Cultural Psychology

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The Psychology of Political Fighting

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Question:  Dr. Uebersax, you’re a psychologist.  Can you please explain why there is so much political fighting now?  It seems like that’s all people do these days?  Perplexed in Peoria.

Answer: Dear Perplexed.  Thank you for your question.  No doubt many people are asking the same thing.

The subject of today’s political acrimony is a terribly important one.  There are many dimensions to the problem, and an exhaustive treatment would take a book-length response.  In lieu of that, let’s see if we can outline or simply list some of the most relevant contributory factors, drawing upon the whole range of available psychological theories and paradigms.

Imitation.  Imitation is one of the strongest determinants of behavior.  Our species has survived partly due to our ability to learn quickly by imitation.  For one thing, this is how innovations disseminate rapidly in a culture.  Unfortunately, imitation is a two-edged sword.  We not only imitate good behaviors, but bad ones.  This is related to the phenomenon of conformity.  In any case, social attitudes and behavior disseminate in a nonlinear way.  They can change very rapidly.  Once a critical mass of  “convention” is reached, there is a strong pressure on everyone to conform.  Today, unfortunately, the convention has become one of approaching politics in terms of anger, hatred and demonization of opponents.

Instigation.  The situation is not helped by the presence of active forces which seek to perpetuate the spirit of conflict.  News media are prime culprits here, and banks and corporations benefit immensely from maintaining the present situation.  As long as people are angry, they are unable to effect any meaningful change to society or government.  Moreover, anger unleashes a cascading sequence of negative emotions that support materialism.  We eat, drink, smoke, and buy things that aren’t necessary, and often harm  us, because of being dominated by disorderly passions.

Stress.  Stress reduces our good judgment – by which we ought to be able to see that constant fighting is hurting everybody.  It also makes us irritable and eager to find scapegoats.

Ignorance.  People today are pervasively ignorant in five relevant respects.  First, they are ignorant of the issues; they reduce all issues to black-and-white, all-or-none thinking.  Second, they are ignorant of the motives and rationale of their opponents (i.e., those who support political policies they oppose).  Third, they are (and this is surprising) ignorant of how the established power interests actively manipulate public opinion in an obvious divide-and-conquer strategy.  Fourth, they are largely ignorant of critical thinking skills.  Fifth, our culture has reached a remarkable degree of functional illiteracy, such that many more people would prefer to read inflammatory headlines than to immerse their minds in deep reading and books that convey sound, positive ideas.

Laziness.  This is perhaps too harsh a word, but in any case people today exercise insufficient initiative.  Partly this is due to stress and fear.

Lack of good examples.  This is self-explanatory.  Because people are naturally inclined to seek good, all it would take is a few good examples to offset many bad ones.  Unfortunately, there are few good examples today of how to engage in social issues in a positive, constructive way.

False opinion.  By this we mean the near universal tendency of people to confuse opinion with fact.  Due to the complexity of life and the urgency of its demands, we feel that we must have an opinion on everything to guide our actions.  Thus, there is a pressure to form beliefs prematurely.  At first we hatch these as provisional, tentative beliefs.  But before long (and especially if our opinion is attacked by others), we start to act as though our opinions are established facts.  Ultimately no distinction is made between our opinions and proven facts.  In various ways, the psychological phenomenon of cognitive dissonance supports this unfortunate tendency.

Recognition of false opinion as a basic problem in human nature goes all the way back to Socrates.  (Indeed, the parallel between the politically chaotic Athens of Socrates’ time and our country today are quite relevant).  From Socrates we also learn the solution.  Socrates claimed that if he were wise (as many claimed), it was only in the recognition of his own ignorance.  That is, Socrates was able to say simply, “I don’t know.”  The better part of his career, as it has been recorded and handed down to us, consisted in trying to help free others from false opinion – largely by asking questions.  By asking questions the spirit of argument is replaced with one of interest and enjoyment of discovery and learning new ideas and principles.

Schematizing.  In a related way, there is a basic tendency in human cognition to schematize the world.  This means that we formulate theories, patterns and structures in our own mind before perception.  We see the world in the ways we have already decided to perceive it.  If we approach another person expecting to find them holding disagreeable or threatening opinions, we will usually do so.  We could also see numerous good things about the same person, had we formed that schema beforehand.

