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Cracks in the Foundation Of American Political Institutions

statue-of-liberty-underwater

You have to admit that if you were Daniel Silva or Tom Clancy trying to write another international thriller you could do no better than the opening chapter being devoted to the Russians hacking American political campaigns in order to influence elections and plant their own Manchurian candidate. This opening “staging” chapter could include tensions between the intelligence services and the new president complete with allegations and embarrassing verbal exchanges. To listen to the president elect and the heads of the security agencies trade public accusations and barbs along with charges of incompetence is unprecedented.

And what if rather than treating this as an enjoyable fictional experience we stopped for a moment and considered the implications for the current state of American institutions, political leadership, and security. Corey Robin has begun to make the argument that American institutions are becoming less and less legitimate and this is occurring against the background of political deterioration. Even at the risk of charges of alarmist exaggeration, I believe it’s possible to make the case, at least one worthy of discussion, that there has been a steady decline down a path littered with the remnants of more legitimate institutions and behavior reflective of that legitimacy.

The American democracy seems to be turning on itself and in the process weakening institutions and altering our sense of moral political consciousness. In other words, certain democratic values and forms of political communication have begun to decline. Robin cites as one early example the loss of trust in the government and military during the Vietnam War that resulted from lies and misleading information. This would extend to the crude manipulations about Iraq and the deceptions perpetrated on the American people about the presence of weapons of mass destruction, the denigration of an admired military leader (Colin Powell), a “stolen” election (Busch-Gore) decided in accordance with pure party lines by the Supreme Court, the rise of Trump, and a Congress so polarized and entrenched that it cares nothing about governing but plenty about treating the other as an enemy to be conquered rather than a worthy adversary to work with.

There are two trends in contemporary American society that are both causes and consequences of this decline. The first is the rise of American authoritarianism (see Amanda Taub’s work), and the second is the post-truth politics were there are no facts or evidence-driven conclusions that can’t be manipulated. As Nietzsche put it, “there are only interpretations.” And it is important to underscore that the rise of authoritarianism in America is not about strong controlling individuals taking over and leading by authority. No, it is more the rising tendency for people in the country to obey and accept authority, to prefer authoritarian relationships. They accept authority unquestionably and seek it out.

This preference for authority was one of the divides that separated Trump supporters from those who are horrified by him. And a post-truth mentality seems to be attaching itself and boring into the culture ready to deconstruct and disperse the “reality-based community.” These are the conditions for some difficult conversations and the impossibility of communicating. Then again, paradoxically, it is probably only the communication process that can re-challenge these trends.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The Death of the Worthy Adversary

worthy-adversary

Good dialogical discourse conflates the distinctions between enemies and adversaries; that is, as a combination or fusion of the distinctions such that the two are not so different from one another. Certainly, our polarized culture makes a sharp distinction between an “enemy” and an “adversary.” Part of the discourse of dialogue and deliberation involves maintaining the distinction between the two and treating the other as the “worthy opponent.” Again, this is an important principle of deliberative democracy and deliberative communication. In other words, the two sides of a conflict must work to treat the other as adversaries and a “worthy” one such that your adversary holds a defensible position that is deserving of consideration.

Michael Ignatieff made this point cogently when he explained the distinctions between adversaries and enemies in the New York Times and called for respect between the two. Ignatieff explained that an adversary was someone you want to defeat but an enemy is someone you want to destroy. The current environment which has Republicans wanting to “destroy” Democrats is a good example. Once you define your enemy as the opposition between your own social category and the category of the other, then “enemy” takes on a variety of obstructions and distortions. Trust, for example, is possible for adversaries and does not need to lead to issues related to capitulation, appeasement, or giving in. But trust is not possible between enemies. When you define the other as an enemy trust is an early casualty that can never rise again.

The table below displays some distinctions between treating the other as an enemy or an adversary. An enemy is unwavering in his defensible position where an adversary might be amenable to adjustments. Treating the other as an adversary necessitates a respect for the other position and its grounded nature. Without such respect the two sides talk to each other out of rank disrespect. The use of the language of war and violence exacerbates problems, and makes cooperation impossible.

