Groupthink, Conflict, and the Middle East

Years ago, a friend and I spent an evening bemoaning groupthink. He in particular hated it and despairingly crucified it as the source of human conflict. With a cynical grimace, he put his finger on a hanging map. He was point at the Middle East, at the Levant. We were silent for a good while afterwards.

It goes without saying that his example wasn’t unique. Nor is it new. Western philosophers and critics have lamented the effects of collectivist discourse on human conflict for as long as Western philosophy has existed as a field. Indeed, most analysts will generally chalk up religious and ethnic loyalty as a root cause of conflict. Applying this framework to the tragedy in Gaza seems a natural next step. Israelis, Palestinians, Jewish state, occupation, anti-semitism, Nakbah, intifada, rockets, murder. Just the words divide up the belligerents into clearly distinguishable camps, each with their histories and hatreds.

But simply stating that groupthink is the base reason for all human conflict is too simplistic. For one, there is a tendency to confuse groupthink, a process by which consent is created in group discourse, with collective identity. They are indeed similar; both are likely evolutionary creations designed to harness collectivism for safety in numbers. But collective identity merely demarcates boundary lines in a conflict. Just look at the rival sides on the social media map created by Al Jazeera. The trigger of conflicts is reflected in a different evolutionary need: resources.

The current Israeli-Palestinian conflict traces its origins to the UN’s 1947 partition plan and the instability in the wake of previous Jewish immigration to the Holy Land. From this devolved everything else. Land inevitably spawned fights for water; the damming of the Jordan River and the harnessing of aquifers beneath the its Basin are obvious examples. Farm land in the Golan Heights was a huge issue following the Six Day War. Today, a major inhibitor of the peace process is the continued existence of Israeli settlements on what was supposed to be Palestinian territory. And need I even mention Jerusalem, ultimately a conflict over a holy city?

If we have the sides and we have the conflict, what then is left for groupthink to do? Perpetuation. Specifically, perpetuation through the corruption of narratives and discourse. How though? A hypothetical demonstration (the views expressed being completely my own) should be able to shed light.

To clarify, I enter the conversation with the presumption that any final settlement (no matter what the details may be), gives both sides an equal opportunity for self-determination and a chance to live peacefully and prosper. That’s key and isn’t often the case with the peace plans proposed.

The Demonstration

To start, I acknowledge the views of the average Israeli.Western media focuses intently on the rockets being fired, but Israeli border towns face the real danger of potential tunnel raids from Gaza. The isolation this military campaign has created leaves many Israelis feeling wrongfully victimized and blamed for what they perceive as a campaign to eradicate existential threats to Israeli security, and in the long run, the very existence of a Jewish state. They are frustrated by what they perceive to be a Palestinian failure to adequately deal with radical fundamentalists in their ranks, factions that didn’t go away even after Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s unilateral withdrawal from Gaza. In their minds, this all vindicates the slowness in approaching a two state solution and necessitates a continued Israeli presence in the West Bank, partial or complete Palestinian disarmament, and absolutely no right of return (essentially a solution where Israel remains the dominant power of the two peoples).

I acknowledge the Israeli position. But don’t agree. The occupation of the West Bank has been atrocious and is a key component of fostering anti-Israeli sentiment, and anti-American sentiment by extent. Disengagement from Gaza didn’t mean the end to occupation conditions; Israel maintains an effective economic blockade that a UN Report found could seriously endanger the livability of the strip by 2020. Both these occupations leave a paper trail of human rights violations that enrage worldwide opinion. Bibi Netanyahu’s government can be further accused of ignoring the peace process. It does what it can to stall and evade the West Bank question, grandstands about the necessity of protecting a clearly secure Israeli position, and presides over an Israeli domestic situation that isn’t equal with regard to its non-Jewish residents. The bombing just extenuated these circumstances with a completely disproportionate amount of Palestinian deaths (1000+ now), worsening of living conditions in the Gaza Strip, and a strengthening of Hamas’ position just after it had agreed to a unity government with Fatah in April. To top it off, American aid to Israel damages our credibility in the peace process as we fund the very weapons killing Palestinian children while continually harping on Israel’s right to defend itself, as if that was ever in question.

But that doesn’t mean Palestinians and Arabs are helping the situation. The existence of organizations like Hamas and Hezbollah and the positions of many Arab governments in years past seriously damages the image of the Palestinian position. No matter the role Israel had in creating those sentiments, they are the reason Western public opinion hasn’t been thrown completely behind the Palestinians. There’s also much to be said for the uselessness of Arab governments in championing the Palestinian cause and for elements within the Palestinian leadership benefiting from the continuation of the status quo (like the Israeli government). Ultimately, the losers of this conflict are who they have always been. Israeli and Palestinian civilians. Of the two, the ones in most immediate humanitarian need are obviously the Palestinians.

The Explanation

So where does groupthink factor in? I’ve stated my position like the tens of thousands on social media. But groupthink encourages us to classify a person’s loyalty immediately based on the content of their statement. The fact that I don’t think Palestinians are pure and innocent despite the obvious majority of violence they’ve endured doesn’t make a Zionist. The fact that I abhor Israeli human rights violations and condemn the actions of their government doesn’t mean I want Israel to go away. I simply desire what I said at the beginning, a solution that gives “both sides an equal opportunity for self-determination and a chance to live peacefully and prosper.”

The State of Groupthink

What groupthink enables is the destruction of nuance in public discussion. The rush to classify loyalties in any discussion generally has the effect of grinding that discussion to a halt. It focuses discussion on a predictable consensus that leaves out, not the differing opinions as they would be having separate discussions, but the nuanced ones, the views that may trend to one side but accept or acknowledge variations to their own narrative. Our solution up till now has always been to equally try and balance both sides. But all stories can’t be balanced; sometimes the solutions are somewhere other than the stale middle; sometimes things are irreversibly contradictory. This is why the classic American formula of compromise fails.

My friend’s a scientist and that’s another reason he deplores groupthink; he works in a field that’s been able to diminish groupthink’s effects. It’s not that science does it better because it’s an objective field. Israelis and Palestinians deal in objective problems. It’s that science, through a reductionist methodological process, was able to temper the ability of groupthink to automatically tilt sides. Our institutions of societal discourse can and must discover a method to do the same. The internet lays naked what can happen to discussion otherwise.



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