Professor of Planning and Public Administration at the Levin College of Urban Affairs, Cleveland State University
Topics: framing, cultural frames, complex adaptive systems
Interviewed by Julian Portilla — 2003
Listen to Full Interview
- Cultural Frames and Differences
- Symmetry and Fairness in the Middle East
- Authoritarian Regime: Iraq and War
- Experiencing Differences
- Main Obstacles
- Willingness to Engage in Conflict Management
Q: You have lived in several different cultures and I wonder if you could talk a little bit about what practitioners might consider important when entering into a conflict where there's an authoritarian regime involved.
A: I have two things that come to my mind that are related to my having lived in different cultures. One is the need for humility, and the reason I say this is that having been part of these three very, very different cultures, one European, one Middle Eastern, and one American, I find myself still not completely understanding any culture except for the one that I was born in. I really do not get the others to the extent that would make me feel comfortable that I am part of that culture. Even though I can function and I speak the languages and I am fully taking part, I do not really get it and I think that people experience me as not being part of that culture. In other words, people experience in relationship to me, a sense of difference. So in the face of having tried and having had the opportunity to become part of a different culture and having had so much difficulty, I am thinking that as interveners, we need to keep this in mind and never feel like we've ever gotten it right. We should constantly question whether we're really understanding.. We should always privilege the take that people offer, rather than imposing on it a frame or a take of our own that says, "Oh, I know what's going on here." I think we should be constantly in a questioning mode.
Q: We are always going to see things through our own lenses. How can we keep the impact of our own lenses to a minimum in situations where we're in a foreign culture?
A: I'm not very hopeful in that respect because indeed as you say, it's very hard to keep from using our own lenses. All I can say is be humble at all times, and at all times try to have some reality check, and try to even understand that this is a lens rather than the reality. So when we go and assess conflicts, we should be very, very careful about the underlying assumptions that we make about even the extent to which we know what's going on. For instance, we can confuse familiarity with knowledge, and that's a well-known cognitive bias that makes us confuse frequency of encounter with knowledge. So the more you hear about something, the more you think you know, and actually that's not true. I'm going to venture to say something that may be quite controversial and that people may challenge, but I would say that many people who feel they know a lot about the Middle East conflict between Israelis and Palestinians actually do not know a lot more about that conflict than about, say, what happens in Tibet or Kashmir, except that those conflicts are far less in the news and the people from those regions are far less in contact with us, so we have this false sense of familiarity with that particular conflict, which then leads us to have opinions and ideas. We have lost the humility in that situation, is what I'm trying to say.
Q: So if we read it in the newspaper and we have contact with people from Israel and from the occupied territories, we still shouldn't presume to know what the situation is about?
A: I think we should constantly double-check that we actually know that these are not conclusions that we have drawn based on just the sheer frequency with which we have news from that area. I find, for instance, that people are very surprised to hear how many people live there and how many victims of the conflict there are. This is simply because they have heard so much about it that they will exaggerate by several orders of magnitude. They expect to have a lot of people and a lot of victims because we just keep hearing about it so much.
Q: So, give me an example. You think people in general think there are millions and millions of people and that there have been thousands of wounded?
A: That's right. If one measure of where to turn our attention and where to intervene is the severity of the conflict in terms of life and limb, how many people are dying in that conflict, that is actually one of the milder conflicts on the face of this Earth, compared to places where millions are victimized or die. But I think if you polled people or asked them, even, whether they knew the hard numbers, I don't think many people would be able to tell you that. I find it actually quite amusing that people who come from very large countries can't even picture how small the Middle Eastern conflict is. So if you ask a person from India how many people live in Israel, they'll start at 20 million, just as a modest guess, when the number is in fact six million.
Q: Let's use the state with the Middle East example for a moment and talk about interveners' perceptions of symmetry and fairness when you go into a conflict you're mediating or some sort of process that involves two parties, which we will either assume are symmetrical or treat as if they were.
A: I have been pondering this situation and now I have to say thatIt's partly because I am a stakeholder and every now and then I have this sense of lack of fairness and lack of justice in the way that people treat the conflict and talk about it and describe it, very often out of necessity to appear neutral or just. People talk about the situation in the Middle East by saying, the Israelis did this, but the Palestinians do this too. Everything is held as equivalent and our sense of fairness is that if we didn't do this it would be unjust to one of the parties. But I think that that's much more an artifact of our perception of justice than what actually happens on the ground, and I also think that this distortion that comes from our need to portray everything as symmetrical has important consequences for what we propose as fixes and for how we deal with the situation.
