One week trying to understand Israeli and Palestinian newspaper bias

Day 3

Palestine Media Center

The official mouthpiece of the general secretariat of the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO). The two-state solution is a big thing here. Three headlines have the words “two-state” in them. Another headline uses the word “Apartheid”, and there is an apparently separate link saying “Israeli Apartheid” next to it. I would not deny that the plight of the Palestinians is apartheid, only that it is a very strong word. If life is as bad for the Palestinians as it was for non whites under apartheid, they are in trouble.

The most interesting thing is to hear Ehud Barak himself using the word. He says that, if there is only one state, and if the Palestinians cannot vote, “it will be an apartheid regime.” Fancy the defense minister of a right wing Israeli cabinet admitting something like that. Are we actually making progress?

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak says, according to the leader, that a two-state solution is coming sooner or later. (Yet another article on foreign pressure for a two-state peace says is about Javier Solana, Foreign Minister of the European Union.) Egypt and Israel are on reasonably good terms—Egypt is one of the only two majority Muslim countries, with Jordan, that recognises Israel—so pressure for Palestinian independence is likely to come from them. The US is pushing for the two-state thing, and Egypt and Jordan are its allies, so they may feel emboldened to push too. President Mubarak also said the Palestinians must work hard to achieve unity. That might be the biggest obstacle to peace.

For the past two days, I have seen talk about Prime Minister Netanyahu’s speech on Sunday. The Palestine Media Center (PMC) says “Netanyahu will adopt ‘two-state’ language on Sunday speech.” Seems a little vague. They might as well have said “Netanyahu will give all the Palestinians a job and a pension”. Any politician can speak in terms that sound good. Only action can make peace.

According to the PMC, Netanyahu will be asking for a lot in return for Palestinian independence. The Palestinians must recongise Israel and “[h]e will ask [not demand?] Arab states to normalize relations with Israel during negotiations, rather than after Israel withdraws from occupied Arab land”. I do not feel the bitterness from the PMC that one feels in other media from Palestine. Of course, they are just as prone to bias as any other medium; but you let your guard down when you hear relatively conciliatory tones like these.

As the PMC points out, Palestinian independence is only one condition of peace negotiations. “It is unclear”, it says, “whether Netanyahu will accept the other condition, which is US President Barack Obama’s demand for a total halt to all construction in illegal Israeli settlements in the West Bank and Jerusalem.” In fact, the PMC has a set of links entitled “Permanent Status Issues”, and they are Jerusalem, Settlements, Refugees, Water, Borders, Summary of Palestinian Positions. Each is like an encyclopedia entry on Palestinian grievances for each issue, along with a long list of links regarding the issue you are reading about.

For instance, on the subject of Jerusalem, while the Israeli papers talk of the long history the city has had as capital of a (future) state of Israel, this section says the opposite. “For centuries, Jerusalem has been the geographical, political, administrative and spiritual center of Palestine.” It begins the Israeli story at the 1967 war, several thousand years after the Jews do, and says that since then, the Israeli state has taken over and expanded East Jerusalem in “a classic example of ethnic gerrymandering.” The PMC continues, talking about the illegality of Israel’s occupation of Jerusalem according to “a long line” of UN Security Council resolutions; discrimination against Arabs; Jewish settlement; and forced evictions and demolitions. “The Palestinian Position” (or that of the PLO, anyway), is, basically, follow Resolution 242 (here and here—apparently the PLO did not initially accept 242), and make Jerusalem a free city. They make some good points.


Like yesterday, the Holocaust museum gunman tops the list. I am interested that some senile American racist shooting up the Holocaust museum is so important to Jews (or the ones writing this newspaper, anyway) that they put it right at the top. The article was very long (more than 1100 words) and read as a mixture of a report of the shooting and the biography of a white supremacist.

“Rightists to Peres: Not your place to call for Palestinian state”. A picture of Israeli President Shimon Peres shows him looking deeply pensive in his chair. The president is largely a figurehead, so he does not have much power. For this reason, two right wing Israeli parties, one of which is in the governing coalition, spoke out against Peres discussing the two-state matter with Javier Solana. One of the parties, the National Union, said the president should cancel such meetings in future. Though the prime minister is likely to give some form of endorsement to the Road Map to Peace and the two-state solution in his speech on Sunday, it is likely that the parties that objected to Peres’ meeting with Solana feel it puts undue pressure on him. A link to this article from a couple of weeks ago says that President Peres criticised a right wing politician’s suggestion that Jordan should be the base of the Palestinian state. It was a fatuous suggestion, but was Mr Peres within his bounds to say so? And why is there so much stress on the right and left? The ideological divisions in Israeli society may be particularly wide; or perhaps Haaretz is keen to exploit them.

Another major story in today’s paper is that the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) released documents saying that Iran began its plan to enrich uranium in 1987 under the moderate Mir Hossein Mousavi. If a moderate could start a nuclear weapons programme, this implies, the Iranian state must be evil through and through. That said, buying centrifuges does not mean you are trying to make a bomb. The article does not mention that. And it repeats the fact that the centrifuges were bought on the black market.

The IAEA reported that the nuclear facility in Natanz was spinning 5000 centrifuges, up by 1000 from February, and has 2000 more ready to start enriching. I do not know how many that is. It is just a number. Do Israelis know how many bombs could be made with 7000 centrifuges? (According to the New York Times, it is enough to make one or two nuclear weapons a year.) I have noticed that numbers are a good way to win an argument. Since they can be manipulated, like all facts, numbers of bad things are always bigger on their side than ours, even if we do not know what the numbers denote. The article ended on the subject of the upcoming Iranian election in which Ahmadinejad and his opponent, Mousavi (the one who started enriching uranium) will be competing and left few wondering whom the newspaper was supporting. The public were reflecting “on whether they want to keep hard-line President Ahmadinejad in power or replace him with a reformist more open to closer ties with the West.”

Finally, Palestinian police found a 15-year-old boy hanged for allegedly collaborating with Israelis. His father, uncle and cousin confessed. Tragic and senseless, of course; but like the story about the little Zionist town in yesterday’s Palestinian Chronicle, we seem to be picking at small things about our enemies to exploit for propaganda’s sake. See how messed up they are? the journalist is saying.

The Alternative Information Center

To mix things up today, we are going to look at the Alternative Information Center, a joint effort between Israeli and Palestinian activists. The AIC calls itself internationally oriented, progressive (I like those words, even if I don’t know what they mean) organisation engaged in “dissemination of information, political advocacy, grassroots activism and critical analysis of the Palestinian and Israeli societies as well as the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.” It strives for equality, freedom and rejection of separationist ideology. Perhaps not all news from the Middle East is anti- or pro- something. Or perhaps it is. Let us see what we can learn from this website.

