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Cross cultural rhetoric: Bush and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad

01 Dec

Truthout has mirrored a recent Washington Post item, Message of H.E. Dr. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad To the American People, too long to reproduce here in full. If one applies Western norms of argument and discourse to this document it does, of course, appear bizarre, even mad. Without at all endorsing Ahmadinejad or his position, I would like to raise something that would occur to any ESL/TESOL teacher with training in and experience of cross cultural rhetoric, and that is to remember we are not reading in that document discourse grounded in a style or tradition we regard as “natural,” even though that “naturalness” is almost entirely a cultural construct we have become blind to. On the other hand, even within his own cultural context Ahmadinejad would appear zealous and sectarian: for example, not only does he give the appearance of being a Qu’ranic literalist, he goes further, endorsing Shiite apocalypticism with his coded reference to the Mahdi in “O, Almighty God, bestow upon humanity the perfect human being promised to all by You, and make us among his followers.” If I have read that sentence correctly, that is.

On the Bush Senior Gulf War, but relevant to thinking about the present situation and this document, read this PDF: Cross Cultural Rhetoric and the Gulf Crisis by James McLeod and Goh Abe. See also, on the current conflict, Cross-Cultural Communication: U.S. and Iraq by Devin Stewart, Associate Professor and Chair, Middle Eastern and South Asian Studies at Emory University.

Listening to the speeches of our president and top officials, I cannot help but ask, “Have they ever stopped to consider what they sound like to someone who is not American?” They assume that we are inherently more important and more valuable than any other people on the globe. They assume that our power gives us the right to dictate. But most of all, they assume that their parochial opinions and assumptions are necessarily shared by their audience, no matter who that audience is. This tactic signals arrogance, a lack of respect for others, and a lack of simple good sense. Effective communication and diplomacy is based on mental flexibility—the ability to put oneself in others’ shoes, to speak to them on their own terms, to understand their assumptions and rhetorical strategies. Even when faced with a stubborn, devious, and immoral opponent, there are almost always means of negotiation short of a unilateral attack. If lawyers and insurance adjustors deal with such conflicts every day, why can’t our government? We have consistently failed to show diplomatic savvy and finesse and have succeeded in appearing inept and tyrannical, a bad combination.

It is a shame that our leading spokesman, President Bush, seems horribly inadequate, mediocre in every conceivable way except for wealth and privilege. Indeed, it appears to the world that he is president primarily because his father was. I guess we are trying to live up to the example of Syria, that well-known beacon of democracy, where Bashshar al-Asad, an eye-doctor, neatly took over upon the death of his father. It’s good to know that we share something so important with the Arab World.

It is a shame that a small group of officials have been able to formulate our foreign policy, including promotion of the war against Iraq, and single-mindedly push it through with little consideration of public opinion here or abroad.

It is a shame that, because of the administration’s rhetoric, a large percentage of the American public actually believes that the 9/11 terrorists were Iraqi!…

[T]ypical American speech strategies, including what we would see as honesty or straight talk, tend to come off as simple and naive or, when we are ignoring the beliefs or dignity of our interlocutors, insulting and conceited.

Even worse, because of a lack of practice, our occasional attempts to adjust to a non-American audience come off, in the tradition of Napoleon’s proclamation to the natives upon his invasion of Egypt in 1798, like an awkward encounter with aliens. The food and leaflets we dropped on Afghanistan are merely some recent examples of such failures. A diplomatic approach needs to work towards specific goals and adjust the rhetoric to what is likely to work with the interlocutor—whether friend or foe—and not to try to force our views down his throat.

Many Americans, and obviously Bush and his advisors, believed that it was impossible to get anywhere with Saddam without a major military invasion. I believe that we could have done better. Our approach has been determined, single-minded, and inflexible. If we adopt this as a general policy, we will be fighting many wars in the future. By issuing threats and ultimatums, we put ourself in a bind as much as our opponent. We succeeded in severely limiting our own options in dealing with the current Iraqi crisis, when, because of widespread international opposition, we should have been trying to devise alternative strategies.

A site I found while looking for material on cross cultural communication is The Beyond Intractability Project at the University of Colorado. That is so good it will appear in my links on the right as soon as I have finished this post!

Efforts to limit the terrible destructiveness commonly associated with intractable conflicts ultimately depend on the ability of people in a full range of conflict roles to successfully play their part in a broad peacebuilding effort. Though each circumstance is, to some degree, unique, there is also much to be learned from others who have solved similar problems before. The goal of the Beyond Intractability (BI) system is to make such knowledge more widely and freely accessible, so people aren’t forced to “reinvent the wheel.” To the extent we can all contribute to a knowledge base on better ways of approaching and transforming intractable conflicts, the closer we can come to limiting the destructiveness of these situations around the world.

The project does not advocate or teach one particular approach. Rather, it provides access to information on many approaches which can then be adapted to many different situations. Our goal is to give people new ideas to think about and new hope. As a free Internet service, BI provides information that is much more affordable and accessible than traditional training programs or hard-to-find books. BI is also constantly growing and changing, making the breadth, depth, and potential of the peacebuilding field more clearly visible.



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7 responses to “Cross cultural rhetoric: Bush and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad

  1. Jon

    December 1, 2006 at 11:03 pm

    I read for the second time the mad little man (President of Iran) in Iran has decided that he needed to send a letter addressed directly to the American People telling us why we need to listen to his Anti-American tirades and go against our government.

