Sanctions on Iran? Let’s be Daoist about it

The Menso Guide to War’s good friend President Barack is proposing sanctions on Iran. Actually, he is proposing further sanctions on Iran. The history of US sanctions on Iran goes back to the deposing of the shah and the hostage crisis of 1979. Barack thinks more sanctions would be a good way to get what he wants in the Middle East, and many Americans support him. I am afraid, however, he is wading in over his head.

The proposed bill targets Iran’s dependence on imports for gasoline. The UN Security Council has passed several resolutions condemning Iran’s enrichment of uranium, because it could use uranium to make a nuclear weapon. In fact, it may already have a nuclear weapon. More resolutions express more accepted condemnation and as such give measures like sanctions (or military action, depending what the resolutions say) more legitimacy. Iran has violated the Non-Proliferation Treaty. So sanctions are justified to make it stop enriching uranium, right?

Not so fast. Why does Barack want sanctions on Iran? Is it a punishment? My homegirl Hillary has said that, if the sanctions could just target the “relatively small group of decision makers inside Iran”, they could serve the US’s goals. True, it may weaken the regime financially but it would also hurt the people, as sanctions often do–think of the deepening of poverty in Iraq during the 1990s. For instance, the $2b in Citibank belonging to the Iranian Revolutionary Guard that the US government froze in 2008 will likely be made up from other assets the Guard own in Iran. Someone always ends up paying, and it is rarely the elites. The people would be pushed into the hands of the hardliners, as I argue they already have been for years since the demonisation of Iran began under Bill Clinton and got no better under George Bush. This outside push on Iran is why a fool like Ahmadinejad can get elected there in the first place. If history is any guide, the people will not turn on their government if threatened or impoverished but run to it for protection.

Will tougher sanctions force a change in policy? Do Iranians even have a right to nuclear technology? For years now, the Iranian government has made it quite clear that it will enrich uranium whether the outside world likes it or not. And why should it? It has become part of the status quo that India, Israel and Pakistan all have nuclear weapons, and though they (along with North Korea) are the only four states not party to the non proliferation treaty, they are allies of the US. Israel gets into wars all the time: in the 62 years since 1948, Israel has fought 7 wars and 2 intifadas. India and Pakistan are continually at odds with one another, and though I disagree with him on Iran, Christopher Hitchens believes the India-Pakistan conflict is the most likely of the world to turn nuclear. Meanwhile, the US is trying to isolate Iran in the kind of double standard that makes international politics the confusing mess it is. If anyone tries to force Iran to give up nuclear capability of any kind, they will look like bullies and hypocrites.

Barack is using a sizeable amount of his political capital in the Security Council drumming up support for sanctions on the Islamic Republic. Meanwhile, the US government talks about how much it would like to talk to Iran and gently persuade it to do the right thing, but the ayatollahs just won’t cooperate. American politicians claim to be wide open to talking to Iran but wide open to bombing it to rubble as well. These arguments play well to the same voters as believe the mindless cliche that our enemies only understand the language of force. Aside from the fact that the claim that the US government is trying to engage Iran is doubtful, how do Hillary and Barack expect the Iranians to open up when they have been pushed away for two decades? You cannot push others away with one hand and expect them to shake your other one.

There seems to be surprisingly little discussion in Washington at the moment about the consequences of putting away all sanctions on Iran. If only American political culture were less impulsive and more Daoist. Daoism considers peace first. It favours non-action, which would be a propitious innovation for a culture that feels the need to move quickly forward in any direction. Daoists remain open minded and flexible, not committed to a single way of thinking, especially after that way has failed. And it believes in relativism, that what path might be right for one may not be right for all.

Perhaps that is why the Chinese government has said that more sanctions on Iran may not be necessary right now, and that it may be prudent to wait. (In truth, I believe Chinese government ideology is pragmatism, not Daoism, but Daoism is a good way to contrast the foreign affairs of the US and China.) It has declared its preference for dialogue over punishment. The Chinese government makes a habit of stating that it is not Chinese policy to interfere in other states’ affairs. It has backed sanctions in the past because like all nuclear powers it does not want anyone new in the club. But perhaps Chinese officials have realised that there are other ways to deal with adamant people.

Why are we so afraid of a nuclear Iran? It is not as if possession of nuclear weapons makes it likely or even possible to use them. The proliferation of nuclear weapons has made them all but useless. Yet Barack has made disarmament a major part of his foreign policy.