The first thing that catches my eye is a video about a weekly protest of the separation barrier in a Palestinian village near Bethlehem. The speaker, a Palestinian, makes it clear he considers it apartheid, and says this wall is pushing the suffering of his people. Not all the protestors were Palestinians, however. An Israeli citizen had joined the demonstration, expressing his support for the tearing down of the wall. They are brave people, face to face with a dozen or more soldiers.

The podcast of a press conference by the parents of an American activist who was injured by the Israeli military. Jail time for those who deny the existence of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state, or who commemorate the Naqba (the 1948 Palestinian exodus). Criticism of Netanyahu for his inaction on Jewish settlements in the West Bank. Photos of the Israeli attack on the UN mission in Gaza in January. A UN report on an Israeli order for more Palestinian housing demolitions. Another on checkpoints. A “new wave of unopposed attacks” by Jewish settlers on Arabs. If this truly is unbiased or evenhanded news, the Israelis have a huge amount to answer for.

But it is not. There are Israeli Jews on the editing team but that does not make it balanced. A neutral, equal parts Israeli and Palestinian perspective of reporting would not use words like “occupation”, because it is one-sided word. It would also show the perspectives of moderate Israelis, Jewish settlers and perhaps someone who had been injured by a Palestinian rocket attack. The AIC had none of those. While its points may be valid, even a cursory glance at the website evinces that its claims to critical analysis are unconvincing.

Tomorrow we will examine different newspapers, including the news from Hamas’s point of view.

One week of Israeli-Palestine conflict news from the source

Day 2

The Jerusalem Post

Today’s headline reads “Security cabinet directs IDF [Israeli Defence Forces] to respond to any Gaza aggression.” That doesn’t sound good. Next to it is a photo of guys in a quarry wearing ski masks jumping through a hoop of fire with the caption “PRC [don’t know] terrorists train in the central Gaza Strip.” The US wants Israel to ease the blockade of Gaza and the Israeli security cabinet is trying to figure out how to allow more goods to be traded without endangering Israelis.

The Gaza Strip is treated like a kind of rat’s nest: don’t let any of them out or they could bite you. Keep them stuffed in there and if any tries to bite you from inside, throw the poison down. According to the Post, a terrorist attack near the Karni crossing was foiled earlier this week. And the matter of the kidnapping of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit could lead to a prisoner swap. Interesting that they refer to an Israeli prisoner by name but do not hint at the name of any Palestinians. Perhaps the Palestinians do not have names.

“[D]efense officials continue opposing bringing concrete and steel into the Gaza Strip, arguing that it would be used not only to reconstruct buildings, but also to construct arms smuggling tunnels and rebuild Hamas’ rocket building capacity.” So do not expect a lot of reconstruction in the material sense. Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak maintains there is no humanitarian crisis in Gaza. We cannot know from this article if he is right because it does not mention food. But the security cabinet, Ehud Barak and Binyamin Netanyahu all reaffirmed their commitment to the security of both the Israelis and the Palestinians.

A video of “Arafat’s ex-manager” reads “Israel and America killed Yasser Arafat”. Another video shows US Mideast envoy George Mitchell shaking hands with Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah. Related articles are titled “Some Islamic extremists respond positively to Obama’s speech,” “Hillary Clinton’s troubling transformation on Israel” and the one I read yesterday, “Why Obama is wrong on Israel and the Shoah.” It is possible that the Jerusalem Post is trying to systematically take apart the Barack administration’s stance on Israel and Palestine in order to legitimise Netanyahu’s government’s dissent from it.

One article quotes Ehud Barak at length on Arab-Israeli matters such as Barack’s speech in Cairo, the two-state solution and Iran’s nuclear development. It is rare that one sees a Canadian or American newspaper with such full quotes of their leaders. It is perhaps an effort not to take Mr Barak out of context. The same article shows a photo of him shaking hands playfully with a group of smiling seventh graders.

Today’s Must-Reads includes “Taking a stand on Iran”, about Canadian legislation called the Iran Accountability Act, holding Iran and apparently everywhere else accountable for genocide. The article says that, while all signatories to the 1948 Convention of the Prevention of Genocide have a responsibility to stop genocide when it happens, “they have largely ignored…the world’s greatest threat [Iran].” Apparently, Iran is the most likely country in the world to commit genocide.

One Op Ed piece recognises, for the first time as I have read this week, the ideological divisions within Israeli discourse regarding human rights and security concerns. The rest of the articles tend to leave the impression of consensus, and the consensus is of taking a hard line on the enemy. This one, by senior fellows at the Israel Democracy Institute, a think tank, says that the US could learn something about counterterrorism from Israel, and that the ideological differences between Dick Cheney’s “no middle ground” on terror attitude and President Barack’s constitutional approach parallels the debate in Israel today. Thank you, gentlemen, for showing there are both soft and hard views in Israel on security and not simply varying degrees of hawk.

The Palestine Chronicle

“Lebanon’s Election Results and the Age of Resistance”: An election observer named Franklin Lamb, who saw it all, describes at length first the peaceful prayer that took place after the election in Lebanon on Monday, and then the peaceful elections. From his description, they sound very much like elections I have worked for in Canada, except with soldiers. The losing coalition is described as “disappointed but civil”. Mr Lamb quotes a member of Michel Aoun (leader of the losing coalition)’s senior political bureau, two members of Hezbollah and no one from the winning group.

On an angrier note, Mr Lamb proceeds to say that the Barack administration is disappointed their side did not perform better in the election, that they violated Lebanese voting laws by campaigning for their favourites and felt contempt for Lebanon’s voters. With regard to the weapons of “the resistance” (Hezbollah), which was such a big issue in this election, Israel insists on decommissioning them, but political will in Lebanon to do anything about it is weak. In other words, don’t expect Hezbollah to give up its arms.

At the end of the article, Mr Lamb puts somewhat confusing rallying calls for the National Lebanese Resistance to “defend a Zionist-terrorised Lebanon, staking their lives on their basic belief in God and the independence and sovereignty for their country and the Liberation of Palestine…. As this era of Resistance to Zionism spreads around the World and intensifies here and abroad, every hour that Lebanon resists brings the region closer to justice and real peace.”

The Chronicle featured two interesting commentaries on the US government: “Obama Spoke to Muslims for Oil, not Humanity” and “Obama’s Outreach to Muslims: Same Old Policies”. They might as well have been the same article. One writer suggests Barack’s campaign slogan should have been “Continuity We Can Believe In”. Without a lot of analysis, he says Barack was using “soft power” (influence through carrots rather than sticks) and peripherally examines his choice of Egypt to give his speech as likely to be popular with Americans. He also disagrees with Barack’s statement that the image of the US as a self-interested empire is a stereotype. The writer finds it “difficult for those with knowledge of American foreign policy history to believe.”

