Saturday, February 04, 2006

We Have Met the Enemy, and He Is Us   posted by Matt McIntosh @ 2/04/2006 05:33:00 PM

"I know the evil of my ancestors because I am those people. The balance is delicate in the extreme. I know that few of you who read my words have ever thought about your ancestors this way. It has not occurred to you that your ancestors were survivors and that survival itself sometimes involved savage decisions, a kind of wanton brutality which civilized humankind works very hard to suppress. What price will you pay for that suppression? Will you accept your own extinction?"
-- The Stolen Journals of Leto II

In the course of the current controversy over the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten's publication of cartoon depictions of the Prophet Mohammed, some observers have either insinuated or explicitly claimed that the Muslim reaction to the cartoons constitutes evidence that Islam is not ready to join the modern world. While sane people would agree that the fact that a few poorly-drawn cartoons are capable of causing riots and diplomatic rows definitely suggests that something is rotten in Denmark (sorry), it would behoove us to engage in some introspection before we jump to conclusions about the nature of the problem.

Ironically enough, there is a non-trivial intersection between the set of people who hold the aforementioned view of Islam and the set of people who have loudly called for Ted Rall's cartoons to be dropped from all newspapers. Indeed, were I a betting man, I would wager that the group of people who have sent Rall threats of phsycal violence and death (or approve of such threats) is entirely a subset of the first group. (I use Rall merely as a salient example; he is a slimeball of anthropological interest only. One could pluck out numerous other examples. Just google "death threats" and you can have fun for hours.)

Of course, there is a real and important difference here: in our part of the world, those who threaten violence over offenses are rightly viewed as statistical outliers -- if someone gets angry and makes a threat of violence, odds are that he's just blustering because Westerners as a group are generally bound by Western social mores concerning the use of violence. Muslims as a group, on the other hand, have shown a noticeable tendency to be less bound by those mores and have shown a much greater statistical likelihood of following through on their threats. So it isn't just angry letters. To borrow a helpful analogy from Razib, the vector is the same but the magnitude differs significantly. To this extent, we are justified in speaking of there being a "Muslim problem," and there will continue to be one until a majority of Muslims are willing to say "I vehemently disagree with what you say, but uphold your right to say it."

However, the "Muslim problem" is just a special case of the "human problem." Human psychology is pretty constant across cultures and has remained pretty much the same throughout history, and anyone who believes for a second that Westerners are intrinsically above these sorts of shenanigans is kidding themselves. Every age and every society has always had its peculiar heresies. And there is no better way to disabuse oneself of the notion that Muslims are somehow special in their capacity for savagery than to simply study history -- life through much of human history has been nasty, brutish and short, and it is only in the last few centuries that we have begun to pull ourselves out of the proverbial muck. The past century alone has witnessed enough bloody wars and shameful predations against minorities even among "civilized" nations that it renders risible the very notion that "those people" are somehow intrinsically different from us.

No, the authoritarian mindset lurks within many of us, and anyone who doubts that tribalism is our default psychological mode should watch a soccer riot, or go spend a few hours reading the comment sections of various extremely partisan political weblogs. But it's not merely the ideologues and hooligans that we need to be wary of. In the General Social Survey, Americans were asked how they felt about the following statement: "People should not be allowed to express opinions that are harmful or offensive to members of other religious or racial groups." A total of 42% either agreed or strongly agreed. Liberalism does not come naturally to humans, and its true friends are few.

And yet, here we are. We live in the most wealthy, tolerant, pluralist, liberal society ever to exist on Earth. Taking the long view is enough to make one marvel that such a thing is even possible, and feel a mild sense of terror at how fragile and precious the social environment we take for granted suddenly seems. So how did we get here? How our part of the world get to be so different from that one over there?

