Monday, November 03, 2003
On attitudes and asymmetries

Note: I'll have to be on blog hiatus for a while, till mid-January from now on. A lot to do, sorry, and I'll miss blogging. But there are so many great blogs out there to roam! I promise I'll be back, and I have provided an extra-long post this time, hoping to provide something to gnaw at.
Before I start my original post, I'd like to give a short introduction to a theory from social psychology, which I'll refer to afterwards.

An important human motivation is to possess an error-free cognitive order, a structure of information (i.e. concepts, values, attitudes) that is consistent and free of contradictions. A psychological theory that has shown to be valid in this context is the theory of cognitive dissonance by Festinger ("A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance", 1957), and it has been elaborated quite successfully in psychological research.

To put it shortly, Festinger assumes that every person is motivated to actively acquire information that is congruent with the current framework of information, whereas incongruent information is avoided. Cognitive dissonance, a state in which certain parts of the cognitive information structure contradict, is perceived as "uncomfortable", which leads to the wish to remove the cognitive dissonance to restore the balance. For example, if I hold the view that most dogs are aggressive animals, and over the next week I meet the friendliest dogs the world has ever seen, I can either change my opinion about dogs being aggressive (information adapted to reality), or I can see this occurrence as an odd exception (reality adapted to information). [I don't think most dogs are aggressive, though some clearly are, for whatever reason]

Further, a key assumption is that there is a significant impact of attitudes on behavior (an attitude might be defined in psychological terms as a psychological tendency to evaluate an entity/person/thing/information; attitudes can be measured on a cognitive, behavioral and emotional level). If now a cognitive dissonance arises between a person's specific attitude (e.g. "I don't like apples") and this person's shown behavior (e.g. "I'm eating my aunt's apple cake"), there are certain cognitive strategies to overcome this dissonance. One, in this example, would be to play down the behavior ("It was Aunt Marry, I would hurt her if I didn't eat this cake. I do it only this time"), another would be the adaptation of the attitude ("Hmmm! Apple cake is not that bad, apples are actually tasty!").

The more central (e.g. important, universal, self-defining) and elaborated such attitudes are, the more powerful they influence not only behavior, but also other factors (e.g. perception of information, memory). Further, while peripheral attitudes can be adapted rather easily, central attitudes (e.g., for some pitiable people, that would be "Bush is evil") are by all means more strongly "defended" against dissonance than peripheral ones (e.g. "I dislike this new CD"), even though a huge amount of empirical evidence might contradict those central attitudes. The more central the attitude, the larger the tolerated strain to defend it.

At a certain point, i.e. at the point of a massive influx of contradictory evidence, some people not only deride and mock this information as "made up" to continue defending their attitude, stepping over the boundary of rationality to become ideologists untouchable by reality; some bolder ones also simply make up consonant information themselves in order to restore their cognitive balance and that of their peers, making enormous fools of themselves without ever being aware of it. These two types of people are called fundamentalists, and one important aspect of becoming a fundamentalist is that certain monolithic attitudes are the pillar upon which a very large part of their identity resides; those attitudes are, by whatever reason, such an important defining characteristic of the individual that they can only be altered or dismantled through enormous efforts - either by overwhelming and existential evidence, e.g. for extreme Leftists in the US, it would probably require either the horrible scenario of a nuclear strike onto an American city by Islamists ("external" nuke), or a strong effort of the individual to alter those attitudes by him/herself (a mental paradigm shift corresponding to an "internal" nuke would be required for fundamentalists to destroy the deeply-buried bunkers of their central attitudes).

Unfortunately, the latter case happens rather seldom (there is no true motivation for a change from within), which is why fundamentalists are so loyal to their cause and predictable/controllable. In order to cure the fantasy ideology of fundamentalists, I think few measures are adequate, and discussion is not one of them. The mind of an Islamist, for example, will never be cured by a discussion; it will only be cured by the "soft, elevating" empirical evidence that life on Earth isn't that bad after all, contradicting the tachings of Islamists that martyrdom is the best thing one can do. It is part of the long-term strategy in Iraq to establish a strong economy, individual freedom and health for every Iraqi, creating envy and the desire to reform in the neighbouring dictatorships. This satisfies common Iraqis and in the long term maybe even some of those terrorists that haven't yet been killed or imprisoned.