As with yesterday’s Palestine Times (and all newspapers, really), there are some perfunctories attacks on the paper’s enemies. One is about a town of 170 Jewish families in Israel. The town has begun requiring its citizens to take an oath of loyalty to “Zionism, Jewish heritage and settlement of the land”. The article called this “a thinly veiled attempt to block Arab applicants from gaining admission.” Really? It is veiled? I would call it an unveiled attempt to keep Arabs out. It was a move by the town council to put “Zionist values and Jewish heritage…at the heart of [the town’s] way of life. We don’t see this as racism in any way.” While I believe towns should have this right, it is clearly racist and highly reminiscent of the town of Herouxville, Quebec, that did something similar a few years ago. Nonetheless, does blasting a small town’s prejudiced choices really advance the Palestinian people’s cause?

I just realised that the Palestinian Chronicle is written largely by non-Muslims. The names of the contributors are most Anglo-Saxon or German (Jewish?)-sounding. Makes sense: get non-Muslims on your side to show that others agree with you, and even that the world is on your side. Its tagline reads “global voices for a better world”. Considering the nature of the articles, on the sinister US, terrorist Israel, and the plight of the Palestinians, it seems ironic to use a “better world” tagline and photo of olives, friendship and art to represent your cause. The paper is more about how they are making the world worse than how we can make the world better.


Being a newspaper more for English-speaking Jews around the world than Israelis alone, the leader of today’s Haaretz was that an 89-year-old (89!) white supremacist opened fire at a Holocaust museum in the United States. (When I return to the Jerusalem Post, its first article has been updated to the same news.) The second article was the same as the first of the Jerusalem Post, “Cabinet to IDF: Repond to any attack from Gaza”. This is clearly a big issue in Israel and it scares me to think of that “any” aggression from Palestinians in Gaza could mean a repeat of the war at the beginning of this year.

“US envoy: Obama won’t yield on settlement freeze”. This article says that Netanyahu has rejected the US demand, though it is an obligation under the Road Map to Peace. It also makes the first mention I have seen so far that George Mitchell, Barack’s Middle East envoy, was a a senator and the broker of the Good Friday peace agreement in Northern Ireland. This is the first article mentioning anyone from the US administration that makes an American seem human.

This item references Prime Minister Netanyahu as saying “Israel is acting to advance peace and security with the Palestinians and the Arab world,” and yet gave no details. Is this short statement meant to appease Israelis? To me at least, the lack of any details on this seemingly noteworthy act is suspicious. But perhaps I am in the minority, and Israelis reading it will nod their heads in understanding. The article gives more voice to Mr Mitchell and has him state clearly, “Let me be clear. These are not disagreements among adversaries. The United States and Israel are and will remain close allies and friends.” That’s pretty clear.

Writing on Ehud Barak’s speech to the Council for Peace and Security, comprising IDF, Shin Bet and Mossad veterans, one journalist says it was filled with the “staples: a little peace, an open hand extended to our neighbors, an existential threat or two.” He got a short interview with Mr Barak and protrays him as somewhat pessimistic. On one hand, his government is committed to the Road Map and the two-state solution; on the other, says Barak, “[t]he Road Map should be changed now that Hamas is in power.”

The Defense section had more words from Defense Minister Barak’s speech, tainted with the fear that American weapons to Lebanon’s army would end up in Hezbollah’s hands; and yet another on Barak and his comments foreshadowing more wars like Operation Cast Lead in Gaza in January. I don’t like labeling people I do not know personally, but it could be fair to call Barak a hawk.

A lot more of the headlines are related to Jewish West Bank settlements, though some are about Jewish comedy, a Tel Aviv gay pride parade and Liberian warlord Charles Taylor’s conversion to Judaism. And most interesting to me, both Haaretz and the Jerusalem Post have side bars about Jews marrying non-Jews. Scandalous!

One week reading the mouthpieces of Israel and Palestine

Since the media play such a large role in our perceptions of the world, and our perceptions influence our opinions, and our opinions feed conflict, I have decided to read leading Israeli and Palestinian newspapers to try to make sense of the perspectives of the protagonists of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I have decided to read four newspapers every day for one week: the Palestine Chronicle, the Palestine Times, the Jerusalem Post and Haaretz. (The Palestine Times is not a daily, actually, so I will not read it every day. I may read a different paper to substitute.) I am mostly interested in news related to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and learning local perspectives on it, although any more about the newspapers that could be relevant I will try to take note of.

I realise that there is more to the conflict than newspapers report, and that there are (or at least, should be) more opinions than there are writers, but newspaper readers do not always bear this in mind. I also realise that seven days is not long enough to get more than a superficial understanding of the way people think. Nonetheless, it may be enough time to understand how a newspaper thinks. I doubt I will learn any “true” history, but I do expect to understand the purported grievances of the two sides of this endless confrontation. Over this week, I expect to become frustrated and tired, but that is the nature of resolving conflicts.

Day 1

The Palestine Chronicle

The leader is called “How much really separates Obama and Netanyahu?” Jennifer Loewenstein from the University of Wisconsin-Madison writes that the term “Israeli-Palestinian conflict” implies that both sides have equally reasonable grievances, and that this is why finding a fair resolution is so difficult. People who believe this have been, she says, deeply indoctrinated.

Loewenstein uses more charged language throughout her story. She calls the US and Israel’s approaches to Palestinian statehood, with reference to a 1976 UN Security Council resolution recognising national rights for Palestine (which, incidentally, I could not find on this page), “rejectionist”. She calls Barack’s speech in Cairo “patronising” and “obsequious”. She says he supports “a depraved Holocaust industry”. And she all but accuses him of a cynical approach to the two-state solution because he knows Bibi will reject it.

The writer reminds us of the grievances of the Palestinians. She writes of the hypocrisy of condemning violence by Hamas when war in Gaza earlier this year was far deadlier. And she uses pathos to great effect, filling the readers head with images of children in Gaza, “[t]he rocketing, fire-bombing and bulldozing of entire neighbourhoods”, and asking why Obama failed to chastise Israel for attacking “hospitals, schools, ambulances, UN buildings and shelters, food warehouses, businesses, factories and family homes”. In the end, she says, Barack has told Bibi exactly what he wanted to hear.

Other articles are lighter on Barack. Several articles that claimed to be about Barack’s speech were really just historical analyses of the inherently hawkish Israeli state and its actions against Palestine. One said that the speech was encouraging, but it showed the president was not willing to go far enough. It was, he wrote, more of the same. Another article even praised him for bringing his country into the 21st century and well away from the policies of the Bush administration.

The Chronicle website even had a picture of Ehud Olmert with the words “most corrupt” above it. The link took you to a story on Transparency International and corruption in the Israeli state. However, the article did seem to twist the facts to make them sound as if the Israeli government was hopelessly riddled with corruption, when what it really said was that 86% of Israelis said that the government’s fight against corruption was ineffective. That is not a sign of corruption, but of public perception. I wonder how many newspapers know the difference between fact and opinion.

