There is a well-known study conducted in 1985 that ran a perfectly simple clean little experiment. One group favorable toward Israel and another group supportive of the Arabs were exposed to identical news stories about the violence in Lebanon in 1982. Even though both groups saw the same story, and all conditions of the experiment were the same, each believed the coverage was distorted and biased with respect to their own side; that is, they thought the media was hostile to their side. This is termed “the hostile media effect” and it very simply refers to the tendency to prefer your own group (either pro-Israel or pro-Arab) and distort perceptions of an “out” group and thus believe that the media are hostile to your side but lenient and supportive of the other side.
Given the orgy of news coverage surrounding the war in Gaza, and the inevitable outcry about media bias, I thought I would clarify some distinctions and explain the social scientific foundation of media bias. More journalists and reporters work more diligently to present a balanced view of the conflict then the public gives them credit for. But the same journalists will tell you that their good efforts to be balanced are for naught and they are flooded with mail claiming bias regardless of what they do. This tells you that the bias probably comes from the consumer of the message rather than the producer.
The general tendency to see bias is common enough. One of the most well-established relationships is between message distortion and group identity. If you sort people into two groups (e.g. Israelis-Palestinians) this immediately sets into motion a series of processes that influence how messages are interpreted. And, these interpretations always favor one group or another including interpreting messages as biased against their own side. The results of the 1985 study referred to earlier have been replicated with numerous topics and events. We prefer to think of ourselves as treating people equally or respecting diversity of all sorts but the truth is we strongly identify with groups and define ourselves according to group membership.
From a rather straightforward evolutionary perspective, any exposure of your ingroup to negative information is perceived as a potential threat. This stimulates our sense of self protection, which takes precedence over other cognitive processes, and causes us to question the nature and quality of the information. Claiming that the media are biased against us or the information is substandard allows group members to minimize the inconsistency between their group favorability and information inconsistent with maintaining their ingroup status.
Moreover, the more one intensely identifies with their group – such as a religious group or ethnic identity – the more individuals feel potential threat and the more intense is the relationship between group identity and sensitivity to information threats. These relationships are further intensified when group members consider their group to be particularly threatened or vulnerable. If you ask a strong supporter of Israel or a Palestinian whether or not they feel their group is vulnerable, or threatened, or disrespected they will certainly answer in the affirmative and consequently are more responsive than most to information threats.
There are of course numerous consequences to the distortion of perceptions and information resulting from group identity – sometimes deadly consequences – but the threat to democracy is a problem that receives less attention than psychological ones. There are three of them: one, the quality of information failure. Information is discounted or judged negatively sometimes when it should not be. It becomes difficult to find common information acceptable to both sides which is necessary for conflict resolution. Secondly, group identity distortions result in political polarization. The two sides of an issue see themselves as more extreme than they might actually be and retreat to more extreme positions which makes it even more difficult to manage problems. And third, the sense of being threatened or the recipient of hostile media attention creates conditions that justify more extreme or even violent behavior. The group considers its existence to be in jeopardy and this justifies more extreme behavior in the interest of “protecting themselves.” It is analogous to increasing constraints on civil rights in the face of terrorist activity.
How do we moderate group identity affects? We will pay some attention to that issue next week.
5 dumb moments when it comes to the Israel-Palestinian conflict. At the number 5 spot is Joan Rivers. She claims to know what is going on between Israel and the Palestinians because “she has been there.” I suppose if you can afford to fly to Israel then you will become knowledgeable. All of the nuances of the conflict become clear to you as you relax by the pool at the King David. Of course your credentials are never more evident than when you claim somebody else is not bright enough to understand the issues.
Howard Stern, coming in at number 4, uses the same approach to the discussion which is to claim everyone around him is stupid and doesn’t have the right to speak, attacks easy targets such as Rihanna, and spouts mostly macho stereotypes about Israel or the Palestinians.
Below is a video featuring conservative talk show host Dennis Prager (number 3) and he commits the sin of simple simplicity. Prager stares into the screen with an unemotional tone about how this problem is not so difficult, it all boils down to the fact that “they hate us.” Prager cites the line often attributed to Netanyahu that if the Arabs lay down their arms and announced peace there would be no more war, but if the Jews lay down their arms and announced peace, there would be no more Jews.