For instance, just today I was having a conversation with somebody at this conference who was saying, Israelis and Palestinians are educating their children to hate. This is a perfect example where the situation is completely symmetrical.
One may care more or less about this, but just stating the fact should be correct and should match the reality rather than the symmetry.
It turns out, as a matter of fact, that in Israel, it seems to me at least, that people have been quite successful at incorporating over several years, maybe 15 or 20 years, in the education system the notion that Palestinians deserve a state, that they are not much different than Israelis and you must respect, and so on.
In other words, treating them as the people that you might want to make peace with. And that didn't happen on the Palestinian side where it is rather common knowledge that textbooks incite hatred and kids are educated from a very young age to see the Jews as the enemy and so on. Well, I don't see any good that comes from ignoring these facts or treating them as symmetrical, and in fact I see bad things because if we see this symmetry we will not address a problem that I think is one of the blocks to making peace, which is that in the Palestinian society there has to be this sea change in attitudes before they will accept to make peace with the Israelis. So, I think this is an important issue.
Q: So the initial approach and framing of the conflict from an outsider who says that these parties are symmetrically good or bad, or have done symmetrically peace-building or peace-destroying actions, will determine the process that you use to mediate the conflict, and ultimately will distort what's really on the ground so that you won't come up with a good agreement to settle.
A: Actually, I don't want to say good or bad because I don't perceive these things necessarily as good or bad. They are whatever.
It relates to a bigger issue of, do facts matter?
If we want to say, no, what matters is our take on it and that's how we're going to act on it, which is often the case, then I have to say, you know, I'm hopeless there. If we want to act on our frames, and sadly we do, there's not much fix to it.
But if we want to say facts matter, they should basically get through in some way and inform what we propose as strategies because then we're going to be more successful if our strategies match the reality on the ground, I think this is very important. Again, it's another form of humility to keep checking that it's not a frame and that it's actually the reality that we're talking about. Taking the good-bad dichotomy out of the description of a situation probably helps. Just recognizing facts on the ground is very helpful. Labeling them good or bad puts us in a situation where we feel the need to balance, as it were, and make it symmetrical so that nobody's good or bad in the situation.
Q: How can you separate facts from their interpretation?
A: I don't have a good trick for it, but some things are, maybe, observable by anyone who looks at things without this frame-lens, or I don't have a good fix. I'm in a bind. So for instance, if you go back to my example, and I don't want to harp on it, but if you go back to my example, it is common knowledge that anyone inspecting a Palestinian textbook will see that this is the case. And anybody inspecting an Israeli schoolbook will see that this is not the case. So, to me, it's like, both looking outside and saying, yes, we agree today. Other things are more complex and are more subject to perceptions and to interpretations and so on, so it might be a more difficult task.
Q: What are things that we should consider about the information that we get when formulating opinions about an authoritarian regime?
A: This is interesting and it goes back to the fact that I have lived in not only in three different cultures, but also in two and a half different political systems. The Israeli system is very close to the American system in politics, though it's not identical by any means, but it is a democracy, and it is a multicultural country and so on, so it's very close in that sense to the United States.
Romania, where I was born, was at the time when I lived there a dictatorship that was very close to what I pictured and what I understood based on information coming out to be the case in Iraq. So I experienced a lot of frustration trying to explain to people who are born in freedom what it means to live in such a dictatorship and I kept trying because I thought that not understanding had diminished our understanding of what was happening in Iraq. At the same time I was very happy for people who couldn't understand. It's a happy situation when somebody can't understand such extreme situations. It's good for them, and I'm happy for them.
Q: Because they've never felt the oppression?