Simply put, we've spent a very long time building up social mores and legal rules that bind our innate psychological tribalism. Another interesting data point from the GSS is that people were subsequently asked whether they agreed with the following statement: "Under the First Amendment guaranteeing free speech, people should be allowed to express their own opinions even if they are harmful or offensive to members of other religious or racial groups." When the questioners phrased it this way, the median response suddenly became a lot more friendly to free speech. As Bryan Caplan puts it:

"The median person agrees with free speech if you link it to the Constitution. Otherwise, the median person could take it or leave it. . . . While many people seem to think that the Constitution always favors whatever policy they prefer, there are actually quite a few people who prefer whatever policy they think the Constitution favors."

An older friend of mine from Iowa remarked to me years ago that Americans have their own religion -- they worship the Constitution. Only recently have I come to understand what he meant. The median Westerner's support for free speech arises more out of a sense of tradition and group identification than a well-considered commitment to liberal values in themselves. You see this same sort of dynamic among the conventionally religious: to take one example noted by Razib, there is a substantial minority among the Roman Catholic laity who, if asked, will profess a belief in some form of Creationism. When informed that the official Papal doctrine for the past few decades has been that natural selection is in fact wholly compatible with the Catholic faith, they'll typically switch their position to the doctrinally correct one. This is not irrationality so much as bounded rationality, relying on salient focal points and epistemic authorities on which to anchor their beliefs so that they can get on with the business of life. For all but those on the rightmost intellectual tail of the bell curve, their most basic assumptions about the world and society are fundamentally matters of faith.

Having taken a rather roundabout path, the point is this: while the behavior exhibited by many Muslims today is unacceptable by our civilized standards, the psychological substrate that governs these behaviors is fairly uniform across cultures. Chalking their behaviour up to some sort of essential Islamicness and viewing them as barbarians at the gates may well be gratifying to some, but isn't helpful. Psychologically, "we" are not half so different from "them" as many of us would like to believe, and we have barbarians in our own midst. We are not monkeys anymore, but our neanderthal legacy lingers beneath the cognitive surface and can be seen poking through every now and again. It's our system of rules (both implicit and explicit), evolved painstakingly over many centuries to co-opt and restrain our baser aspects, that makes all the difference. Our society's liberal faith is superior to other illiberal faiths, but these faiths are not fixed in either direction. "We" can always backslide, and "they" can progress -- indeed they must, or we're in just as much danger of getting pulled back down too.

The most dangerous game in the world is being played by those who misunderstand us just as much as we misunderstand them: those who take the tolerance of the civilized world for granted rarely stop to consider the wanton brutality that we are all undoubtedly capable of when pushed far enough. I share Armed Liberal's fear of what we may become if the bin Ladenists of the world get a little too lucky one day, and I too am willing to pay a high price to prevent it from ever getting to that point. But casting this as Islam versus modernity works against that goal by polarizing the field, in addition to missing the point -- the continual struggle between the open society and the closed encompasses all of humanity, and is lost or won within the human brain. We're in a race to connect the rest of the world up to our level before the bin Ladens of the world can bring us back down to theirs. That was the purpose of Iraq, and no matter how one felt about the wisdom (or lack thereof) of the Bush administration's choices, we can all hope that the Iraqis will succeed, insh'allah. The future bodes ill if they don't.

(Update: This post was intended to be descriptive more than moralizing. What I'm preaching here is to take a big step back and analyze the current state of affairs in a broader context, informed as much by cognitive psychology and anthropology as by history. Some of the commentors have grasped the message here perfectly well, but others haven't, so let me be clear: I'm not asserting moral equivalence because morality is in the act. I'm asserting cognitive equivalence and suggesting that human behaviour be looked at in terms of norms of reaction. As Richarde Sharpe put it in the comments, the wetware is pretty fixed but the software is more highly variable than people tend to be conscious of.

Also, I've already advertized them in the comments to this post, but I highly recommend 'Aqoul for a "reality check" on Middle Eastern politics. These guys are regional veterans with no patience for bullshit. This post and this one are particularly instructive.)

(x-posted at Winds of Change, and posted here with Razib's encouragement.)