This is the “they hate us” theory. It is an emotional shorthand that distills every political disagreement and the entire history of the conflict including the clear political issues into a single emotional outburst. The “they hate us” theory trivializes politics, turns issues that truly demand attention into unsolvable simplicities, and promotes a defeatist sense that nothing will change.
I could not resist an example from Hamas which is just about laughable because it will say anything it needs to at any time regardless of the lie. Of course the segment is not “funny” but it is absurd which makes it funny. This fellow from Hamas actually invoked the blood libel’s from the primitive past. He did it in Arabic probably as a result of speaking different ways to different audiences. Still, to make reference to such silliness is so intellectually embarrassing that I just had to include it.
This Is Senator Gohmert from Texas and he fits the entire stereotype. This is the number 1 funniest and dumbest statement on the Israel Palestine conflict. The poor fellow has his politics, history, and religion confused and it is wrapped around his delightful Texas idiomatic speech.
Israel supporters are struck dumb by what they consider to be the great moral inversion. In fact, as Jeffrey Goldberg writing in The Atlantic states, “Hamas is a theocratic fascist cult committed to the obliteration of Israel.” It is an organization committed to genocide. Hamas represents nothing of modern democratic political theory– religious tolerance, political participation, association rights, liberal values, etc. But to the chagrin of many Hamas is treated as if it were a legitimate political party committed to the interests of Gazans rather than itself. Hamas is fighting a war in which they are trying to kill as many of their enemy as possible (Israelis); Israel is fighting a war in which they are trying to avoid killing as many people as possible. The moral inversion continues.
John Kerry is currently struggling with a cease-fire agreement because he insists on granting Hamas various rights rather than treating it according to his own State Department’s designation as a terrorist group. Kerry’s defense is that Hamas is a reality that must be dealt with and I agree with that, but one does not cave in to a terrorist group’s demand for their own security, funding, and freedom of movement in order to secure a cease-fire. On the contrary, that would be a reward for the group’s behavior and will probably encourage future violence if such rewards are available.
So what explains this? Why is this violent anti-Semitic group being treated seriously while Israel takes a perceptual and public relations beating? Why do the Palestinians, who are equally as blameworthy for the failure of conflict management, win the narrative? Why are they the sympathetic underdog? Here are a few suggestions:
Imagine some tough guy big kids in your neighborhood who are teased and taunted by a bunch of little kids. The little kids throw rocks, break the windows at houses, and spread false or distorted stories about these big kids to others in the neighborhood. The big kids defend their houses and respond to the rock throwing with fistfights they easily win, and throwing back bigger and harder rocks. The big kids do more damage and bloody the noses of the little kids and are “blamed” for inflicting damage even though they were defending themselves and the little kids initiated the aggression. And so it is with the Israelis and Palestinians. It doesn’t seem to matter how the Palestinians or Hamas behave, the Israelis get blamed because they are capable of inflicting more damage. The big kids and the Israelis lose if they defend themselves and if they do not defend themselves. So Hamas wins the narrative battle every time they manipulate Israel into killing Palestinians. Israel cannot escape the paradox.
Secondly, the Palestinians have mastered the underdog narrative. During pre-state Israel, and even in the early days of the state, Jews were the underdog and the center of world attention and sympathy. But now the left has switched its allegiance to the newest minority group. There is a spectrum of the left that never met a minority group it did not consider oppressed and the Palestinians are a perfect example.
And third, the second point above is informed by the context of anti-Semitism. I dislike and reject the notion that anti-Semitism is everywhere and always the explanation for criticism of Israel. Surely Israel can be criticized without it being anti-Semitic. But sometimes the criticism of Israel is so bizarre, so morally inverted, that only anti-Semitism explains it. And new media has brought violent and vitriolic anti-Semitism to the forefront. Anti-Semitism was of hallucinogenic proportions during the Holocaust, completely unjustified by reality, and there are moments when I feel the same conditions returning.
