine and understandable but remains an obstacle to peace and changing the language into a structure of peace and conflict management that is necessary for resolution.

The second maddening quality of language is the obverse of its power to parse reality and define it. It is the fact that language is never sufficiently precise to describe the reality you desire; it never quite captures or always falls a little short of just what you want to express. For example, we have the words “tall” and “short.” We use these words easily and regularly and describe people who are tall” or “short.” We are comfortable with these two terms and they easily describe the realities of “tall” and “short.” But what about all those places between “tall” and “short?” What about all those portions of reality that don’t fit into “tall” or “short?” We are stuck with clumsy modifiers such as “sort of tall,” or “a little bit short.” Is the conflict in Gaza an “operation” or “a war?” And if it is something in between or “sort of” both then what language do we use to describe it? It is an asymmetrical conflict but what all is exactly included in that semantic category?

Language is powerful enough and has the ability to either stimulate or constrain conversations. Perhaps one day the structure of language around the conflict between the Israelis and the Palestinians will include some of the following: “dialogue” (the search for mutuality), “pluralism” (a recognition and respect for differences), “kiyum mishutaf” (a true shared in common experience), “Sulha” (Arab conflict resolution).

The noted political theorists Charles Tilly and Sidney Tarrow have recognized how culture laden language is. They have demonstrated how examining changes in language help understand long-term changes in behavior. In particular these two theorists have studied the language of contention and demonstrated how it can be creative and facilitative of a transformation from one state of contention to something else – namely, something less contentious.




Islamic and Western Approaches to Peace

Whether your intellectual tradition is that of the Enlightenment, or the religious patterns of Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, Christianity, or Judaism along with modern liberalism each provides horizons of meaning that offer a picture and a future of peace. All of these intellectual systems have an end state that is, if not utopian and glorious, at least peaceful and orderly. But how do we begin to interrogate and engage these systems? What do we have to know about the cultures that are most representative of these belief systems?

In the micro world of interpersonal relations, or the more detached pedagogical stance one can take in the classroom, it is easy enough to make references to cultural generalities. We talk quite prolifically about cultural differences and enjoy citing examples of cultural variation. But when it comes to defending these cultural generalities, when one is asked to stand up in front of an audience and say things that involve generalities about cultures to which we do not belong, things get a little bit more difficult. I have participated in many conversations where generalities about culture were invoked (and I’m not talking about humorous stereotypes) but the participants would be hard-pressed to defend these generalities; they shy away from expressing cultural descriptions because they realize that such generalities are always a little bit on shaky grounds.

But on the other hand, there are characteristic qualities of cultures. We classify cultures as either individualistic or collective, self oriented or other oriented, modern or traditional, along with any number of other descriptions. These generalities often have some claim to legitimacy but they also are rarely a universally valid framework. We have to grapple with differences and try to avoid shallow cultural blather but at the same time improve the depth of our knowledge about cultures, especially cultures in conflict trying to resolve differences. Below, and in the next few posts, I explore some differences we might claim separate Islam from the West with respect to concepts of peace and conflict resolution. A good reading on this topic is Islamic Approaches to Peace.

When it comes to understanding Islam and its conceptions of peace and conflict management, we are in a difficult historical period because of “Islamism” and it’s narrow and aggressive discourse that is seen as a threat to peace. The concept of peace in the Islamic culture is typically misrepresented or ignored. But there are differences between Western and Islamic concepts of peace that must be understood. The differences between the two cultures form the basis for dialogue and deliberation. Yet, you actually see very little contact and very little theorizing about Islamic-Western dialogue. There are any number of reasons for this, but one of the most pertinent is that Western literature is more concerned about stating differences rather than commonality, and emphasizing the incompatibility of Islam with Western ideas about conflict.

There is a shameful lack of contact between Islam and the West with relatively little grassroots dialogue. There is a need for a new attitude and framework in order to organize knowledge about Islam for Westerners and organize knowledge about the West for Muslims. For example, there does seem to be a tendency to define Western approaches to conflict resolution as the “norm” or the ideal to strive for. We simply don’t have attitudes that expect Islam to be serious about peace. And although everyday contact between Muslims and Westerners is fine wherever it is possible (e.g. educational institutions), it still falls short of the structured and guided form of communication that results from dialogue and deliberation.

It is commonly accepted among conflict scholars that peace between deeply divided groups requires a global conception of peace that is integrated; in other words, problems will not be solved on the basis of narrow self-interest or the belief in one’s own cultural superiority with respect to ideas about peace. Peace will not come and problems will not be solved on the basis of a single dominant cultural attitude. Religion, for example, is essential to the attitudes about peace for Muslims but far less important for the secular West. And it is the West that must accept the role of religion and integrate it into the process.

All major religious, philosophical, and secular systems of belief and knowledge claim that peace will be the result of the full expression and recognition of the systems. And in a new world where boundaries are more porous and once separated groups must now confront the other there is an even more profound need for intercultural communication.

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