Monthly Archives: February 2015
Obama and the Language of Contention
I’ve been a little surprised at the number of people who want the President of the United States, a man of dignity and diplomacy, to sound like some macho character out of a movie. Obama has lately been chastised for not labeling ISIS an Islamic threat and identifying its specific religious motivations. I personally have no problem recognizing the religious roots of ISIS despicable behavior and have even pointed it out myself on occasion. But it is not fitting for the President who speaks to numerous audiences and is responsible for maintaining the peace and representing the interests of diverse groups (even mainstream Muslims).
When it comes to the language of contention as soon as you label a group that label begins the construction process – the construction of characteristics and emotional responses associated with the group. “Naming” is the first step in the stereotype and prejudice formation process. As soon as ISIS or some other jihadist group is named and becomes increasingly defined as “Muslim” the name becomes the basis for perceptual discriminability and these characteristics are more likely to become the basis for defining groups.
Very simply, by labeling these groups as Islamic the act of categorizing them triggers negative stereotypes associated with the term “Islamic.” Consequently, the problem is exacerbated rather than managed. Moreover, labeling extremist groups as Muslim exaggerates ingroup-outgroup biases and increases the sense of essentialism that accompanies the definition of outgroups. Having a world leader label the international criminal behavior of groups such as ISIS just makes them more salient.
The Narcissism of Small Differences
Hate is a powerful unifying passion and it is even more dominant in extremist movements. As soon as a movement or ideology is associated with “hate” other meanings creep in – meanings such as disgust, fear, contempt, and others. Elites and those with regular public voices (such as the President of the United States) can more easily energize the feelings of ordinary people against groups labeled negatively in some way. And this activates what Freud called “the narcissism of small differences.” The story below exemplifies the fragile state of group relationships when they are isolated and differentiated to such a degree that “any difference seems to be a difference”.
I was walking across a bridge one sunny day, and I saw a man standing on the edge, about to jump. I ran over and said: ‘Stop. Don’t do it.’
‘Why shouldn’t I?’ he asked.
‘Well, there’s so much to live for!’
‘Are you religious?’
He said: ‘Yes.’
I said. ‘Me too. Are you Christian or Buddhist?’
‘Me too. Are you Catholic or Protestant?”
‘Me too. Are you Episcopalian or Baptist?’
‘Wow. Me too. Are you Baptist Church of God or Baptist Church of the Lord?’
‘Baptist Church of God.’
‘Me too. Are you original Baptist Church of God, or are you reformed Baptist Church of God?’
‘Reformed Baptist Church of God.’
‘Me too. Are you Reformed Baptist Church of God, reformation of 1879, or Reformed Baptist Church of God, reformation of 1915?’
He said: ‘Reformed Baptist Church of God, reformation of 1915.’
I said: “Die, heretic scum,” and pushed him off the bridge.
If the President of the United States begins to label mainstream Muslims, who are more like us than not, as dangerous or violent or any other even minor characteristic then the narcissism of small differences triggers because according to Freud and a few that follow him we reserve our most intense dislike and feelings of threat for those who are more like us than not like us. The very strange “other” can certainly be threatening but we don’t identify with that person or group. But the more a group or an individual is “nearly-me” the more I project my own distasteful qualities. The narcissist’s natural tendency to distinguish and separate himself from others causes him to exaggerate differences in the service of his narcissism. So, small differences that should be ignored or evaporate become big differences. The President of the United States can halt or prevent this process by carefully choosing his language and avoiding the “language of contention.”
Blaming the US for Trouble in the Middle East Is Simply a Stretch
Last week a respected friend and colleague sent me an email making the standard claims about how all the problems in the Middle East are the result of imperial borders, colonialism, and US foreign policy. It’s the “blame the US” refrain. If you believe the West is responsible for ISIS and Middle East violence then you are easily manipulated by the Islamic state into believing just what they want you to believe. Sure, there is much to criticize about colonialism but borders are not so central to contemporary problems. Let’s take up the case of Iraq (for additional reading go to an article in The Atlantic available here). The three provinces of Iraq – Mosul, Baghdad, and Basra – were historically treated as the one area (called Mesopotamia) and Iraq’s eastern border with Iran dates back to the early Ottoman Empire. The boundaries of Iraq are not so arbitrary. Interestingly, the country with some of the newest Western carved out borders is Jordan and it is the more stable country as a result of King Abdullah.
