The margins

Just a couple of weeks ago i participated in PaXIM – a working conference dedicated to communication for peace at Washington State University. Together with Dor Reich I presented a study we are doing on discourse surrounding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in the blogosphere. Since it is still a work in progress, i am uploading here only an extended abstract (the full paper should be finished during the summer). The point relevant for this post is that using heuristic developed for analysis of “peace journalism” we show that “the online environment hosts a surprisingly hostile discourse”.

However, a few days ago i read an article in Haaretz (HE) titled something like: “Syrian bloggers are trying to open a communication channel with Israelis”. Although the subtitle said “most of the blogs are run from outside Syria…” I was really curious and checked it out.

First, indeed all the blogs mentioned in the article are run from outside Syria. But not only that, 2 out of the 4 blogs mentioned in the article (with links provided only to 3 of them) are run by non-Syrians. This is something that keeps amazing me. Spending a few months or a few years in a country apparently makes you not just an expert on that society, but actually a part of it. I always found that confusing. Is being born in Russia and spending there my childhood makes me an expert on Russia? Many times i encounter attitudes that leave no room for doubt – the answer is yeas. But at the same time i doubt if spending half of my life outside entitles me of the Russian expert title. I assume that i could pick up on cultural clues and understand Russian society better than a person who has zero experience with this country. However, if we go back to the idea of a dialogue, is talking to me the same as talking to a person who is actually part of Russian society at this point of time, who lives it and fully identifies with it? Similarly, can an American professor studying Syria, be considered a representative of Syrian people for purpose of a discussion? Not to question the authority of the professor to understand, analyze, and comment on the Syrian society, but including him in “Syrian bloggers”?

Second, looking into the blogs themselves, and especially into the comments, it was difficult to find that attempt to build a communication channel with Israelis mentioned in the title. Joshua Landis’s blog is an interesting , but very “academic” commentary on Syria. At the same time the comments of his readers are examples of what can be described as war discourse. Similarly the blog of Ammar Abdulhamid is a blog of an opposition man. Together with the comments it is true to the idea of opposing the regime. Not really analyzing the blogs, but skimming them, i tend to think that the discourse created there falls into a similar pattern Dor and I found in blogs focusing on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Dialogue wasn’t something i found from briefly browsing the content.

However, there was one interesting example – an initiative called “Creative Forum: Creative Syria’s open forum for Syria bloggers and experts” (ironically run by two Americans). On that particular page the readers were asked to compose letters to a simple Israeli citizen explaining them why Israeli should give the Golan Heights back to Syria. The results i think are quite interesting. The posts (letters) and the comments created a discursive environment where Israelis, Syrians, and other people expressed their views on the subject and responded to each other in a relatively civil way. I find this a different and an interesting case to look into.

So, at the end, what is this post about? I think one point i wanted to make is about the utopian-deterministic stand the mainstream media is taking about the “new” media. Lisa and I had a long conversation recently about the problem with the deterministic view of ICT leading to peace. This is kind of a message one could see in an article such as this one, while in fact it is a distortion of a more complex phenomenon. At the same time, looking at initiatives like that of “Creative Forum” makes me thinking that the technology can be used in creative ways starting something that is close to an unmediated, grassroots discussion. It seems that this kind of initiatives is still at the margins and one thing is certain – it is not the technology by itself.

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4 Responses to “The margins”

  1. lisa Says:

    “It seems that this kind of initiatives is still at the margins and one thing is certain – it is not the technology by itself.” You already know I agree. In fact I would say this is much more about certain ways of thinking (eg. concentrated effort on imagining pace), and a joining together of a particular group people who care about the situation and want to make a difference for the better. The fact that these two are suddenly more easily achievable because we can use the Internet to do it is a happy accident! For instance, there are other activities in this vein that don’t require new ICTs or a culture of understanding and using new ICTs. The example of the Creative Forum reminds me of Elise Boulding’s ‘imagining a non-violent world’ experiment in a prison in Massachusetts. Same imagining of peace and joining together of people who want to make a difference (perhaps more restricted), but no ICT necessary.

  2. Dima Says:

    I agree with you that in many cases “no ICT necessary”, but that wasn’t my point. I am not asking and not suggesting that it has to be done with the ICT. Of course many things can be done without it and it is impossible to establish a casual relationship. But what i am looking at is when technology is used, how it is utilized.

    We could do many things without actually using technological means of any kind, but the fact is we are using it to do them. For example we could get from point A to point B by walking or running. But we do use technology to do that. So my question is more about once we do, how we do it. Do we ride a horse? Ride a bike? Drive? Fly? Take a bus? Drive a bus? Making choices about that and utilizing it in different ways is influenced by a variety of factors and in turn influence the way we get from point A to point B, but not only that. It may depend on how much money we have or what do we think about environment for example. And it may influence the same environment, traffic, road kill, and many other factors. So if i focus on the global warming for example, my question is not whether using transportation technology leads to it, but more about how people use and/or could use that technology in light of the growing awareness of global warming and realization that using these transportation technologies may or may not have (marginal?) contribution to that.

    So in a way, the question here is much more limited (or focused). This is why I am also not sure i agree with the idea of “happy accident”. People communicate and they use the technology to communicate. While doing that they communicate for different purposes and with various effectiveness. In this context people and technology mutually shape each other (I think Latour has an excellent example of that with hotel keys). It might have been a happy accident at some point, but as the technology getting adopted it stops being random. My question here is how people do it in discussion/communication that happens in context of a conflict. Probably it will be different with different people, social groups, with different contents and in different conflicts (social, cultural, military, etc.). This is what i am trying to understand.

    Does it make sense?

  3. Alex Says:

    I am happy you found Creative Forum to be an interesting experiment.

    I just wanted to add that my friend Joshua Landis who runs Syria Comment is married to A Syrian woman, and he lived in Syria many times before. Here is some background. His Blog is actually the best read Syria Blog.

    As for Creative Forum, is is transparently Moderated by two Americans who know Syria well, but are neutral on Syrian affairs, but it is part of two Syrian websites that I would like to invite you to explore. Creative Syria and MideastImage

    The Forum is an evolution of an earlier experiment that came as a surprise to Syrians last year when we launched it The Online Syrian Think Tank where Syria’s Ambassador to the United States, as well as Ammar Abdul Hamid (the opposition activist/blogger) are both on the panel of Syria experts who joined Creative Syria. Joshua Landis, Rime Allaf, and Patrick Seal (British Author) all also on the same panel.

    This is only the first discussion topic. Next month we will ask Syrians and Syria experts to tell us what they would like to keep/change in the way Syrian regional and foreign policy is currently run… Syria’s relations with Lebanon, Iraq, Saudi Arabia and the United States.

    Best,
    Camille Alexandre

  4. Dima Says:

    Thank you Alex! I will definitely check out the links!

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