Friday, January 20, 2012

Post #164 - "The Other" continued

Shankar Vedantam, author "The Hidden Brain"
A recurrent element in our encounter with “the other” is a tendency to impute motives differently depending on whose behavior is being judged.  In a column written for the Washington Post, Shankar Vedantam wrote about the differences that have been observed between how we explain the actions of public figures with whom we agree, versus those taken by our friends or by ourselves:
“When people do something unforgivable, we often find it easy to conclude that the wrongdoing is a manifestation of their nature.  This allows us to go after them with a vengeance – when you are dealing with fundamentally bad characters, anything that can undermine them is fair game....Wesleyan University social psychologist Scott Plous said one dimension of the phenomenon is known as the actor-observer bias.  When we do something wrong ourselves...we explain our actions in terms of situational factors....But when we see someone else do something wrong, we are far more likely to link the behavior to the nature of that individual...
“Experiments have shown that our tendency to see the actions of others as dispositional – reflecting their true nature – persists even when we are explicitly told otherwise...
“Partisan animosities or any other kind of group membership exacerbates and extends the problem...we choose situational explanations to justify the errors of our allies, and we choose dispositional explanations to judge the errors of our opponents...[conversely, we] are likely to see the successes of [our allies] as dispositional – reflecting [their] innate nature...[but] likely to see the success of [our opponents] as situational – thus depriving [them] of credit.”
This sheds additional light on how “demonization” fits a common psychological proclivity:  our assumption of the inherent evil of the opponent and our ability to reject explanations that would mitigate or justify his actions – these two things reinforce one another.  They are what enable us to explain away actions of our own that would normally be considered beyond the pale.  Situationally, we can condone torture or indiscriminate bombing, because we “know” that we are virtuous, and he -- the Other -- is not.  In fact, maintaining this predisposition cannot completely mitigate the absolute moral value of certain types of behavior. Yet U.S. Senator Frank Church reminded us in 1975, “The United States must not adopt the tactics of the enemy; each time we do so, each time the means we use are wrong, our inner strength, the strength that makes us free, is lessened.”
Equally instructive is this quotation from an earlier political leader:
“Why, of course the people don't want war.  Why should some poor slob on a farm want to risk his life in a war when the best he can get out of it is to come back to his farm in one piece? is the leaders of the country who determine the policy and it is always a simple matter to drag the people along, whether it is a democracy, or a fascist dictatorship, or a parliament, or a communist dictatorship...All you have to do is to tell them they are being attacked and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger.  It works the same in any country.”  (Hermann Goering, Hitler's deputy)
St. Akakios
On the other side stands the “better angels” of our human nature, which see the commonalities that unite us, despite geopolitical disputes and historical antagonisms.  We see an example of the kind of compassion that can counterbalance the urge toward enmity, in the behavior of St. Akakios, Armenian bishop of 5th century Amida (now known as Diyarbakir, Turkey).  In the years 421 and 422 C.E., during war between Rome (when it was under a Christian Byzantine emperor) and the Persian Empire, some seven thousand Persians had been taken prisoners and were being kept under harsh conditions.  Summoning his clergy to discuss the plight of the starving captives, he said:  “Our God needs neither dishes nor cups, for He neither eats nor drinks...Since our Church possesses many gold and silver vessels, which derive from the generosity of the faithful, it is our duty to ransom the prisoners with these and to feed them.”  And so it was done.  (from Ecclesiological History, by Socrates Scholastikos, Volume VII, Chapter 21).

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