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Marshall Communication and Conflict Fibreculture-conference-mag

Marshall Communication and Conflict Fibreculture-conference-mag

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Published by jmarshal6342
Communication is not always a good thing
Communication is not always a good thing

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Published by: jmarshal6342 on Feb 09, 2010
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02/08/2010

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Communication and Conflict
 by Jonathan Marshall[
 A slightly modified version of an article which appeared in Danny Butt, Chris Chesher, Gillian Fuller, Lisa Gye, Geert Lovink, Molly Hankwitz, Estehr Milne, Ned Rossiter and David Teh (eds),
 Networks of Excellence
(Waikato Institute of Technology and Power Institute of Sydney, 2002): page 15.
]Communication is usually held to be an unalloyed good. The greater the volume, range and speed of communication the better it is for everyone. However this may not be accurate. With our current burst of increased communication we are not necessarily heading towards greater union, peace andhappiness or, as some assert, towards a ‘global brain’. In fact we may be heading towards greater conflict - especially if people do not realize some basic problems in communication.To take an extreme example: if two groups of people and the systems within which they live do notinteract, then they are unlikely to come into conflict. If they are brought together to communicate,then they can also come into conflict - they may discover their worlds are mutually incompatibleand coexistence impossible. They may not, but as they have different cultures, interests andimperatives, some conflict or misunderstanding is probable.It might be argued that they could learn to communicate peacefully and cooperate eventually, butthere is no guarantee of that. Throughout human history when groups who were previously unawareof each other are brought into contact there is usually conflict, often ending in the restoration of  peace by genocide or conquest. We can also imagine that two groups, through increasedcommunication, come to find that their worlds are completely incompatible and there is no possibility of further coexistence. Communication involving groups, or group identity, increases the possibility that at least one person in one of the groups will take offence, and shift the situation intoconflict for everyone.Even between people who are intimate, the expression of one person’s views, or the way theycommunicate something, may appear to lead to a ‘discovery’ which produces conflict. Is it, for example, always good for your spouse to tell you they have had a casual affair? Even if you think itmight be good beforehand, the telling might change everything between you. Sometimes it can be
 
 better to keep silent, or to maintain communication by deciet.Any definition or use of the term ‘communication’ should avoid the fallacy of using that term torefer primarily to ‘successful communication’ with apparent mutual understanding and harmony.Such ‘good communication’ is a special case of communication in general; it cannot be assumed to be the most common, or most important, form. We cannot assume that lies, misrepresentations,inaccuracies and misunderstandings, are secondary or incidental. The possibility of communicationimplies the possibility of misdirection. Communication is also not a simple transfer of meaningfrom one individual to another, it always involves interpretation. In ‘good communication’ a personwill attempt to check that their interpretation vaguely corresponds to the other person’s intention - but this involves that other person then interpreting that interpretation and so on, for ever.The interpretation of a message changes with its context, or ‘framing’, which is external to themessage. As different people almost always provide different frames, any message may havedifferent meanings for its interpreters. It is highly improbable that people will understand a messageof any complexity in quite the same way. Between different cultures, with habitual use of differentframes, the chance of radically divergent interpretations increases. Instability of meaning,misunderstanding and variability is fundamental to communication. Misunderstandings willeventually lead to conflict. Understandings may eventually lead to conflict. Therefore potentialconflict is fundamental to communication.One way of attempting to remove ambiguity from messages, is through the exertion of force. Wemost commonly see this between parents and children, in which the child is told to do somethingand then guided (with varying degrees of violence) into performing the required action. Suchguidance is common when the power differential between participants is great, or when there areobvious problems in communicating. Clearly this use of force has the potential to lead to thecommunicative situation being framed as hostile, and for conflict to result.As a result, good communication is only possible between equals. The more unequal the participants, the more the distortion. People with authority mystify their authority to keep it safe,and those beneath them give their superior what they want to hear, because of the consequences.This often leads to a conflict between the group and reality, as decisions are based on distortedcommunications.
 
As the speed and spread of communication increases, the more it gets locked into previous patternsand the current mode of framing. It becomes easier to mobilise and direct troops, or terror, over greater distances, increasing the potential for war between groups previously indifferent to eachother. Perhaps disastrously, troops can be directed by a distant centre rather than by local conditions- with none of the flexibility allowed by an intermediate hierarchy. Similarly, the reiteration andworld wide distribution of President Bush’s denunciations of Saddam Hussein, is unlikely to lead to peace, as both have a huge audience before whom they can lose face. Anyway, we cannot assumethat letting other people know what we think always mitigates conflict.Perhaps we have avoided cataclysmic war in the last fifty years, not because of ‘mutually assureddestruction’ - there have been plenty of times when the military did consider the use of atomicweapons, and plenty of false alarms which could have triggered a response - but becausecommunication was recognised as inaccurate and slow. There was always delay between provocation, and ‘confirmation’ and response, which allowed the manoeuvres bringing peace. Withimmediate response there would be no time for reflection, or intervention, and no time to break aseries of automatic reactions.Volume of communication also causes problems, because as the volume increases so does the‘noise’ (errors, apparent irrelevancies and so on). The greater the noise the greater the possibility of misinterpretation, and the greater the likelihood a person will not check that what they think is beingintended, is actually being intended. With an increase in messages or noise, the greater thelikelihood that the person, or organisation, will be overwhelmed and become paralysed - as seemsthe case with the US intelligence services and the attack on September 11th.Communication is framed by rituals determining who may speak and when, how long they canspeak, appropriate styles of language, the patterns of deference etc. Normal volume for one groupmight be evidence of hostility to another. What is friendly in one group, might be sexual provocation to another. A quick response may be considered genuine in one culture and superficialin another. In the modern English speaking West, people often regard obvious etiquette as artificial,inauthentic, impersonal, and even deceitful. We are required to communicate ‘openly’. As the ideaof framing suggests, it is impossible to communicate without some etiquette, and openness itself hasto be indicated. This is usually done by violations of the rules of ‘official’ etiquette. We showgenuiness by ‘lack of restraint’, by expression of strong emotion, by swearing and so on. Theseindicators also approximate the ways we indicate prospective violence, and so confusion can arise

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