I am looking forward to a day when Daoists run the US State Department and liberals run the Revolutionary Guard. Perhaps then we will be able to talk to each other.

Conflict and the search for meaning

We all seek meaning in life. Meaning has various sources, but we must be careful to find our meaning and not that of others. The search for meaning is at the center of the world’s conflicts.

A major source of meaning is hunting, as I discussed in my last post on human nature. Modern hunting takes many forms. Some people participate in unfulfilling hedonism such as sexual escapades or gathering possessions. Some engage in the struggles of their ancestors, seeking revenge for ancient injustices. Aside from hunting, we have other pursuits that seem larger than ourselves. Many people feel that religion is a great source of meaning, though it also leads to conflict when it is combined with the hunt. The guards in the concentration camps who believed in what they were doing had meaning in their lives.

A lack of meaning in one’s life can be dangerous to our health. Some people seek new meaning, but if one does not look for and pursue it all the time, one can become depressed, neurotic and suicidal. Viktor Frankl had meaning. He was writing his magnum opus while interned in concentration camps in the 1940s. His subject: man’s search for meaning.

Those reading this may know of Abraham Maslow and Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. He says that meaning, while important, is the small part of the pyramid. Frankl turns the pyramid on its head, saying that, without meaning, the other things can only take us so far. A mind with a purpose can carry its person through anything, but one without can shrivel and die. Frankl found that, in the concentration camp, the people who had given up their reason for living were the ones who died. He, on the other hand, would steal scraps of paper on which to write his life’s work, and he is certain that this is what kept his brain, and his body, alive through the most bitter conditions humans have known. And it is this struggle for one’s life’s meaning that is at the heart of the world’s darkest conflicts.

At some point in our lives, people offer us meaning. This meaning is comes in the form of nationalism, religion, ideology and so on. Sometimes we do what others are doing, which is conformism, and sometimes we do what others want or force us to do, or totalitarianism. But external meaning, that is, meaning offered by others, is false meaning. It acts like a drug: it feels good but lets you down because there is nothing there to satisfy you as an individual. Taking on someone else’s meaning leaves you with a feeling of emptiness.

What we need is striving for goals, tension between meaning to be fulfilled and the man who wants to fulfill it. Far from being an afterthought en route to food, work and a house, the search for meaning is the primary motivation in life. So the individual must seek his own, specific mission in life. We are filled with internal conflict, which is the hardest conflict to solve. Internal conflict is the tough questions in life: Am I happy? Do I make others happy? What is my purpose or mission? Why am I doing what I am doing? How can I make my life better? How can I make the world better? Internal conflict cannot be solved with guns and bombs. It cannot be delegated to another person, no matter how wise. Because it is so difficult to resolve our internal conflict, many people give up on it. They take on external meaning instead and pay with their lives.

Let us say I have a cause: liberation for my homeland. Where did I get that cause from? Everyone else who looks like me and talks like me is doing it. They are my family. I have been told that my whole life. And I have also been told that family is destiny, and family is the only source of meaning. These people are my family, so I must fight for them. I will dedicate my whole life to this cause. I have become a willing slave.

And there are millions of these slaves in the world. They are the suicide bombers, the unquestioning soldiers, the members of death squads, the monomaniacal liberationists and ideologues, who are no more than tools of their cause. We see this problem played out all over the world: nationalists in Palestine, Kosovo, Xinjiang, Chechnya, Tamil Eelam, Kashmir, Basque, Kurdistan, and everybody fighting against them, are engaged in existential struggles because they have accepted another’s meaning. Not only do such people cause some of the worst violence in the world, they are blind to the truth. When the enemy kills, it is a horrible act of war; when we kill, it is for our noble cause. They have chosen not to resolve their inner struggles and have accepted the false meaning of a cause they will never benefit from.

An alternative to being a footsoldier is to be a general. Similar in result to the pursuit of goals of one’s group is the pursuit of power for oneself. Power is very tempting. I think I have the answer, and power is what I need to put my solution into effect. (Frankl calls the pursuit of money the more “primitive” version of the pursuit of power.) The result of this temptation is (national or corporate) empire building. People will lie, steal, kill, or send others to die, anything in the scramble to the top of the ladder. When they are there, they do everything they can to hold on to power. Mass graves are testimony to this fact. And they build their empires with no concern for others. In other words, people who are not searching for a meaning that is greater than themselves will not only lead empty lives: they will lead destructive ones.

