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Misunderstanding misunderstanding

Specific individuals have specific agendas.

By Julian CH Lee

In Mars Attacks, a generally forgettable film with an all-star cast, Martians land and announce that they ‘come in peace’. However, a well-meaning spectator symbolically releases a dove, to which the Martians appear to react badly, shooting it down and then going on to attack all the Earthling on-lookers. Other Earthlings go on to reason that the Martians misunderstood the meaning behind the dove and seek later to make amends. In the process, the US President, played by Jack Nicholson, delivers a line that I’ve heard quoted in various places. At the end of a stirring speech encouraging intergalactic unity, Nicholson asks the Martian representative, ‘Why can’t we all just…get along?’ While seemingly moved at first, the Martian’s offer of a handshake proves deadly to Nicholson’s character, who is soon stabbed through the chest. It soon becomes clear that the Martians never had any intention of coming in peace.

While intergalactic security is not presently an issue facing people, there are many other issues that pose significant threats to the welfare of our planet. These problems require international collaboration involving diverse groups of people in order to be addressed. And even the most remotely located societies have links into the globalized world, and are impacted by its economy and politics. Therefore, there is a need for an awareness of other societies and for developing skills in intercultural communication.

Within countries too, there are frequent calls for greater knowledge to be gained by citizens of the diverse groups of people within its borders. In Malaysia, one regularly hears that a given dispute is the result of ‘misunderstandings’, which could be avoided if only the different parties knew each other better.

Few would deny that greater knowledge of other groups is good thing and that being sensitive to the way that different people communicate will help avoid the chances of offence being taken and meanings being misconstrued. However, I’ve often been doubtful that many major conflicts really arise out of genuine misunderstandings and have often suspected that most disputes have at their base some other difference such as social, political or material inequality.

Ingrid Piller, author of Intercultural Communication: A Critical Introduction (2011) has recently sought to outline two of the flaws that she feels are common in the scholarship about intercultural communication. The first is that some authors place too much emphasis on discussing cultural differences and a wholly inadequate amount of time on language differences. And when language is referred to, she feels it is often overly simplistic. She cites two authors who assert that because German places the verb at the end of a sentence, that this means that they do not tend to get to the point. Piller, a German speaker, says that this is a plain error (2012, p. 10).

Perhaps more important, however, is her suggestion that ‘talk of “cultural difference” often serves to obscure inequality and injustice’ (2012, p. 12). Disputes and conflicts between groups are too often put down to ‘cultural differences’ but instead have at their root some inequality which cannot be resolved simply by improving an understanding of the culture of the other or simply by having groups ‘talk to each other’. The faux misunderstanding about the dove in Mars Attacks illustrates this point well, although rather than watching that film, a more rewarding use of time might be to consider the remarks of Edward Said on this point.

One of the ideas that was part of foreign policy in the ’70s…was that you could do conflict resolution, and I was involved in some of this until I became utterly disgusted with it and quit. I think it is very insidious. But the idea was that you could bring the warring parties together. They used to do it for Northern Ireland, for the South Africans, for the ex-Yugoslavians, and bring them together, and try to have them talk to each other as if the conflict was basically a matter of misunderstanding: you know, you don’t understand me, and I don’t understand you (Said 2005, p. 273).

In attempting to think about some of the ideas that I discussed in November’s edition of The B-Side (where I discussed the ingredients for positive intergroup interactions), we need also to bear in mind issues relating to power and inequality which can impact the material differences that inform intergroup tensions and that need to be addressed if group relationships are to improve.

Consistent differences in social opportunity and economic and political power have been referred to as ‘structural violence’. Whereas Nadler and Shnabel note that ‘direct violence’ involves ‘intentional and explicit acts of aggressions by members of rival groups’, structural violence involves injury to groups other than one’s own (known as outgroups) which may take ‘the form of prejudice, discrimination, and social disadvantage. Structural violence is committed via the manner in which social institutions are arranged, rather than by deliberate actions of particular groups’ (2011, p. 202).

Methods of addressing intergroup tensions in the past have sought to emphasize making use of the research discussed in last month’s column, which draws on Gordon Allport’s ‘contact hypothesis’ for positive intergroup interactions. Another route has been the ‘graduated and reciprocated initiatives in tension reduction’, known as ‘GRIT’, which revolve around measures to build trust and confidence with other groups.

Nadler and Shnabel attempt to chart a further route to positive intergroup relations through what they call a ‘needs based model’. Here they suggest that privileged and disadvantaged groups experience intergroup differences differently and, in the promotion of equality, different approaches are required for each group. In short, disadvantaged groups require their experience of powerlessness to be recognized and addressed, whereas privileged groups, because their moral worth is imperilled by their privileges, require their humanity to be affirmed.

These different needs can, of course, be attained in destructive ways. Disadvantaged groups can ‘take revenge’ while privileged groups can attempt to legitimize their position and humanize themselves by dehumanizing the other group, or portraying themselves as having different and superior entitlements. These needs can also be achieved in more constructive ways, and Nadler and Shnabel suggest that an apology-forgiveness cycle is a key exemplar of this (2011, p. 208). Being in a position to forgive is empowering for the disadvantaged group, and forgiveness affirms the moral worth of the privileged group.

Processes of reconciliation can, however, be confounded when both parties regard themselves as victims. They note that

Being a victim has psychological gains. It absolves actors from the need to examine their own responsibility for violence and grants them the legitimacy to be preoccupied with their own wounds and with their adversary’s guilt for having caused them (p. 214).

And where the disadvantage or violence is structural, they note that although there is often some consensus over which group is advantaged, members of that group will sometimes avoid acknowledging it because it may open the doors for disadvantaged groups to make unwelcomed demands.

The path out of situations like the above is difficult, and Nadler and Shnabel offer only one type of route from explicitly violent conflicts, which is for both parties to see themselves as both ‘simultaneously victims and perpetrators of past transgressions’ (2011, p. 214). Another route, however, might be a critical analysis of the specific contexts that gave rise to the conflict or dispute in question, and interrogation of the motivations of the key players in it. What this can achieve is to demonstrate that what occurred was not perpetrated by ‘group x’ against ‘group y’, but rather than specific individuals had specific agendas (perhaps personal financial or political gain). Then in the same way as individuals who belong to ‘our’ group may behave in ways that do not represent ‘us’, others too are acting in their own capacity, not on behalf of ‘their’ group. What might then develop is some cross-group solidarity against power-hungriness and corruption, and hopefully a rejection of anyone seeking to stir-up tension.


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