Finally, everyone has to do more. Israel has to make its case better to the world. They need spokespersons and better public relations to be sure. But that’s only a small part of the problem. It is not a public relations problem but an argument one. It is incumbent on Israel to do a better job of explaining to the world who they are and what they are fighting against. Moreover, Israel has to begin addressing those issues where change is inevitable. Settlements, for example, are just not going to be there in the end – at least in their present form. The only way Israel remains a nation of Jews, for Jews, and defined as a Jewish state devoted to some sense of Jewish particularity is by allowing the Palestinians to do the same for themselves in their own state. Israel must make more aggressive progress toward this goal.
Until then, Israel will continue to win military battles and kill more of the other side (which is never a very good measure of anything), but lose the narrative battle.
A couple of nights ago I went to a Jewish Community Center to listen to a talk by a respected scholar of Middle Eastern politics and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It was an enjoyable evening with pleasant enough talk. Actually, it was more like a prayer meeting than a community political lecture. The audience was composed of Israel supporters and there were prayers and the singing of Hatikvah.
But what struck me was the casual and confident ease with which people claim media bias. One presenter proudly and enthusiastically declared that she was going to cancel her subscription to the New York Times, as if that would do anything other than make her less informed. I know the media are an easy target and as an active specialist in these areas myself I encounter the charge of media bias regularly. Still, it is frustrating how little effect I have on people when I explain the multitude of perceptual distortions that go into their conclusions about bias, followed by an explanation of the difference between “bias” and “perspective”.
We can’t seem to explain to the public that people watch the news for a multitude of reasons, many of which have little or nothing to do with the acquisition of accurate information. We watch news for mood management, social rehearsals, and all sorts of cognitive needs. The more one watches the more they are bound to encounter bias or develop distrust.
You know that individual psychology and cognitive distortions are implicated when both sides of an issue claim bias. There are a dozen studies that show the same footage or text to two different groups, only to have that message interpreted completely differently by the two different groups depending on their entering perspective. No news story is completely free of values, and no story includes all potentially relevant information.
In one study available here the authors found that presentation variables such as agency in headlines and focal point of photographs all contributed to different (perhaps just “different” and not distorted) interpretations. And just as one would predict, according to the hostile media affect, the roomful of Israel supporters saw bias against Israel everywhere, noting the New York Times, when in fact the research cited above indicates that the New York Times is mostly pro-Israel. The hostile media affect is the tendency for highly involved individuals to see media coverage of their issue as biased against their own position. Their own ego involvement and engagement with the issues makes it impossible for them to process a new story objectively. In fact, coverage of the Israel Palestine conflict has traditionally been so supportive of Israel that the American public is uninformed about the Palestinian narrative and political position. Zelizer and colleagues in the reference cited above found that the New York Times, Washington Post, and Chicago Tribune had remarkably similar coverage of the intifada with the Times being more supportive of Israel.
But the difficulty people have with the distinction between “perspective” and “bias” is particularly disappointing. Not a single person at the lecture interpreted news stories as a perspective; they only saw bias everywhere they looked. A perspective is a defensible and explainable viewpoint from which one member of the group sees an issue; it is a point of view. The perspective can be impartial and defensible. To say it is defensible means that the holder of the perspective is fair-minded and has come to his or her opinion on the basis of acceptable reasons and evidence. This does not mean that other evidence is not available or different interpretations are not possible, just that the holder of the perspective has thoughtfully considered alternatives and sincerely tried to weigh competing evidence. Being a “liberal Democrat” or a “Zionist” is defensible and can be explained on the basis of acceptable reasons. But the same is true for being a “conservative Republican” or an “anti-Zionist.” It is the clash of these perspectives that results in reasonable disagreement. There is disagreement because the two perspectives support different positions and hold different values, but both perspectives are defensible from evidentiary, rational, and cultural standpoints.