Identity.  One reason people cling to false opinion so tenaciously is because human beings feel a strong need to have a personal and social identity.  If you want to get someone really mad, don’t call them names, and don’t even threaten them with physical harm; rather, a threat to the sense of identity will unleash the most angry and violent responses.  People panic when their sense of identity is threatened.

Perversity.  So far we have considered the obvious reasons for rampant political discord.  These ones are not very threatening.  Most people can probably agree that they exist.  But now we need to take the gloves off and delve in to deeper, less obvious, and perhaps somewhat more challenging issues.  The first of these is the perverse side of human nature.  Many writers over the ages have noted a strange yet basic tendency in human nature to resist what is good.  Freud, for example, posited the existence of a “death wish” present in all human beings, which counters the vital, life-affirming energy.  Death wish is probably not the best way of looking at this thing, but it will serve adequately for our present purpose.  In short,. the premise is that death wish, or something like it, causes people to unconsciously do what is harmful.  The current political discord is extremely harmful, and can be partly explained on this basis.

Concupiscence.  If we delve even more deeply, we can detect a connection between the above-mentioned principle of perverse self-harm, and concupiscence – which we may define as an over-attachment to sensory pleasure (pleasure of sex and of the palate being perhaps the two most common examples).  To the extent that one’s personality is dominated by attachment to pleasure, one will gravitate towards behaviors that are unruly and disruptive of the social order.  The principle here is that a concupiscent person seeks to avoid the dictates of conscience.  And that is promoted by anything that disturbs the clear vision of Reason.  By keeping one’s life in a constant state of agitation and turmoil (which political fighting clearly does), one  has a ‘green light’ to keep indulging in any and all sensual pleasures, and to any degree.

Collective selfishness.  From the preceding point we easily move to seeing how this can operate on a societal level.  We are today, arguably, a whole society of people fixating on material and sensual pleasures.  To that extent, it is in the tacit best interests of everybody to keep society confused.  If we weren’t so confused and agitated as a society, people might start ‘coming to their senses’ and realize that there are natural limits placed on how much, and in what way, various sensual pleasures should be indulged.  Thus, ironically, while Democrats and Republicans are busy vilifying each other in public, subconsciously they may wink and congratulate each other that they are effectively cooperating to resist any serious threat to the status quo.

Question:  That’s more than I bargained for!  With all these factors involved, it seems almost hopeless?  How can we straighten out something this complex?

Answer:  It’s true that, in some respects, the problem is complex, especially as each of the factors above tends to interact with the others.  If we tried to address each of these issues individually, it might not be possible.  Fortunately, there is a short cut solution.   So far we’ve adopted a mainly cognitive perspective.  But there is another dimension to the human person:  that of ethics and moral nature.  In short, if we effect an ethical solution, it will straighten out all these other problems at once.

The ethical solution means a re-ordering of one’s ethical structure.  All this amounts to is a shift in emphasis.  Instead of focusing first on ones material pleasure, one should focus on the delights associated with moral excellence.  These delights include the pleasures of knowledge, insight, love, friendship, piety, charity, etc.  In short, it means seeking the finer things.  This is the path of egolessness, which draws us closer to our true selves, each other, Nature, and the Supreme Being, all at once.

Question:  Great!  So how do we get other people to do that?

Answer:  The first and most important thing is to worry less about reforming others, and to focus that energy on reforming yourself.

The first reason for this is because that will benefit you far, far more than any change of behavior you might effect in others.

Second, your first duty toward others should not be to change their opinions, but to help them with their needs and difficulties.  A doctor in a hospital doesn’t check a patient’s political party before helping him or her.  If you wish to rise to your full stature as a person, act like such a doctor, putting aside your own ego-impositions.

Third, if indeed there is some genuine value in your influencing the other person to change their opinion or behavior, the example of your behavior is the most potent force available for accomplishing it.  Indeed, if you are really serious about changing others, you will change yourself; any effort directed to improving others, without regard to changing yourself, is ineffective, and a sign that you are not serious.

