Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Understanding Iran III - A Question of Needs

Recent advances in the field of psychology, in addition to shedding light on our own behaviour as individuals, can also provide valuable clues as to what may be happening below the surface with regards to such things as conflicts between groups. Our awareness of the subtle, and perhaps more fundamental, aspects of the Iran-West conflict may be measurably heightened by our consideration of some of these new understandings.

We are fast learning that mental health and well-being (and the actions that arise from those states) depend highly upon certain emotional needs being met. It is being demonstrated that in addition to important physical needs of food, air water, and shelter, human beings need and require:

* security
* attention (to give and receive)
* a sense of autonomy and control
* to be part of a wider community
* a sense of status within social groupings
* a sense of competence and achievement
* meaning and purpose

When enough of these emotional needs are unmet within a person or larger community, psychological disarray, suffering and conflict may result.

Iran’s political and diplomatic behaviour, posturing and rhetoric which is often characterized as “extreme” or “rogue” and is sometimes depicted as being intrinsic to Iranian culture, is more likely related to its needs as a nation being deprived than it is to some inherent evil. And western countries may be quite complicit in this situation.

The ongoing effort by the West to sanction and isolate Iran, as an uncreative standard operating procedure, may be a primary cause. In fact, it might be said with some degree of certainty that the reason for which tools such as sanctions exist is to deprive countries of their needs in order to exact punishment, or to force capitulation on an issue or range of issues.

Decades of Western hostility, suspicion, forced isolation from the global community, and a devaluing of all things Iranian, go completely against the grain of the needs listed above: security, the ability to exercise attention through official relations, autonomy, control, being part of a community, and enjoying a certain national status and the fruits of growth and achievement. The implications of this, as profound as they are on their own, are further bolstered by the fact, often unappreciated, that Iran is a historically and culturally rich nation with a deep sense of pride. It’s needs for recognition, respect, and status perhaps run even deeper than other nations.

How does this bear upon the conflict and on our perception and understanding of Iran as whole?

If Iranians, or others in a similar situation, cannot have their needs met through the usual avenues that modern nations and people do, they will try to fulfill them in other ways.

For instance, what the west takes to be actions that are purely hostile towards it, may in fact be alternate and/or misplaced avenues for Iran to pursue its needs:

  • Iran’s continued revolutionary struggles, especially by its elites, against its “enemies” that include extreme rhetoric, action and political – may constitute an alternate form of pursuit of meaning and purpose, whose more appropriate forms are denied by sanctions and isolation
  • The development of a nuclear program (either energy or weapons or both) is a pursuit of security, status, competence and achievement, again, where isolation and sanctions prevents Iran from attaining these goals in other areas
  • Iran’s controversial relations to other groups such as Hamas, Hizbullah, Syria, North Korea can easily be understood in terms of its needs to share attention, have relations with others, and feel part of a larger community, since it is currently excluded in various ways from the community of nations
  • Iran’s intentions to become a regional power in the Middle East – something construed as hostile and ill-intentioned – may be seen through the prism of Iran’s need to have a sense of autonomy and control denied to it by the wide range of economic and political strictures imposed by the world community
  • Any one of these actions can be related to other unmet needs cited in the other examples.

A dialogue with Iran can be entered into to both understand these needs as well as to discuss such possible excesses.

What is the impact of all of this for our understanding of Iran?

These behaviours, seen as pure hostility and apart from their other motives, re-enforces and feeds back into our already skewed caricatures of Iran. Our responses further alienates Iran and produces more behaviours that we use strengthen our models. The cycle seems to have no end. Iran itself, or its leadership, may not be fully aware of the needs as described above and may be trying to compensate for those starved needs in excess.

The first step away from the precipice of the deadly violence which looms above this long-standing conflict, and towards more flexible policy options and improved relations between Iran and the West is for not only elites, but also regular citizens to learn and better understand why we see each other as we do, and how we might be able to bring our perception, even slightly more in line with what the reality might be.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Understanding Iran II - A Distorted View

In order to appreciate the notion that what we as humans actually perceive is often far removed from what is actually there, we need to draw upon recent understandings in the fields of psychology and human behaviour.

Dr. Robert Ornstein is an American psychologist whose pioneering research and work in the areas of brain functioning, consciousness and human nature has transformed the way in which we understand ourselves. Among other things, he has shown that contrary to what we think, we as human beings do not perceive and experience the world as it actually IS, but instead as a distorted picture or caricature of that reality.

According to Ornstein, because of the evolutionary imperative over millions of years for humans to survive, our brains have evolved to filter in only certain information relevant to our survival while ignoring a multiplicity of other stimuli and data which exists in the external world.

Once we have experienced any given thing - whether it be a person, a place, an object or an environment - our minds create visual models and slots those things into simple and generalized categories, which we subsequently re-experience as we understand them in our own minds, rather than they actually exist.