A: Right, it is an incomprehensible thing that is not very different from the situation where we look at acts that we cannot fathom, such as suicide bombings, and we think mistakenly that they're irrational just because we cannot fathom this act. It's actually a happy situation for us out there that we can't imagine. That's because it's pretty horrendous, but it doesn't make it irrational. And in the same way,
living in a dictatorship is unfathomable to people born in freedom who expected to hear things from Iraq or understand things about Iraq that were impossible through this freedom lens. So people expected to hear what Iraqis thought about it. And of course anybody who's lived in such a situation knows that it's at the peril of your life that you trust anybody but the closest family and tell anyone what you think or what you would like to see happen or any of these things that we take for granted that can be communicated in a free society.
Another thing that happened was that I have distinct memories of living in Romania and hoping that even at the risk of a war, it would have been nice for somebody to come and save us, even if it had been through the horrendous means of a war. I tried to communicate this because I thought that a lot of the Iraqi people might have the same feelings, where war would be experienced as liberation, even if after that they would not embrace the Americans necessarily, but the fact that they would be rid of Saddam would be experienced as incredible liberation. I actually, because of my frame maybe, could not see it in any other way.
As things happened and Americans were not received with flowers and so on, people I think mistakenly interpreted this to have been a sign that the Iraqis were not happy that war has happened in their country. But I have to wonder about it, through my experience.
Q: So you think if people who were in favor of more negotiations and a non-violent solution to the threat of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq knew more what it was like to live under a dictatorship and under an authoritarian regime, that they might have reconsidered their position?
A: I don't know that they would reconsider because I find that these are very heartfelt ideas and people are attached to these ideas, so I don't know.
But I found two things interesting. One was that there was very little concern with this side of Iraqi life. In other words, people felt that they were defending the Iraqi people by trying to prevent the war, and I experienced it differently. I thought that this would be liberation for them. I don't want to talk about the weapons of mass destruction because that's an argument that's different from what I'm saying here, about which I'm much less informed. But I know that people felt that war was wrong under all circumstances, and I of course did not feel that way, having this clear memory of wishing for it in order to be saved. I actually have checked with friends and others who came from Romania, just in order not to apply my specific frame on this, and I have had the same response from them, that they would have also wished for even violent means to be liberated because of the horrors of living in a dictatorship.
The other thing, though, that I find interesting, and I don't know if it's part of this question, is that people who advocated negotiation because war is wrong seem to me to have the underlying assumption that the opposite of war is peace, that if you don't have war then you have peace, which seemed to me to be the wrong reference point. If you did not have war, you had actually a pretty hellish life in Iraq. It was not peace. Not at least as experienced by those people, who were dying at an incredible rate per year. I heard a figure of something like 60,000 children a year dying, and you know, you can go back and forth on the numbers, but the point is the absence of war would not have meant peace. This does not address, of course, the concerns of what will happen next, which nobody knows, and this is yet another argument. But the people who were on principle against war because war is wrong under all circumstances, were wrong about what the alternative is that prevails, as well as wrong on how people in Iraq felt about it, I think.
Q: In your practice and in your experience as an intervener, is there a particular moment that has touched or inspired you that you can think of?
A: I do a lot less intervention than I do thinking about it and talking about it, so I'm trying to think of something that is particularly compelling. This is going to take it into a totally different direction, but what I do a lot is I do interpreting for people who are unable to speak English, and I experience it as intervention. And the reason is that I find myself needing to do a lot of cultural interpretation for people. They learn a lot, and this gives me pause and lets me believe that we need this humility. The reason is that I am in various situations where I can see a total misunderstanding between the parties that speak different languages, that is again based on this lack of experience with each other, that has to play out in many other situations in international conflicts or even any other sort of tractable or intractable conflict.
And we're not aware of it, just because people are able to speak English and so we're deluded into thinking that we at least speak the same language. Actually, that gives me pause every time, to see how there is a question that's rather simple, there is an answer that is rather simple, and behind it is this total misunderstanding about what this person thinks and why this person asked the question and what the meaning of the answer is.
Q: So given what we've talked about so far, what advice would you give to people who are about to intervene in a given situation, could be intercultural, where there's an authoritarian regime?
A: I think I'm going to hang on to humble. I really want people to constantly question their assumptions and constantly check that they have multiple sources of information. I think this is important too.