Obama was seen by the Republican Congress as an enemy rather than an adversary to be confronted. For that reason Obama employed more presidential decrees in order to circumvent a Congress that viewed him as the enemy and was interested only in his failure. Heated rhetoric, such as claims that Obamacare was “an assault on freedom,” were all contributions to the increasing perception of the other as the “enemy.” And although he was reflecting differences in society Obama was also exaggerating these differences.

There is any number of reasons for a gravitational pull toward defining the other as an enemy. But this is just one more example of the corrosive nature of our public discourse that does not even recognize the damage. The ultimate goal is to turn enemies into friends but that is an entirely different interactional category

Enemies versus Adversaries

ENEMY ADVERSARY
To be destroyed. To be defeated.
Strong negative emotions such as hate and disgust. The possibility for positive emotions such as respect.
No trust. Trust is possible.
Zero-sum game. Non-zero-sum game.
Warfare metaphors. Possibilities for cooperation.
Differences between the two sides are maximized. Differences can be constructive and are to be integrated.
Unwavering commitment to a perspective. Opportunity for change and altering perspectives
The goal it is to refute the other position. Destroy it. Goal is to understand the other position and argue it.
Statements are predictable and offer little new information. New information surfaces and can be addressed.
Success requires simple impassioned statements. Success requires exploration of the complexities of the issue being discussed.

 

Me Talk Prettier Than You: Elite and Popular Discourse

champagnebeer paps blue ribbon

One of the divides that has emerged more starkly from the Brexit debate and the candidacy of Donald Trump is the distinction between elite and popular discourse. Just being overly general for the moment, elite discourse is most associated with the educated and professional classes and is characterized by what is considered to be acceptable forms of argument, the use of evidence, the recognition of complexity, and articulation. Popular discourse is more ethnopolitical and nationalistic. It is typically characterized by binary thinking, a simpler and more reductive understanding of the issue, and an ample amount of cognitive rigidity makes it difficult to change attitudes. To be sure, this is a general characterization because both genres are capable of each.

Still, consistent with the well-known polarization of society is the withdrawal of each side into a comfortable discourse structure where the two codes are increasingly removed from one another and the gap between them cannot be transcended very easily.

Additionally, elite and popular discourses share some different sociological and economic orientations. Elites are more cosmopolitan and popular is more local and nationalistic. Elites live in more urban centers and are comfortable with and exposed regularly to diversity. Those who employ more popular discourse tend to live in smaller towns and are more provincial. They seem to resist cultural change more and are less comfortable with diversity.

These two orientations toward language divide the leave-remain vote over Brexit and the electorate that characterizes the differences between Clinton and Trump. But this distinction is more than a socioeconomic divide that reflects some typical differences between people. It symbolizes the polarization currently characterizing American politics and has the potential to spiral into dangerous violence as the “popular” form of discourse becomes more “nationalistic.” It lowers the quality of public discourse and typically degenerates into even more rigid differences and stereotypical exemplars of elite and popular discourse. Nationalist discourse substitutes close minded combativeness for elite debate which can be passionate but is geared toward deliberative conversation that can be constructive. Nationalism is the deep sense of commitment a group has to their collective including territory, history and language. When national “consciousness” sets in then one nation is exalted and considered sacred and worthy of protection even in the face of death. Trump’s catchphrase “make America great again” or “let’s take our country back” or his appeals to separation and distinctiveness by building walls that clearly demark “us” and “them” are all examples of a nationalist consciousness that glorifies the state.

The nationalism espoused by Trump and the “leave” camp during Britain’s vote on the EU question are the primary impediments to consolidating, integrating, and strengthening democracies. All states with any sort of diverse population must establish a civil order that protects those populations; that is, no society will remain integrated and coherent if it does not accommodate ethnic diversity. At the moment, Trump’s rhetoric is divisive and representative of a tribal mentality that clearly wants to separate in many ways various communities in the US. Trump’s references to Mexicans, Jews, Muslims, for example betrays his own nationalistic sentiments.