In the other case, a fantasy ideology will be cured by the "hard, destructive" empirical evidence that the military power of the United States is unleashed in its entirety in case of another severe Islamist attack on the US; this is also why Islamism is the greatest threat to Islam. The probability for the latter case has been considerably lowered, though, by the flypaper strategy: if terrorists are drawn anywhere now in the world, it is Iraq, where the US is not an abstract entity but a real enemy. This was behind Rumsfeld's suggestion to deploy other nation's troops than already are in Iraq, and behind Bremer's idea to speed up the training of Iraqi security forces as well: thus, the US army can continue battling terrorists in a regionally confined area, which possibly was one of the main ideas of the war in Iraq.

I've been carried to somewhere else than I originally intended, but well, now the actual posting begins, I'll try to keep it short!

It is astonishing to behold the amount of asymmetries in the world where symmetry is pretended. An architect building an asymmetric house when his task was to build a symmetric one is either malevolent or a moron. But the same thing can be applied to the double standards of the broad streak of anti-Americanists and anti-Semites, both of which appear to become more and more entwined over time.

Let's take the example of French writer Michel Houellebecq, who has called Islam a "stupid religion", which consequently led to a case against him for having abused free speech. Mr Houellebecq is certainly not everybody's most beloved author (though I think he has written some good books), because he likes to provoke, enjoys to utilize sharp words and has a desperately gloomy style.

The question is: did he abuse free speech? Just think about this: what if he had said "Christianity is a stupid religion"? Or even, "Judaism is a stupid religion"? I deem it highly unlikely that masses of people with frothing mouthes would have obsessively confronted him for abusing free speech as it happened in this case. And what is even more interesting, as the Telegraph notes:
Yesterday he was asked whether or not he still thought Muslims were stupid. "I didn't say that," he said. "I said they practise a stupid religion." Asked if he was racist against Islam, he answered: "You can't be racist against Islam."
Absolutely. I don't think Islam is a stupid religion, I simply think it's a religion that needs to reform in certain areas. Nevertheless, Houellebecq has merely stated the following, according to the Telegraph:
In this very rocky, inspiring land, I said to myself that the idea of believing in only one God was cretinous. I could not think of another word. And the stupidest religion of all is Islam.
It's his right to say so, actually, because it refers to the contents of a religion. If he had uttered "And the stupidest religion of all is Christianity", nothing would have happened. This is the double standards that are systematically applied. In psychological terms, we have differentially sensitive cognitive balances, i.e. case-sensitive attitudes: the same amount of criticism applied to either Islam or Christianity has different results, because criticism of Islam "abuses free speech" (even if harshly uttered), while criticism of other religions "is free speech". Signs with "Israel = swastika" are free speech, while I wouldn't even dare to think what would happen to a person who holds a sign with "Islamism = swastika"...

The second asymmetry I'd like to introduce on individual level would be, according to Chicago Boyz, the case of French university professor Guy Milliere. He notes (translation by Chicago Boyz, emphasis mine):
The Jew is once again the symbol of detested capitalism, and by a shameful distortion of history, of "imperialism". The liberal [in the US this would be "the libertarian"] becomes the bearer of evil. The Jewish, or pro-Jewish liberal becomes the target of the ultimate hatred. The anti-globalization movement gets closer to islamists, and the latter allow themselves to openly attack "Jewish thinkers" guided by their "race". The "anti-racists" fight for the right to wear a veil, and fascist-leaning newspapers approve. To publish some books becomes difficult : publishers are scared. There are no professional interdictions yet, but that will probably come. I am currently the object of several campaigns attempting to cut off my means of income and have me thrown out of France. Is it because I do not do my work well? No, it's because I am a libertarian, because I defend Israel, because I am outraged by terrorism, because I love the United States, and especially because I have a critical view of Islam. It would be so much easier if I were a leftist, fascist, anti-semitic, anti-american, convert to Islam. Then I would be left alone.
A symmetry that's asymmetry... Slowly, but steadily, this asymmetry has been implemented, and has grown. It's the same thing in Germany. If you defend the US or Israel, you are not only a minority, but you are also in a much less comfortable position - because of the asymmetry that can be perceived on a more general level too, as Victor Davis Hanson notes in a great column (emphasis mine):
Well apart from the spooky placards (stars of David juxtaposed with swastikas, posters calling for the West Bank to be expanded to "the sea") that we are accustomed to seeing at the marches of the supposedly ethical antiwar movement, we have also heard some examples of Jew-baiting and hissing in the last two weeks that had nothing to do with the old crazies. Indeed, such is the nature of the new anti-Semitism that everyone can now play at it - as long as it is cloaked in third-world chauvinism, progressive thinking, and identity politics. [...] There has always been the suspicion that European intellectuals favored the dismantling of Israel as we know it through the merging of this uniquely democratic and liberal state with West Bank neighbors who have a horrific record of human-rights abuses, autocracy, and mass murder. After all, for all too many Europeans, how else but with the end of present-day Israel will the messy Middle East and its attendant problems - oil, terrorism, anti-Semitism, worries over unassimilated Muslim populations in Europe, anti-Americanism, and postcolonial guilt - become less bothersome?
Indeed, either the (open or unconscious) wish to let the Arab world destroy Israel, the wish to lessen Europe's anti-Semitic past or darkest ignorance lead to showing a sign reading "Sharon=Hitler". And, of course, Israel is seen as the biggest threat to world peace by 59% of Europeans, ahead of Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq and North Korea. Umm... there might just be a tiny difference between Israel and the rest, don't you think? Another horrible asymmetry.