A bias is holding an unfair and indefensible attitude or opinion. The holder of the bias is typically close minded and unwilling to consider additional evidence and alternatives because he or she pre-judges new information and alternative perspectives and refuses to engage in proper and sufficient information processing that might result in opinion change. Certainly, putting aside beliefs and working to form new conclusions is difficult. But it remains a communicative behavior that is central to problem-solving and part of the general communicative process that forms the foundation of democratic conflict resolution and the management of conflicting groups.
ze lo y’gamer im lo n’daber
This won’t stop if we don’t talk
It is probably unimaginable to think of Hamas and Israel actually talking civilly but getting to the negotiating table is the only answer. Here are some thoughts on doing that.
The above phrase in transliterated Hebrew is going around Israel. It means “this will not stop if we don’t talk” and it appears on protest signs, news stories, and casual conversation. It rhymes in Hebrew. Truer words have never been spoken. The issue is not how to talk to each other or what form those talks should take, the issue is getting to the table. All of our knowledge and skill at communication, dialogue and deliberation, is wasted and unavailable if you cannot get the two parties to the table. If Hamas or Israel insists that the other side must be destroyed or their incompatibilities are irreversible and there’s nothing to talk about, then the violence and conflict will simply continue.
At the moment I’m concerned about getting to the table. Essentially, this is the issue of “ripeness” which you can read more about here. Ripeness refers to the right time or the belief that the conditions are best for talking and solving problems. Right now no one would consider the time “ripe” for conflict management between Israel and Hamas for example. The time might be necessary or the most urgent given the violence but the situation is not ripe. “Ripeness” is a delicate matter because it is a little subjective and difficult to know when exactly is the “right time.” One can move too early, too late, too fast, or misjudge the other. Moreover, conflicts usually have more than one ripe time.
But I do not advocate sitting around waiting for the ripe moment. Participants in a conflict sometimes avoid ripe situations because they get more out of prolonging the conflict. Hamas always says it has “time on its side” because the status attributions it receives from war with Israel outweigh any benefits of negotiation and talk. One question becomes then how you create ripeness, how do you construct conditions that will increase the chances of bringing two sides to the table? Here are some strategies:
1. Third parties are always good sources of incentives. The Middle East has been most calm and in control when there is a significant international polity (the Ottoman Empire, the British Mandate, the United States,) that can provide incentives for talks. Actually, anytime a third-party is willing to intervene and try to mediate the conflict it is a good indication of ripeness.
2. The second strategy for getting people to the table, although a less pleasant one, is waiting until things are so bad that negotiation becomes attractive. As the saying goes, “sometimes things have to get worse before they can get better.”
3. Sometimes it’s possible to get people to the negotiating table by promising them more than they expect. Perhaps some symbolic recognition that was earlier denied, or a tangible resource.
4. New ways to be interdependent that benefit both sides are always strong strategies. Interdependence creates common interest and overlapping concerns and the two parties will talk if the reward possibilities are sufficient.
5. Pre-negotiations or “talking about talk.” Finally, it is sometimes useful to get the two parties to talk about how they would organize and develop dialogue or deliberation. Don’t engage in actual discussion and deliberation and do not term the conversation as official negotiation or discussion. But get the two parties together and have them imagine what the process would look like. This should move them closer to the actual experience of problem-solving deliberation.
Persuading the two parties to talk and find a way to negotiate a settlement – to get them to the table – is typically more difficult than constructing an actual settlement package. There are lots of solutions and proposals to end and contain the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Many of them are understood and accepted by both parties and not very controversial. But none of this matters if the two parties do not talk.
ze lo y’gamer im lo n’daber
This won’t stop if we don’t talk
People ask me what I think about current events in Gaza as well as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and here’s what I tell them.
Recent book: Deliberative Communication and Ethnopolitical Conflict
Peter Lang. Amazon.com
People enjoy political cartoons. They make for fast iconic processing and cut to the quick of a point. This cartoon by Steve Bell is clearly cynical and anti-Israel. Its essential point is clear enough – that Israel values its own lives greater than that of the Palestinians. An even deeper and more cynical and insensitive interpretation would be that “only” three lives are considered more significant than all of the Palestinians.