We fool ourselves into believing that how the Middle East was carved up after World War I and the fall of the Ottoman Empire is responsible for all the problems. Did you ever ask yourself what it is about a political culture that allowed extremism to take root in the first place! I can give you five explanations for the spread of fundamentalist violence and jihadism. The answers to these issues are always complex, and surely the United States is not completely innocent, but the list below better captures the realities of the political system that absorbs extremism.
- It is not a stretch, and an easy connection to make, when one blames so many leaders in the Middle East who failed to deliver a semblance of prosperity and freedom. Countries like Egypt modeled their secular world on the Soviet Union rather than Western market economies and have paid the price ever since.
- Political participation is one of the last things authoritarian leaders want so they have encouraged citizens to take solace in mosques. Consequently religion and the language of religion is the most common currency. Saudi Arabia has directly supported the fundamentalist Wahhabi strand of Islam.
- Ruling elites must give up something and guide the transition to democracy and open economies, but they have failed to do so in many places. Elites are crucial for the transition to modern political systems.
- The Middle East has lived by oil and will die by oil. An economy based on one resource is doomed to fade away in time but for now provides tremendous wealth to some but not others. The Gulf economies have failed to develop in certain economic areas and once again Islam stepped in as a refuge. The work of diversifying economies has yet to be done.
- Finally, the Muslim confrontation with modernity has partially damaged the culture rendering it less able to adapt and once again reinforcing religion as the common identity binding language.
It’s natural to look for explanations for things but reducing the violence, and confusion, and complexity of the collection of countries in what we call the Middle East to American foreign policy or humiliations is not very productive.
ISIS, which probably constitutes the most stable future threat, was created by all sorts of forces very few of which are rooted in US foreign policy. An excellent reading on this matter is “Who is to blame for the rise of ISIS?” It explains how the Iraqi Army has failed to defend borders and people; the Iraqi people have not challenged ISIS sufficiently; Nouri Al-Maliki the leader of Iraq failed to put together a majority power-sharing government; and even premature troop withdrawal is partially the blame for the rise in ISIS’s power.
In the end, ISIS came to power because individuals made the choice to adopt and support the movement. They chose violence over reconciliation. The vile quality that allows ISIS to consider itself murderously superior is well enough understood in history and social scientifically. Western democracies such as the US are not primarily responsible for the creation of ISIS, but will certainly have to play a major role in its elimination.
The Sin of Sanctity
Below is a video of Obama’s comments at the prayer breakfast where he compared the Crusades to the religious extremism of ISIS. It was a clumsy comparison and I probably would have counseled him to find another way to make the point. But he was speaking casually. Still, he was not wrong. The general principle that any exclusivist claim to truth – whether it be religious or secular – creates a psychology of sanctity and sets into motion extreme justifications is defensible.
The sense that a group or an idea is larger than us and we identify with it is basic to our evolutionary psychology. Group and ideational identification has a survival value and it is deeply set in our consciousness. That’s why people identify so strongly with political groups, national entities, belief systems of various types (communism, socialism, capitalism, Stalinism), and of course religions. But it remains true, as others have quipped before, that you will die for your ethnic or religious group but not for your golf club. You might belong to a book group and acquire some group identity as a result, but you cannot imagine dying for your book group in the same way you would for your country or your religious group. The difference is sanctity or the belief that your national or religious group and its actions have divine reality. Nobody believes their book group is divine.
In the most extreme cases death and an afterlife become a truer reality for believers. One Muslim extremist group commented after a bombing that they “chose death as a path to life” a sentiment that on its face makes no sense but upon reflection refers to a truer and higher reality yet to come. They seek and believe in a divine reality that transcends individuals and requires integration. Violence in the service of this higher divine reality is simply a tool. The Rev. Paul Hill, who killed a doctor at a women’s clinic, spent his days in jail exclaiming that “the Lord had done great things through him.”