Relentlessly pursuing something is not realising your life’s meaning. Frankl says we should do three things to find meaning: achieve, experience and adopt the right attitude. Achieving means creating something that is good for the world, such as a book or a work of art. Experiencing is experiencing nature, culture, truth, beauty and love. Our attitude is how we react to suffering. Since suffering is an inevitable part of life, we must learn to handle it. Again, Frankl spent almost three years in a concentration camp. He says that when we are challenged by suffering, through a potentially fatal disease, for example, how we strive to turn tragedy into triumph, to regain hope, is part of our search for meaning.

People need to find meaning, and many people need help finding it. Education is one answer: schools that give opportunities to express oneself and find one’s passions give the best education. Education should not be about getting a job. If it is, the society it creates could break down into depression (internal conflict) or war (external conflict). At the same time, meaningful work is a great way to find meaning in life. It can lead us to preserve stability in society in order to keep our opportunities for meaning and give others the same chances. Lack of meaning is a major cause and symptom of the world’s most violent conflicts. Helping others to find meaning should be a high priority of those involved in conflict resolution.

The time perspective problem in conflict analysis and resolution

Tatar scholar Zufar Fartkutdinov once said “the patience of a nation is measured in centuries.” Many nations and their independence movements lie dormant for hundreds of years until they are roused by great upheavals. Others make attempts at independence but need to be patient and change political culture over centuries to get their way. But what Fartkutdinov called patience, some might call living in the past.

Time perspectives are an interesting psychological phenomenon. We see the passage of time in all kinds of different ways. Some people focus on the past. Of those who do, some think about the good things, or at least what we can learn from the bad, and others brood over past misfortunes and injustices. Some people are only interested in the pleasures of the present. Others are more focused on the future, and lose sight of the lessons of the past. Psychologists Philip Zimbardo (who wrote the Lucifer Effect) and John Boyd have studied time perspectives and have reached two conclusions that are highly relevant to conflict resolution: a) time perspectives are learned, not naturally ingrained, and b) a healthy time perspective is one that takes a balanced and optimistic view of the past, present and future.

For someone Zimbardo and Boyd would call “past-positive”, reflecting on the past is about learning from the bad (eg. mistakes) and celebrating the good. Both men scored nearly perfect for past-positive on the Zimbardo Time Perspective Inventory, a test of how we perceive time that you should consider taking. Their high scores were presumably because of their wide understanding of time perspective psychology. They know it is very important to know what happened in the past, because it provides a sense of continuity and a sense of self. It can be a source of happiness. And it is necessary if we want to predict the future. But too much emphasis on history, especially a “past-negative” perspective on your group, can cause serious problems.

A focus on the past seems to lead to collectivism. Collectivism rises from an extreme focus on history as told by members of the group you belong to. I have detailed the problems that collectivism causes in my series on individualism and collectivism. Collectivist ideas such as nationalism, racism and so on are irrelevant in modern society, where they are no longer necessary for security or meaning. They continue to exist, however, because we consider the past to be much more than something to learn from. For so many collectivists, the past is a source of pride, honour, rules and meaning.

But should it be? Our groups are not pristine. They have committed war, pillage, rape, oppression and other crimes, often on large scales. Collectivists, of course, dismiss these cases as aberrations, not the people we really are. But a fair reading of history would have to include the good with the bad. Clearly, our collective pasts are not the best place to find virtue.

What is so bad about living in the past? For an individual or a group, the dangers are the same. First, people who are stuck in the past are not willing to try new things, make new friends, or embrace change. For an individual, this can mean a life of misery. What if you moved to get a new job and spent your whole time thinking about how much better your old home was? You would be missing out on all the opportunities for fun and learning in your new environment. For groups, fear of the new means all the same things, but with global implications.

Take, for instance, the Tibetan people. Given that the Tibetans were once free of Chinese rule, many of them resent that it has come back. The fact that most Tibetans are not old enough to know what it was like for Tibet to be independent is irrelevant. People locked in past-negative perspectives imagine what the past was like as they reconstruct it from stories and can only imagine a return to it. But if a Tibetan adopts a future perspective (or better still, a balanced and optimistic view of time), he or she can thrive in the new and prosperous China. Many Tibetans have already done so. Why does one have to cling to one’s culture and past to the rejection of all others? If there are advantages in doing so, try adopting a new culutre in addition to your old one.