Question:  And how is that done?  Surely this is more complicated than just wishing for it?

Answer:  One sure way to fail is to try to do this all on your own (for that will only serve to further develop and entrench egoistic tendencies.)  Rather, the correct path is to seek a traditional path of ethical and moral improvement, whether it be religion or ancient philosophy.  The Westerner will find much of value in  Christianity, Judaism and Islam.  Some Westerners may also find traditions like Buddhism and Vedanta helpful – but in this case one must be wary of the more “popularized” (i.e., intellectually non-intensive) forms.   A genuine path must, of necessity, challenge and build your “intellectual muscles”.  In terms of Western philosophies, those of Plato, Aristotle and the Stoics are most commendable.  The discerning Christian, however, will learn that much of what is useful in these philosophical traditions has been incorporated into Christianity.

Liberals, Conservatives, Joan Baez and Ending the Nation-State

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Liberals, Conservatives, Joan Baez and the Nation-State

The other night I saw a reprise performance of the recent American Masters episode on the life of folksinger and political activist, Joan Baez.

It was a good program and showed what a remarkable person Joan Baez is.    She walked the walk, even to the point of voluntarily accepting incarceration several times because of her (nonviolent) opposition to the Vietnam War.

But one detail that caught my attention was a brief remark by Joan in a film clip from an early 1970’s protest:  she was  exhorting people to “end the nation-state”.

End the nation-state?  Sounds like a good idea to me — where do I sign up?

And here was Joan Baez, one of most visible “liberals” of the second half of the 20th century, saying something I agree with, even though I am a political libertarian — which most people consider a conservative position.

But there was no mistake.  Joan Baez wanted to end the nation-state.   That was the wish of liberals in the 1960’s (as with John Lennon’s song, “Imagine there’s no countries; it’s easy to do….”).  It seemed obvious to anyone with good sense that governments were the cause of wars, and that governments served generally to suppress what is best in human nature.

To liberals, the government was the problem, not the solution.  The government was causing the war in Viet Nam, and hurting everyone.  Liberals wanted to reduce government power and to end the cultic worship of governments.

But roll things forward 35 years.  Now so-called liberals are supporting massive government-run healthcare.
They’re militant about it, insisting that “poor people have a right to healthcare, and the government
should supply it, whatever the cost.”  This is not only different from the liberalism of the 60’s,  it’s really the complete opposite.

In the 60’s and 70’s, the view was that if governments would get out of the way, people could sort out their own problems.  I can say that for sure, because, at least in the 70’s, I was there marching and singing “give peace a chance.”  People were thinking, “Life is good.  If governments would get out of our lives the natural impulse to enjoy life and to love and help others would manifest itself spontaneously.”

That’s still my view.  If John Lennon were alive today, I’d like to think that would be his view, too. Somehow I just can’t imagine him singing, “Hooray for government!  Let’s give them more power!  Let them pick our pockets and design aversive, government health programs, so we can all stand in line, put up with terrible service, and be at the mercy of arrogant public officials.”  No, that’s not how a working class hero would see things.

So the great irony is that true conservatives and true liberals are on the same side:  both groups want a world which affirms human values, welfare and happiness.  And opposed to these things is an ever expanding “statism” — a vast, inhuman, oppressive machine.

This is a rather important idea, and bears further thought.  Consider how much the media makes of the supposed opposition between “conservatives” and “liberals.”  What if this turned out to be all bunk!  Could it be that human beings are in basic agreement about core values — and in an instinctive aversion to abusive government power?  And could it be that the dominant economic institutions try to invent a false conflict in order to divide and conquer the population?

Gaza Protests: Keep Them Peaceful!

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Today in many European cities there were demonstrations against the Israeli assault on Gaza.

That is a good thing.  There was a large demonstration in Brussels, as a matter of fact.  I noticed many people walking down Anspach Boulevard, apparently on the way back from the protest.  It still had the character of a protest march, and I joined in for a ways.

Later in the day I noticed some off-duty police in riot gear.  From their faces it looked like they’d had a hard day.  This made me worry that maybe there had been some trouble at the Brussels protest.

