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Stories as Arguments

Stories play an important role in asymmetric ethnopolitical conflicts with each side using stories to legitimize their own experiences. Sometimes stories contribute to polarization between the two sides and strengthen the tendency to exclude others and classify them as morally objectionable. But stories play a particularly important role in asymmetric conflicts because the root of such conflicts is the relationship between adversaries and the influences of culture and history on these relationships. It is stories that carry meaning and narrate culture and history. Stories are the data that conflict participants in asymmetric conflicts use to support their version of history. Consequently, stories serve as powerful expressions of subjective reality that on the one hand must be taken seriously as a picture of the lived world of the participant, but are also used as arguments that can be examined and challenged.

narrative as argument

Stories as Arguments

Treating stories as arguments is a powerful form of communication analysis that resonates with human experiences. For asymmetrical conflict, narrative can be a communicative technique for pursuing common interests. In other words, a narrative is a story that relates to events and people. It has a plot, a storyline, and cast of characters. When someone tells a story, even an ethnopolitical narrative characterized by loss or violence, the story illustrates a reality of their life. The narrative has personal and ideological value to the individual and represents a lived experience that must be made sensible. A story that relates a real experience is the basic mechanism for conveying the nature of reality including judgments and the truth value of certain statements. It is both an individual subjectivity that is susceptible to all of the confusions and distortions individuals are capable of, as well as a story built on argument principles. If an Israeli is listening to the story of a Palestinian and the Palestinian tells the tale of oppression and difficult circumstances, along with subplots of personal experiences concerning confrontations with the military and violence, then that story is real to the individual and subject to debate and discussion, albeit difficult debate and discussion. The same is true for a Palestinian listening to an Israeli talk about historical discrimination, the state of Israel, and the moral and legal difficulties of the conflict. The stories are part of personal experiences and representative of the different ways of speaking and knowing that must be explored in dialogue by all participants.

The high standard of argument proposed by deliberation theorists is realistically out of reach and not descriptive of actual deliberation, which is more emotional than rational and rooted in “conversation argument” rather than theoretical models of argument. In the traditional description of an argument it is a formal structure that exists independently of individuals. Hence, it is not unusual to see diagrams illustrating formal relationships about claims, data, and conclusions. But conversational reasoning, which is where storytelling that functions as argument is expressed, views communication as pragmatic. A “conversational” argument is concerned with presumptive reasoning rather than logic.

Presumptive reasoning is based on pragmatics and draws conclusions from context in general usage of the term rather than from formal structure. This type of conversational reasoning is statistical in that it assumes a certain relationship exists. For example, I might say John (x) supports government welfare programs (A) and is therefore a Democrat (B). The relationship between (A) and (B) is presumptive or statistical in that the association is defensible but certainly not logically required. There are situations where (A) is not (B) and there can be conversational inconsistency. Certainly the idea of “supporting government programs” and “being a Democrat” can be definitionally inconsistent.

Reasoning processes like these develop their own standards of defensibility. The form of argument that occurs in everyday interactions is not dependent on logic but is informed more by how people reach acceptable conclusions. It is a frequent and persistent form of communicating between members of asymmetric groups. The presumptive relationship between supporting government welfare programs and being a Democrat will change over time and be influenced by many communication variables including contexts. The implications of this relationship between (A) and (B) and the questions and critical inquiry it stimulates are central to the deliberation process. Various psychological factors and levels of commitment will also influence deliberative communication. One could believe in the presumptive relationship and be emotionally committed to it even though it is indefensible on numerous evidentiary grounds. Arguments can be more easily inconsistent as well as failing to meet principles of proper inferential reasoning but still be influential. This is the nature of stories as argument.

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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.

Right-Wing Blood and Soil Nationalism in London

Just a few days ago I returned from a conference in London (the International Communication Association). Reading the local newspapers is one of the pleasures of international travel. I thoroughly enjoy immersing myself in the local issues and journalistic agendas of wherever I am. Of course such “news of the world” is easily available these days online, but I reserve regular online reading for a few particular favorites. In any case, in reading the English newspapers I was struck by the resurgence of the English Defense League (EDL).

The EDL is a right-wing movement, characterized by all the standard fears of foreigners and militaristic jingo we have come to expect from these groups. The EDL is particularly anti-Islam and has been reenergized recently by the large-scale immigration of Muslims into Europe and in particular by the murder of Lee Rigby. Briefly, the EDL has much in common with sports hooliganism but has developed into a right-wing nationalist group that calls for the support of particular political parties and mobilizes up to 3000 supporters when necessary. Little is known about their membership or actual size but they have been successful at gaining public attention in turning out larger crowds.

I asked two British colleagues about the EDL and one said they were a minor nuisance and not to be particularly concerned about. The other said their influence was growing and we should definitely pay attention to them. I think we always need to “keep our eye on these groups” even if they do not seem to be effective. They are associated with violence and other groups such as fascists, racists, and violent civil disobedience. The EDL has been accused of burning down mosques, fire bombings, ugly graffiti, and all sorts of provocative street behavior designed to incite violence.

An interesting reason for the resurgence of the EDL, according to an article in The Guardian and a few other analyses, is that the press in general and the population is more put off by Islam and sympathetic to Islamophobia. The media are generally full of hostile attitudes about Islam and Muslims whereas in the past they were more sympathetic to targeted groups such as Jews. The EDL has all of the organizational and discursive standards of highly nationalistic groups whose particular ideology is rooted in racism but flowers in immigration laws. These groups are in serious conflict with democratic values and can represent harsh blood and soil nationalism. The possibilities of violence are always present in these groups and things get tense very quickly.

The Home Secretary, for example, last week was asked to ban the invitations for two right-wing American speakers whom the EDL invited to speak. On June 29 the EDL is planning a march on Armed Forces Days as a show of military might and militaristic symbolism in support of “pure” English culture. The two American speakers are Pamela Geller leader of the American Freedom Defense Initiative and Robert Spencer who manages a Jihad watch website.

Violence is the most defining characteristic of these groups and is justifiable grounds for preventing speech. Even though extreme opinions are not by themselves necessarily dangerous, they are typically the inducement to violence. Unfortunately, over the last few years we have increasingly defined others as “enemies.” This language immediately categorizes the other as more extreme and potentially dangerous and hence justifies more extreme behaviors. The word “enemy” is the language of the military and responsible for the ethos of undemocratic and morally indefensible tactics.

Through the growing network of television and new media it’s easier to reach large audiences by organizations like the EDL. Moreover, the immediacy of new media keeps emotional intensity stimulated and makes it easier to continue the vision of politics as warfare. The maintenance of principles for free expression will always require nuance and disagreement, but we should never lose our outrage for extremism wrapped up as nationalism.

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