The Home of Steven Barnes
Author, Teacher, Screenwriter


Monday, September 17, 2007

Rigid human thought

11) If you want to know why I think wars are damned near inevitable, here’s an experiment for you. Check the last posting, below. Note how many times I stated that my point was NOT whether a person supported or criticized the Iraq action. It was whether a person was not only convinced that they were “correct” but that their “correctness” was SELF-EVIDENT. That there was no way to disagree with them without being a fool or a knave. Please study the replies below, and notice how rare it was for anyone to address my point, or do anything other than insist that they were right, and that that rightness was…ah…self-evident.

a. To say that you are correct is one thing. But when you take the position that the other party has to be an idiot, blind, or ignorant to disagree with you, you create a separate layer of problem. NOW the two of you will fight over the insult before you can ever examine the logical or factual content of your argument. People die in bar-fights, road-rage incidents, and wars every god-damned day, not because one or the other was “right” or “wrong” but because the opinion was wrapped in the kind of certainty that just doesn’t exist outside artificial systems of logic. Within “arithmetic”, 1+1=2 pretty much absolutely. Within the rules of chess, a pawn can only turn into a queen if it reaches the last row. But when you try to apply that level of certainty to the real world. All you reveal is your own rigidity…and, I think fear.

Fear of being wrong forces people into absolutist positions. For instance, a good person who supported the Iraq invasion “for the good of the Iraqis” now has to deal with the possibility that many of the reasons for invading were wrong, and that the death toll approaches the number of Iraqis Saddam was accused of killing. In other words—by the time we leave, WE may have been responsible for more death and destruction than the monster we removed. No person of morals could look at this possibility without flinching. One hears very little consideration of this from the Right. It’s all “the number can’t be that high” and “even if it is, we were right.” Fine. But combine that with “and the fact that we are right is self-evident” suggests a very troubling psychological wound, akin to someone who, as I’ve suggested before, is sitting at a poker table having lost the mortgage, disbelieving that one more hand won’t even the damage. Just one more hand. Loan me the college fund, will you..?
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It is the certainty that the position is self-evident that is a gigantic chunk of the problem. It makes it impossible to believe that those who fight against us might not have good reasons for doing so. I mean, its OBVIOUS that America is the good guy! Only an idiot could believe we have anything but righteous reasons for being there! NO ONE could believe that we installed a puppet government, or are there for oil, or that religious zealots are influencing our decisions.

Again, I’m not saying that ANY of the above positions are true. But to think that no one could believe them is, I think, a grotesque misunderstanding of human nature. It seems that I can understand how an intelligent person might believe the world is flat better than some can understand how an Arab might believe that America is on the Jihad for the Middle East.


And note how many times the explanation for a given position is supported by complex data and preassumptions that those who gather, interpret and publish it are all honest brokers. While this may be true, look at the way Americans on the Left and Right mistrust each other now. That mistrust is built into the human mind, once stress becomes strain. The NORMAL thing is to assume the other guys are villains. It is relatively atypical to look beyond this simplistic, two-dimensional us-themism (which is responsible for all racism, sexism, and so forth) and see the world from the other's position. I think that the unspoken fear must be that "If I see the world from his position, and he becomes an empathetic human being, I won't be able to kill him. And if killing is necessary to protect my family, my family will die. So I'll just see him as a villain." There's an element of truth in this. It IS harder to kill if you perceive the inwardness of another. The pale side of this tendency is that you can't turn it on and off, and it operates at the level of unconscious competence--at the same time that it reinforces your deep sense of certainty. And the further you go down that road, the more of your ego you've invested, the harder it gets to admit that you ever could have been wrong.

I've seen too many cases where someone's ego was willing to destroy their body or relationship rather than admit to wrong-headedness, and suffer ego-death. Not for a second do I assume that a group ego would not destroy the world before admitting similar wrong.

Materials under pressure become rigid. Stress numbs you and conceals its own presence. Be very, very careful.

The American who believes that Arabs KNOW we want only freedom and peace for Iraq can only believe that those who fight against us are blood-crazed maniacs. And if you can’t see the difference between believing America wants freedom for Iraq…and believing that this is self-evident…then in my respectful opinion, you are stuck in the exact same kind of mental stress loop which, if you were on the other end of this, creates suicide bombers.

Watch the replies to this, please. See if anyone can get out of the “I’m right and it’s obvious” loop. God, I really hope they can. It would give me more hope for our future.

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