The two ways to handle ethnic diversity are either pluralistic integration or organizational isolation of groups. Isolating and separating groups is inherently destabilizing and foment ripe conditions for violence. Building a wall and making determinations about who can enter the United States and who can’t are all examples of isolating groups. Intensifying nationalist discourse and the privileging of rights for a dominant group is fundamentally unsustainable.

This gap in the United States between an elite discourse and the nationalist discourse has grown wider and deeper. Each side snickers at the other’s orientation toward language and communication and continues the cycle by reinforcing the superiority of his own discursive position.

 

 

Don’t be Fooled by Trump’s Use of Studied Sincerity

trump-passionate-followers

The video below is a dramatization (although not much of one) of “common sense” and part of its infrastructure, namely, “sincerity.” Donald Trump has been trying to capitalize on this deep-seated American value where “common sense” or “plain talk” or “telling it like it is” is glorified as the highest form of discourse. John McCain in 2000 termed his campaign tours as the “Straight Talk Express.” Bill O’Reilly’s “No Spin Zone” and the rhetorical technicalities of Bernie Sanders continue this effort to convince people that they are authentic and lack any pretenses. The Norman Rockwell image of the common man standing up to speak plainly is burned into our psyches and is an iconic image of communicative authenticity.

Well, I’m here to point out the dangers and the potential damage of this rhetorical shell game called “straight talk.” Trump is the worst perpetrator of this myth and he is successfully fooling millions into believing he is actually worth listening to. The assumption that one is “telling it like it is” or doing nothing but “talking straight” is a dangerous myth that weakens the quality of decision-making and directs attention away from substantive issues. Of course, for Trump directing attention away from substantive issues is just the point. Since he does not know anything about foreign policy, governance, or macroeconomics he has to redirect the conversation. Thus, he has spent his time trying to convince the populace that he is “sincere”.

Political communication is organized around language and symbols of various types so it is particularly important that we attend to words, their meaning, and how they are used. Otherwise we are confused about the state of political discourse and are likely to come to poor decisions. The myth of straight talk directs attention to a preferred ethical stance related to sincerity rather than the quality of reasoning. Sincerity is, of course, important because we do not want to believe our leaders or communicative partners are lying or manipulating us. But sincerity doesn’t have anything to do with the quality or truth value of what we are saying. You can “sincerely” say something stupid and inaccurate.

But it gets worse. Performing sincerity is designed to convince the listener that the source of the message is not only being truthful but also complete. The implication is that everything of importance and relevance is being said and nothing is left out. The speaker is providing all relevant information and nothing else is pertinent. This blunts the listener’s responsibility to pursue additional information. So when Trump says, “the economy is in terrible shape” (which it certainly and clearly is not) he wants you to accept that statement on the basis of his sincerity and not facts.

And it gets worse again. Convincing someone you are being sincere and speaking “straight” is designed to relieve the source of the message of any further responsibilities. The implication is you no longer need to inquire any further or challenge anything I have to say because I have “laid it all out.” It’s a way of saying a speaker is not responsible for what he says, and thereby sealing him from criticism, because he has fulfilled his responsibilities.

More than a few times I’ve heard people whom I know can barely pay their bills characterize the billionaire narcissist Trump as “telling it like it is” and a “man of the people.” To describe Donald Trump as “like the average guy” – meaning a sincere absence of artifice and symbolic trickery – means you have been thoroughly co-opted by the candidate’s studied sincerity.

Language and symbols are central to political communication, but so is critical inquiry. If leaders and political figures are going to be held responsible for their words, which is crucial to the democratic political process, then the capacities of the subject population must not be limited; it must be possible for them to interrogate leaders and satisfy truth challenges. Trump has skillfully convinced many to substitute his calculated sincerity for thoughtful critical inquiry. This can be dangerous and we have seen historical precedents for this danger.