The Jerusalem Post

The main editorial in today’s Post is called “Why Obama is wrong about Israel and the Shoah”. It comments on Barack’s trip to the Buchenwald concentration camp, and his statement “[t]he nation of Israel [arose] out of the destruction of the Holocaust,” and his next, that “it is also undeniable that the Palestinians… have suffered in pursuit of a homeland.”

The editorial corrects Barack’s mistake immediately. “Barack Obama has been terribly misinformed if he thinks Israel’s legitimacy hinges on the Shoah.” (The Shoah is the Hebrew word favourable to some people to “Holocaust”.) “What the Holocaust proved is that the world is too dangerous a place for Jews to be stateless and defenseless.”

The writer continues by citing the historical precedents for a Jewish state in Israel, since “long before Christianity and Islam appeared”. And yet, he says, if the US president continues to call Israel the state created to atone for Nazi genocide, Arabs will never accept the Jews’ three thousand year old claim to the soil, and peace will never come.

While the Palestine Chronicle only had stories on Israel, Palestine, the US and the Lebanese elections, the Jerusalem Post writes on business, politics, science, health and sports. That said, it is clear that the focus of the paper is on the same issues as the Chronicle. It is clear that everyone considers the Israel-Palestine questions central to the news of the region; it is equally apparent, however, that few are willing to admit their side has done anything wrong.

An article on NGO fact-finding missions in Gaza dismisses the NGOs’ reports out of hand. One might be tempted to dismiss the article in the same way, though it proceeds to make a good point about bias. According to the article, 500 NGO statements were released condemning the three-week war in Gaza in January 2009. During the same period, “less than six” (so five?) NGO statements condemned the violence raging simultaneously in the Congo. That said, this article sets the tone for any number of similar articles in the future, articles that reject all organisations investigating the war in Gaza that find facts Israelis do not like.

A lot was also in today’s Post about the defeat of Hezbollah in the Lebanese elections, mentioning its violent past and sidestepping the fact that these elections were peaceful. “Israel cautiously hopeful on Lebanon”, said one headline, while another quoted Hizbullah leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah as saying “Hizbullah will fight Israel”. It seems to have no desire to conceal its confrontational ideology, with one article on the Barack administration’s loyalty to Israel titled “Which side are they on?”, one headline asking “Are Jews ready for Obama?” and a third, related article, “What’s best for the Jews”.

The Palestine Times

The Palestine Times is based in London. The first headline reads “Last-ditch effort to end rift between Hamas and Fatah” at the talks in Cairo aimed at ending the violent rivalry between the two political factions representing the Palestinian people. It quickly blames the US for backing “Fatah security lords” trying to overthrow Hamas in Gaza and surrender to Israel.

The article quotes various Palestinian leaders as desiring a national unity government to confront Israel. Highly contentious, however, is the matter of recognising Israel, which could lead the talks into deadlock. Curiously, at the end of the article, there is a seemingly perfunctory note that the “Israeli occupation army arrested hundreds of suspected political activists in the West Bank in recent weeks.” While I was scratching my head wondering what that had to do with Fatah-Hamas reconciliation, the next paragraph made it slightly clearer. “Israel is holding thousands of Palestinian activists and political leaders hostage in concentration camps all over occupied Palestine, mainly as a pressure tactic to force Hamas to capitulate to the Zionist regime.”

Some of the other leading articles are regarding Mahmoud Abbas and Fatah. In a tone of slight accusation, Fatah is implied to be pro-Western, corrupt and less representative of the Palestinian people than Hamas. Abbas is shown as a divisive figure, even within his party. This may, of course, be common knowledge in Palestine.

The first article in the “articles” section is about a massacre in 1948 by the Hagana attacked the village of a man who is still alive to talk about it. It cites the first Israeli minister of agriculture, Aharon Zisling, as having said of its brutality that “Jews, too, have committed Nazi acts.” The man who witnessed it all recalls all the brutal details, none of which are spared the reader. The whole article was written from an interview with one man, aged nearly 100.

The second headline reads “Freed Palestinian woman speaks of ‘horrific mistreatment’ in Israeli jails”. The third spits bitter poison as it outlines UN Security Council resolutions (one from 60 years ago) regarding Israeli occupation and continually addresses the Quartet (the US, the EU, Russia and the UN) as one might rap another’s head to wake him up. And as with the Palestinian Chronicle, the Times details the brutal existence of Palestinians under Israeli occupation, and as many details of the January 2009 war in Gaza as can fit in a well-written news article.


Binyamin Netanyahu is convinced President Barack wants a confrontation with Israel in order to bolster his image among Arabs. Washington and Jerusalem are rowing over Jewish West Bank settlements. More on Netanyahu. More on Barack. The headlines are in-depth stories on personalities and policies.

But there are fewer bitterly political stories than the other papers. Haaretz also features a count of how many days (and seconds) since Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit was kidnapped by Palestinian militants from the Gaza Strip.  After the first five headlines is an article on joining the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF). It follows a new recruit, proud and psyched to be there, and tells the reader how great it is to be in the Golani Brigade. I am not the most perceptive person, but I think even I can recognise propaganda. The article really does feel like another “support our boys” piece. My suspicion rises a bit more when I read related articles “Were IDF close-range killings in Gazan justified?” (the conclusion turning out to be ‘who says we did?’) and “Iraqi general tells of Arab armies’ admiration for IDF”.

In fact, the former article on close-range killings writes, during the siege of Gaza in January of this year, of Israeli soldiers ordering the Abu Hajaj family out of their home. A shell burst through the wall of their home and a young girl suffered from a shrapnel wound in her hand. They went out with white flags, saw Israeli tanks in front of them, tried to run, but the mother and sister were shot.

Could it be that the IDF admits it killed two innocents at close range during the war in Gaza? Well, said a spokesperson, the army denies knowledge of such an incident; and by the way, “Hamas cynically exploited the civilian population and used it as a ‘human shield’”. So maybe it was Hamas.

Haaretz has all kinds of other articles: like the Jerusalem Post, it is not dedicated solely to anti-Palestinianism but also business, sports, travel and the arts. For some reason, the news on Lebanon’s election is way down the page, under the Jewish World section where “Will anti-semitism take over Hungary?” is the top story. It is interesting, too, that unlike the other papers, there are sections called Diplomacy and Defense. I will look more closely at them tomorrow.

Lebanon’s election is an opportunity for peace

Lebanon has been a place of violence for so long that it is surely wrong to pin so much hope on one election. The outcome of Lebanon’s parliamentary election today will not defuse ethnic tensions in Lebanon, nor will they stop foreign powers from intervening in Lebanon’s internal affairs. However, they do give the nation a chance for a peaceful future.

Little violence was reported after polls closed. Even in this tight race for power, characterised by two opposing coalitions, each representing a motley group of constituents, opposing parties competed not to kill each other but to hand out flyers, food and water. Amin Gemayal, former president and head of a Christian party in the election, urged his supporters to accept its outcome regardless.