But the cartoon does represent the mindset that characterizes the perception of Israel. On the one hand, any culture disproportionally prefers its own people and interpretations of its culture that are favorable. Why wouldn’t an Israeli, or an American, or member of any other culture be at least just a little biased towards its own people and political conditions? But this cartoon doesn’t state an obvious political reality; it’s not a simple statement of support and preference for one’s own that anyone can understand. No, it’s an indictment. It is a charge that Israel considers itself to be superior, that the lives of three teenagers (three coffins draped in an Israeli flag) are considered more important than all the Palestinian suffering.
Political cartoons that are rich in interpretive possibilities lend themselves to multiple issues and implications. This one not only accuses Israel of unfair and biased attitudes about human life but also speaks to the issues of moral superiority and moral equivalence. It accuses Israel of considering themselves to be morally superior, which is why the death of the three teens outweighs the Palestinian experience or the other side of the scale. And even though, as referred to above, this is common enough and true of any political culture in the hands of a cynical cartoonist it becomes an accusation. Moreover, as part of this bias towards one’s own group, there is the matter of moral equivalence or the belief that your own group is equally as justified as any other group. If the killing of the three teenagers was the act of a crazed individual (such as in the case of Baruch Goldstein) then that is different than it being a political act. But if Hamas for example consciously planned to kidnap and kill three Israeli kids coming home from school as part of a political statement, then an aggressive response is justified.
One of the most pernicious aspects of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the sense of moral equivalence on both sides. The Palestinians believe they are morally superior because more of them have died, and the Israelis believe they are morally superior because of their developed political culture as well as the conviction that they are a legitimately established state that is surrounded by enemies and simply defending themselves.
Research on political cartoons reports that cartoonists want to expose the system and encourage resistance. They clearly have an agenda, which is fine because that’s their job. But a persistent bias toward one issue is no different than any journalist engaging in conscious and systematic bias with respect to an issue. An editorial cartoonist is particularly adept at exposing hypocrisy and absurdity and these cartoon moments are powerful when there is a consensus recognizing hypocrisy and absurdity. But a cartoonist who simply hammers away portraying his or her own biased political perspective is little more than a journalist hack.
Political cartoons are naturally critical and typically have a sharp cutting-edge humor and insight to them. And this is why we enjoy them. If they subvert those in power and draw attention to the corruption of deep or sacred principles than editorial cartoons are powerful communication forces. A cartoon may not prompt revolution in the streets but it can be and should be oppositional in the most honorable sense. If we laugh or see ourselves in bitter recognition then the cartoon is successful. But propagating an indefensible cultural stereotype aimed at one culture and interpreting that culture through a single lens (the accusation of Israeli moral superiority in this case) moves beyond insightful cartoons into the realm of rank bias.
What Kind of Mentality Kills Teenagers Because They are Jewish or Palestinian? I’ll Tell You What Kind.
You have to be pretty far outside the category of “human” to kidnap three scared teenagers and shoot them in the back of a car. Shoot them for no reason other than they fit the category of “other.” The murder of Naftali Frenkel and Gilad Shaar, both 16, and Eyal Yifrach 19, and the Palestinian Mohamed Abu Khdeir reveals the monstrosity that can arouse itself in humans whenever group membership is highly salient and fueled by powerful beliefs such as religion. Let me explain how framing a conflict can be murderous.
Experts talking to lay people usually make the point that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not about religion or culture but land and national rights. It is a conflict between national political movements – Zionism and Palestinian nationalism – and perhaps includes broader Arab nationalism. Framing the conflict this way is actually quite good and beneficial. In addition to the practical implications, describing the conflict as one between two national political movements makes the conflict more amenable to management and resolution with all of the attendant rational and political bargaining. It implies sensible trade-offs and compromise along with future relationships and the positive attitudes and beliefs that will accompany these compromises and future relationships. Each side will broaden its circle of humanity and slowly include more of the other.
But with the integration and the unity government formed between Hamas and Fatah, not to mention the Hamas Charter and its aggressive religious history, we have a powerful religious element introduced. Islamizing the conflict is our worst nightmare and begins from the simple category definition of the conflict as one between two rival religions Islam and Judaism. Or, to put it in even more intractable terms, a conflict between two opposing absolutes. Now attitudes about the other are not subject to rational trade-offs and the anticipation of future relationships. And yes, the conflict can be Judiazed but there are important differences which we will take up at another time. This post is mostly about Islamizing the conflict. I will deal with revenge later.
