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.