News Flash: Are We Really Aware of What We’re Saying?
There is an alarming lack of awareness in political rhetoric nowadays. When I say political rhetoric I refer to discussions on events such as conflicts around the world, be in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (the events in Gaza reaching a height in the news recently), the Sri Lankan civil conflict, or the events in Rwanda, Bhutan, or –yes, America. Wars and conflict do not necessarily have to be confined to the parameters of large-scale artillery shellings and the bombings of civilians in Palestine, Israel, or Sri Lanka. Rather, as most of us know, political discourse and conflict can center on elections –most notably the recent American elections, and more ‘minor’ instances of disagreement and debate such as the passing of various State Laws – or even the celebration of various national holidays (for example: Thanksgiving: a national feast or celebration of mass genocide? Discuss).
Recently, I realized first-hand the alarming lack of awareness that people seem to have when debating political issues. From reading news reports on the attacks on Gaza (or Gaza’s attacks on Israel, depending on your political and personal preference), to watching Twitter feeds to reading UN briefs to going through Facebook statuses, I see an alarming lack of understanding that prevails. To me, whether a rocket is launched in response to a rocket that was launched in irrelevant. To be more precise – to justify the launching of your rocket(s) in response to whatever attack in the past, which will inevitably kill, is irrelevant. Bottom line, you kill civilians. War is war. But the justifications people give, to support their side, to support their views, is fascinating.
A disclaimer here. I have been asked, time and time again, what my own personal political views are. I must be biased, right? I must have some political leaning? However, my staunch stance, having seen the atrocities of war first hand, is that – these justifications are irrelevant. Voltaire once said, “Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities”. To me, some of the political justifications given behind the attacks on people around the world are absurd. I stand with people, not political affiliations. Nationalism comes at a cost, and when that cost is that of blindness to the atrocities the ‘other’ group is subject to, it’s too much for me. One can have beliefs, and inclinations. However, they become detrimental to oneself, and society at large when one lets these views narrow one’s ability to empathize with the other. Furthermore, my role as a researcher is to navigate pitfalls such as attaching myself to one worldview, one viewpoint. My job, as I see it, is to design experiments, scenarios, situations, in order to see what behavior/responses individuals exhibit under certain conditions, and what influences this behavior, how certain behavior can be changed and be better informed.
The most basic, and most poignant case of justification for atrocities I have seen recently is that which myself am studying: how one justifies moral transgressions, or atrocities committed by one’s own group by advantageous comparison and/or competitive victimhood. When Albert Bandura proposed the concept of Moral Disengagement in 1996, he delineated the following categories: Euphemistic Labeling, Advantageous Comparison, Diffusion of Responsibility, Displacement of Responsibility, Attribution of Blame of Victim, Dehumanization, and Disregard or Distortion of Consequences. The strong prevalence of Advantageous Comparison in the rhetoric pertaining to conflicts around the world – more specifically, pertaining to justifying one’s side in conflicts around the world was both alarming, and fascinating to me as a young psychologist.
Perhaps this is because of my own ongoing work in coding the interview data collected in Sri Lanka over the past year. Interestingly enough, there is a strong prevalence of Advantageous Comparison, as well as Competitive Victimhood, in the ongoing coding of the interviews. “We are only doing this is retaliation to what they did to us – do you remember when they bombed this area? Well, they did, so we bombed there.” This is advantageous comparison versus the Competitive Victimhood paradigm of “We have suffered much more than them – they killed fifty of our children whilst we killed only eight of theirs”. Does it really matter? When did putting numbers on lives ever alleviate the gravity of death? Does the killing of a hundred justify the killing of a thousand more?
What seem like basic premises, alarmingly basic premises to me are rampant in official and unofficial political discourses around the world. This is why I believe researchers in political and conflict psychology are so integral in the national and international policy making and negotiation tables. The study of intergroup relations, and ethnic conflict is so important, not just to identify solutions but to identify the problem. The problem sometimes is how we actually talk about it, which becomes how we rationalize atrocities. The mass rationalization of atrocities. If this is not an alarming issue in the world today, I don’t know what is.