Observers, particularly from Europe, North America and Israel, complain that Hezbollah, recognised by the US government as a terrorist organisation, is competing as a legitimate party. Hezbollah is notorious for being pro-Syrian, despite Syria’s longtime occupation of Lebanon, and has been, to say the least, a thorn in the side of Israelis. However, it is part of a coalition of different ethnic groups and ideologies. If a supposedly divisive group such as this can cooperate with another Shiite party and a secular party, whose leader, Michel Aoun, and his mainly Christian supporters, who oppose Syrian influence, surely it can cooperate with its political opponents. It may not rush to recognise Israel’s existence, but under pressure, in time, it may consider it advantageous.

Moreover, if Hezbollah is a major part of the government, conflict with Israel is less likely, not more. When it was an opposition party and terrorist group, it could cause endless mischief for Israel because it had no shape that a conventional military could strike. It was not a well-defined group with famous actors that Israeli missles could selectively assassinate, and buildings Israeli tanks could shell. If it forms the government, however, it will be forced to act more responsibly. Its members will occupy government buildings that the Israel Defence Forces can target more easily. It will not want to risk an international war because all rich country aid to Lebanon would be cut off. More of its members will be distracted with affairs of state such as improving the economy, too busy building a reputation for responsibility and openness, reaching out to foreign governments for aid.

That, of course, is assuming that Hezbollah plans to build up a reputation for responsibility and openness, still a highly speculative possibility. But a peaceful election, pressure from coalition partners and the impracticalities of continued violent conflict with its neighbours mean the chances of violence in Lebanon are lower than they have been for a long time. Whatever the outcome of this election, Lebanon has a new opportunity for peace.

Barack and Islam: the to-do list

President Barack has just given a speech in Cairo intended for an audience of the entire Muslim world. The speech was a good one–sincere, inclusive, friendly–but there is a lot more to be done.

Though I do not think Islamic terrorism is America’s biggest problem, nor will it ever be, I do think Islamic extremism poses a serious threat to American interests. Those interests include free markets, secularism, democracy and peace. And contrary to popular belief, extremism is caused far less by poverty and religious pluralism than by perceived injustice with no outlet through which to vent. And on this note, we begin Barack’s To-Do List for Better Relations with the Islamic World.

#1: Encourage freedom and support pluralism in Muslim countries

The Barack administration needs to work with its allies among Muslim countries to ensure everyone has a voice. With so many repressive states that are nominally Islamic, and so many of them (again nominally) aligned with the US, Barack and Hillary need to continue the pressure on people like the House of Saud to allow freedom of expression. Eliminating extremism is not a question of democracy per se; indeed, the idea of democracy has become a laughing stock among many Middle Easterners. The unpopular Bush administration promoted democracy as a panacea, and as soon as an Islamic party (Hamas) was “democratically” elected, it refused to recognise it.

But pluralism and freedom are still ways to promote peace–if you disagree with me, you can say so without getting arrested. To say they are not suited to Islam is nonsense: they were part of Islamic civilisation for at least 500 years during the Islamic Golden Age. Without pluralism and freedom of expression, Muslim civilisation would never have made such great scientific advances. Saying pluralism and Islam cannot coexist is like saying Muslims speak with one voice. Yet these values are at the root of the debate going on within Islam today. Having lived in Indonesia, Barack is in a good position to understand and sympathise with Muslims.

His charm is also handy. Though I do not like the idea that charm can move mountains, it can. They have won him his popularity up to this point, and have even slightly increased the United States’ abysmal image among Muslims. Charm has brought him to this point, but it can take him no further. It has opened up many doors, and Barack must enter with a plan. The focus of his plan must be understanding.

#2: Foster cross-cultural understanding

Back to the president’s speech. Barack set some things straight about religious freedom in America. “[F]reedom in America is indivisible from the freedom to practice one’s religion. That is why there is a mosque in every state of our union, and over 1,200 mosques within our borders. That is why the US government has gone to court to protect the right of women and girls to wear the hijab, and to punish those who would deny it.

So let there be no doubt: Islam is a part of America.” (Youtube, 12:00)

He addressed the stereotypes many Muslims hold of America and Americans hold of Muslims. He has started the intercultural ball rolling. Other people need to run with it. Start programs that teach, at all ages, about each other’s culture and religion and help them to see each other’s points of view. Let them see and feel the plurality of views among the people, that the other side is not a monolithic or hateful mass, and the new ways of thinking all of us can learn from this interaction.

Even the language we use limits our understanding. It can be difficult not to speak and think in terms of “Muslim countries”, “Islamic states” and moderates vs. extremists, but there is so much more to the issues than this thinking implies. We need to realise that, like everywhere, there are nuances in the groups we are talking about that we can work with to achieve goals that benefit everyone.

“And I believe that America holds within her the truth that regardless of race, religion, or station in life, all of us share common aspirations to live in peace and security; to get an education and to work with dignity; to love our families, our communities, and our god. These things we share. This is the hope of all humanity.” (Youtube, 12:30) Barack has begun to bring us all together in common humanity.

Another part of his plan is the prison at Guantanamo Bay.

#3: Close Guantanamo

Barack said “unequivocally” that he prohibited the use of torture by any forces he commands. This is quite the promise for an American president to make, as it is convenient to invoke the misleading ticking time bomb scenario and to the charge of torture plead patriotism. If no stories of torture emerge under his presidency, we should be impressed by his adherence to principle.

He also said, as he has done before, that he will close Guantanamo. Great. When? When everyone else agrees to take the US’s prisoners? I am not clear on why the prisoners at Guantanamo cannot be shipped to civilian tribunals in the United States. This is the most logical answer to me. By asking other countries to take them, the US government is asking favours. Charm has made closing Guantanamo a possibility, but it will not ensure the safe transfer and fair trial of its prisoners without costs to the US’s international political capital. And that capital will run out even faster if he does not do what he promised on the campaign trail.

#4: Bring the boys home from Iraq

Barack has promised to bring the troops home from Iraq by 2012. This may or may not be a good idea; suffice it to say, it is a promise, and fulfilling it will bring him credibility (right in time for his reelection). As part of the wider War on Terror, which many Muslims see as a war on their religion, the war in Iraq was framed as the way to keep the US safer. Having inflamed many a Mohamedan mind with images of fear, torture and killing, it has clearly had the opposite effect.

Part of the reason is the us vs. them attitude exhibited by all the War’s protagonists. We have a tendency to view struggles as good against evil, and I need to know who everyone around me supports so that I can know who the good guys are. But conflict is rarely about good and evil but two groups who do not want to listen to each other and admit they are wrong. Barack seems to realise this, and when he speaks of reconciliation with the Islamic world, he is trying to forge a wider “us”. Bringing the troops home from Iraq would mean that one of the biggest symbols of “them” to so many people, the continuation of a war on Islam, will be over. That is, unless American troop presences elsewhere become increasingly seen as illegitimate. The wrong moves in Afghanistan could reverse progress on Barack’s goodwill efforts.

