The recent killing of Americans in Libya by a mob of protestors who were responding to an intentionally offensive youtube video, created by Sam Bacile and friends, illustrates a fundamental truth. Extremism begets extremism. Killing begets killing. Violence begets violence.
It is a truth that directly relates to the cycles of incivility that we see in American politics and a truth that social psychologists often study, because group level reactions to conflict, extremism, violence, and incivility/demonization are fairly predictable; they incite more of the same. Indeed, there is clear evidence that Sam Bacile, Terry Jones, Osama Bin Laden, Charles Manson, and other extremists understand this implicitly and commit their extremist acts with the idea of inciting a wider war. In this case, a desire for a wider conflict is what the Libyan Mob and Sam Bacile have in common. Psychology research backs their methods.
- Interviews in Rwanda illustrate how the humiliation of some led to a desire to counterhumiliate others and ultimately to genocide. (Full article here)
- A large body of research shows that being threatened by reminders of one's mortality leads one to want to punish and derogate those who have a different worldview.
- Threat and mortality salience also increases the tendency to stereotype outgroups.
- When violence occurs between groups, members of a harmed group can be motivated to retaliate against innocent members of the perpetrator's group, leading to cycles of violence and vicarious retribution. (also see here)
Given the reliability with which extremists can create cycles of violence, it remains imperative that those of us who want reduced extremism, incivility, and violence realize the situational causes and consider how to frame things as a cooperative goal of moderates vs. extremists, instead of a Muslims vs. the West frame that extremists on both sides would prefer. It's an imperative that Martin Luther King put as follows:
Hate begets hate; violence begets violence; toughness begets a greater toughness. We must meet the forces of hate with the power of love... Our aim must never be to defeat or humiliate the white man, but to win his friendship and understanding.
The ultimate weakness of violence is that it is a descending spiral, begetting the very thing it seeks to destroy. Instead of diminishing evil, it multiplies it. Through violence you murder the hater, but you do not murder hate. … Returning violence for violence multiplies violence, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.
- Ravi Iyer
ps. crossposted from civilpolitics.org
Many people believe that war and violence are inherently immoral, and some psychologists have begun to explore the idea that celebrating heroism is an antidote to the problem of evil. In contrast, other psychologists have highlighted the dark side of moral conviction (Skitka & Mullen, 2002) and the notion of idealistic evil (Baumeister, 1997) to explain how moral motivations might actually lead to increased violence. I sometimes call this being hypermoral, not because I have any great further insight, but simply because I think it has a better chance of catching on as a pop culture meme.
President Obama started military action against Libya, following his belief in the concept of a “just war”, suggesting that Libya might be a useful example of morally motivated violence. This was somewhat informed by the fact that I personally support intervention in Libya on moral grounds, meaning that I see no gain for the US or myself, but rather would like to help those who are attempting to gain their freedom. Unfortunately, that requires violence. While I may see this as 'good', others likely see this as evil, and I do see the unfortunate parallel with violent actions anywhere, in that I could see a suicide bomber having a very similar thought process, even as they kill many innocent people in an act that I would term evil. The point of this research is to divorce normative judgments about which kinds of violence are good or evil from the more general psychological process, and simply to show that at least in this case, violence is often morally motivated, rather than being indicative of a person who is amoral.
As such, I conducted an experiment where participants were randomly assigned to answer questions about Libyan military intervention in terms of what is morally right or what is in the national interest. For example, one question read "Considering what is (morally right/in the US national interest), I support the recent American intervention in Libya."
Results are shown in the graph below, broken down by ideological group, and indicated that many individuals are indeed more supportive of intervention when framed in terms of what is morally right. Liberals (p<.05) exhibited significantly greater support for Libyan intervention, framed in moral terms. Conservatives exhibited a marginally significant effect (p=.06), though the magnitude of the difference is greater, so I likely just need to survey more conservative participants, who are a minority in this sample. Consistent with our research on libertarian morality, whereby libertarians are not moved by the typical moral concerns of liberals and conservatives, libertarians were unaffected by moral framing. Interestingly, moderates were also unmoved by moral framing.