Turning the conflict into a religious one between Islam and Judaism means you operate with only two categories – the ingroup and the outgroup with all of the biases and mental distortions that demonize and dehumanize the outgroup and wildly exaggerate the truth of the ingroup.
The murderers of these teenagers did not see human beings, they did not see naïve young boys, and they certainly did not see three individuals who like sports, school, and their friends. No, they saw three Jews or a Palestinian who are all alike; they saw the “other” who was responsible for usurping the holy land; they saw grossly distorted historical monsters who – as the Hamas Charter indicates – were a demonic force on earth, bloodsuckers and the killers of prophets.
And it’s getting worse. As Hamas asserts itself Judaism becomes its primary enemy. The hate and narrowing categories of acceptance will reach hallucinogenic proportions as Jews are described in demonic terms and according to the Hamas Charter are a “corruption on earth.” It will be increasingly easier to kill innocent teenagers because Islamizing the conflict drained them of any remnant of humanity.
The Hamas Charter – and I encourage everyone to read it to fully appreciate the depths of its depravity – relies on the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. The old charges of the Jews controlling everything would be laughable if they were not so consequential. Hamas is not bargaining over land because Palestine is sacred and not subject to division or occupation by anyone else. There will be no discussion of borders, or settlements, or land swaps. Palestine is dar al-Islam (the abode of Islam).
Islamizing the conflict is the worst thing that can happen from a contemporary social science and intergroup conflict point of view. It will increase the distance and differences, and decrease opportunities for positive contact even more than they are. As the two groups retreat into their own worlds and formulate their psychological and communicative categories such formulations will be increasingly based on misinformation, distortions, historical inaccuracies, stereotypes, and emotions until the two groups retreat to their respective corners each having drained the other of even the slightest consideration. At that point it becomes easy to murder teenagers.
I have a sinking sense that schools don’t teach much “evidence-based thinking” anymore. They do teach critical thinking which is related but students are remarkably poor at defending propositions and recognizing thoughts and beliefs worth having. Although here is a blog site devoted to evidence-based thinking by two energetic young fellows. This spills over into the deliberative process because many citizens and political activists suffer from some of the same deficiencies. For some time now we have seen the diminution of the effects of Enlightenment thinking and science. From religious extremists to Tea Party members there’s plenty of anti-rationalist thinking and pseudo-intellectual discourse.
But things get worse. There is a clear disdain for logic and reasoning in some circles with many holding a toxic dependency on popular culture. This is not a particularly new phenomenon because Richard Hofstadter’s Anti-Intellectualism in American Life published in 1963 began to note the decline of the principled and evidentiary intellectual society and its replacement – the persuasion of single-minded people tenaciously holding onto a belief, opinion, or feeling and doing nothing but looking for support for that belief rather than its improvements, or accuracy, or truth value. I term this, the backside of evidence based thinking, confirmatory thinking in honor of the confirmation bias which is that people favor information that confirms what they already believe. But it gets worse. I count four ways that thinking is deficient because it is not evidence-based.
The difference between coincidence and causality is sometimes not completely clear but important to understand. Those who oppose vaccinations believe that all drugs have negative effects and any new vaccination would be the same thereby confirming their depreciated knowledge about medicine. They hold a mistrust of government and consequently any government program – even a highly evidence-based program that saves children’s lives – is rejected. A consistency of their own belief is more important than the evidence that supports the value of vaccinations.
A second sign of diminished capacity for evidence is simply how science and methods for making decisions work. The past and knowledge is strewn with failures and disappointments. Even when studies are unsuccessful and wrongheaded they make for a certain amount of information that is still of scientific value. It is comparable to the quip attributed to Edison that after he failed 200 times to make a light bulb he was not frustrated because he learned 200 ways not to make a light bulb. Evidence-based thinking requires developmental and evolutionary attitudes towards the unfolding of better and more precise information. Even though information can be wrong and lead you down wasteful paths, these paths are part of the process.
