Monday, May 07, 2007

She Hit Me First! And Other Poor Justifications for War

Photo Credit

Yesterday, I was watching the (excellent and engaging) film I Know I'm Not Alone with D.S.

In the segment before Michael Franti goes to Israel and the Occupied Territories there's a few short statements to fill in some background. To paraphrase: "In relation to Israel there's as many versions of history as there are people telling it" and then "in 1967 Israel launched a pre-emptive strike". At which point D.S. said that was weird, because he knows Israel was attacked first. He was a kid at the time, but it wasn't history to him, he actually remembered it. He was in synagogue when it was announced and he remembers it very well. For me I learned something different, but then again, it's history to me (since I wasn't born yet). I said it's complicated figuring who started something, especially when you consider the possible biases of those reporting an event. Consider last summer's war with Lebanon. Who started it? 30 or 40 years from now, what will the history book say?

According to the current consensus at Wikipedia (yeah, I know, but still, it's a good resource) it was a pre-emptive strike by Israel, although they have a nice long list of sources for both sides of the debate.

Today, I stumbled on a piece (ha ha) by Daniel Gilbert which is all about the psychology behind the "he started it" argument.
Research shows that while people think of their own actions as the consequences of what came before, they think of other people’s actions as the causes of what came later.

In a study conducted by William Swann and colleagues at the University of Texas, pairs of volunteers played the roles of world leaders who were trying to decide whether to initiate a nuclear strike. The first volunteer was asked to make an opening statement, the second volunteer was asked to respond, the first volunteer was asked to respond to the second, and so on. At the end of the conversation, the volunteers were shown several of the statements that had been made and were asked to recall what had been said just before and just after each of them.

The results revealed an intriguing asymmetry: When volunteers were shown one of their own statements, they naturally remembered what had led them to say it. But when they were shown one of their conversation partner’s statements, they naturally remembered how they had responded to it. In other words, volunteers remembered the causes of their own statements and the consequences of their partner’s statements.

What seems like a grossly self-serving pattern of remembering is actually the product of two innocent facts. First, because our senses point outward, we can observe other people’s actions but not our own. Second, because mental life is a private affair, we can observe our own thoughts but not the thoughts of others. Together, these facts suggest that our reasons for punching will always be more salient to us than the punches themselves — but that the opposite will be true of other people’s reasons and other people’s punches.

So, it's psychologically sensible for us to think the other party started it. We also tend to escalate in our response:
Research teaches us that our reasons and our pains are more palpable, more obvious and real, than are the reasons and pains of others. This leads to the escalation of mutual harm, to the illusion that others are solely responsible for it and to the belief that our actions are justifiable responses to theirs.

This explains the pattern of fighting over the victim position, since the victim can get away with anything.

Of course, there's a larger question: does it really matter who started it?

Afghanistan war: who started it? Al-Qaeda? The US? How about the Iraq War? What will history say?


janfromthebruce said...

People need to live consciously and be extra-centered.
I do lots of work with people about this concept, as so much of our actions, thoughts, are happening below the surface.

Red Jenny said...

Exactly - this is a natural bias we have, but not necessarily helpful. But being conscious of it, we can be working to overcome it.