Future Work in Deliberation Will Tackle the Problem of Religiously and Ethnically Divided Societies

The essence of deliberative communication One of the biggest tensions in both politics and culture is the balance between membership in an ethnic community and the sense of belonging it provides versus a more capacious mentality with respect to respecting democratic ideals of inclusiveness and fairness. Many current cultural and political problems trace their roots to multicultural situations and settings where social cohesion is lost as settings become more diverse. Consequently, politics is essentially about the management of differences. And one of the most difficult differences to manage is ethnic identity which offers a strong sense of belonging but is quite dumbfounded when it comes to developing intergroup cooperation and an identity sufficiently broad enough to include both sides of a conflict.

The “received” deliberative democracy literature is mostly broad and normative focusing on abstractions about how to reconcile differences in a democratic manner. But one of the underappreciated difficulties of the more theoretical approach to deliberation is that it fails to sufficiently embrace the matter of power asymmetries. These are when values and interests are deeply entrenched and inequality is part of the natural state of affairs between two groups such that one side is economically and militarily superior.

The first and most important question is how one imagines deeply divided societies or groups coming together. Ethnopolitically divided societies might live near each other and tolerate a side-by-side existence, but they can’t share trust and a sense of community. The two sides must ultimately work to transform the context, the individuals, and their cultural differences in order to create a relationship rooted more in mutuality than rank group identification. On one level, this involves transforming identities – which is theoretically possible because identities are described as social constructions which means they can be constructed, deconstructed, and reorganized. This is the transformative and epistemic sense of deliberation which believes in the gradual process of creating new relationships and shared communities. Again, the question remains as to how this transformation happens. Or, what is the mechanism or interaction pattern responsible for achieving this new state of affairs.

Rigorous and serious deliberation is an antidote to communication based on bargaining, trading off interests, and manipulations designed to achieve private goals. Deliberation is about interest and preference formation. But in the case of deliberation for divided societies power asymmetries must be accounted for. In fact, it makes little sense to ignore just the defining issue that is the root of the conflict. Differences between divided societies are usually moral and cultural in nature but it is close to impossible to arrive at moral consensus between ethnopolitically separated groups. This is where what I call “Reasonable Disagreement” (Chapter 3 in my most recent book Fierce Entanglements: Communication and Ethnopolitical Conflict) can be helpful. Reasonable disagreement – the details of which are beyond the concerns of this posting – begins by treating the other not as an enemy but as an adversary as Iris Young argues. Reasonable disagreement is simply the assumption that there is more than one defensible way to make an argument or hold a belief. It recognizes that one group’s worldview is not necessarily or clearly superior or correct. There is simply no way to manage differences and develop cultural sensitivity between groups without their remaining gaps of meaning and understanding that simply must be tolerated.

Viewing the other side of a divided society as an “enemy” requires vanquishing him or her because the other side is typically considered wrong and worthy of annihilation (either literally or symbolically). “Adversaries”, on the other hand, are respected worthy opponents that cannot be thoroughly vanquished. Reasonable disagreement has two senses: the first is as a political value to be nurtured and developed in a democratic society. It is a foundational plank of the requirements for tolerance and diversity in liberal democratic societies. The second sense is as an epistemic value responsible for new and creative decision-making.

I think the challenges of ethnopolitically divided societies are going to be the subject of increasing research and theoretical attention in the future – and rightfully so.

 

 

 

What Makes for “Difficult Conversations?”

locking horns difficult conversationsConversations are difficult when one or both parties are fixed on an ideological position they consider a core value fundamental to their concept of truth and personal identity. These difficult conversations are the genuinely “hard” part of managing conflicts and in many ways more important than the military dimension. It is certainly easier to kill someone then to change their ideology. Moreover, security measures do not sufficiently engage the problem when the true enemy is an ideology that must be communicatively confronted. Conversations are difficult for four reasons primarily.