Asking around, somebody mentioned that some cars had been burned or damaged.   That doesn’t surprise me.  A day or two ago many protesters gathered at the Bourse (Stock Exchange),  and were shouting bad things about Bush.  (That struck me as a little odd.   Bush is out of the picture at this point.  What’s the point of complaining about him?)

Anyway, this photo pretty much explains what I want to write about.

What is wrong with this picture

What is wrong with this picture?

Folks — it’s a peace march.  So be peaceful, ok?

It works like this.  Assume that your enemies are actually just very, very ignorant people; it’s like nobody has ever shown them how to act right, so they just don’t know how.   It’s up to you to show them.  Demonstrate to them the behavior you want them to imitate — in this case, peaceful resolution of conflict.  In fact, that’s the perfect term:  demonstrate — as in a “demonstration”.

But don’t forget the news bias factor here.  You can bet the cameras jumped right on the  flag-burning and car-trashing.  There were no reporters covering the hundreds of quiet, almost solemn — as though praying — people I saw marching in Brussels today.

Written by John Uebersax

January 11, 2009 at 9:08 pm

Notes: the spiritual children of Abraham should not battle each other

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Some entries in this blog are formal articles. Others, like this one, take more the form of working notes, outlines for later development, or ‘thinking out loud’. Some are complete, and some are just sketches. For now I will label such entries as ‘Notes’.

I am aware of and distressed by the current suffering of the Palestinians in Gaza. I am also deeply concerned by the terrorist tactics of the Hamas political regime. And, naturally, I am concerned about the threat of Muslim terrorism in general.

As a religious person who seeks to love and serve God and neighbor, I must try to act in some way to improve things. How? Naturally I must look to God first, that I may do His will in this and all things.

Sometimes God makes plain to us what we should do. Other times He allows us to use our reason to decide this. In the present case, reason informs me that God has given me certain skills, interests, or “talents.” Among these are philosophy. But that I mean not the lesser things — scholasticism and sophistry — which have perenially passed themselves off as philosophy, but true philosophy — philo-sophia, which means the love of God’s wisdom. I am also trained as a psychologist.

Let met then humbly devote my skills, such as they are, to address the current problem by means of a logical analysis or scholia. I present this as a series of short propositions and conclusions.

1. Many Muslim terrorists call America the Great Satan, or hold opinions similar to this. Some apparently hold similar views towards the state of Israel.

2. It is clear from these statements that these Muslim politicians and activists believe Satan exists, and makes war against the Muslim people.

3. If Satan exists and wars against Muslims, then surely he must also wage equally malicious war against the other spiritual children of Abraham, namely Christians and Jews.

4. History shows that a very effective means Satan has for warring against religion is by political oppression.

5. In the broadest sense, political oppression occurs both within a country and by means of one country oppressing another.

6. Just as Palestinians are oppressed internationally, the faithful religious of the United States and Israel are oppressed domestically by their own governments. In each case, People of the Book should recognize Satan at work.

7. When terrorists attack the United States, or when Hamas launches missiles or mortars into Israel, their destructive actions are indiscriminate: they harm the righteous and unrighteous citizens of those countries alike. If military jihad could be justified at all, then it would have to be directed exclusively against the agents of oppression, and not harm other innocent people — but this is not possible. This leads us to our first preliminary conclusion: that terrorism as military jihad is unjust, because it harms innocent people.

8. Further, the inevitable consequence of terrorist attacks is to strengthen the central government of the attacked countries. This leads to further oppression of the devout religious communities within the target countries. Moreover, the central governments of these countries, which are effectively machinelike, beyond human control, and, if one may be so bold as to say it outright, often tools of Satan — these governments use terrorist actions as an excuse for more oppression. This leads to our second preliminary conclusion: that terrorist jihad is counterproductive, because it leads to more, not less, suffering of God’s children.

9. People of the Book believe that Satan works in conjunction with an “army” of daemons. Scientifically, we do not know what daemons are. Whether they are disembodied entities, or something else, is not clear. At present, the word “daemon” is a placeholder term for a range of phenomena that we observe but to not fully understand. We use the word daemonic to describe states of mind in which a person is “seized”, and in which they act irrationally and impulsively, especially in a violent way. It is also characteristic of daemonic states that people cannot clearly scrutinize their own motives.

