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?

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