The Social Construction of Controversy

Observers and participants in the recent Park51 debate likely noticed some parallels to the 2005 Danish Muhammad cartoon controversy. Potent religious issues mixed with a clash between freedom of speech and the protection of communal values. But, as Lawrence Wright has discussed, the real parallel is in the strange dynamics of both controversies. What started as relatively insignificant incidents became issues of global contention. Nothing in the nature of the issues changed, and the lack of initial reaction indicated the controversy was not inherent in either of them. Instead, it was the framing of these issues in the media, and their manipulation by elites, that mattered. The nature of this manipulation, and how it can create controversies out of thin air, will have significant implications for both U.S. domestic politics and foreign policy.

Drawing from stands of sociology, international relations scholars such as Alex Wendt began in the 1980s to emphasize the "social construction" of politics. Things do not acquire an importance or meaning as a result of their material properties; instead, social interactions produce meanings, which participants then accept as "real." The example I like to give is of suits: there is nothing in the material properties of matching jacket and pants, shirt and tie that create formal attire, but meaning arises from shared understanding of the material properties. So for "constructivists," the dynamics of the two controversies would not be surprising: everything is socially constructed, including incidents of global significance.

Another set of academic arguments, however, are equally relevant to this topic. These are "instrumentalist" theories, which claim that ideas arise from elite manipulation of the public: elites propagate certain ideas they believe will advance their interests, even if this produces an unintended negative outcome. A notable example is Jack Snyder's 2000 book From Voting to Violence, in which he explains the rise of nationalist violence in many new democracies as a result of elites' manipulation of public fears and ethnic identities, a process facilitated by imperfect media.

There are thus greatly diverging explanations for the Park51 and Muhammad cartoon controversies. If the anger was inherent in the issues -- if Muslims will be inevitably angry about cartoons of Muhammad and many Americans don't want Islamic Centers in Manhattan -- then what we have is a classic clash of civilizations. If the contentious meanings of these incidents were constructed through a diffuse process of social interaction, then conflict is not inevitable, and propagating a less extreme set of ideas -- such as the oft-discussed "moderate Islam" -- will solve the problem. If, instead, elite manipulation of the planned construction of an Islamic center and drawing of offensive cartoons caused the conflict, then either undermining the power of those elites or correcting the media market to allow for a diversity of viewpoints is the solution.

In this case, the instrumentalists seem to have it right. The printing of cartoons about Muhammad or building an Islamic Center obviously did not lead to worldwide controversies by themselves. Neither did the meanings arise spontaneously through social interactions among Muslims around the world, or Manhattan residents and activists throughout America. Instead, as Wright notes, elites are responsible. Islamist networks in Europe and the Middle East spread the cartoons, amplifying their significance, while bloggers in the United States latched onto the Park51 story, inflating the contentious nature of the issue to what it is today.

An important element in all this, though, is the media. The media market in Middle Eastern countries is hardly perfect, with authorities restricting open debate; this has been replaced by official news outlets that serve state interests and Arabic-language satellite stations that -- while allowing greater debate than would be otherwise possible -- often provide a platform for radical voices, and are popular in both the Middle East and Europe.

Unfortunately, there are also issues with the American media. Mainstream news outlets are often guilty of either passing on politicized information or politicizing it themselves; "new media," like blogs, often selectively interpret events to support their authors' pre-existing viewpoints. As a result, the most dramatic and exciting news -- not the most accurate or valuable -- is highlighted, providing inaccurate details to Americans and a skewed perspective on most Americans' priorities to foreign audiences.

The parallel nature of the two developments makes a potential solution to seemingly irrational controversies like these widely applicable. It involves, in part, addressing the power of a small group of elites to manipulate information. It also involves ensuring open and high-quality debate in media markets, which translates to support for greater freedoms in the Middle East and a more responsible media in America. The problem is not conservatism, or the lack of a "moderate Islam." The problem, and the solution -- as Middle East experts have said of broader issues in the region -- is politics and institutions, and the particular forms of elite-led social construction they engender.