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.

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

Contrarian views on what you may be worried about

Are most people natural worriers? Or are they just worried because all the worriers around them tell them to be?

Boy, there are a lot of worried people out there nowadays. Almost everything you could worry about, people have exaggerated it to the stature of Godzilla, poised to bring down civilisation as we know it. Popular books and newspaper articles warn of the end of everything we hold dear.

Fortunately, there are some skeptical optimists out there to shed a little perspective on things, put a stop to all the irresponsible fearmongering and help you get back to living your life. I should note that I do not read just to maintain my optimism, I read to maintain a balanced viewpoint on things. When everyone seems to think something is bad, there is always someone else to tell you the good side of things. This post will give you the pessimists’ side of things, followed by a contrarian’s. Both are worth listening to before you decide to worry. (Please follow the links I provide to get my full side of each story.)

Pessimist: Climate change is the biggest threat to our civilisation and the biggest challenge to our generation. It threatens to destroy everything we hold dear.

Contrarian: That is unlikely. To be clear, I am not denying climate change, nor that it could be harmful. What I am not convinced about is that everything is going to blow up in our faces and our grandchildren will be left with nothing. Climate change is one of those issues on which we have too much certainty, too much worrying that the end is near, and not enough debate about the facts.

Furthermore, every generation worries about environmental collapse. When I was young, it was the ozone layer. Thirty years ago, it was global cooling. And so on for the past hundred years. None of these problems has destroyed us yet. I guess we are just more resilient than the doomsayers realised.

Pessimist: We are running out of natural resources. Oil has peaked, wood is disappearing, and wars are brewing over water. We are in big trouble.

Contrarian: The first problem with these arguments is that they are trying to predict the future without firm grounding in the present. Sure, those things could be true, but we are always finding ourselves wrong about them. We thought gold, silver, copper, iron and so on would all run out completely twenty or thirty years ago, and they have not. Oil might have peaked but we do not know. Existence of debate about something (like peak oil) does not mean it has been proven. And water supplies are getting thinner in some places, where there is indeed water war, and greater in other places, as global warming frees up water supplies embedded in glaciers. Besides, how could we run out of water? It could become harder to find for some people, and harder to clean and desalinate, but surely we are not going to run out.

The second problem is that the future changes every day. Predictions by the wisest experts are notoriously unreliable, partly because every time there is a new, disrupting technology, everything changes. For instance, a big environmental problem at the end of the 19th century was horses. Everyone was getting around in horses, but horses were leaving messes all over the streets. Flies were being born in great numbers and spreading disease. What was to be done? Then, the automobile came along and saved the day. The point is, we do not know what new technology is coming or when. Every time a new technology comes along, yes, of course, it causes new problems, but it also solves old ones. The better technology gets, the better our understanding of science is, the more likely we can find our way out of the mess. I admit we could be in trouble, but people talk as if, if we turn on another light or start up another car, society will collapse. We are stronger than that.

Thirdly, I am not worried about the depletion of any of these things. Humankind has proven itself highly adaptive to change, and the depletion of one or another natural resource will be shaken off so we can go destroy something else.

Pessimist: China’s rise is a military and economic threat to everyone else, especially us westerners.

Contrarian: We are really scared of China, aren’t we? But why? First, China is not as “rising” as some might have you believe. As I wrote earlier, China is not about to overtake the United States in anything except instability of its environment.

Second, the rise of China is, for the most part, a good thing. It means a big new market for companies from the rest of the world, and new businesses, ideas, products and so on for the world outside China. The China of Mao’s era or before would not be helping to stop piracy in the Arabian Sea, or terrorism on its Central Asian borders. It means more wealth and, in my opinion, more security, not less.

Third, the rise of this or that country is always feared, and always has been. When Japan was ascendant in the 1980s, the bookstores were full of books saying how powerful it would become and take over the world. How many books do you see about that now? What are you afraid of? That China will take over the world? That Chinese business will be more competitive than your country’s? The only problem I see is that Chinese consumers and businesses will use more and more natural resources and create more and more pollution. But it would be hypocritical of me to tell them to stop trying to achieve a better life.

BUT, say the pessimists (and I was one of them a couple of years ago), China could be the source of the next world war. No doubt, China’s Taiwan policy could mean a war between China and Taiwan that the United States might step into. But what is the likelihood of that?

Contrarian: First, a war between China and the United States would be immensely costly. The Chinese government and some of its people would be behind a war to regain Taiwan, but they are not so arrogant as to think they could simply defeat the United States in a year or two. Americans, on the other side, are unlikely to want to engage one of the most powerful militaries in the world simply for the sake of Taiwan’s independence.

Second, there are many people from
China in the United States and many from the United States in China. These are people who will do anything to avoid war between the two countries. That means thousands of people saying, “if you want them, you’ve got to go through me.”

What are some other looming wars you may be building a bomb shelter for?

Pessimists: Iran is building a bomb and war is inevitable.

Contrarian: War with Iran is highly unlikely. Aside from a few opportunists, nobody wants it. Iran is not attacking anyone and Barack is not attacking them.

Pessimists: North Korea is shooting rockets and threatening everyone. Won’t they go to war too?

Contrarian: They cannot. Nuclear weapons are so powerful that no one can ever use them. North Korea is a complicated matter but nuclear weapons are among the least of our worries.

Besides, who would want to fight a war when this economic crisis will bring the world to its knees alone? The pessimists, including one of my favourite historians, Niall Ferguson, say that it could lead to depression and war, like the 1929 crash did. (To be fair, Ferguson said “there will be blood”, not “there will be world war”.) I, contrarian, think things are fundamentally different and are not as bad as in the 1930s.

We have lower trade barriers and fewer suffocating regulations than in the days of the Depression. The stock market crash in 1929 was inevitable: stock markets sometimes go up and down slowly, but when they reach such dizzying heights as in 1929, they crash painfully. The crash was pretty big in 1987, too, but then things recovered. The Great Depression was brought on, however, by excessive protectionism and regulation that I do not think we will resort to. Though today there is, of course, a risk of war, none of the major powers are about to become socialist, fascist or communist, and none of them have tariffs even approaching those of the 1930s. You might lose your job, but this economic crisis will not mean the end of the world.

The reason we are told to worry about all these things is that people want to draw attention to their cause, and they know that it is not enough to say “the climate is getting slightly warmer” or “there is a remote possibility of war”. Instead, one person exaggerates, then the next person doubles it, and so on around the circle until everyone is screaming and throwing their hands in the air.

To answer my original question, my guess is that worriers on one end tell everyone else to worry, so they do. Please do not let yourself get caught up in the hysteria.