Basic misunderstanding of the logic of research is also a third issue. I’m not talking about standard logic or sophisticated mathematics but about basic principles of research and conclusions based on quantitative data. What it means for something to have a mean (average) and variation around the mean. Or, to have a sense of why and how numbers are influenced and change over time. This would include the logic of the experiment and the quality of conclusions when conditions are controlled and only a single experimental factor could have caused variation.
Lastly, one of the easiest ways to never get out of your own head and to hold fast to wrongheaded beliefs is to dispute, challenge, and dismiss those who are credible; in other words, to care more about maintaining your own consistency by rejecting experts and those more knowledgeable. We cannot all be experts on scientific and political matters so we must often rely on the expertise of others. And even though challenging and checking on the credentials of others to ensure source reliability is an important critical stance, this is not the same as knee-jerk rejection of experts. It seems as if those on the conservative end of the spectrum are quick to label all sorts of science as biased against the environment, or the climate, or finance because they inherently mistrust the source of any information and easily gravitate toward rejecting inconsistency with their own ideas then truly exploring and integrating new information.
There are all sorts of ways to distort information or disengage from it. And even the most conscientious thinker allows biases to creep in. But the attitude and willingness to engage, integrate new information on the basis of sound evidentiary principles, and change as a result of this evidence is what makes for more rigorous thinking.
I had a good chuckle the other day at the story of the Iraqi insurgents who captured the city of Mosul and found five nice American-made helicopters. They noted that the helicopters were pretty new and said in a posting on Twitter, “We expect the Americans to honor the warranty for these helicopters and service them for us.” Apparently even one of the most brutal jihadist groups has a sense of humor. But there is more than a prideful display of humor here. The comment was meant to humiliate. Even though it is a rather benign attempt at humiliation, and aimed at a strong target, it meets the conditions of humiliation as a communicative act between groups engaged in intergroup conflict.
Humiliation is an attempt to subjugate or diminish the pride and dignity of the other. Moreover the recipient of the humiliation is forced to feel helpless and if the humiliation is potent and long-lasting it can have deep psychological effects. Traditional societies rely on a sense of order and hierarchy and keeping the lower ranks “down” is expected. But when someone of status or higher rank is humiliated it is especially unacceptable because it does not serve the social order of the group, and it is especially painful for the higher status recipient. Acts of revenge and retribution are common. Jealousy, which is a powerful jailhouse emotion, is rooted in humiliation and the sense of being rejected, inferior, and disrespected. You can read a little more here.
Violence is especially likely when a formerly humiliated group feels powerful enough to humiliate its former tormentor. That many Middle Eastern Arabs and Muslims feel humiliated by the West is commonly enough understood. But now that the formerly subjugated are in positions of power – or at least are feeling powerful – they will return the humiliation. Considerable historical violence (Hitler, Osama bin Laden, Rwanda, South Africa, colonial violence) is associated with humiliation. Moreover, trauma and victimhood are intertwined with humiliation in some complex ways. Anger, rage, and antagonism are strongly associated with political conflict and violence and very dangerous when associated with humiliation.
So what are we to think of our jihadist friends and their gleeful humiliation of the United States? We can ignore it which is often a good strategy and consistent with the popular ideology that says “nobody can humiliate you unless you let them.” This is not a platitude I consider very effective but it is the case that I have some control over how I feel. This little slight humiliation is insignificant enough such that ignoring it is easy. There is always dialogue and reconciliation and attempts to reconstruct relationships such that humiliation is not part of the new relationship. This is ideal and desirable, but difficult.
These jihadists fellows are feeling their oats with respect to military victories and this effort to exercise autonomy and stand up to the humiliater make for feelings of joyful catharsis. But if they were serious about problem-solving of any type they would take the next step which is to transition to a more balanced and respectful relationship. Former underlings who change their own consciousness first are in a position to change the other.
Then again, all of this is laughably idealistic as we read about the savagery of these ISIS (Islamic State in Iraq and Syria) groups who casually execute prisoners, behead rivals, and loot the communities they conquer. On second thought, a little humiliation does not sound so bad.