Happy Xmas – War Is (not yet) Over

Media274It’s twelve days before Christmas, and rather than send out a partridge in a pear tree, I figured I’d write a blog entry about finding understanding between people. Maybe I’m tilting at windmills, but ‘tis the season for hope.

Some of you may recognize the (modified) title of John Lennon’s Christmas song (“And so this is Christmas…”) – at least, those of you who are old enough to know that full title was, “Happy Xmas (War Is Over)”. The fact that war is not over was the topic of an essay by Robert Wright in the November issue of The Atlantic called, “Why We Fight – and Can We Stop?”

Increasingly, we are coming to realize that our brains are hardwired to give the benefit of the doubt to ourselves and people like us, and to be suspicious of the motives, intelligence, and/or moral character of those who are not like us. This is “tribalism” – the human tendency to attribute positive characteristics to those who share one’s culture, background, ethnicity, etc., and to be wary, suspicious, and think the worst of those who do not. For example, I’ve worked with clients who put a range of possible values on a key parameter – and that range didn’t even include their partner’s estimate of the value! When I commented on this, the client said, “Oh, they don’t know what they’re talking about.” (I spoke about the tendency to denigrate other groups in a presentation I recently gave at a luncheon – the video is at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_Q-oSd7KOlE). It’s bad enough to underestimate others’ intelligence; it’s even worse when we assume that other tribes are morally inferior.

When we are running late to pick up a child after school or for an important meeting, we excuse ourselves for driving fast and aggressively because of the special circumstances (I’m late!). When we are driving more calmly and we see someone else weaving in and out of traffic dangerously, we assume his recklessness to be a symptom of a fundamentally flawed character. Thus, one congressman who made millions as a successful businessman has no problem castigating today’s business leaders for being ruthless and uncaring, and another congressman who grew up poor and received federal assistance when young describes those who receive federal assistance today as “takers” who are only looking for free handouts.

But let’s return to Wright’s essay. He discusses two books: Moral Tribes – Emotion, Reason, and the Gap Between Us and Them by Joshua Greene, and Just Babies – The Origins of Good and Evil by Paul Bloom (full disclosure: I have not read either of these books, but I’m not commenting on the books; I’m more interested in Wright’s essay about the books). Wright essentially agrees with Green that tribalism is at the core of many of humanity’s violent tendencies toward one another. However, Wright disagrees with Green’s assertion that the tribalism is driven by differing value systems. If you look at the core values taught under most of the world’s major cultures and religions (be fair, help those in need, treat others as you would like to be treated, etc.), there is far more common ground than there are differences. Wright proposes that conflict arises because different tribes actually have different versions of the facts – of who insulted whom first, who committed the more egregious crimes, who took the first step away from reconciliation and toward armed conflict. Different tribes have different versions of history.

I’m inclined to agree with Wright. Just about everyone agrees that good should be rewarded and evil should be punished; they just disagree about who has been good and who has been evil. Wright points out that most Americans are barely aware (or are unaware) of the fact that in 1953, the U.S. sponsored the overthrow of a democratically elected government in Iran to install the more U.S.-business-friendly Shah in power. In American minds, the event which precipitated the current tensions between the two countries was the 1979 kidnapping at the U. S. embassy in Teheran. The kidnapping was in direct violation of all international laws – how can you reason with people who would do such a thing? Iranians, on the other hand, are keenly aware of the outrageous and illegal overthrow of their government in the 50s, and the imposition of the Shah’s repressive regime. How can anyone trust a country which would do something like that?

And so it goes. Palestinians and Israelis, Hutus and Tutsis, Indians and Pakistanis… the list goes on and on, down to Yankees fans and Red Sox fans, or Democrats and Republicans. Both sides downplay, forget, or simply refuse to acknowledge their own offenses while vividly remembering every detail of their grievances. Lexington’s column in the December 7th issue of The Economist discusses how this “us vs. them” way of thinking has contributed to the overt anger and hostility in American politics today.

Wright also makes a strong case for the proposition that religion is rarely the root cause of conflict. The tendency to denigrate the “others” usually includes denigrating their customs and rituals; it is far easier to hate and/or kill someone if you convince yourself that they are somehow inferior to your tribe. But as soon as the “others” start denigrating your rituals and customs, well that’s an insult that no tribe will allow to go unpunished. Religion becomes a rallying cry, a way to get the tribe to close ranks and defend themselves against the evil infidels. But it’s not the driving force behind the conflict.

We subconsciously select and remember information which reaffirms what we want to believe, and reject – or don’t even perceive – information which contradicts our beliefs. It is a perfectly natural human tendency to view “people like us” as the noble, aggrieved party which just wants justice and fairness, and the “other side” as a bunch of thieving cheaters who can’t be trusted. Humans evolved to survive in small groups, not in an intensely interconnected global society, and we did so in a world where competition was often a zero-sum game. In a world like that, trusting and relying on your tribe-mates while vehemently opposing outsiders maximizes the chance of survival. The problem is that’s no longer the world we live in. The biggest problems we face will require cooperation and unified action, not unbridled competition between factions.

So what do we do about this? Wright suggests we start “by pondering all the evidence that your brain is an embarrassingly misleading device. Self-doubt can be the first step to moral improvement.” To quote John Leinhard, “Certainty is learning’s enemy.” There are a number of groups out there like Less Wrong (www.lesswrong.com) which are dedicated to promoting rational thought, as opposed to emotional reactions rooted in one’s own biases (or, to put it into Daniel Kahneman’s terms, System 2 Thinking vs. System 1 Thinking). Recognition of one’s own bias is one of the key steps when thinking your way through complex problems – a step which is often a challenge when we work with clients.

None of this is easy. It’s hard enough to acknowledge that people who disagree with your views are moral, intelligent, caring individuals; it’s even harder to concede that your own version of the facts is almost certainly skewed by your perceptions, biases, and tribal affiliations. But with a conscious effort to understand others’ points of view – and a dose of humility – it can be done. Wright’s essay closes with, “…if psychology tells us anything, it is to be suspicious of the intuition that the other guys are the problem and we’re not.”

The holidays are a great time for that sort of introspection and self-examination. May it lead to a more co-operative world. Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukah (belated), and Happy New Year. We’ll see you in 2014

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