Thursday, February 4, 2016

Towards a Peaceful Narrative in the War on ISIS

In modern politics, virtually every issue appears in a binary contrast. You are either for something or against it, yea or nay, up or down. This is a natural feature of a two-party system. To be sure, there are generally more than two relevant positions on each issue, but two narratives tend to dominate the discussion. We see this on all sorts of topics from gun control to abortion to gay marriage. Conservatives / Republicans tend to believe in one thing; liberals / Democrats tend to believe in the dominant alternative. Of course, all of the above issues actually have a considerable degree of nuance--if you support abortion, to what point in the cycle do you support it? Till the fetus leaves the womb, or some prior point? If you support gun control, does that mean you want Australian-style gun confiscation or just a modest expansion of background checks. You get my point.

Yet in spite of this nuance and lack of clear definitions, people still typically identify with the specific issue label, one broad set of positions or the other. That means labels and bumper-sticker narratives, however imprecise, really do matter.

Another interesting fact about our binary politics is that both issues are almost invariably framed in positive terms. On abortion, the debate is cast as pro-life vs. pro-choice; these are the labels the two camps have chosen for themselves, and they have stuck. For obvious reasons, calling yourself either anti-life or anti-choice would surely prove to be a disastrous PR decision. We see this on guns as well. People support either pro-gun control or pro-Second Amendment rights. The anti-Constitution and pro-gun chaos folks are nowhere to be found.

However, when it comes to issues of war and peace, this well-established trend of positive political messaging partially breaks down. The camp that supports war has adopted appropriately vague euphemisms. Virtually no one is "pro-war" as such but a great many are "strong on national security," "tough on terror," or else believe that America has a "responsibility to protect." But on the other side, we just find the antiwar movement--ever debunking justifications for intervention, accurately predicting disasters before everyone else, and yet somehow, still marginalized.

The problem is not the antiwar label. Given the alternatives--peace (hippies, Woodstock, etc.) or noninterventionism (7 syllables? Are you kidding me?)--I think antiwar is probably pretty solid. But it may be a problem that the antiwar movement is seen as advocating against war but for nothing. On this and many other issues, doing nothing is probably the best policy, but it's not an inspiring narrative.

Thus, the two narratives that dominate in the debate over Syria and Iraq is whether we need to bomb the whole region aggressively or just continue to gradually expand the war as Obama has done. Obviously, both narratives are decidedly pro-war. And while it is easy to rebut the arguments in favor of each, a negative narrative is not enough.

Enter, a great new piece at by author Ira Chernus, which is aimed to change the dominant narratives. Just as the proponents of other causes have an affirmative story that explains their position, so the antiwar movement needs to tell a better story about the conflict in the Middle East.  In particular, Chernus argues that broad conflicts raging in the Middle East are part of a broad civil war in the Muslim world. There are bad guys and competing interests all around, and there's no compelling reason for the US to try to pick a winner. We have tried that many times before after all, and it never goes well.

Regardless of whether you agree on the particulars mentioned in the article, Chernus is certainly right that we need to tell a better story to effectively oppose war. And this article is a great first step.

The Peace Movement's War Story

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