Peace Negotiations and Peace Talks: The Peace Process in the Public Sphere

By Ron, Amit | International Journal of Peace Studies, Spring-Summer 2009 | Go to article overview

Peace Negotiations and Peace Talks: The Peace Process in the Public Sphere


Ron, Amit, International Journal of Peace Studies


Introduction

"The ever present possibility of combat," according to Carl Schmitt's famous doctrine, defines the real antithetical categories underling the notion of the "political:" that of a friend or an enemy. During times of peace and stability, people might come to use the concept of "the political" in a metaphorical way and, as a result, its real meaning might be lost in everyday language. But, Schmitt (1996, 38) contended, "[t]he real friend-enemy grouping is existentially so strong," that it "pushes aside and subordinates" other competing categorization "at precisely the moment at which it becomes political." This "moment" is a threat of war. Leaving aside the question of whether Schmitt indeed identified the true meaning of "the political" (or whether there is such a true meaning), let us focus here only on one aspect of Schmitt's observation: war affects the way arguments are exchanged in the public sphere. When the drums of war are banging one category of identity, that of a friend or an enemy, "pushes aside and subordinates" other categories of identity and other ways to discuss political matters.

The consequences of the narrowing down is captured by the Israeli novelist David Grossman (2007, 28):

   I immediately recall the words of the mouse in Kafka's short story
   "A Little Fable." The mouse who, as the trap closes on him, and the
   cat looms behind, says, "Alas ... the world is growing narrower
   every day." Indeed, after many years of living in the extreme and
   violent reality of a political, military and religious conflict, I
   can report, sadly, that...Kafka's mouse is right: when the predator
   is closing in on you, the world does indeed become increasingly
   narrow. So does the language that describes it. From my experience
   I can say that the language with which the citizens of a sustained
   conflict describe their predicament becomes progressively shallower
   the longer the conflict endures. Language gradually becomes a
   sequence of cliches and slogans.

When language itself becomes a sequence of cliches and slogans, citizens turn more obedient and are made easier to rule. The threat of war is not only a tool used between states. It is also used by elites for domestic political control. War, even the threat of it, makes people focus on themselves and their most immediate and basic experiences: life, survival, security. Needless to add, the enemy's view is silenced, banished from consideration. But not only the enemy's view is silenced. War is used to silence voices from within as well. When this happens, what might appear to participants as a vibrant exchange of reasons can actually be manipulated to support the point of view of those who hold positions of power. To use a spatial metaphor, war puts pressure to narrow down the vertical discourse that defines the term by which the opposing publics understand themselves and each other. War also puts pressure to narrow down the horizontal discourse that defines the term by which the public understands its relationship with its own elite.

But what happens to the public sphere when the opposite process occurs, when long-standing friend-enemy distinctions are being questioned in the context of a peace process? In particular, what happens to the horizontal discourse of power and control once the narrowing pressures on the vertical discourse of friend and enemy are relaxed or even reversed? In posing these questions, this article becomes part of a body of recent works which seek to use the theoretical toolkit of interpretive social sciences for the study of war and peace as discourses (Edelman, 1988; Barker, 2007, and other works discussed in this paper). A discourse can be understood as "a shared set of assumptions and capabilities embedded in language that enables its adherents to assemble bits of sensory information that come their way into coherent wholes" (Dryzek, 1999, 34). Interpretive social sciences contend that discourses are constitutive, at least in part, of social reality. …

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