Friday, May 8, 2020

War as a Model (Not Just a Metaphor) for Communication

Earlier I raised the question, "Is Communication the Solution to War and Violence?" A little thought revealed that the answer isn't going to be simple. The idealistic belief that war and violence always arise from breakdowns in communication and can be prevented or resolved by good communication is attractive but unfortunately simplistic. I do think communication can serve to build more peaceful relationships, and finding better ways to do so is a worthy goal for communication research to pursue, but a realistic approach to the problem has to grapple with complexities.

Is communication the opposite of violence? Not necessarily! For one thing, violence can be a form of communication when it carries messages. For example, nations can use military attacks not just to fight wars but also as warning signals to prevent wars. As I demonstrate below, it can even be argued theoretically that communication, far from being the opposite of war and violence, is essentially war by other means. If that were true, then the language of war wouldn't be just a metaphorical way of talking about communication that critics think is overused. If communication is essentially war by other means, then we should literally be using war as a conceptual model for understanding and guiding the practice of communication. I myself don't buy that argument in the end, but I do think it has something to contribute to the more complex understanding of communication that we need.

To be clear, the war model of communication is not widely known. You won't find it in current textbooks. By no stretch is it a trendy idea or, in my judgment, likely to become one. In fact, I have found exactly one communication theorist who has seriously defended this idea in print, though he marshals a formidable array of classic and postmodern thinkers to back up his position.

Stefan Sonderling, an associate professor of communication and media studies at the University of South Africa and a former journalist, has written a dissertation and several articles on the theme that communication is war by other means. In the following I sketch my interpretation of his argument (as presented in the three articles listed below under Further Reading) and I conclude with some brief critical comments. With Sonderling's theory "on the record" for further discussion in this blog, no doubt I'll have more to say about it in future posts.

Sonderling's argument in a nutshell is that communication is inherently warlike, which is a good thing in his opinion because war is better than peace. 

Communication is warlike, for Sonderling, because it has developed through human evolution and history as part of the ongoing struggle for survival that has bred "the agonistic character of human nature" (2013, p. 3). Human nature is agonistic (prone to conflict) because the struggle for existence has always required competition for scarce resources, and the winners in that competition are usually the fiercest and best resourced warriors. Since prehistoric times, warfare has been "a universal and constant feature of human life" (2014, p. 155). It's true that the struggle for survival is not purely competitive but also requires cooperation with others to secure collective resources and defeat enemies. Love and kindness for the in-group, hatred and cruelty for the out-group would seem the ideal pattern, but the reality is mixed. Even within cooperative groups there are conflicting interests and struggles for power to establish social hierarchies and set the terms for cooperation. We fight with our friends and our enemies. We are an agonistic species. 

Conflict in the struggle for existence is not always overtly violent. Much of it goes on symbolically through other forms of communication, now ranging from international propaganda and information wars to snits and snubs in everyday talk and competitive virtue signaling (or just making ourselves look good) on social media. Theories often picture communication as a basically cooperative activity in which we can achieve understanding and agreement with each other by following established rules of language and interaction. Against those theories, Sonderling cites postmodernist writers such as Michel Foucault, Jean-François Lyotard and Pierre Bourdieu to argue that the underlying reality of human interaction, underneath whatever veneer of politeness and affection, is a fight, a warlike struggle for power and control, an adversarial game in which the object is to win (2013, pp. 2-5; 2014, pp. 160-165). 

If this war model of communication has always been true, postmodernist theory asserts it is especially useful for understanding the "postmodern condition" of our present world. In the postmodern condition, partly because of developments in communication and media, unified cultures and belief systems have increasingly broken down, leaving society in a fragmented state of "conflictual diversity" (2013, p. 2). As Sonderling writes (2013, p. 14), "Any attempt to understand the postmodern world, globalisation and the spread of communication technology is confronted with a perplexing paradox of integration and fragmentation." He concludes (2013, p. 15) that "one could describe the postmodern world as a return to the Middle Ages or as a neomedieval age" of disorder and constant warfare.

But Sonderling goes further. For him, the war model of communication is not only true, it is good because it can foster renewed appreciation for the positive value of war as a structuring principle for life. Here he parts ways with postmodernist theorists like Lyotard whose relativistic stance toward diversity and dissent in society leaves us with no moral basis for mounting a defense against real "mortal enemies" such as international terrorists (2013, p. 13). Sonderling aligns himself with a tradition in Western thought going back to the ancient Greeks that has celebrated warrior virtues and war as a noble way of life. As he writes (2012, p. 67), "From the time of antiquity, war was always considered to be synonymous with life, strength, well being and expansion, while peace was associated with rest, stagnation and death." While death is the inevitable end of every human life, war gives life and death a clarity of purpose and meaning. Forcing us to draw clear lines between friends and enemies, war creates the experience of powerful human bonds: "Human beings can only gain a proper sense of their humanity through war and strife. A world without enemies is also a world without friends, hence it is no longer a human world..." (2012, p. 66).

