Seminar in Ideology, Discourse and Conflict

"Some of the best weapons do not shoot."
-- U.S. Army Counterinsurgency Field manual FM 3-24, Dec. 2006

Homeland security in the broad sense includes counterterrorism, counterinsurgency, internal defense, law enforcement, unconventional warfare, disaster relief, humanitarian assistance, and other areas. All of these areas critically involve various forms of influence: interactions with and communications to relevant populations, groups, and actors; processing, exploitation, and dissemination of intelligence relating to threat groups, relevant populations, and their interactions; understanding the diverse human ecosystems involved (including ideological factors and political dynamics); and understanding the dynamics of recruitment, motivation, and action in both physical and symbolic realms.

Among the four pillars of national power – Diplomatic, Informational, Military, and Economic (DIME) -- the INFORMATIONAL element is increasingly recognized as primary.

Control over bodies is secondary to control over minds. Especially in the age of mass personal communications, projection of influence over individuals and populations (whether through words, images, music, performance, or other symbolic means) is the primary factor in the success or failure of all kinds of endeavors, including political, military, and humanitarian ones. Even kinetic action is a means of psychological impact and influence (as in the case of the attacks of 9/11). According to Vladimir Tismaneanu, a Harvard scholar of political transition, “individuals need something more than bread and water: human beings need to make sense of their very existence, to find a cause worth living for [and, one may add, fighting for], to construct a set of values that allow one to make distinctions between good and evil” (x). Symbolic sense-making is fundamental to the survival of human groups and the construction of collective identities, including those of nations, groups, movements, and so on.

Political struggle today is to a large extent struggle over meaning conducted through symbols. Global conflicts increasingly involve asymmetrical confrontations with diverse networks of actors in loose, horizontal coalitions coalescing around shared narratives and symbols, often based on a common ideological (political or religious) identity or simply on the idea of struggle itself as a unifying, motivating, and organizing mechanism. As many scholars have noted, “[o]ne of the key implications of the Information Age for global politics is the dramatically increased significance of the broadcasting or projection of information, through a variety of means, as an instrument of power” (Malone, Jeff and Armistead, Leigh. “Speaking Out of Both Sides of Your Mouth: Approaches to Perception Management in Washington, D.C. and Canberra.” in Macdonald, Scot. Propaganda and Information Warfare in the Twenty-First Century. London and New York: Routledge, 2007. 139-151.)

It is thus increasingly recognized that:

  • politics, security, and even warfare today have become intimately connected to information, influence, and perception management, and that
  • every human action carries symbolic meanings and thus has potential implications for power and security.

The course is designed to introduce you to the complex relationships between, on the one hand, the use of symbols and messages of all kinds, and, on the other hand, power, culture, human motivation and action, and, ultimately, conflict and security.

To navigate this complex realm, we will become familiar with some basic tools of rhetorical analysis, understood as the study of how people use symbols to shape attitudes, influence thoughts, and motivate actions in other people. We will also examine historical examples of the use of propaganda and psychological operations, including the American, Nazism, Communism, the two world wars, Islamic extremism, Russia, China, and selected social movements, insurgencies, revolutions, and criminal organizations to see how they use language and other means of influence and perception management to promote their causes, secure and exercise power, and achieve their strategic and tactical aims.

The major topics in the course include

  • Understanding the Power of Rhetoric: Recruiting, Mobilizing, Persuading, Framing
  • Propaganda as related to Political Ideologies: The examples of Nazism, Communism, and Islamic Extermism
  • War Propaganda and Psychological Warfare: From the American Revolution to ISIS, Russia, and China
  • The Growing Importance of Narrative and Visuality (images, video)
  • Propaganda of the Deed: Action and Performance as Propaganda
  • The Return of Political Warfare: Grey Zones, Bots, and Artificial Intelligence

This course is very much an effort at collective inquiry. I do not have all the answers. What I offer is a set of concepts, models, and cases that we can apply to new data. While much is known about the mechanisms of, for instance, Nazi or Communist propaganda, we are just learning about the dynamics of radical Islamist propaganda, the recruitment strategies of various extremist or criminal groups, or how to deal with the challenges of global strategic communication in the age of digital media (as in the case of Russia’s fake news campaign). As part of our inquiry into these mechanisms and into the historical and contemporary “wars of ideas,” we will examine texts, events, videos, and other symbolic material, some of which will be supplied or discovered by the students and shared in class in the course of student presentations and group work. Your contributions in terms of the background and experience you bring to the class as well as the materials you find, analyze, and share are an important component of the class.

This is an interdisciplinary course for graduate students. The purpose of this class is to produce leaders from a variety of educational and professional backgrounds who can effectively and efficiently identify, design, and mobilize the appropriate community resources to prevent, deter, preempt, defend against, and respond to criminal acts, terrorist attacks, other acts of war or natural disasters as they impact homeland security on the local, regional, national and international levels.

Homeland security encompasses a grouping of diverse missions and functions that are performed by a wide variety of organizations on the local, state, federal and international levels. Consequently, there are many definitions of homeland security. For the purposes of this course, homeland security is defined as:

"The prevention, deterrence and preemption of, and defense against, external and internal threats and aggression targeted at U.S. (or another sovereign state's) territory, sovereignty, population, and infrastructure, as well as the management of the consequences of such threats and aggression and other domestic emergencies."

Familiarity with the way symbols, words, and all kinds of communications (including visual and digital) work to generate or ameliorate conflict, construct collective identities for political actors, promulgate ideologies and recruit supporters for ideas and actions, shape attitudes and behaviors, and potentially help predict and prevent actions across a spectrum of environments, from local to global, is an important aspect of the preparation of security professionals.