Sunday, January 12, 2020

Is Communication the Solution to War and Violence?

War between the US and Iran, which recently seemed imminent, has been averted for now. Longstanding tensions between the two countries recently escalated through a series of provocative acts by both sides, culminating in the January 3 assassination of an Iranian military leader, Maj. Gen. Qassim Suleimani, by a US drone strike near the Baghdad airport. Fears that this event would precipitate all-out warfare receded after January 8, when Iran's military response to the assassination turned out to be relatively mild (a nonlethal missile attack on US bases in Iraq) and the Trump administration chose not to retaliate. While the immediate threat of war has thus receded, the US-Iranian international conflict is far from resolved and will go on in various forms, including low-level violence that could easily escalate again. How to resolve the conflict remains an open question.

US public discourse during the crisis brought out classic pro-war (hawk) and anti-war (dove) positions among various more nuanced pragmatic assessments of policy, tactics, and the unfolding situation. Hawks believe that Iran must be prevented from obtaining nuclear weapons at all cost and only military force will do the job. Doves are opposed to war for various reasons including doctrinaire pacifism, anti-US-imperialism, and a pragmatic belief that the conflict can and therefore should be resolved diplomatically, rather than by force, to avoid a costly and destructive war.

My own sentiments are with the pragmatic doves, but my purpose here is not to defend a position on US policy toward Iran. As a communication theorist, I want to reflect on the metadiscourse that develops in this and similar situations for what it can tell us about the relationship between communication, war and violence in general. A commonplace belief among idealistic liberals is that communication is the better alternative to violent conflict. In this view, war and violence arise from breakdowns in communication and can be avoided by good communication. This is an attractive ideal but unfortunately very simplistic.

A realistic ideal of communication as an alternative to war and violence has to account for certain complexities, which I hope to take up in a series of posts. For example, the relationship between communication and violence is complex. As the New York Times columnist David Brooks pointed out during the recent crisis,
[Nations] use violence as a form of communication. A nation trying to maintain order will assassinate a terrorism leader or destroy a terrorism facility. The attack says: “Hey, we know we’re in a long-term conflict, but let’s not let it get out of hand. That’s not in either of our interests.” The attack is a way to seize control of the escalation process and set a boundary marker.
Violence can be used as a form of communication to avoid war. This may not be the kind of communication we ideally want, but it can work. Further troubling the distinction between communication and violence, some theorists have argued that communication is inherently violent and warlike, however much we might wish it otherwise. We'll take up this argument and related ideas about power, violence and communication in future posts.

Another complexity we'll need to address relates to the idea that to serve as an alternative to violence, communication must be clear and avoid "mixed messages." In the recent crisis, both the Trump administration and the Iranians were criticized for their "mixed messages," even though they succeeded in deescalating the situation, if only for the moment. Is the best communication in conflict situations always clear, or is there a legitimate role for ambiguity, paradox, or even misinformation?

Monday, March 2, 2015

Does Martin Heidegger's Antisemitism Invalidate his Phenomenology?

Writing in the current issue of the online journal, TripleC - Communication, Capitalism and Critique, Christian Fuchs claims that it does, but I remain skeptical. 

Heidegger's antisemitic and pro-Nazi views are well known though seldom mentioned by scholars who cite his important philosophical works on the phenomenology of dasein or being-in-the-world, including his critique of technology.  The recent publication of Heidegger's Black Notebooks, which contain blatantly antisemitic passages, has revived the debate on his status as a philosopher. Should someone who held such repulsive beliefs continue to be celebrated as one of the greatest 20th century philosophers?  Can the philosophy be separated from the man, or is the philosophy itself inextricably involved with the underpinnings of Nazi ideology?

These are good questions to which I don't pretend to know the answers. Being interested but no authority on the matter, I read Fuchs's article in search of insight. I found it highly informative as an introduction to the debate, although finally unconvincing on the main issue.

Fuchs concludes that scholars in the field of communication and media studies should stop citing Heidegger's writings on technology because his philosophy is essentially tainted by Nazi ideology. Fuchs, a leading exponent of Marxist critical theory, has other reasons for rejecting Heidegger's critique of technology. As he writes, "a major problem of Heidegger’s approach is that it is not a political economy, but merely a phenomenology of technology" (p. 70).  In other words, Heidegger sees modern technology as a distorted, inauthentic way of experiencing the world but ignores what Fuchs regards as the fundamental role of capitalist ideology in producing that distortion.  This is a valid critique as far as it goes. It shows that phenomenology is insufficient for the purposes of a critical social theory, but it does not invalidate Heidegger's phenomenology on its own ground.

Where does Nazi ideology enter the picture?  Here I find a striking lack of direct evidence that the philosophy is essentially tainted. Fuchs spends a lot of time quoting other scholars who agree with him without examining their evidence in detail. He also spends a lot of time quoting passages that betray Heidegger's offensive views but do not necessarily link them to basic premises of his philosophy. Fuchs does argue that the two are linked but the arguments are slippery. Heidegger's philosophical writing is abstract and poetic and he only quotes non-Jewish poets (which proves nothing). His philosophical writing never renounces Nazism (which is not same as positively implying or being implied by it). In Being and Time and The Question Concerning Technology, Heidegger critiqued aspects of modernity that passages in the Black Notebooks can be read as claiming are products of a Jewish world conspiracy, but the philosophical critiques themselves contain no reference to a Jewish conspiracy, so the imputed link is spurious or at best conjectural. Even if Heidegger somehow used his philosophy to rationalize his antisemitism and totalitarianism, that would not prove any necessary link between the two. No doubt, Germans in those days rationalized their antisemitism and Nazism in all sorts of ways. Even Christianity does not imply antisemitism, though it can be taken there, just as Marxism has been used to justify a totalitarian system that I am sure enlightened Marxists like Fuchs would deny that it implies. How does Heidegger's hermeneutic phenomenology imply antisemitism?  I don't get it.

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Still Getting Started

As expected, it is taking me some time to get going on this blog. A year plus of  challenges and changes, busy with lots of projects, and this one has had to wait. I've been active on Twitter, touching on themes I'm excited to begin exploring here in longer form. Meanwhile, I'm struggling with the Blogger interface, don't especially like the design of this site so far, and have no idea what (if anything) "{meta}discourses * web" (the Google Site associated with this blog) will end up looking like. The idea has been to recreate some version of my old "<meta>discourses" website (which I need to take down very soon, so it may be gone by the time your read this), but that site is not just badly neglected but totally obsolete and may not be worth recreating in any form. Another source of confusion is that I have two Google profiles, one associated with my gmail account and the other, newer one associated with my colorado.edu account. This blog is with gmail, my new home page is with colorado.edu, and I have two Google+ homes. How to coordinate my two Google selves and avoid confusion is driving me batty at the moment. Funny result is that I have been getting emails from Google asking "Do you know Robert Craig?" Well, yes and no! Suggestions welcome.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Getting Started

This site is under construction and progress will be slow for a while. Eventually it will replace my much-neglected static website now hosted at the University of Colorado (http://www.colorado.edu/communication/meta-discourses/). Here I will blog about communication in society, commenting on issues in theory and practice. I will also post resources useful to scholars, students, or anyone who wants to learn more about communication theory. The vision is to participate in the general metadiscourse (the discourse about communication) and to cultivate something of a community around this interest.