One of my observations as an intervener, as a practitioner, as well as a thinker about conflict issues is that I have yet to see somebody who speaks in ways that are against their own interests. So we need to be cautious about the fact that the stories that we hear, even when we're very eager to hear what the people themselves have to say, are going to be frames that put peoples' interests and desires in the best light. Therefore, if it were possible at all, I'd get all these sources of information, and I'd be skeptical about them at the same time, and I would also be skeptical about my own take. I don't know that this is possible. I'm one for information and I'm one for facts. I really think that the more one knows about the situation, the more helpful they can be. So not about the myths, not about what's nice to think about it. You know, it's always nice to think that everybody is people too, but on the other hand it's good to see when somebody actually does not have somebody else's best interest in mind, to recognize those things, even if we were made uncomfortable by it. So I think that information is really important.
Q: Anything else?
A: I'm scraping the bottom
Q: I'm sure you have lots of advice.
A: I do probably.
I think that experiencing difference helps understand it. I'm not sure that we should go out to meet every single kind of person just so that we are able to understand every single kind of person on the face of the Earth, of course. But on the other hand, exposing ourselves to different ways of thinking that are perfectly as legitimate as ours, again, contributes to that humility and tells us this is okay, and yet it is so different than how we would approach the problem. It's very interesting to see how people think.
I get this from my students too, because they surprise me every time.
A: Yeah, they look at situations and my first instinct is to say, where does this come from? And then I realize that wherever it comes from, it's very interesting and totally at the same level as everybody else's take.
Q: What do you think are the main obstacles for people involved in this kind of work?
A: I think that one major obstacle is the feeling that if we just used our conflict management tools and approach them in the best possible way, and had the resources and the access, that's all it would take. And in intractable conflicts, typically, it's not all in how we do the conflict management. It's very often in the political constellation, the international situation, economics, moments in history, sometimes personalities. If we do not reckon with all those factors, we are likely to fail and be baffled because we thought everything was in our hands if we just did it right, and that actually isn't true.
So I think we can do a lot, but we need to be humble and figure out how much, all told, we can actually contribute to a situation, and how much is in somebody else's hands. Maybe if we could have influence or approach these other important decision makers or factors; that would help. But we typically don't do that, and I think that's an obstacle.
Q: Other obstacles?
A: One big obstacle is peoples' parties' willingness to engage in the processes that we think are so conducive to good solutions. They sometimes feel fine and we feel a lot less comfortable with conflict sometimes than the parties themselves.
Q: So you think the parties are more willing to engage in the processes than we think they are?
A: Not in conflict management. I think that we have an incredible impatience; by "we" I mean Western societies. We have an incredible impatience with processes and we want to come and fix and leave, and, on the other hand, conflicts that have developed over 20, 30, 50 years cannot be expected to be solved in one round of negotiations, and that's what we expect. We expect, so Camp David didn't work so let's do the Road Map and if Road May doesn't work, let's try this other thing, and we keep having a sense of failure that comes not from the fact that these processes failed, but from the expectation that they would be the quick fix that they could never be. So, it may be that all these processes that are applied around the world to a variety of conflict actually do their thing, but the outcome may materialize further down the line than we expect, and so we experience this as failure.
Q: Talk to me a little more about expectations and what role they play in an intervention, how interveners should deal with their expectations and also how they should frame the expectations or try to frame the expectations of the parties they're intervening with?
A: I think you put it very well that there are these two big classes of expectations, the parties' expectations and the interveners' expectations. The interveners' expectations of success and the way they build in their minds what success would mean. They're two sides of the same reference point coin. What I mean by that is if we think that the conflict will be resolved, that will be our reference point and anything less than that will be experienced as failure. That is true for both the interveners and the parties, who, for instance may set their heart on a particular outcome that they then consider their reference point, either because they have been told that it can be achieved or because they have been told that this is the just outcome that should prevail. For whatever reason, if they set a particular reference point, then anything less than that is going to be experienced as a loss and maybe rejected as an interim solution. So interveners may be disappointed too often, just because their expectation was too high, either about the time that it would take to solve or about the actual outcome. Parties may let a very good outcome go by in search for the perfection that was their reference point. I think that is very, very damaging, as well as very, very frequent, at all scales and all levels of conflict.
Q: So should interveners mitigate those expectations somehow, lower expectations in a sense?
A: It used to be, way back when I started getting into mediation, that part of what the good mediator did was to talk to a party or to all parties and give a sense of what is doable...