This is one specific case and one specific study on a very specific sample, so there are certainly limitations in the conclusions one can make, as with most any social science research. However, this does suggest that for many people, the case of Libya is a concrete example of morally motivated violence. I'm hopeful that thinking about violence and war as morally motivated, divorced from whether you think the ends are good or evil, will be a useful paradigm for reducing violence and conflict more generally. Perhaps violence will actually be reduced if people become less moral and instead more tolerant of other people's views and actions.
- Ravi Iyer
Why should the US lead in Libya? This is a question I've been asking myself a number of times as I've heard one common criticism of Obama and our actions in Libya, specifically that we aren't demonstrating leadership. Personally, I would like Gaddafi stopped and perhaps most importantly, I'd like us to save lives when possible with minimal risk and cost, but I don't necessarily understand why it is important if we lead the effort. In fact, as a taxpayer, I would love it if France decided to bear the cost of the endeavor or better yet, an Arab country that is less likely to cause reactance in the population. And if they would like our help, I would be happy for us to follow.
In contrast, Sarah Palin was perturbed that "We get in the back of the bus and wait for NATO, we wait for the French." Newt Gingrich said that when Obama stated that Gaddafi has to go, "he pitted the prestige and power of the United States against a dictator who's been anti-American for over 40 years." Conservative Charles Krauthammer believes that Obama is "overly modest about his country" at a time when "the world is hungry for America to lead".
Does it really matter if we are perceived to be leading or following and does every desire the President expresses have to come true, lest we are diminished? A belief certainly isn't wrong just because I don't share it. There are many things that people value more than me (e.g. etiquette or aesthetics) that are nevertheless important in the world. However, what puzzles me about calls for the US to lead in Libya is that I don't necessarily understand the underlying value differences that drive this. What do we get for being the "leader" in Libya? Would it be so bad to let the French bear the cost and risk involved?
I don't have a good empirical answer for this, but I did examine some value differences in our yourmorals dataset that I wanted to share, in part because certain hypotheses I had are demonstrably wrong. Below is a graph of how much conservatives, liberals, and libertarians value humility, influence, social power, and authority from the Schwartz Values scale in our dataset. The overall average bars are the average across all values on the scale, indicating that none of these values overly important in any group. Still, these differences may play a role in the underlying psychology of geo-political leadership.
Perhaps blinded by my liberal bias, I thought one possibility was that liberals believe in humility more than conservatives and/or perhaps conservatives have a greater desire to be influential. Surprisingly, though probably not to conservative readers, some of whom likely share Krauthammer's belief that liberals are immodest, conservatives in our dataset value humility more than liberals and both groups value being influential fairly evenly. The belief that the US should lead does not appear to be a function of conservatives lacking modesty about our country or wanting to wield influence in the world.
Conservatives do report valuing being in positions of authority and having social power more than liberals. One hypothesis that is possible, is that conservatives might believe that it would be a bad thing if the US had less power and authority in the world, as these are things which they value more than liberals. Some people may get a sense of power and authority from being associated with a powerful and authoritative country. From that perspective, it might make sense to want the US to take a leadership position, even if it does result in a higher tax bill and more risk.
Of course, bear in mind that I haven't actually connected these values to any attitudes toward Libya, and these results may only hold for the types of educated internet users that tend to visit our website. Still, this was informative to me for the hypothesis that this rules out, as it seems unlikely that pride is driving calls for the US to lead intervention in Libya amongst conservatives, given that liberals may actually be more prone to pride. The desire for our country to remain in a prestigious position of power and authority is a more likely candidate and perhaps underlies the desire to see us play a leading role in Libya.
I would welcome any other hypotheses or ideas, especially from conservatives who do feel that it is important that the US take a leadership role in whatever we do. Why do you feel this is this important to you? What am I possibly missing? Perhaps those thoughts would help me design a more conclusive study. In addition, I'm going to start monitoring my own levels of modesty.
- Ravi Iyer