A lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes.
~ Mark Twain (attributed)
Like many others, I’ve spent the last couple of weeks absorbed by Middle East events and wrestling with the many complex and difficult questions raised by journalists, analysts, and scholars: How much of the tragic violence in Benghazi and elsewhere was a genuine reaction to that now-notorious anti-Muslim video, and how much is being promoted by specific actors for their own political aims? Were Embassy walls breached in Cairo, Tunisia and elsewhere because the protests were uniquely powerful and emotional, or because some host-country governments, newly brought to power by the Arab Spring, hadn’t yet fully assumed the responsibility of protecting them?
As a public diplomacy practitioner, I’ve also been thinking about the people in the Muslim world who are most genuinely and deeply disturbed by the perceived insult — and am wondering, yet again, how best we can try to bridge the apparently yawning gap between their perceptions and those of Americans, for whom the positive value of free speech self-evidently outweighs the risks from insult.
It was through this lens that I took another look at “You Talkin’ To Me?,” Ralph Begleiter’s still-invigorating 2006 article about international perception. Begleiter describes a video dialogue between Lebanese and American university students in which a “common base of popular culture…did not mask notable differences in the way students at both ends of the videoconference saw charged political issues [such as] the publication of political cartoons lampooning the Muslim prophet Muhammad, including significant gaps in understanding of how the news media in each region relate to governments. In fact, understanding that media-government relationship proved to be a pervasive theme reflecting differences between the U.S. and Middle Eastern cultures [emphasis added].”
What does this tell us (beyond the fact that some things have definitely not changed since Begleiter first penned these words)?
For one thing, it is a reminder that dense thickets of factual misinformation currently impede mutual understanding on this issue of media-government relationships, and it suggests that more work on clearing away such thickets is needed before debates about principles can take place in a productively open field.
What do I mean by this? What is an example?
Again and again in commentary from the Arab world about the current anti-Muslim controversy, including in comments posted by young people on U.S. Embassy Facebook pages, the point is made that America is being hypocritical because “the West” prohibits Holocaust denial and similar speech related to protection of certain religious groups.
For example, a recent New York Times article quoted a “spiritual leader of Egypt’s mainstream Islamist group, the Muslim Brotherhood, [declaring] that ‘the West’ had imposed laws against ‘those who deny or express dissident views on the Holocaust or question the number of Jews killed by Hitler, a topic which is purely historical, not [even] a sacred doctrine.’”
American readers may impatiently skip over such comments, thinking “that’s not true, our laws protect speech even as condemnable as denying the Holocaust!” We might also fail to see any legitimacy in the error, because many of us are unfamiliar with the fact that in Europe there are indeed laws prohibiting Holocaust denial.
And we may also fail to realize that such seemingly minor, in-the-weeds misunderstandings can have a big impact, for as Begleiter also notes, “‘double standards’ is one of the biggest reasons foreigners give for resenting the United States.”
Of course it’s not true that the U.S. free speech laws are applied selectively to different religions, but if people in the Muslim world widely believe that to be true, based on actual knowledge of certain European laws misapplied to the U.S. context, then our power to persuade people of the legitimacy of our free-speech position will be dramatically weakened.
Here is another example: public commentary on the current crisis reveals a mutual misunderstanding about numbers of people involved: earnest young peace-makers in the Arab world explain on Facebook that “only” 10% of Americans even saw the film in question, while bridge-building Americans comment online to the effect that “only” 10% of Muslims are violent extremists. If both sides knew the figures were perhaps closer to .0000001% in both cases, how much of the super-structure of blame, fear, and anger might dissipate?
So, returning to the public diplomacy challenge, what can we do?
First of all, we should accept that there will be no overnight transformations. The work of countless experts in communications tells us it is difficult to change peoples’ minds about what they think they know. Innovative thinkers from Walter Lippman onwards have shown how human beings are programmed to filter out information that doesn’t fit with our preconceptions, and furthermore that the source of new information is a powerful factor in whether or not we listen and accept it.
Therefore, secondly, we need to remind ourselves of what public diplomacy practitioners and scholars have long emphasized, which is that how we present information, and how we establish ourselves as trusted voices, is enormously important. Facts and statements by themselves, no matter how often repeated or at what level, won’t make nearly as much difference if we have not built two-way relationships through which to share them, and if we haven’t built credibility over time through our consistency in conveying – and accepting — reliable information.
Edward R. Murrow knew this when he famously said, “It has always seemed to me the real art in this business is not so much moving information or guidance or policy five or 10,000 miles. That is an electronic problem. The real art is to move it the last three feet in face to face conversation.”
It is in this last three feet that a big portion of the public diplomacy toolkit is usefully and productively employed. For example, convincing influential local journalists (or religious leaders, or influential think-tankers) is easier if we take time to develop a track record of providing useful information targeted to their particular interests and cultural outlook. If we have also invited the journalist (or religious leader or think-tanker) to the U.S. on a study tour, she or he may have a clearer understanding of what our policy statements mean in context, and also some genuine appreciation for the travel opportunity.
The fact that most such discussions now take place online does not change the equation, with an important caveat: If the interlocutors know each other, then email, Facebook and now Twitter communications certainly qualify as contemporary “face to face conversation.”
And thirdly, creativity in opening minds to new ideas is essential. Ambassador Cynthia Schneider makes great points about promoting cultural understanding via the “Oh I Didn’t Know That” Factor – where presenting something eye-catchingly different from what the viewer expected opens the door to a reconsideration of many cross-cultural assumptions.
Finally, a very thoughtful perspective from Cristina Archetti (a U.K. scholar and former visiting lecturer at GWU’s School of Media and Public Affairs) in her 2010 piece, “Was Murrow Right About the Last Three Feet?” Archetti asks,
“Given that interpersonal communication is normally regarded as far more persuasive than other modes of communication, is this really the hard part? I’d be tempted to argue that the hard part is actually closing the distance to the last three feet, figuring out who you should be talking to, finding them and getting them into the same room. Alternatively it could be that finding the money to hire the people to do the talking is really the hard part [or, your blogger would add, finding the money to create sufficient exchanges and other collaborative opportunities for you to find the right people and ensure that they are in the room and are open to listening]. Or it could be trying to ensure that you are not forced to defend the indefensible.”
All excellent points.