Maybe the most provocative thread of Sonderling's argument is his attack against peace discourse, claiming that the ideal of peace is not only unrealistic but deeply deceptive and evil in its consequences. "The idea of eternal peace is a utopian myth, because the decisive process that shapes individuals and social life is the dynamics of power relations" (2012, p. 66). As long as humans unavoidably tangle over power and control, there will be wars as there always have been. War is the ultimate resolution of conflicts that can never be resolved by mere communication because they are not caused by misunderstandings but by clashes of real material interests in the struggle for survival. Peace discourse is deceptive because it denies the reality that power and violence are the basis of society. Far from being the opposite of violence, peace actually depends on violence. "Peace is synonymous with predictable social order that can be achieved through repressive law-enforcement" (2012, p. 69). It only exists where there is a monopoly of power strong enough to suppress violent conflicts. In effect, peace discourse is an effort to gain power by deception. It demands that we talk about conflict in the the peaceful, therapeutic language of "dialogue" and "conversation" and that we must stop using the violent language of "war" against "enemies." It "assumes that by manipulating, distorting and directing language, people will not be able to think about defending themselves against danger, ensuring their own domination and being rewarded with a peaceful life" (2012, p. 72). In this view, the ultimate evil of pacifism is that it denies us the right to defend ourselves against enemies.

In sum, Sonderling's argument is quite a rant, and the case that he makes for a war model of communication has serious weaknesses, but he is right about some things. He is probably right that there is an "agonistic" streak in human character that has always been there and is not going away, and that pugnacious streak will continue to run through much of our communication. He is right that conflicts generally arise from incompatible interests and commitments, not just misunderstandings, and that conflict resolution cannot be achieved by merely talking nice or expressing ourselves more clearly but has to address the real matters at stake. He is right that communication theory cannot ignore the power dynamics that are always at play in human relationships, and that "peace" is a structure of power, not the absence of power. In this regard, the postmodernist take on "conflictual diversity" in society may be a good starting point for thinking about what peaceful communication would look like, but Sonderling is right to reject postmodernism's relativistic celebration of diversity and dissent. If peace is a structure of power, then the goal of communication has to be a just peace, not peace at any price. We cannot entirely avoid moral judgment and taking sides, fighting for what we believe to be right, or, in extreme circumstances, even going to war. Sonderling is right to be critical of peace discourse to the extent that it denies these realities. 

But none of this justifies Sonderling's unqualified celebration of war as a positive good. He quotes the title of Chris Hedges' poignant 2003 book, "war is a force that gives us meaning," but he fails to note that Hedges saw this attraction to war as a temptation we should resist, not a positive good we should seek. War is no longer, if it ever was, exclusively an arena in which heroic warriors battle courageously to defend their countrymen. Yes, there are heroes, and yes, courage in battle and willingness to sacrifice one's life to save others in a just cause are admirable qualities, and we should be thankful to those who do so on our behalf. But most of the carnage and destruction caused by war, especially modern war, is not suffered by those brave warriors. For many of its victims, and indeed for many of the warriors, war is not a force that gives them meaning; it is a senseless catastrophe. War, at best, is a necessary evil, not something we should celebrate for itself. If fighting spirit and warrior virtues are insistent and sometimes admirable human tendencies that we should cultivate in peacetime, they can be channeled into nonlethal activities like athletic competitions, political activism, or battles against natural forces that threaten us (climate change?) as recommended by William James in his famous 1906 essay on "The Moral Equivalent of War." (Though admittedly, James's "warfare against nature" may not be the best way of framing climate change action or anything else.) In any case, the virtues that Sonderling celebrates are quintessentially male virtues, and his world view seems perfectly masculinist. Feminism has made us aware of other virtues that are worth cultivating in people of all genders. 

As for models of communication, Sonderling isolates one human tendency - agonism - and arbitrarily treats it as the essence of humanity. True, power dynamics operate in all human relationships. Theories of relational communication generally identify power as one dimension along with affection or closeness as a another dimension, and much else also goes on in human communication. I'm sure we can find a legitimate place for agonism in our models without implying that communication is always warlike or that it should be as warlike as possible

Further Reading

Hedges, C. (2003). War is a force that gives us meaning. New York: Anchor Books.

Sonderling, S. (2012). Eternal peace of the graveyard: The language of peace discourse and the construction of the global humanitarian concentration camp. Communicatio, 38(1), 64-83. doi: 10.1080/02500167.2011.627566

Sonderling, S. (2013). To speak is to fight : War as structure of thought in Lyotard's postmodern condition. Communicare : Journal for Communication Sciences in Southern Africa, 32(2), 1-19.

Sonderling, S. (2014). Communication is war by other means: Towards a war-centric communication theory for the 21st century. Communicatio, 40(2), 155-171. doi: 10.1080/02500167.2014.918900

No comments:

Post a Comment