This is one facet why the US is detested with such fervor by many Europeans, too: they openly back Israel! But one of the most important is mentioned in an excellent article by Daniel Pipes. He mentions that according to Karl Marx, capitalism will fail because of the immiserization hypothesis. According to it, profits will decline, workers will get poorer and finally overthrow their bosses to establish a socialist system. The only problem is that this idea has been brutally debunked by reality. Practically all socialist systems have failed, and the stone-age Communist regimes that still exist won't exist for that much longer either, I think. Actually, it is the people in Socialist states that have been victims of the immiserization hypothesis.

Further, the "dependencia theory" holds that the "First world" brutally exploits the "Third world" - and the US and its enterprises (and some even think yo- know-who controls those), as the nation with the greatest economic freedom and power, is the main enemy here. The greatest irony is that nothing has helped to overcome poverty, hunger, disease, misery in the third World as well as globalization and free markets. Indian students of today cannot believe how their parents lived; South Korea used to be poorer than Angola in the 50s and is now on par with Portugal. The only reason why globalization in Africa didn't work so well in the region South of the Sahara lies in the completely corrupt bureaucracy, the lack of reliable property rights and the suicidal political course of some dictators - i.e. the absence of freedom, the most detrimental condition for an economy. The selective cases anti-globalizationers cunningly provide are just that - cases of failures. What they fail to do is to actually perceive the bigger picture - which shows that globalization and its results are the best thing that could happen to humanity.

To many people, Marxism and socialism (or mutations thereof) are central attitudes. It has been shown that central assumptions of this ideology have been powerfully debunked by reality, rendering it practically worthless. Some people have drawn that conclusion indeed, others have sought a different strategy - the support of the opponents of the US by supporting Islamism. As Pipes notes in the article mentioned above,
Only a pedant would point out that the suicide hijackers hardly represented the wretched of the earth;and that their objectives had nothing at all to do with socialism and everything to do with, no, not again! militant Islam. So desperate is the left for some sign of true socialism, it overlooks such pesky details. Instead, it warily admires al-Qaida, the Taliban, and militant Islam in general for doing battle with the United States.
It's a sign of deperation, actually, and the louder they shout "Bush = Hitler", the more they close their eyes from reality and wish for their Utopia. Their hollow and dead corpse of an ideology is hijacked by Islamism and they are beginnig to zombie-like follow their Dear Leaders, which at this time leads to some absurd behavior only. And they utilize the strategy of blaming others, just as Islam has more a blame- than a guilt-culture. A lack of the latter leads to the inability to criticise oneself and a lack of responsibility, so no improvement is possible, but others (Jews, Bush, the US, Aliens etc.) are made responsible. Paradoxically, the worse those people feel, the fiercer they attack. Their blaming of the US for the attacks is revealing and utterly self-defeating, and another ridiculous asymmetry.

To conclude this long rant, I'd like to quote some classics who have (as I have) fallen from the Left as well, but some decades ago. As Roger Kimball notes,
The "unadmitted motive" of pacifism [before WW2], Orwell wrote, was "hatred of Western democracy and admiration of totalitarianism." [...] Orwell noted that pacifism was "objectively pro-Nazi" because it inculcated an attitude that aided England's enemies. Just so, anti-Americanism is objectively pro-terrorist. It was not surprising that the Nazis did all they could to encourage pacifism among the English (just as the Soviets actively aided the anti-War movement in America in the 1960s and 1970s)."
Or, even better, there is Albert Camus:
On the day when crime dons the apparel of innocence - through a curious transposition peculiar to our times -- it is innocence that is called upon to justify itself. The Rebel (1951)
It is this quote, originally a criticism of Stalin-defenders, that powerfully captures what is going on in many minds and media today, and the moral clarity of Camus and Orwell is a light in dark times - they provide evidence that the defenders of moral relativism and utopian idiocies, that terror excusers and adepts of a zombie-ideology have already been proven wrong.