Cohen, Raymond — Language and Conflict Resolution: The Limits of English

Cohen, Raymond.  “Language and Conflict Resolution: The Limits of English.”  International Studies Review 3.1 (2001): 25-51. Web.

This essay analyzes the effects of differing linguistic paradigms on conflict resolution between people of different cultures. Central to Raymond Cohen’s essay is the idea that, “As a complex, interconnected chain of nonverbal and verbal messages and moves, conciliation can advance only when there is synchronized and consecutive understanding at every stage of the process” (27). Because people who grow up speaking different languages invariably learn to see the world in different ways, linguistic and cultural obstacles arise which obscure understanding and inhibit productive dialogue. “A comparative study of conciliation vocabularies reveals that concepts that seem self-evident and straightforward to the native English speaker may weigh significantly differently in other languages or not exist at all” (26). Cohen says, for example, “To negotiate peace, rivals must agree on what it is to ‘negotiate’ and what ‘peace’ is” (27). He notes, “When paradigms of conflict resolution clash, conceptual and technical contradictions have to be addressed if they are to be overcome” (26).

Indeed, it would seem that the first step in successful mediation is the acknowledgement that technical lingual variations will inevitably serve to obstruct progressive discourse. Cohen proceeds to discuss in detail the roots of differing linguistic paradigms. “Since English is now widely used as a global lingua franca, the preferred language of international organizations, science, and the Internet, many English speakers tend to assume that it is free of idiosyncrasy and cultural bias […] When the global language is also the tongue of a culturally omnipresent, ideologically evangelical power, that view gains added credence” (31). Because of the dominance of English in international discourse, the dominant themes inherent to those languages will come to determine the ways in which mediation is approached. According to Cohen, “English displays four dominant (albeit overlapping) themes and metaphors – industrial relations, engineering, Christian theology, and sports and games” (31). These themes promote certain ways of approaching conflict resolution that are completely nonexistent in other languages, like Arabic, in which the dominant themes are “honor” and Islamic terminology. For example, because of rapid industrial development in the western English-speaking world, much of the terminology for mediating conflict stems from the industry-worker relationship, which has not superimposed itself over other lingual paradigms in nearly the same way. According to Cohen, there has been positive development in the struggle for solution-oriented problem solving. He says, “Ethics aside, there is a growing acceptance that disagreements are rarely handled effectively by a preoccupation with relative gain at others’ expense, mindless intransigence, or violence.” (28)

Certainly there is a natural reluctance to accept doctrines that conflict with our worldview. Our egos make it difficult to acknowledge and address cultural differences that might challenge our familiar paradigms. Once we acknowledge that language is the vessel through which we express our consciousness, it would seem obvious that differing languages yield differing worldviews. It is worrisome to realize that there is no apparent effort among diplomats, the foremost mediaries between our country and others, to overcome linguistic and cultural obstacles in the struggle for conflict resolution.

Indeed, more productive means of discourse would endorse the idea that those we are in conflict with are not so different than ourselves; for western nations, which have relied violence and exploitation, this is a dangerous thing. This solution-based approach to conflict poses a threat to both mainstream media (i.e. Fox News) and western political systems, which, generally, strive to focus on cultural differences and exacerbate bias and stereotypes. If we are going to fight that tradition and promote less violent and exploitative discourse, an approach that seeks to help us transcend cultural and linguistic barriers seems like the first logical step.

–Zach VeShancey

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