#5: Win Afghanistan and Pakistan

The United States military, in conjunction with Pakistan’s, has an incredibly difficult task ahead of it: stabilise perhaps the most dangerous region on earth. They have scored some military victories, but the real question is, are they winning hearts and minds? This is war among the people, not between states, and it is not clear that technology and manpower will end it. What is needed are hospitals, schools, entrepreneurship, legitimate government, grassroots organisations and the rule of law. These are not possible outcomes in the short, election-focused, American political attention span.

Barack must make skeptical Muslims realise the benefits of this war, which will be very hard. Perhaps even harder, he also needs to show progress. “[W]e plan to invest $1.5 billion each year over the next five years to partner with Pakistanis to build schools and hospitals, roads and businesses, and hundreds of millions to help those who have been displaced…. [W]e are providing more than $2.8 billion to help Afghans develop their economy and deliver services that people depend upon.” (Youtube, 20:16) Will it be enough?

Likewise, Barack must sell this war realistically to the American people. The American public needs to understand that Afghanistan is a twenty, thirty, forty-year project. Not resolving every last one of these conflicts in Barack’s term will not make him a failure. But no matter how long it takes, it will cost more money and more lives. If they are not clear on these points, they will demand the troops return home as soon as there is an Afghani equivalent of the Tet Offensive. If that happens, Afghanistan will become an oppressive, totalitarian Islamic state, a hotbed of extremism and America’s worst nightmare. It may go the way of Iran, or it may go a lot further. Ironically, Iran is a potential ally in defusing the Islamist threat on its borders.

#6: Stop antagonising Iran

That is just what the hardliners want you to do. When governments feel threatened, many, especially those whose economies are booming, will act tough. If their nation is threatened, proud nationalists in Iran will vote in a hawkish government, on the belief that it is better positioned to protect them. Pushing Iran on any major issue will give Iranian government hawks just the backing they need to escalate the country’s military and nuclear development. A conciliatory approach, however, will give liberals room to manoeuver in Iranian politics, and the results could be a partner in the wider fight against extremism.

It is very unlikely the US and Iran will get into any direct conflict, as I have said before; but Iran could still put a stop to Barack’s plans in the Muslim world, especially if oil prices rise again. If, on the other hand, the US reached out to Iran as a partner in the wider struggle against extremism, it may gain from it. It would be seen as less threatening to Muslims as once believed. Its government is not as psychopathic as some Americans seem to think, and the people have some power to choose their representatives. Iran’s government might look petty if it rejected an olive branch; then again, it might look justified. Iran’s people may perceive a bigger threat in the form of the equally belligerent Israel. With a lot of effort, Barack could smooth over the tensions between these two. This task will be easier if Israel cooperates. Progress on Israeli-Palestinian peace dialogue would not hurt.

#7: Resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict

But how? Does he have a new road map? Will he try to resurrect an old one? Barack proposes a two-state solution. Is this idea viable? Creative, new ideas could be encouraged. Does he and his team have any new ideas, such as some of the ones shot down here, on any of the complicated issues? Will the president lead peace negotiations? Will he continue to back Israel unconditionally? If so, and it certainly seems so given his actions since his election and his use of the word “unbreakable” to describe the US-Israeli relationship, what are the consequences for the Palestinians’ security? For example, is the American government willing to provide more humanitarian aid to the Occupied Territories? What would it take for it to intervene to stop an Israeli offensive in its territories or neigbours? Will American-led progress elsewhere among Muslims make finding a resolution easier? The answers to these questions will determine the outcome of peace talks between the Israelis and the Palestinians. It might take a lot longer than eight years, but if Barack can move ahead on a resolution between the longtime rivals, he will have done his best. Honest efforts to end the violence in Israel will be viewed positively by some people, but let us hope Barack is not stepping into the crossfire with this one.

#8: Stop calling the United States a Christian nation

Every president the United States has ever had has invoked the Christian god in his speeches. It is time to stop throwing bones to the Christian majority of the United States and to start acknowledging what it really is: a pluralist nation. Actually, Barack has already done this one. So he is well on his way. This task completed, perhaps more Muslim Americans will emerge as political leaders, making American politics more pluralist, and thereby wiser.

In his speech, President Barack went into details about how American Muslims have helped make America great. “Since our founding, American Muslims have enriched the United States. They have fought in our wars, served in government, stood for civil rights, started businesses, taught at our universities, excelled in our sports arenas, won Nobel Prizes, built our tallest building, and lit the Olympic Torch.” (Youtube, 8:31)

Barack and his administration have a daunting to-do list. Can he complete all these tasks and realise our goals of a more peaceful and just world? He has started many of them already, and eight years is a long time in the modern world. But anything could derail progress: another major terrorist attack in the name of god on American soil, broken promises, American domestic politics, nuclear weapons here, a collapsed state there. But I have confidence that the Barack administration can maintain the support and good judgement it needs to resolve one of the major conflicts of our time, between the US and Islam.


Tiananmen demonstrations fall on deaf ears

On this day 20 years ago, hundreds or thousands of peaceful protestors, many of them students, were killed in Beijing for demanding democracy. The world remembers them; Mainland China does not.

Protests and vigils took place in Hong Kong this week. The Mainland Chinese press did not report on them. The protestors were not demanding a change of government in Beijing; they were only demanding restitution for the Tiananmen killings (“平反六四”). And what effect did it have? 可想而知–not much. In fact, today’s China Daily (one of China’s biggest English daily newspapers) headlined letters of protest by Mainland Chinese at France’s recent honouring of the Dalai Lama.

The 1980s were a time of opening for China. The China that had been closed for thirty years inside Mao’s fist was opening up to the rest of the world’s media, people, business and ideas. Less well known is that it was also opening up to self-scrutiny. Deng Xiaoping was moving forward on reforms, and China’s leaders were interested in political reform for better stability. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) was divided between reformers and conservatives, and the intellectuals of China were coming out of the shadows to give their opinions of China’s development. Tolerance of debate and dissent grew; but as the CCP soon realised, if you give them an inch, they will take a mile.

As with much of the rest of the communist world (and perhaps spurred by them), demonstrations, protests and riots grew in number. In 1987 and 8, rioters in Lhasa demanded Tibetan independence. College students elsewhere in China, led by “well-established intellectuals” (Zhao, 147), were specific in the reforms they proposed. The long and the short of it was, the CCP should hold elections and be willing to hand over power.

Students and other protestors marched in many cities in China in the thousands between April and June 1989. By June 4th, as many as a million people stood in Tiananmen Square. Though they did not all agree what they were protesting, they were all venting their anger at the CCP. The soldiers opened fire on June 3 at 22:30. (Wikipedia)

Most chinese people have taken a very different tack since 1989. Their living standards have improved and are more focused on family, education and money than on politics. The CCP has become adept at manipulating nationalist feeling and directing it outward, mostly against Japan and America. And because they are not taught about the Tiananmen Incident, they feel less angry against their government.