  1. The nature of their content: those political or religious positions that claim to speak to God and know the mind of God, and believe that God has a plan or an inevitable future, will be particularly recalcitrant. Yes, radical Islam fits this definition but so do extreme versions of Christianity, Judaism, or any body of thinking and literature rooted in religious cosmology. Some are more dangerous than others because of a tradition of activism and preaching. Orthodox Judaism, for example, does not have a tradition of expansionist preaching and is thus less threatening than some other traditions even though they are still a narrow vision based on the presumed word of God. Cultures of shame and honor are also particularly sensitive to humiliations of various sorts and often likely to respond violently.
  2. Radical versus assimilationist thinking: some people hold strict religious or political opinions and even want to impose them on others but they take a slow education oriented approach. They support a comprehensive system of influences – economic, artistic, educational, cultural, and political – and assume that in time others will assimilate into the “truth.” But those positions that include radical approaches, which desire quicker satisfaction, are more likely to advocate violence and be more difficult to work with. Slower assimilationist approaches are more subject to counter influences. After a generation, for example, of living in the United States a family may have absorbed the values of liberal democracy. Conversation with the radical is clearly more challenging because it typically uses more threats, blame, humiliation, and demands for apologies.
  3. Belief in an essential cause: participants in discussions often get to a point where they have identified what is considered the “essential” cause of the problem. This essential cause takes on considerable explanatory power and becomes difficult to change. For example, some blame the United States for the rise of violent Islam and it is US foreign policy that becomes the “essential cause” of the problem. Others might cherry pick the Koran and find references that are used as essential explanations for violence. A belief in an essential cause is typically accompanied by blame which is psychologically satisfying.
  4. Incommensurate narratives: when the two cultures in conflict are particularly distinct and the qualities of each culture are significantly different, then these differences make the conversation difficult. Cultures like the Israelis and Palestinians present different accounts of historical events and selectively emphasize and organize motivations. These incommensurate narratives are cultural conflicts that make interaction even more difficult because the two sides are locked into images of the past and myths about the future. This concentration on the past becomes powerfully influential because the sides believe that lessons learned from the past are particularly timeless and resistant to change. The narrative or story each group tells about its self becomes glorified as a timeless truth and a steady beacon. Consequently, tolerance and change our challenge.

Of course, there are other qualities of conflict – psychological, communicative, political, economic – that make conversations difficult. But these four pose particularly demanding (shall we say almost impossible) conditions that make for difficult conversations.

How to Reassign Meaning and Damage the Art of Conversation

Even though cynics and those who throw their hands up in the air in desperation at the difficulties and frustrations of conversation think that conversation is naïve, they are wrong. If you are going to avoid force or violence or ethically challenged manipulations, then the only way to morally and fully engage in knowledge acquisition and quality decision-making is through the interaction process. The democratic process does not rely on pre-established ideological positions (e.g., “socialism” “communism” “capitalism”) that requires the carrier of these ideologies to simply rigidly and blindly defend such a position. No, the democratic process relies more on the epistemic value of communication and the conversation that produces it.

And democratic cultures have long histories of dictating the importance of education in order to participate in a citizen-based democracy as well as the availability and quality of information. That’s why the press in the United States has as much freedom as it does. The press is afforded special attention. But the kind of conflict I mostly think about and work on (intractable conflicts) don’t usually have people participating on the basis of democratic ideals and deliberation. In fact, the participants are usually entrenched in their beliefs and are as rigid as any true believer.

In an interesting study, published in the Journal of Public Deliberationcover, the author explains how literacy is not even necessary for deliberation. Being literate and informed is always assumed to be fundamental to a complex democracy. This has led throughout history to institutions and programs devoted to citizen education, school wide programs, and a host of activities concerning the development of citizenship and democratic habits. The relationship between an informed citizenry and the general public has been written about by Plato, Rosseau, John Stuart Mill, Dewey, and any other number of heavyweights. But it turns out that high levels of literacy are not the only requirement for good public deliberation.