Our views and experiences become “habituated” or “automized”, as kind of natural shortcut to ensure survival. Things like assumptions, biases, and prejudices are all part of the way in which our minds generalize and simplify the world around us, in order to see and react to those things that may be most relevant to our survival. The end result is that we can only see what our minds have allowed us to see at any given time. Whatever we do “see” or “experience” is almost always done so in an incomplete fashion, and as we know it to be in our minds.

Far from being a far-flung theoretical exercise with little relevance to the real world of people and events, these contentions have been confirmed by science and apply to all aspects of human life and human interaction. Because reality feels to each of us so convincing, so rich and so complete, and because we are not otherwise taught about the limitations of our cognition, it seldom occurs to us that our perceptions are incomplete or flawed. We are thus convinced of our views, and are too often compelled to act upon them.

We tend to see a country like Iran primarily in terms of its potential dangers and its propensity for aggression because that is how we have come to identify, categorize and model it, both individually and collectively in our brains. We have become habituated to that generalized perception.

Our distance from the reality of the country itself, its people, and its rich cultural heritage, combined with media coverage filtering in stories that confirm our viewpoints further strengthens our incomplete picture. A country like the United States which has been conditioned by its past experiences with Iran, or like Israel, whose predominant collective paradigm on the outside world is that of threat and the possibility of persecution, are both more susceptible to these processes.

But the cycle of misunderstanding does not end there. It is further heightened by our own actions on the political stage, which are essentially our responses to these entrenched viewpoints, which then play back into, and further enforce, our incomplete and lopsided perceptions.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Understanding Iran

The traditional view of Iran, that of an irrational and hatemongering monolithic regime pining at any opportunity to harm its enemies, is one which has become widely accepted and unquestioned in the West. Over a generation of experts, academics, and policy-makers - some with relatively little firsthand knowledge of Persian culture - have inherited and continue to perpetuate the vilifying clichés and rhetoric that constitute the brick and mortar of a conflict that very few people understand.

The cornerstone of the West’s strategy in confronting Iran has always been to contain and punish it through the use of sanctions and diplomatic isolation, while waging covert actions in the shadows where Iran’s allies and agents are said to be also continually operative.

Despite periods of brief détente and cooperation on tactical issues, notably after 9/11, both sides have never been able to fully bridge the chasm of misunderstanding that divides them. Now, with Iran on the cusp of becoming a nuclear power, this conflict threatens to escalate to dangerous new heights as Israel – with or without the backing of the United States – stands poised to intervene militarily to deny the Iranians a nuclear capability.

Few people (including most Iranians) will deny that many of the ruling elites and organs of the Iranian state manifest extreme religious and ideological positions that are antagonistic towards the West. But in much the same way that an American would tell an Iranian who’s never experienced America that the United States is quite a lot more than someone’s idea of a “Great Satan”, Iran is also more welcoming, tolerant, diverse and sophisticated than the bleak unchanging image presented to us on the nightly news, or by our own blinkered politicians.

Indeed, at the political and other levels, if one is willing to look closely enough, there is an obvious dissonance between our perceptions of one another, and what may in fact be a more complex reality.

This in turn begs a number of questions:

1. How much of the Iran-West conflict (or any other conflict) is the result of limitations in our cognition that we as humans are naturally subject to, and are not even aware of?

2. Could the character and actions of Iran be seen through different lenses, which could help to free us from the myopic viewpoint to which we are today seemingly condemned?

3. If so, could an understanding of these subtler factors also constitute an important key towards the resolution of a long and unnecessary conflict which may yet have devastating consequences for the Middle East and for the world?

In the case of relations between Iran and the West, for example, we would like to put forward the idea that the conflict, although encompassing real issues, is also an ongoing drama involving and demonstrating flawed human cognition on multiple levels.

The West’s understanding of Iran and the dangers that it poses is more of an imaginary or psychological construct, than a true reflection of reality – and is one which gets in the way of amelioration of the conflict. The West’s inability to properly understand Iranian culture and its failure to appreciate that its own largely reactive, conditioned, and ritualistic posture of hostility towards Iran, elicits and compels Iran towards certain behaviours that then further reinforce our generalized misperceptions of Iran being a rogue.

We will be exploring these ideas further in our next series of posts.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Symbols in Jerusalem

The Jerusalem International YMCA (JIY) building was designed by Arthur Loomis Harmon, a partner in the firm that also built the Empire State building in New York City. The JIY is known for its imposing tower, a landmark in the Holy City, but at a smaller scale, the building offers a cornucopia of rich symbolism and references to the three monotheistic faiths.

From friezes, to internal decoration, to cornerpieces, the JIY offers a complex mixture of depictions of scripture, mystical symbols and an unusual blending of the heritages of east and west.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Taha Hussein

Photo by Van-Leo

Taha Hussein (b. 1889, d. 1973), a man of letters who got into considerable trouble for publishing a book entitled "On Pre-Islamic Poetry" that stated that this often raucous literary form was in fact written after, not before, the Quran.