Combative Communication is not Strategic

We are “securitizing” yet another topic to increase its importance: communication. And here is my short rant on the topic after reading about the protests in Hong Kong.

This securitization phenomenon has indeed been disturbing because it has entirely changed our discourse through two major mechanisms. First and foremost, we all have to eventually articulate the “security” impacts of our fields. In my field, we have been pushed to frame public diplomacy as a way to, for instance, prevent further conflict between the U.S. and certain audiences in the Middle East. Public diplomacy does not need to exist in this binary understanding of conflict. These communication projects do not only take place to  avoid armed conflicts – we are not communicating to avoid misunderstandings only. We also communicate to find mutual objectives and to cooperate. This argument is the equivalent of Spinoza’s famous “Peace is not the absence of war” quote. Peace is “a virtue, a state of mind, a disposition for benevolence, confidence, justice”.

While this security frame push, by itself, is not incompatible with cooperative approaches to public diplomacy, its accompanying assumptions are. We are always in a combative world in which there is a right side (us) and a wrong side (them). I find the Kitchen Debate to be illustrative in this case. In a short conversation, Nixon and Khrushchev ‘explain’ two different world views. (I have talked about the Kitchen Debate in more detail in this chapter.) Yet, accounts of the event were more competitive – we were more interested in who won the debate (and, of course, “we” won the debate).

As the recent demonstrations in Hong Kong once again reminded us, China is classified as “them” in our contemporary discourse. Strategic communication studies reflect this particular classification as well. For instance, when China decided to start its own public diplomacy projects, its attempts were quickly labelled as “sharp power as the country seeks “to penetrate the institutions of democracies in ways that are often […] ‘covert, coercive, or corrupting.’”. Continuing the “we do public information, enemy does propaganda” frame, “we” are discrediting Chinese approaches and ideas.

A recent New York Times article accused China of “waging a disinformation war”, saying:

A flurry of articles and editorials in China’s state media followed, condemning the vandalism and violence — without explaining what the protesters were protesting about.

The newspaper, itself, presents both sides of the story. They clearly (!) explain what the Chinese government wants to do in an earlier article:

China’s top leader, Xi Jinping, wants to make Hong Kong more like a mainland city, using economic incentives to buy happiness and propaganda to win loyalty.

Just to clarify, I am not trying to support the Chinese perspective or even challenge the criticisms posited towards its state media. I solely state that our combative understanding of communication changes the frame we use to understand other parties, making strategic communication basically impossible.

Combative communication is not strategic. If we expect to get the most out of our communication projects, we have to leave the competitive mindset and preset labels behind. We need to start communicating to understand and to cooperate.


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