Second, since most groups, especially fiercely collectivist ones, share a history of trauma, such as war, genocide, oppression, slavery, and so on, they are likely to want revenge. As Zufar Fartkutdinov probably realised, revenge can stew for centuries. Think about the hatreds in the world that are based on past injustices that hating people feel have gone unresolved. Palestinians hate the Israelis. Millions of Asians hate the Japanese. People from the former Yugoslavia hate each other. Tamils and Sinhalese hate each other. Muslims hate the Jews and the Americans. Anyone who might have oppressed my people, even though I may have lived free and peacefully my whole life, is evil. These feelings are often called ancient hatreds, but a more accurate word is racism. Not everyone in these groups feels hatred, but it is difficult not to when your parents and teachers and friends and leaders and media and history books all tell you to.

So where does this leave us? Zimbardo and Boyd’s first point was that time perspectives are learned. If they are learned, they can be unlearned. For people to want reconciliation instead of revenge, they need to learn other perspectives on the past, and on time itself. A future orientation would also be helpful. A future orientation makes you more likely to learn, save, work hard and try to reconcile the past for the sake of the future. Some of the conditions for a future orientation are

-living in a temperate zone, because different seasons make us plan ahead;

-a stable family, society and nation, because we can predict the future and how our actions will be rewarded;

-education, because we spend many hours learning with no immediate benefit but great future benefit;

-having a job and being successful, because these things show us our effort can pay off.

The future is worth keeping in mind in order to make the right decisions today. Poor neighbourhoods, especially those with poor schools, drugs and gangs, have trouble leaving a “present-fatalistic” mindset because it seems as though, whatever you do, you are bound to be stuck in the ‘hood. But someone with the future in mind thinks it is better to be safe than sorry: no guns, no drugs, no jail, just hard work for future payoff.

The past is too often a weapon in the propaganda war. It should be taught as a way of orienting oneself in a morally neutral history, and learned through multiple perspectives. The past has too much pain and blood to be where we should get all our rules and morals from, but if we learn an inclusive and fair history, we can learn important lessons about how to improve the world. If we focus on the future, we are more likely to be patient and work hard for the benefit of others. Learn more about time perspectives and their effects in the Time Paradox by Philip Zimbardo and John Boyd.

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

A corporation charged for murder?

A court in New York is considering whether Royal Dutch Shell can be convicted for the killing of Ken Saro-Wiwa and others in Nigeria by the Nigerian government at the behest of the oil giant. It would set a new precedent for litigation: a foreign corporation charged in a US court for aiding the human rights violations of another government.

My question is, should it really be the corporation that is charged? A corporation is more like a group than a person. If a person shoots and kills another, surely it is he that must face trial. If Royal Dutch Shell is implicated in Saro-Wiwa’s murder, though, who ordered it? Who within the corporation was responsible? Surely it was not everyone but a few people at the top. And to charge Royal Dutch Shell without charging the corrupt members of the Nigerian government for their actions makes little sense.

Moreover, if one were only charging the corporation, the losers would probably be the shareholders more than anyone. While some shareholders presumably made money from the benefit of the silenced opposition, not all shareholders did. Saro-Wiwa was killed in 1995. Did the shareholders know about it and approve it at the time? Perhaps they would not have if they had known. And do those who bought Royal Dutch Shell stock since 1995 deserve to lose money?

I would rather see law meted out to punish the individuals who are criminally responsible for the deaths of Nigerian protestors than simply everyone who happened to be around at the time.

A serious term is overused

Racist violence is a serious problem. Sometimes it happens on a wide scale. Sometimes thousands are killed and displaced in a war. But not all racist violence is genocide.

“Genocide” is used nowadays to refer to virtually every conflict going on. The word is used as a political tool to bring people together in common cause. Everyone thinks genocide is wrong, right? After the riots in Tibet in 2008 and the crackdown that followed, some called it a genocide. Tamils use it to describe the war in Sri Lanka. Palestinians call Israeli actions in the Occupied Territories genocide. When speaking on Sudan, Nigeria, Chechnya and East Timor, some people throw the word around like a basketball. Strictly speaking, these are not cases of genocide.