    You hit it right on the head when were talking about cultural rhetoric and that will forever be a great divide between those in the Middle East and the rest of the free world. Much of the problem in the Middle East is cultural and not so much religious based. The sectarian violence in Iraq is the fault of two religious factions (Sunni and Shiite) fighting to see which will take over the control of the government when the US forces pull out.

    The little man in Iran can send all the letters he wants and it will not make a lick of difference, all he can say is that his way is the better way and we better get used to it. Well, I really don’t care what the little nut job has to say, I value my freedom and I will not bow to the threats from the radical Islamic fanatics.

     
  2. ninglun

    December 1, 2006 at 11:26 pm

    Thanks, Jon, but you seem not to have noticed the rest of this post.

     
  3. mcewen

    December 2, 2006 at 12:24 am

    Ah! Well out here, we expect everyone to be able to say their piece. Best wishes

     
  4. Truewater2

    December 2, 2006 at 12:56 am

    I enjoyed very much your post. It was refreshing to read, and I agree with much of what was written.

     
  5. Lexcen

    December 2, 2006 at 6:51 am

    I read your blog and read some of the references as well as the quotes. I found this paragraph particularly interesting.

    “It is a shame that a small group of officials have been able to formulate our foreign policy, including promotion of the war against Iraq, and single-mindedly push it through with little consideration of public opinion here or abroad.”

    To me, this is a good indication of what values the author is basing his opinions. Anyone can wrap up their opinions in intellectual clothing and sound superior to the plebs. I don’t buy it. So, this author fantasizes about foreign policy being formulated by public opinion. Since when? Where?
    Further, the tone of the author is that of an apologist for the misunderstanding of the Muslim rhetoric whilst being critical of Bush’s political rhetoric.

    Here’s another gem, “Effective communication and diplomacy is based on mental flexibility—the ability to put oneself in others’ shoes, to speak to them on their own terms, to understand their assumptions and rhetorical strategies” Anyone who knows their history and sees the world without rose colored glasses knows that effective diplomacy includes intrigue, subterfuge, deception, compromise, duplicity. In hindsight to the events leading to WWII, I am surprised that this professor can make comments like this,
    “Even when faced with a stubborn, devious, and immoral opponent, there are almost always means of negotiation short of a unilateral attack”. As for BI approach. Are you suggesting that we let the university professors solve the world’s problems?

     
  6. ninglun

    December 2, 2006 at 8:48 am

    In hindsight to the events leading to WWII, I am surprised that this professor can make comments like this…

    In hindsight to the events leading to the present Iraq war, I can only say the professor had a valid point. A virtual civil war, a probable delivery of the Shi’ite part of Iraq to Iran, several hundred thousand deaths, unfinished business in Afghanistan… It really has been worth it, eh! See this earlier post.

    The point the various references have in common is one that is well known in the business world: that when it comes to any kind of negotiation between people from different cultural backgrounds, smart negotiators are aware of the different styles of rhetoric that inevitably shape what is said and the way it is said, and tune their pitch accordingly while filtering what their opposite numbers are saying to see what might really be the core message. Smart negotiators do not assume their own cultural values have to be imposed on others. I hasten to add that this cuts both ways, so that people like the current regime in Iran (which I detest) are also being culturally arrogant. The Rumsfeld approach to the world, now discredited, typified the worst of American arrogance.

    The world needs to be in a better place than one where bombing the shit out of the opposition is seen as some kind of a solution. That applies whether the bombs are “smart” and delivered from a distance or on the body of some crazed and deluded suicide bomber.

    Anyone can wrap up their opinions in intellectual clothing and sound superior to the plebs.

    Opinions are usually expressed with a greater or lesser intelligence and knowledge, whether they come from “academics” or “the plebs”. Opinions should be judged on their merits, not on the academic tenure of the opinion-maker or lack therof. The academics versus common sense dichotomy (split) is a distraction which may make you feel justified but does nothing to justify what you say. Of course some academics are total whackos, but so are quite a few of the plebs. The technique of bagging an opinion just because it has an academic source should be thrown on the same scrap heap as any other expression of mere prejudice.

    As for BI approach. Are you suggesting that we let the university professors solve the world’s problems?

    No.

    But consider what that site has to say about conflict management and than ask: “Could it work? Is it worth considering? Is it better than what we have been doing?” If you answer yes, then go for it. Again, to reject something merely because of an irrational prejudice against academics (“pointy-headed intellectuals”) is sheer idiocy, as, of course, it is to accept something merely because an academic says it.

    Consider also such realities of foreign policy as the amazing transformation of Gaddafi from Super Demon to Good (well almost) Bloke. Apparently we can ignore his rhetoric now, or make allowances for it, just as we can turn a blind eye to Saudi Wahabist extremism because it suits us to do so, and can cope with amazingly democratic regimes like Mainland China, because it suits us to do so.

    On a positive note, there seem to be positive signs appearing in Israel/Palestine. Let’s hope that comes to something, as a major bit of fuel in the world’s woes would thereby be removed.

     
  7. Lexcen

    December 2, 2006 at 9:59 pm

    Ninglun, thanks for your response. Just two comments. I was probably thinking of Dr. Henry Kissinger, when I made the comment about academics. Not a shining example of success in my mind. As for Gaddafi , he’s a perfect example of the “duplicity” that I refer to in my comment. Don’t be fooled by him. Don’t believe for a moment that he’s changed his agenda.

     
 
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