communicative inequality and the impossibility of dialogue

A salient liberal response to the ongoing Israeli attacks on Gaza is a call for dialogue.

Dialogue is a key tenet of the CCA, as an avenue for disrupting the silences and marginalization that are perpetuated by dominant power structures. I will reflect here on the concept of dialogue in CCA.

More specifically, in this essay, I will draw upon a piece that Mahuya Pal and I wrote in Communication Theory, "Dialogue theory in marginalized settings" to suggest that dialogue is impossible in the face of colonial violence. Here is a link to that piece:

There are two intertwined ideas I will put forth. First, dialogue is "constituted in" erasure and is "constitutive of" erasure. Second, colonialism, as the systematic erasure of the sovereignty of a people, is intrinsic to the conceptualization of dialogue.

Inherent in the idea of colonial violence is the fundamental erasure of the opportunities for participation, recognition, and representation of the colonized subject. Colonialism works by denying the right of participation to the colonized.

The argument that the colonized is uncivilized and is therefore incapable of communication is a fundamental trope in this subjugation.

Ironically then, colonial violence is intrinsic to liberal ideations of dialogue in fundamentally undialogic ways.

When one works through the historical roots of dialogue critically, one comes to note the violent erasures that constituted these early imaginations of dialogue.

Marking the colonized Indian as incapable of dialogue or the colonized African slave as outside the realm of dialogue were key strategies deployed by the early liberal thinkers. For these thinkers, reducing the colonized "other" as a primitive anti-modern subject incapable of dialogue became the precise instrument of colonial violence justified in the name of a civilizing mission.

Inequality in other words, is essential to dominant liberal imaginations of dialogue circulated in academic theorizing, mainstream media, and policy discourse.

I would argue that this very inequality is constitutive of dialogue as it marks out the dialogic spaces and identifies who can and can not participate in dialogue. The ambits of power determine the rules, structures, and processes of dialogue. Moreover, any resistance to power is framed as undialogic, and therefore, primitive. The colonized other is incapable of subjecthood and thus must be governed with violence.

In the context of Gaza, Israel shapes the dialogic space, determining what counts as dialogue, who gets to sit at the table, and the ways in which the idea of dialogue will be deployed to reproduce colonialism. In the face of the large scale violence in Gaza, a call to dialogue masks fundamentally the power inequities that constitute the violence, treating both sides as if they are equal and suggesting that there can indeed be dialogue.

Both sides however are not equal and they don't have equal opportunities for participation. When it comes to communication in the mainstream, there are no two sides, with mainstream media serving as spaces for narrating the Israel story. The hegemonic power structures that control these media frame the violence in Gaza as a justified Israeli response to terrorist threat, simultaneously erasing the story of colonial violence.

This communicative inequality, without being addressed, leaves calls to dialogue as farcical performances that serve the colonial agenda.

Such calls to dialogue, by erasing the fundamental power inequities in the discursive terrain, emerge as justifications of the colonial violence because they fail to take seriously the necessity of first creating structural spaces of communicative equality.

Unfortunately, for liberal ideas of dialogue, that there exists this fundamental inequality in communicative access, is an observation that is strategically ignored and simultaneously deployed to perform dialogue as an instrument of colonialism. Dialogue itself can be used as a tool to justify colonial violence, serving as a rationale for colonial intervention and closing off spaces of critique of this colonial intervention as undialogic.


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