I won’t fully engage the concept of “defining literacy” except that I’m thinking about it as the basic inability to read and write. The term “literacy” has flexed its semantic muscles and is now used to refer to “media literacy,” “numeric literacy,” and simple knowledge of issues. But Bhatia, in the article cited above, explains how television can contribute to information acquisition and exposure and brings a person with no or limited knowledge up a rung or two.

A recent essay in Tablet magazine offered up an interesting case of a difficult conversation where the entrenched ideologies are religion and secular politics. Most of my examples in my recent book “Fierce Entanglements” have to do with Jihadis or religious settlers or people with extreme political beliefs. The author of this article, Liel Leibovitz, talks about the uselessness of having a conversation with someone like Noam Chomsky. The article explains what was supposed to be a reasonable attempt to have a conversation between Chomsky and Sam Harris. Chomsky’s beliefs are so fixed and so wrapped up in theories of American conspiracy and violence that the author concludes all conversation between people who disagree should be eliminated.

Chomsky believes that the United States is clearly the most violent and vicious terrorist unit in the world and 9/11 was insignificant by comparison. 9/11 was just America getting a taste of its own. Of course, Chomsky cannot have a discussion without invoking Israel and heaping blame on the Jewish state. What happens during these conversations is that the meanings of words such as “terrorism” begin to drain and become reassigned usually broadened to be more inclusive of things it did not originally include. So there’s a particular definition of terrorism which refers to acts of violence against innocents for the purpose of sowing fear and confusion. Then the meaning gets changed to include anybody who engages in violence whom you don’t like. All context and nuance is lost.

Good vigorous conversation and argument seems to be a fading art. I guess we will have to return to literacy instruction to restore the art of conversation.

 

 

 

 

 

Israel as a Jewish State

If you want to listen to one of the finer minds around click here and listen to Ruth Gavison. This is a first-class intellect grappling with the issues of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state and how it can achieve such. Just put your feet up and enjoy. Then read a few opinions of my own. This issue is the classic intersection of politics, philosophy, and culture

Now that Netanyahu has formed a government, a very conservative one, it’s time to think about the “Jewish” definition of Israel. We can explore these issues and expose the difficulties and suffer the different philosophical consequences including the conundrums, logical impossibilities, and damning inevitabilities. Then I’m going to conclude that Israel should be Jewish, that the entire history of the country and the Zionist project makes little sense if Israel is not “Jewish.” You will see, of course, that according to some I’m recommending “Jewish lite” and that will be enough to disqualify my conclusions. But ultimately there’s only one way to meet that goal of Israel being both Jewish and operational and that’s for the Judaism to inform the state but not control it.

This question of Israel’s Judaism is really no small matter because it determines whether or not the state serves Judaism or Judaism serves the state. In other words, if the state is Jewish first and democratic second then the democracy has to be flexible enough to fit the Jewish nature of the state. Strongly religious Jews who want Israel to be a Jewish state begin with Judaism and shape all other forms of government to fit the needs of the Jewish community. Places like the United States begin with democracy and shape the society to fit the democracy. This is known as a liberal democracy and in the more pure sense is impossible in Israel if the state is “Jewish.” I would recommend a reading from the Jerusalem Center for Public affairs available here.

If Israel is devoted to Jewish particularity than it begs the question about what that particularity is and whether or not it is sustainable. A society that is truly communal in the sense that everyone holds a religious or ethnic identity is a society that is truly actualized and expressed by the state. The “state” is truly a full expression of the people and not simply a compromise or the sum of the parts. Even at the risk of some exaggeration the state becomes the full expression of the nature of the people. Now, we’ve seen all this before and it certainly wasn’t pretty (think Fascism or the Soviet Socialist Republic). But it is not inevitable that the state will gravitate toward authoritarianism and oppression – even though constant monitoring is required. But Israel will have trouble if it has a strong sense of Jewish identity wrapped up in the state because the community is not cohesive. An officially Jewish Israel will be oppressive for non-Jewish groups such as the Arabs. Again, this is a situation that simply cannot stand. Israel must find a way to be Jewish but acceptably tolerant of the groups within its confines that are not Jewish. It is easy to describe the state as fundamentally expressing a culture when everyone in the culture is the same or holds the same political or religious values. But government is about managing differences and this is going to be true even of Jewish government.

