The Need for Genuine Conversation & Collaborative Effort in Libya
University of Colorado at Boulder
“I am Libya,” Colonel Muammar el-Qaddafi boasted after the uprising of its citizens erupted in the North African country. A sign of the constantly growing tension due to an unequal distribution of power in Libya is about to unfold into chaos. Rebel groups opposing Col. Qaddafi’s government forces are gaining in numbers due to the atrocities committed by their country’s leader. His hazardous mind-set and the mounting frustration caused by his unyielding grip on power has caused an uprising and advanced the Rebels’ provisional leadership (Shadid, 2011). There is a problem in this country that cannot be fixed through the use of artillery and ammunition. This inauspicious situation aligns in many ways with Deetz’s (1990) ethical principle of genuine conversation. According to Deetz, the strength of the ethics in communication lies in the openness of dialogue, the belief in reflective rational discourse, and the commitment to the inherent goodness of the human character (1990, p. 227). (These three principles could be utilized by both sides of this escalating conflict to create an open line of healthy and productive communication that is absolutely necessary to settle disputes on a national level.) In an effort to settle disputes on a national level, Deetz’s principles of ethics serve as a framework for how both sides should engage in open dialogue. In this application paper I will examine the communication problem occurring in Libya through the lens of Stanley Deetz’s model of genuine conversation, and dissect those problems using his three elements of reopening conversation.
Deetz (1990) frames problems of communication through his application of what he refers to as genuine conversation. He combines ideas from several different traditions in the field of communication including cybernetic, phenomenological, and critical (Craig, 2011). The cybernetic tradition discusses the systems model of communication from an interactional standpoint. Craig says “identities, experience, [and] information are produced and reproduced in systems of interaction.” (Craig, 2011). People are considered to be cybernetic machines that use information to organize and disorganize a particular system. Because of this, there is a heavy reliance placed on intent. In Libya, Rebel forces are determined to remove Qaddafi out of power, and implement their own system of power. Despite Qaddafi’s unwillingness to surrender the position, the Libyan Rebels have continued with their own political agenda. The extreme upheaval has created ruthless and barbaric conditions. Neither party is showing any willingness, causing communication attempts to be futile.
The phenomenological tradition that Deetz utilizes would frame this problem as the need for genuine dialogue. This is symbolic of constructive communication between both sides of the argument. He also utilizes Buber’s concept of the “I-thou” relationship where each of the participants have the other in mind with the intention of establishing a common ground. This concept declares that on each side of an argument there are two individuals presenting unique perspective. An emphasis would be placed not on the political positions of the Libyan government and the Rebel leadership, but rather the shared wishes of a living in a homeostatic nation free of death and destruction. Deetz says that the concept allows for a focus on “the development and maintenance of relational systems rather than individual actions or attitudes.” (Deetz, 1990).
The concept is promising, yet there are factors that may block or distort genuine communication. Deetz borrows from the critical tradition the idea of power structures that inhibit the open flow of ideas. He offers six patterns of interaction that may block genuine conversation. Disqualification occurs when exclusion occurs, thus causing a feeling of an unequal share of opinion. Naturalization works as a conversation blocker when there is no choice in a matter because “that’s just the way it is.” This is similar to neutralization where biased information is presented and used as absolute fact. A very common negative interaction pattern occurs when the topic is avoided altogether. Subjectification of experience finds issues treated as matters of opinion and therefore not worth discussing. Lastly, blockage occurs when meaning in the interaction is consistently denied using statements like “that is not what I said” (Craig, 2011).
The causes for unproductive agreement in Libya date back to preceding years. The crackdown of Qaddafi’s government on schools in Tripoli, the nations capital, exemplifies the concept listed above. “Students talk about visits from military officers warning them to watch only state television, payments… to attend pro-Qaddafi rallies and their fears that confiding in the wrong friend may mean interrogation by the secret police” (Kirkpatrick, 2011). This brand of governmental assertion of power brings to mind historical propaganda events such as Mao Zedong’s implementation of The Little Red Book into classrooms in China, and Adolf Hitler’s Hitler Youth organization in Germany. Propaganda takes a backseat to the over present violence and murder. A New York Times article discusses the deep impression the government violence has had on Libyan children. “I can give you a certainty that there was killing,” whispered a 14-year-old girl at a Tripoli school, saying anxiously that she could not name the killers, ‘but I think you know.’ ‘I think I am going to jail for that,’ she added” (Kirkpatrick, 2011). This would be considered a very extreme example of Deetz’s disqualification and naturalization conversation blocking interaction patterns.
Communication problems exist due to blockages within dialogue, and when the freedom of speech is forbidden, a much larger problem exists. Pro-government speech is allowed, while anti-government speech is punishable by prison, or death. “Inside Tripoli, residents of the working class suburb of Tajoura described a massacre that had been carried out by pro-government forces last week. The soldiers, they said, repeatedly drove through the neighborhood shooting at crowds and buildings, usually from Toyota Tundra pickup trucks but occasionally from the backs of ambulances” (Fahim, 2011). How do you regain a constructive flow of communication when a country is completely divided and people are killing each other?