10. From all the preceding, points, it would appear that terrorist actions are daemonic, not holy. They do not reflect the wisdom of God, which comes from above, and which is recognized by qualities of peace, gentleness, patience, and insight.

We then conclude this: any logic by which people, through desperation, suffering, anger, or resentment, reach the conclusion that they must engage in a military jihad must be immediately recognized as false, and daemonic in origin. Yes, the suffering is unjust and unfair. It must stop! But to act violently is certain not to end the misery, but to continue it. Further, armed aggression does not harm the sources of oppression, but is displaced onto other innocent victims. Finally, we must recognize that as long as people respond to suffering with violence, then Satan will produce more suffering.

Even (or especially) the most fundamentlist Muslims, Christians, and Jews should admit that the real enemy is Satan. Then why not face the real enemy, and wield against him those weapons which he most dreads: holiness, peace, virtue, and trust in God? Do the young men who brandish machine guns and grenade launchers consider themselves courageous? That is not courage. Courage, the true way of jihad, is found in the battle to acquire virtue, and the struggle to follow the more difficult path of peace.

People in America — the awake and decent ones — want to see peace and justice for the Palestinian people. The people in Gaza need to understand that we are all suffering together, although in different ways. The corporate-dominated media do not tell Americans the truth. Americans are, in any case, beaten down by their own political system, and barely able to act to change things.

Despite all these difficulties, we have the one tool at our disposal which Satan cannot remove, namely prayer. Indeed, Christians believe — and I would be greatly surprised if Muslims did not also believe it — that prayers are rendered even stronger when made in the midst of suffering.

Written by John Uebersax

February 18, 2008 at 12:05 pm

Op-ed: Don’t March into Gaza

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From the Los Angeles Times Op-Ed Section

Don’t march into Gaza

Only thorns and scorpions await Israel if it decides to invade that hostile territory.
By Amos Oz

February 15, 2008

Anger, frustration and invective are riling us. Israel must not fall into the trap that Hamas is setting for us — we must not march into Gaza. Because the number of casualties in a ground invasion of Gaza would be much greater than the number of casualties caused by Kassam rockets over the last seven years. Because during five of the seven Kassam years, we controlled the entire Gaza Strip and hundreds of rockets were fired on Sderot anyway, in addition to repeated bloody assaults on the Israeli settlers who lived there. Apparently, we’ve forgotten.

Reoccupying the Gaza Strip would not necessarily end rocket fire on Sderot and its environs. In addition to the continuing attacks on Sderot, our occupying force would face gunfire and suicide bombers, day in and day out.

Moreover, an invasion of Gaza would unite the Palestinian masses and the Arab and Muslim worlds around Hamas, which at present is isolated and loathed by most Arabs. If Israeli forces invaded Gaza, Hamas’ fighters would immediately be seen as defenders of a Palestinian Masada to the Palestinians, the Arab world and international public opinion — the few against many, residential neighborhoods facing an army, refugee camps under the shadow of bomber squadrons, boys battling tanks, David versus Goliath.

If we conquer Gaza, we’ll find ourselves sitting on thorns and scorpions. The occupying force will not have a day of peace. Neither will the inhabitants of Sderot and the area around it.

Even in such times of anger, when our hearts go out to the ongoing suffering of the Israelis of Sderot, we must not forget that the root of the Gaza problem is that hundreds of thousands of human beings are rotting there in refugee camps, camps that are incubators of poverty and despair, ignorance, religious and national fanaticism, hatred and violence.

From a historical point of view, there can be no solution to the problem of Gaza as long as there is not at least a modicum of hope for these desperate people somewhere on the horizon.

Then what can we do? We can and must achieve a cease-fire with Hamas in Gaza. A cease-fire would come, of course, with a high political price. But among all the prices Israel would have to pay for a mistaken and rash decision, it is the least deadly and the most bearable.

Amos Oz is an Israeli novelist and essayist. This commentary was translated by Haim Watzman.

Written by John Uebersax

February 15, 2008 at 4:24 pm


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