I could easily be wrong, though. One reason for such widespread use of the word is its unclear definition. Scholars give various definitions, from systematically massacring an entire group to that given by the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, “acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group [such as] killing members of the group; causing serious bodily or mental harm…; preventing births within the group; [and] forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.” One could be forgiven for thinking almost anything is genocide.

Nonetheless, to overuse a word is to desensitise oneself and take the idea it conveys for granted. Genocide is recognised as a kind of legal trump card called jus cogens: like slavery or crimes against humanity, genocide is illegal under any circumstances. If we start calling too many things genocide, we are exaggerating and might be missing the nuances of the situation that separate it from the deliberate destruction of a whole ethnic group. The word “rape” has acquired a similar role as a basketball word. It is somewhat akin to the boy who cried wolf: cry genocide often enough and people will stop listening.

The executive director of B’Tselem, for instance, agrees. As the leading Israeli human rights organisation, B’Tselem is one of the most important organisations that inform Israelis of their government’s actions in the Occupied Territories. When Hugo Chavez called Operation Cast Lead, the 2008-9 war on Gaza, a genocide, Jessica Montell wrote that “such demagoguery” is “inaccurately and cynically” tossing words around. B’Tselem was among the first and most vocal to criticise Israel’s handling of the war, for which it may be guilty of war crimes; but war crimes are not genocide. These crimes are serious but “bear no resemblance to genocide or an attempt to exterminate Palestinians.” We “must firmly reject such offensive sloganeering and the trivializing of genuine human rights concerns. Only a careful naming of the reality can fuel genuine efforts to promote justice.”

The alternative, therefore, is to give a more accurate term to say what you mean. What is going on in Darfur may be a genocide, although it may be more like a civil war. (In fact, in trying to convict Sudanese leaders of genocide, the International Criminal Court may lose a case that is nonetheless a clear instance of crimes against humanity.) The war in Sri Lanka is a civil war or an insurgency. In Tibet, it is more like repression. The 2003 war in Iraq was interstate war, occupation, insurgency, sectarian violence, chaos, but if it is genocide, who is committing it? All sides have been killing innocents. Besides, the highest estimates of casualties found 1.4m Iraqis killed since March 2003: a high number, but a small proportion of the 28m people in the country.

Serious words like genocide should be used sparingly in order to preserve their meaning. If we overuse, exaggerate and politicise words, we are bound to lose credibility and supporters.

Individualism: the Reappearing Ideal, part 6: Becoming an individual

“The function of wisdom is to discriminate between good and evil.” – Cicero

Years ago, Gary Larson, creator of the Far Side comic strip, made a cartoon in which he presented a pair of gorillas in a tree. The wife gorilla picks a hair off her husband and says “Well, well – another blonde hair… Conducting a little more ‘research’ with that Jane Gooddall tramp?”

Many laughed. The Jane Goodall Institute, however, had a fit. They sent Mr Larson a furious letter full of words like “inexcusable”, “incredibly offensive” and “absolutely stupid”. Had they considered consulting with Dr Goodall on the cartoon, they might have found out that she loved it. Try not to feel sorry on behalf of others you do not understand.

As I said in part 5 of this series, I feel sorry for those who are too weak to shed their groups. Individualist thinking means no longer feeling loyalty or duty toward or pride in any groups or any of their accomplishments, and instead choosing your affliations and being proud only of your own accomplishments.

The biggest shift in thinking from collectivism to individualism for most people is treating people as individuals and not as groups. The first thing I want to say sounds simple but it is a big shift. Do not respect, fear, like, hate, take offense on behalf of, stick up for or feel sorry for groups, or for people because of the group they belong to. Feeling sorry for slaves, the mentally ill, disaster victims and so on is not about the suffering of a group like a nation or race: we feel this way because we feel for all of the individuals that possess that quality, and we have put them into a group for convenience. But ill defined groups like nations, religions, races and linguistic groups must be recognised as groups of diverse individuals or we will misunderstand them. That goes for your groups too.

Choosing your groups

Too many of us, when we look at people, see only their groups. It happens more so in a crisis of confidence. Most Americans now look at the Middle East as one big group of Arabs, and ask Arabs (even Arab Americans, born and raised in the US), why do you force women to cover their faces? Why did you blow up the twin towers? and so on. In a video on Youtube, some Arab Americans talked about these questions and said they would prefer to hear questions like, you’re Arab? Thank you for inventing beer and algebra, belly dancing and coffee. Cute idea, funny and a good watch. And a little “solidarity” in the face of hostility is understandable. But they are fighting fire with fire, instead of water. The root of racism is collective thinking. Saying “you/we invented coffee” is wrong. YOU invented nothing. People slightly more closely related to you than me invented coffee.