Overcoming the blockage is the most important step to successfully reopening positive communication. There should be an emphasis on “support and enhanc[ing] interdisciplinary projects that focus on issues of conflict, methods for collaboration, and new forms of creative governance,” to aid in the successful conquest of blockage (Deetz, 2010). A type of “social therapeutic deconstruction” known as metacommunication allows an examination of side A’s position AND side B’s position (Deetz, 1990). In comes genuine conversation.
Questioning the other side's perspective allows for eventual joint understanding. For example, on one side is a group of people who say that pizza is the best food ever. On the other side is a group of people who say that chicken fingers are the best food ever. Both sides love their respective food so much that they are unwilling to hear the other's point of view. Through the use of quality metacommunication both sides can engage in open discourse about the argument itself. If the discourse is genuine and both sides present their argument and understand the rival argument, a successful metacommunication will develop into a small step toward genuine conversation. To reach genuine conversation, Deetz believes you must experience an “encounter with something which makes you unable to go back to being yourself. The encounter with something where you know none of you categories work anymore and you grow” (Stan Deetz – Who and Where is the Influence to his thought on Communication, 2010).
When dealing with a situation like the one we have in Libya, Deetz’s rhetorical application for reopening conversation may be effective if metacommunication is not successfully achieved. Rhetoric can function in an “attempt to subvert the dominant opinion—that is, to pose another possible position” (Deetz, 1990). However, sometimes presenting options is not enough, which brings us to Deetz’s third way of overcoming communication blockage: strategy. Strategy may be necessary in creating a system of interaction where individuals actively work against developing a fixed system of interaction.
If we were to take a look at the pizza vs. chicken finger conflict, a strategy could help both sides reach a mutual agreement. Let's say the pizza crowd is the aggressor in this situation. Pizza has been made the same way for years and refuses to change. The chicken finger crowd is tired of being pushed around and they want their demands met. Both sides agree to sit down and have a dialogue. They utilize metacommunication by both parties stating their arguments. The rebel chicken wing supporters seek the opportunity to collaborate with the pizza folk and create… the chicken finger pizza. The pizza people refute the idea but provide a rhetorical application in that pizza and chicken fingers can be served in the same restaurant. The chicken finger people then create a strategy that Deetz says “might enable the collective formation of opinion in order to protect opinions already in place, identities, and images of themselves which they already have” (Deetz, 1990). The chicken finger group presents a strategy of placing both pizza and chicken fingers on the same plate. The groups shake hands and enjoy a delicious meal all due to genuine conversation.
In this example, Qaddafi’s government is represented by the pizza group, and the rebels represented by the chicken finger group. The true problem with these opposing forces is that the hostility has moved well beyond discourse and has moved to full fledged violence. While Deetz’s theory sheds light on ways to solve communication problems through discussion, his model of genuine conversation is rendered useless until both parties agree to speak. Another theory that would help to analyze the Libya conflict situation would be James Carey’s communication as ritual theory, and the socio-cultural tradition in general. The traditions, customs, and rituals within a country are numerous, but consistent throughout. Many people are on opposing sides of the battle yet share many rituals. Some people in fact are placing their allegiances on the sides of those who can give them the most money (Kirkpatrick, 2011). Carey’s ritual model may to the cultural similarities between opposing sides.
Deetz’s theory on genuine conversation provides us with a great lens by which to put a communication problem under the scope of a theory and utilize that theory to get to the root of the problem. His three principles of ethics may also be used for solving a situational problem in terms of reopening communication. Open dialogue is crucial for any communication system, large or small. Deetz’s theory on creation of genuine conversation can connect broken communicative bonds, while strengthening those bonds through the ethics of communication.
Craig, R. T. (2011). Lecture Notes, University of Colorado, March 15, 2011. Slides 1-15.
Deetz, S. (1990). Reclaiming the subject matter as a guide to mutual understanding: Effectiveness and ethics in interpersonal interaction. Communication Quarterly. 38(3). 226-243.
Deetz, S. (2010). Mission. University of Colorado Boulder: Center for the Study of Conflict, Collaboration, & Creative Governance. http://www.3cgcenter.com/about/mission
Fahim, K., & Kirkpatrick, D. (2011, March 1). Libyan rebels said to debate seeking U.N. airstrikes. The New York Times. http://www.nytimes.com/2011/03/02/world/africa/02libya.html
Kirkpatrick, D. (2011, March 10). Qaddafi reaches into schools but some youths elude his grasp. The New York Times. http://www.nytimes.com/2011/03/11/world/africa/11tripoli.html
Shadid, A., & Fahim, K. (2011, March 9). Rebels In Libya Strain to Forge A Unified Front. The New York Times. http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=9A01E6DC1F3FF93AA35750C0A9679D8B63
Stan Deetz – Who and Where is the Influence to his thought on Communication. (2010). http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eOWlGxC5qYo