So this is the primary tension. The tension is between Israel as a modern state and Israel as a continuation of Judaism. In what sense is Israel uniquely Jewish? Well, we could begin with the question of the Jewish people living independently in their own country. How important is it that Jews have a sense of completeness and does this depend on living in certain territory? An Orthodox Jew, although not all strands of orthodoxy, will tell you that the task of completing the Jewish people is dictated by God and an in-tact political system is a means to that end. In fact, the reconstitution of the state of Israel in the biblical and religious sense is a sign of the coming of the Messiah. In the Bible a collection of people make up the nation and they are permanent entity. In this image Israel would become a Torah state that might be an honorable expression of the will of Jews, but it would also be discriminatory not only against non-Jewish groups but include gender and the various intellectual discriminations. To be sure, Israel could create a state of the Jewish people and such a state would struggle in contemporary terms.

We are still confronted with the question of how modern Israel fits into the long tradition of Jewish civilization. And if we decide that Israel is Jewish first then there is the daunting question not of Judaism – which will make adjustments slowly to the modern world – but how Jewish Israel fits into the contemporary culture of justice and fairness for all. More

Now that Netanyahu has formed a government, barely, and it’s composed of some pretty right-wing parties it begs the question of Israel’s Jewish and democratic nature. Let’s think a little bit about this. I’m going to conclude that Israel should be Jewish, that the entire history of the country and the Zionist project makes little sense if Israel is not “Jewish.” You will see, of course, that according to some I’m recommending “Jewish lite” and that will be enough to disqualify my conclusions. But ultimately there’s only one way to meet that goal of Israel being both Jewish and operational and that’s for the Judaism to inform the state but not control it.

This question of Israel’s Judaism is really no small matter because it determines whether or not the state serves Judaism or Judaism serves the state. In other words, if the state is Jewish first and democratic second then the democracy has to be flexible enough to fit the Jewish nature of the state. Strongly religious Jews who want Israel to be a Jewish state begin with Judaism and shape all other forms of government to fit the needs of the Jewish community. Places like the United States begin with democracy and shape the society to fit the democracy. This is known as a liberal democracy and in the more pure sense is impossible in Israel if the state is “Jewish.” I would recommend a reading from the Jerusalem Center for Public affairs available here.

If Israel is devoted to Jewish particularity than it begs the question about what that particularity is and whether or not it is sustainable. A society that is truly communal in the sense that everyone holds a religious or ethnic identity is a society that is truly actualized and expressed by the state. The “state” is truly a full expression of the people and not simply a compromise or the sum of the parts. Even at the risk of some exaggeration the state becomes the full expression of the nature of the people. Now, we’ve seen all this before and it certainly wasn’t pretty (think Fascism or the Soviet Socialist Republic). But it is not inevitable that the state will gravitate toward authoritarianism and oppression – even though constant monitoring is required. But Israel will have trouble if it has a strong sense of Jewish identity wrapped up in the state because the community is not cohesive. An officially Jewish Israel will be oppressive for non-Jewish groups such as the Arabs. Again, this is a situation that simply cannot stand. Israel must find a way to be Jewish but acceptably tolerant of the groups within its confines that are not Jewish. It is easy to describe the state as fundamentally expressing a culture when everyone in the culture is the same or holds the same political or religious values. But government is about managing differences and this is going to be true even of Jewish government.