As I wrote at the time of the riots in Tibet in 2008, people who dream of China’s liberalisation are likely to be disappointed. Today’s urban, middle class Chinese believe they benefit from the Communist Party’s rule and thank it for bringing them such prosperity. Government control of the media means few of them are aware of the demonstrations in Hong Kong, or that the government behaved drastically in Tiananmen, or even that there was any incident at all. What Tiananmen massacre?

Many self-styled China Watchers hope for China’s eventual democratisation. Some even say it is inevitable. Given the tens of thousands of protests around China every year, the liberalisation that comes with economic growth, better education, international exchanges and so on, China is bound to have a democratic revolution of some kind. Having lived in China, I believe that democracy is not inevitable. What we should really take from the Tiananmen Incident of 1989 is that China’s authoritarian government is willing to use violence to maintain power for a long time to come. It has done so before, and it will do so again.


Zhao Suisheng: China and Democracy

The implications of human nature for conflict resolution

Three years ago, I wrote a post on this blog claiming that human nature did not exist. In that post, one of this blog’s most popular and controversial, I said that no one really knows human nature and its being invoked by so many people renders it meaningless. I was wrong because I thought human nature meant what was the same about everyone, and the same in all cultures, and different from what all other animals do.

I have read copiously on psychology and anthropology since then, however, and, fascinated by the study of human nature, realise that my definition of it was wrong; or at least, my definition was different from that of the psychologists. I now have a better definition. Human nature is, basically, what we all have in common, across cultures, based on our evolution. People vary considerably within cultures but each group has certain things in common, because we have a shared ancestry. We all hunt: we do not all hunt the same way, because different environments mean different ways of hunting, but we all hunt. We all sing and dance: taste in music and dance varies wildly, but it is a feature of every culture anthropologists can find.

In fact, there is a long list of human universals by American professor of anthropology Donald Brown that gives us some idea of what we all have inside us. This list, found here, was originally assembled in 1989 and has grown since then. The ideas may not seem revolutionary to you, until you realise that all of these things are common to all human cultures. This understanding can be used to cross cultural boundaries, making it essential for conflict resolution. If we know certain things we can find in any culture, we know practices that are probably recommended or proscribed, and how to negotiate and deal with anyone else more smoothly.

We must separate the myths of human nature from the facts. Steven Pinker, perhaps my favourite scholar on the subject, in his book the Blank Slate, effectively discards the commonly held belief that tribal societies from less complex civilisations (eg. a small group living on the savannah or in the jungle) are less violent than those in more complex societies. The thinking behind this “noble savage” misconception is that, given the damage done by modern warfare, there must be something inherently corrupting about modern life that leads us to kill one another. However, if one looks at the proportion of males killed in war, that of modern society does not even approach that of certain tribal societies such as the Dugum Dani of New Guinea, the Jivaro of Peru and Ecuador and the Yanomamo people of the Amazon. While a tiny fraction of men from the US and Europe were killed in the world wars of the 20th century, that proportion rises to over 20 percent for the Dani and Yanomamo, and over 50 percent for the Jivaro. (Pinker, 39) Furthermore, some 90 percent of hunter gatherer societies engage in warfare and raiding. (ibid.) Returning to a pastoral, hunter gatherer life would not eliminate widescale violence.

The point that I have always emphasised as most important regarding human nature is that, however much we understand it (and many of us do not), we must never use it as an excuse. It may be “human nature” that we cannot sprout wings and fly around the room, but to say that, for instance, nationalism, racism or other forms of collectivism are human nature risks legitimising them. We must not be slaves to our nature but use our ability to think critically to make the right decisions. We are smart and strong enough to resist the pull of our nature if it would lead to morally questionable actions.

Or are we? As I said, we all hunt because humans evolved as hunters. But most of us do not hunt the same way we used to. Some of us hunt criminals or enemies of the state; others collect coins and stamps. To a scholar of human nature, these two acts are both manifestations of the hunting instinct. Desmond Morris, in the Human Animal, a zoologist’s analysis of human life and behaviour, says that war is not an act of aggression, such as the dishonour or anger that might lead a man into a fistfight with another man, but a highly organised hunt. We needed an awareness of geography, an ability to plan and organise, and an ability to kill in order to hunt successfully. These qualities are still around, and so is the killing.

Though we are not slaves to our nature, we operate in quite predictable ways. In the Lucifer Effect, Philip Zimbardo shows how truly flexible we are when confronted with environments that are unfamiliar, systems that exert their will on us, and situations we are not in control of. We are always at risk of influence by others that can make us do violence, and we must be vigilant or risk perverting our values. One can be a mafia boss, ordering the killing of whole families; a prison guard beating people up for not eating their bread; a politician ordering thousands to kill thousands more; and still go home to our families and feel good about ourselves. The line between the angels and the demons of our nature is thin.

The biggest question is, how can we use our knowledge of human nature to minimise violent conflict? If we understand our most basic urges and the trouble they could get us in, we can minimise their destructive effects and perhaps benefit from them. Here are some features of our nature, how they can be destructive, and how we can change our behaviour.

Behaving predictably. One reason a small act of violence in the form of terrorism can be so effective is that it usually provokes a predictable response. The disproportional retaliations of, for instance, the Bush administration to terrorism played right into the hands of the terrorists. Many popular books on psychology and economics attempt to explain that, while we are ultimately free to choose, we succumb to innumerable pitfalls in our thinking because we are not aware of them.

If you think human behaviour is not predictable, you can test it for yourself. If you are a man, go up to another man bigger than you, surrounded by his friends, also bigger than you, and push him. I bet you that 99% of the time, what you think will happen will happen. If a friend tells you something he believes to be true, say “not only do I disagree, but that was a really stupid thing to say. Do you even know what you’re saying? What’s wrong with you?” Unless you are talking to the Dalai Lama, you are likely to make your friend angry, defensive and more convinced than ever that he or she is right.

Dr Zimbardo says that anyone is susceptible to manipulation, influence by unsavoury characters and contemptible behaviour. The less aware we are being manipulated, or the stronger we think we are to counter it, the more compliant we are likely to be. There are many books on persuasion and influence that can teach us to be aware of evil forces acting on and through us. The best I have read is the Lucifer Effect.

Categorising and simplifying. We have an urge to put things conveniently away into drawers and pigeonholes in order to save ourselves the trouble of thinking too much. We talk in simple language and simple thinking about the Muslim world or the Arab world, the West, Africa, the black community, Asian values, such and such a civilisation, and so on. Speaking this way is easier, but if we do not recognise the nuances, the enormous variety within these groups, we are liable to make serious mistakes.

I write further on this subject in Why Interculturalism Will Work. You can read it at Suffice it to say, if we simplify the world too much, we risk making the wrong decisions, leading to misunderstandings, disrespect, conflict and war.

