A Man's Gotta Know His Limitations
The article I read about education in the Arab world was depressing. There is controversy about the evolution debate in the U.S., but even in the most evolution-hostile fundamentalist environment, there is a debate. But only around a third of adults in Egypt have ever even heard of Charles Darwin. There is no biological science w/o Darwin. That started me thinking about communicating with people who not only disagree with us but may not even share fundamental facts and assumptions.
We tend to assume that our public affairs programs will resonate if only we craft them right or that a good policy will get the support it deserves. These assumptions are not justified, overambitious and probably unnecessary. Let’s do some reality checking by putting the challenges into familiar terms.
We have the controversy within America about bias on Fox News, CNN and MSNBC among others. Some people disagree strongly with people like Glenn Beck, Rachel Maddow, Sean Hannity or Keith Olbermann, accusing them of bias or not being “real” journalists. But let’s put them in the international perspective. I chose examples from right and left of the spectrum and we would expect much disagreement among them, but the differences among these guys are small potatoes when put in an international context. And their journalistic ethics and commitment to accuracy would certainly put them much above the international average.
We have to look at the world as it is, not as we would like it to be.
So before we tear our hair out about what the world thinks about us, let’s be clear. Overall, the world information environment is not open, not fair, not balanced and not friendly to us. The problem is worst precisely in the places we have the most trouble and this probably is not a coincidence. It is useful to keep in this in mind when we talk about lack of popular international support or approval of America and its policies. Or let’s put this in our own context. Glenn Beck would get a fairer shake on the Rachael Maddow show (and vice-versa) than we get in the media in much of the world.
The world is a big and diverse place. Of course it is true that parts of the world enjoy standards of living & openness similar to ours, Democracy, prosperity and freedom are more widespread now than ever, but the blessings of liberty are still a minority proposition among the world’s people. The Index of Democracy estimates that only half the world's population lives in some sort of democracy, but only 14% live in full democracies. Despite advances in democracy, more than a third of the world's population still lives under authoritarian rule. Economic freedom is about as widespread (The most democratic countries with the freest markets also tend to be the richest and most competitive.) And according Freedom House’s press freedom report, in 2009 only 17% of the world’s people live in places where the press is free. In one of our key areas, the Middle East, there are NO countries with completely free media and the region has more to worry about than that.
Let’s again take this back to our terms. Imagine a fundamentalist polygamous community living someplace in the remote mountains. They spend significantly more time teaching religion than science or math. They inculcate a general impression that the outside world is vaguely hostile or at best out to cheat or disrupt the community. We have all seen such communities in the news. Get the picture in your head. Now imagine that your job is to convince them of the fundamental goodness and trustworthiness of the Federal Government. This would be a daunting task. Now imagine that most of them don’t speak English and a significant number cannot properly read in any language.
Much of the world's population presents a challenge like this, or worse.
That is why it doesn’t make particular sense to try to reach the WHOLE world or even very large numbers. Most people don’t really care very much about our issues. Others don’t really understand them. Some are hostile to the messages or have contrary interests. That is why it makes more sense to target carefully and make our interventions transactional. I don’t really care if people love me in general if they cooperate with me on mutually important specific issues.
All that requires, however, that we understand our audiences, our goals and our own limitations.
I spent a lot of time learning not to blame other for my failures. I tried to be proactive and figure out what I could do, no matter what others were doing. This is a useful and valid outlook. I have not abandoned it, but I have moved beyond it. I now understand that sometimes my problems are indeed caused by others. I still have to be proactive, but mostly in ways to avoid the obstruction. Some people cannot be brought around and it is not my fault. There are even some people who you DON'T want as friends. Lay down with dogs and you come up with fleas. The same goes for public affairs. Some people & groups cannot be reached - for all practical purposes - and some shouldn't be reached because of THEIR characteristics. There are things you just cannot have and if you look carefully you find sometimes you don't want them need them.