So this is the primary tension. The tension is between Israel as a modern state and Israel as a continuation of Judaism. In what sense is Israel uniquely Jewish? Well, we could begin with the question of the Jewish people living independently in their own country. How important is it that Jews have a sense of completeness and does this depend on living in certain territory? An Orthodox Jew, although not all strands of orthodoxy, will tell you that the task of completing the Jewish people is dictated by God and an in-tact political system is a means to that end. In fact, the reconstitution of the state of Israel in the biblical and religious sense is a sign of the coming of the Messiah. In the Bible a collection of people make up the nation and they are permanent entity. In this image Israel would become a Torah state that might be an honorable expression of the will of Jews, but it would also be discriminatory not only against non-Jewish groups but include gender and the various intellectual discriminations. To be sure, Israel could create a state of the Jewish people and such a state would struggle in contemporary terms.

We are still confronted with the question of how modern Israel fits into the long tradition of Jewish civilization. And if we decide that Israel is Jewish first then there is the daunting question not of Judaism – which will make adjustments slowly to the modern world – but how Jewish Israel fits into the contemporary culture of justice and fairness for all. More later.

 

Reprinted from earlier post May 7, 2014

Hebrew and Russian Language Vitality and Conflict

One way to track the power and influence of a culture is by watching the shifts in language use. People are attached to the language they speak and the culture it embodies. When a group speaks a language it’s because they perceive that language to have standing and relative importance.
Russia may have just asserted itself and flexed its muscles but it’s really a weakened national polity as evidenced by the erosion of the Russian language around the world. As Marshall Singer reports, in his Foreign Affairs article “Language Follows Power” Russia is no longer the official language among many of its republics and the countries of the old Soviet bloc. Many state powers are turning away from Russia and its language and showing preferences for English and French.
Languages get used when they are functional and vital. A vital language is responsive to new usages and terminology and changes to reflect an active culture. Hebrew is a good example of a restored and revitalized language that is only spoken by about 8 million people but exercises a power beyond its numbers because of its ties to sectors of the economy and popular culture as well as traditional religious groups.
As nationalism broke out among non-Russian nationalities they began to reject Russian culture and especially the language. Singer also reports that the publication of books and the production of television programs has decreased in Russian but increased in other native languages. The Russian language has faded with the power of the Russian political entity – recent militarism notwithstanding.
Hebrew, on the other hand, within its national boundaries is so strong that it has drowned out some minority languages. Freeburg in a study of the revival of Hebrew offers interesting data on how other smaller languages in Israel (Karaim, Ladino, and Yiddish) have almost been threatened out of existence. The revitalization of Hebrew is typically pointed to as a tremendous success story but Freeburg suggests that the negative consequences of the revitalization of Hebrew have been overlooked. Still, as Russian and Hebrew evolve they change their relationship with the process of conflict resolution.
The Role of Language and Conflict Resolution
The assumption of universality is one of the first mistakes conflict resolution theorists make. In other words, they emphasize the common structural features of conflicts. Or, at least what they believe to be the common features. A Westerner will talk about “negotiation” or “reconciliation” and assume that these concepts are shared by the conflicting parties. The Westerner will assume common patterns and regularities even if terminology is different.
But Raymond Cohen has written cogently about emphasizing variations rather than resemblances. The differences between conflicting parties are important because meanings carry cultural weight and depict different versions of reality. Peace may seem to be a familiar enough idea but its use by various cultures contains characteristic distinctions and meanings. As Cohen explains, in English to “compromise” means to balance concessions and is a very laudable and positive term. But Arabic lacks such terminology and even the ones they use can imply a compromise over a principle of honor or justice which is to be avoided not embraced. Moreover, Israelis argue in a direct and pragmatic manner and consider deep philosophical arguments over principles to be paralyzing. But in Arabic there is no word for pragmatism and it is offensive to neglect principles.
Managing and resolving conflicts is an unavoidable human activity that is steeped in cultural values and differences. Consequently, meanings and implications of conflict resolution have accumulated over the millennia and found their way into the deep semantic structure of language. These semantic structures must be extracted and re-formed until conflicting parties see the nature of conflict from the same perspective – or at least the perspective that is “close enough.”

 

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.

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