When something is sacred it takes precedence over everything else. In the heart of the true believer nothing stands in the way of duty to God, sacred land, or artifacts. Yet it remains worth asking the question why some resort to such vicious violence and others do not. Some Christians, Jewish religious settlers, and Hindus (BJP) have all engaged in violence, and have a strong sense of the sacred, but not on the scale of ISIS. One explanation is the centrality and intensity of sanctity along with the politics that requires purification. The more this world is considered “unclean” and the next world is “more real than this reality” then moral and ethical frameworks that soften judgments of others begin to melt away.
Acting in the name of a nation or the simple politics and power of resource acquisition is a mundane concern that has pragmatic value only. But when a territory or an idea is sacred boundaries close in and walls go up with almost no room for interpretive latitude. Moreover, the actions of an individual or group hold no value when they are simply pragmatic and consequently it is easier to perpetrate violence against them. And one reason managing conflict with the sanctity motivated is so difficult is that the very act of changing your behavior either for others or because of secular incentives is understood as a violation of the sacred. It becomes proof that the “true path” is being violated.
So, it is nothing doctrinal about Christianity, or Judaism, or Islam that supports greater violence; rather, it is the intensity of the sacred.
The Media’s Distorted Relationship with Israel
Matti Friedman writing in The Atlantic wrote a trenchant article about what the media gets wrong with Israel. Friedman makes the point that the press is failing the public when it comes to its duty to inform and provide a platform for issues and debate. In a number of publications Friedman has pointed out stories that are purely ideological, an overemphasis on stories with a certain perspective, and a disproportionate amount of media attention on the conflict without being particularly informative. You can read The Atlantic article here.
His analysis is important because it recognizes the banality of news gathering (the pressure of deadlines, journalist fatigue, financial constraints, distractions) and how it influences news gathering and results in mistakes and minor distortions. But Friedman claims that the true explanation lies elsewhere and that the flow of information is intentionally manipulated. Here’s his explanation.
First, international journalists in Israel live in the same social context and have a certain uniformity of attitude and behavior. The people in these groups know one another and that’s why four or five stories written by different people sound alike. There is a uniformity to the stories because this group of people share information and talk on a regular basis. Journalists also tend to be liberal and that’s one reason that the Israeli story, according to Matti Friedman, is less known and understood then the Palestinian story.
The same is true for NGOs and humanitarian organizations. Journalists view them through a positive humanitarian filter and consequently write about them in the language of public relations puff pieces. The truth is that these NGOs and humanitarian organizations have political agendas, plenty of funding from international sources, and are happy to buy drinks in the American Colony Courtyard.
A disdain for Israel is almost a prerequisite for admission to this journalist social club. The conscientious new reporter arriving in Israel will spend time educating himself or herself about the conflict including its history, religion, and cultural implications. But many new journalist arrivals to Israel cling to their colleagues who already have a framework and a “story” about who’s a good guy who’s a bad guy. Many of the standard criticisms have already been described and producing a story is little more than coordinating and repackaging stories that have already been written. The Middle East is full of failed governments that are authoritarian and corrupt, but there is more likely to be a story critical of Israel than anyone else.
Friedman bluntly indicts the Associated Press for having moved from a journalistic tradition of careful description to one of advocacy. Moreover, there has developed a narrative, or a story with standard plot lines and characteristics, that is increasingly consistent and coherent for both Palestinians and Israelis. But the Israeli narrative is fueled more by ideology than facts. The standard script for Israel has more bad guys (settlers, far right politicians, IDF, Netanyahu), but the only Palestinian “bad guys” are abstract groups (e.g. Jihadists).
There has always been a gap between what journalists write and what is actually going on, but in the case of the Israel-Palestine conflict the gap is too large and the distortions too intentional. The Israeli narrative, in addition to its long list of bad guys, portrays the Palestinians as weak and innocent victims and the Israelis as oppressors. Groups like Hamas choose journalists to talk to carefully and use them to magnify messages.
There is a cynical attitude about truth in the modern world which denies its existence and claims that any agreed-upon truths are social constructions anyway. Such an argument might be defensible on the basis of philosophical discourse but less so on the basis of political discourse. Much of what is written about Israel fits that narrative constructed by others and is either completely untrue or “untrue enough.” Ferreting out and reviewing as much truth as possible is a continuing journalist challenge.