Friday, July 24, 2009

Live Blogging: International Studies Association, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

As a conflict analyst and peace educator, I have long thought and written about the links between language, peace and power. Language, of course, is dynamic, social and contested. Elites can use it to exclude; non-elites sometimes use it to resist being defined by elites and reclaim identities. Hence perhaps the most powerful moment I experienced at the International Studies' Association Conference (co-sponsored by the ABRI, Brazil's International Relations Association), was seeing a discussant challenge his panel to restate their papers in "plain, everyday language". (The discussant may not want his name here, so I will not add it.) Using direct language sounds like such a simple thing, but as any academic presenter knows, it is anything but easy. Dense and sterile language can be a suit of armor which keeps others at arm's length. I've done my best not to use it, either teaching or writing. Only my students and readers, of course, can judge if I've been successful at this. When the Discussant made this request, to their credit, both presenters rose to the challenge and their ideas immediately became more powerful and clear. I was reminded of, believe it or not, a journalism class I took back in undergrad (at Mary Washington College), taught by a working local journalist. He gave us a stat that has stayed with me since: writers start to lose their readers when they get to more than 10-12 words a sentence. "Write to express," he told us, "not to impress." If you're not communicating, you're wrong.

This brings me to another delight of this conference, which was meeting an historian and scholar, Juan Cole, an expert on the Middle East who has forgotten more about the region than most of us will ever know. I even had the pleasure of a dinner and some local music with him and another new colleague. I know of Juan, of course, frankly not because he teaches at the U. of Michigan, but because he's written for and his blog. This brings me to my other point, one which I hear repeated quite a lot but don't see enough action on: peace workers must do outreach to the public. Elections, as we like to observe in DC, have results, which means that information is critical. Juan, I think, does a wonderful job of reaching people because he says it clearly and directly, and therefore helps people bridge history and the present. In a democracy, policy analysis really should be for all. After all, this is a government BY the people. This equality of access to the power of knowledge is the heartbeat of peace education. I'm arguing for what one might call a democracy of language.

I emphasize these points, which have after all often been made by others, because peace and conflict resolution remains a new and often misunderstood, stereotyped field. This means we need to focused on excellent outreach all the more. I'm reminded of a conversation with a friend and colleague as we shared our mutual frustration at the lack of interest we perceived in outreach to the media. Yet this is how a national conversation shifts--talking to people we've never talked to before. I chose the field of conflict resolution because of its commitment to a set of values I hold, one of them being greater social equality. Let's use every avenue available to us to speak out! To do this, we need to say it plain.

To get us all started, here's a great link: Peace Media

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