Try not to be too quick to dismiss things. Educated people can be a skeptical lot, and that is fine; but too often people will mistrust a big group of people. Countless people outside the West (and even within it) will reject things as “western”, sometimes because it is assumed that westerners are ethnocentric imperialists; sometimes simply by adding the word “western” to a word like science, philosophy, clothing, food, medicine, culture, countries and people, thereby implying they are somehow inferior to the speaker’s. [link to the west] I have even heard an Iranian say that she objected to the term “the Muslim World” because of the way “Westerners” use it.

We let our collectivism get in the way of our better judgment. According to politicians sitting atop third world states, everything they do not like is “western” and “western government intervention”. (Everything politicians do not like in the rich world is the fault of China or immigrants.) A European leader criticises and African dictator of wrongdoing and he is accused of colonialism. An American investor demands that a country clean up its cronyism before he invests and he is told “your cultural values don’t fit with ours.” And the people let nationalism get in the way of logic, so they fall for it.

Choosing your family?

Even your family is a collective. Surely we cannot choose our family? And surely it is natural for one to be loyal to one’s family over others? To the latter statement, I say yes: there is evidence that we are more loyal and self sacrificing to people whose genes are more similar to ours. But biology is not destiny. To the former statement, I would argue that, actually, we can choose our family.

I once heard the idea expressed that, since we can choose whom we love, since we can choose whom we spend time with, since we can feel loyalty to anyone under the right conditions and discard it under others, we can actually choose our family. Many people go as far as to throw off their family because of a falling out. As an individualist, this is something I thought carefully about. I came to the conclusion that I do love my family, as a group and as individuals, and I would not change them for anyone else. But my loyalty or duty to them is not unconditional. They cannot do no wrong. For instance, if my father beat up my mother, I would not forgive him for it. If my brother killed my wife, I would turn him in to the police. I am not suggesting we smash the family. I am saying that, just like all groups, the constituents of your family are all fallible, and I do not see a reason to be forever bound to them.

Competing identities

Thanks to globalisation, immigration, travel and the internet, we now no longer live in a world of simple identities. The identity revolution has started by giving many of us competing identities. The next time you are on Facebook, join a new group and contribute to its forums. Joining multiple groups waters down each of the previous ones so that you are just as loyal to your country or religion as you are to Prison Break. And joining a group called “it’s cool to be Asian” is not a move toward collectivism, it is just fun.

As I argued earlier, we should be expanding our circles to concern ourselves not only with people in our groups but all people. Why do you feel sorry for some people who had an accident and not others? Because they were closer to you when they died? The logical extension of the expanded circle is to see yourself as part of a human race, or even an animal kingdom, that

You might do this already, but if not, try to make a habit of treating people as an end in themselves. It means considering others’ feelings, making them feel different, treating them as they want to be treated. (That, in fact, should be the golden rule: treat me as I want to be treated.) I have noticed that people, in collective or individual cultures, like to be treated as individuals. And everyone becomes an individualist when their life is the one chosen for sacrifice.

It is likely that humans have a deep desire for dignity, recognition, praise and accomplishment. The only true achievement, however, is what we do ourselves; and the only justifiable reason for a sense of achievement is when you, yourself have done something. If someone from the country you live in or were born in scores a goal, you personally have achieved nothing. It makes no sense to say “we scored” because “we” implies you were somehow involved in making it happen. And if you think otherwise, go to the stadium and insist that you be paid for the goal “we” scored.


In the end, since it would be considered illegal or immoral to send others to die in war, elites who today would instigate war would instead need to resort to duels or fistfights. “The right to the undersea oil fields of the South China Sea will be determined by a twelve round fight between the president of China and his deputy in the red corner, and the president of Vietnam and his deputy in the blue corner.”

As I said in the introduction to this series, we are in an age characterised by a gradual turn toward individualism. In the future, perhaps, we will be free of our dangerous loyalties. This is the day I look forward to. It is the day we realise that our associations are not bigger than ourselves. It is the day we come to see ourselves as members of multiple groups and not beholden to any of them. It is the day we question all our loyalties, all our leaders and all our history books. It is the day we will truly be free.