Cognitive dissonance and self-serving bias. In a previous post, I described part of this shortcoming as windows and mirrors. Windows are what we use to look at others, and we are very good at seeing their faults. But when it comes to our own, looking in the mirror, we see ourselves–and significantly, the groups we are loyal to–as pristine. This happens because we have an inborn tendency to legitimise everything we do as right and noble, to write off our own weaknesses as not really weaknesses and, put simply, to lie to ourselves about ourselves.

The book Mistakes Were Made (But not by Me) is a book about the damage cognitive dissonance can do. It shows how we can believe, for instance, that we go to war for freedom, kill for peace, terrorise for justice and are never at fault when we are wrong. Sure, some people died in the war I started, but they were probably mostly bad people. Sure, what I am doing is bad for others, but if I didn’t do it, someone else would. Sure, it looks like I’m stealing money from my company’s shareholders, but I work hard and deserve it. Really, I should be taking more, but I’m holding back. What a nice guy I am.

This phenomenon may also help explain why dictators are usually unrepentant and incorrigible. They have spent their whole careers killing, suppressing, torturing, dividing, concealing and so on, and have their consciences well under control. We all have self-serving bias which means, among other things, we forget or brush aside our failures and failings. We remember the things we have done that make us good people and forget the things that make us seem bad.

Likewise, supporters of a dictator, members of an ethnic group at war, followers of a religion or ideology can easily find instances of where their people or ideas have done good, and get angry when one brings up the seemingly insignificant or irrelevant instances where they have done wrong. After all, I am a good person, so whatever movement I am a part of must be noble and right.

But knowing our limitations is how we can overcome them. Checking cognitive dissonance requires awareness of how and when we do it. If we have any nagging doubts as to whether your actions were morally justified, we might be right. It is wrong to simply write off everything we do as a legitimate means to some greater end. Imagine someone else doing the same thing. Imagine your enemies, if you have any, doing the same actions. Are they still legitimate? Is it possible to understand the point of view of someone who does similar actions?

Collectivism. Whether or not it is an excuse, collectivism appears to be a big part of our nature. When I say collectivism, I mean treating people in terms of in-groups and out-groups. To a collectivist, there are people in my group that are inherently superior to those outside my group. I care for those in my group like I care for myself–we are human beings deserving respect and dignity. Those outside the group, however are less than human. Our love of team sports, with separate uniforms, chants and rivalries that occasionally erupt in violence are an example of this.

As much as we try to shed them, we seem to have brains stuffed with stereotypes. What this means is that anyone outside the group we consider ourselves part of could be made to seem less important, less complex and less human. As a result, any kind of national, ethnic or religious group will have trouble reconciling its differences with another, especially when the groups have less opportunity to mix. Moreover, men possessed of stereotypes about women are likely to see women as weak, which increases the likelihood of rape.

The evolution of this feeling is understandable. We used to live in small bands where those we knew were family. However, our idea of community has changed over time to what Benedict Anderson calls “imagined communities”. Imagined communities are groups that consider themselves to have an essential similarity that makes them equal (and by extension, more important than others), though they may never meet. Soldiers go to war to protect their nations, even though the only thing they are certain to have in common is nationality. Zealots engage in holy wars partly because followers of their gods are threatened. See this post for more on collectivism and conflict.

If we can harness collectivist sentiment and language, we can use it to mean everyone. After all, our groups do not have to be exclusive. We can be a brotherhood of men, a community of the world, a united human race.

Proving oneself. Young men, from teenage years to young adulthood, have an urge to prove themselves. That was the age they were most likely to perfect their skill at hunting and find mates. These boys are most likely to want to do violence. In Blood and Belonging, Michael Ignatieff describes the killing that took place in the former Yugoslavia.

[U]ntil I had encountered my quotient of young males intoxicated by the power of the guns on their hips, I had not understood how deeply pleasureable it is to have the power of life and death in your hands. It is a characteristic liberal error to suppose that everyone hates and fears violence. I met lots of young men who loved the ruins, loved the destruction, loved the power that came from the barrels of their guns.

Perhaps liberals have not understood the force of male resentment which has accumulated through the centuries of gradual European pacification. The history of our civilisation is the history of the confiscation of the means of violence by the state. But it is an achievement which an irreducible core of young males has always resented. Liberals have not reckoned with the male loathing of peace and domesticity or with the anger of young males at the modern state’s confiscation of their weapons. One of the hidden rationales behind nationalist revolts is that they tap into this deeper sub-stratum of male resentment at the civility and order of the modern state itself. For it seems obvious that the state’s order is the order of the father, and that nationalism is the rebellion of the sons. How else are we to account for the staggering gratuitousness and bestiality of nationalist violence, its constant overstepping of the bounds of either military logic or legitimate self-defence, unless we give some room in our account for the possibility that nationalism exists to warrant and legitimise the son’s vengeance against the father. (Ignatieff, 187-8)

Boys who are occupied and motivated by other things, however, do not kill. Paul Collier, author of Wars, Guns and Votes, says that in post-conflict situations, one of the highest priorities is jobs for young men. “[T]he reason [such situations] so often revert to conflict is not because elderly women get upset, it’s because young men get upset. Why are they upset? Because they’ve nothing to do.” His suggestion is job creation in construction: it is necessary after the destruction of conflict, and the jobs are not subject to international competition.

Some parts of the Arab world have employment laws that favour men. In other words, men get first pick of all the best jobs. Though this of course is a sexist policy, it is probably a good one: the last thing the world needs is more unemployed young men with holy books.

Proving oneself is really another way to say reaching one’s potential, just like one can do in a job. At this key age, young people can be coaxed into anything with the right attention and care. That is why, in strong communities, they play sports and video games, do homework, have jobs and volunteer for their community. Suppressing all teenage rebellion in a society that values freedom is impossible. Therefore, our task is to divert the people most at risk of committing acts of violence and give them occupations that, to their genes, are equivalent to hunting, but to the rest of us are productive rather than harmful.

Ignoring the truth, hunting each other, behaving predictably, dividing the world into us and them and simplifying the world away are just a few sides of our nature with implications for analysing and resolving conflict. Exploring the depths of human nature can help us understand, mitigate and reverse the tragic consequences of some of our most basic, and most dangerous urges.

Anderson, Benedict: Imagined Communities

Collier, Paul: War, Guns and Votes: democracy in dangerous places

Fine, Cordelia: A Mind of Its Own: how your brain distorts and deceives

Ignatieff, Michael: Blood and Belonging: journeys into the new nationalism

Morris, Desmond: The Human Animal: a personal view of the human species

Pinker, Steven: The Blank Slate: the modern denial of human nature

Tavris, Carol, and Elliot Aronson: Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me): Why We Justify Foolish Beliefs, Bad Decisions, and Hurtful Acts

Zimbardo, Philip: The Lucifer Effect: understanding how good people turn evil