Dignity, Empathy, and the Iraq War
So Digby’s reading these Iraq War mea culpas — and thank god for that because I tried before quickly determining I can’t stands no more:
David Ignatius wrote his Iraq mea culpa today and it’s a good one. He admits that Iraq was an epic strategic blunder and that he was wrong to have been such an enthusiastic cheerleader for it. But in chronicling his mistakes, I find this one to be almost shocking coming from a sophisticated man of the world:
Another lesson is the importance of dignity in the Arab world. Most Iraqis despised Saddam because, in addition to torturing their sons and daughters, he had taken their dignity. But many came to loathe America, as well, because for all our talk of democracy, we damaged their sense of honor and independence. As the Arab world proves over and over, from Palestine to Benghazi, people who are penniless in terms of material possessions would rather die than lose their sense of honor to outsiders.
Right. That’s unique to the Arab world. Imagine, if you will, how even a rich country would feel if someone crashed airplanes into their biggest city and killed thousands of their people? I’d expect they would be quite incensed. It turns out that poor people, just like rich people, don’t care for it when strangers come in and start killing their families and taking everything they have. It doesn’t take a political genius or a psychologist to know that.
On the specific point of ethnicity and openness to being murdered, Digby is unquestionably right. But when it comes to whether or not understanding the universal, awesome power of dignity, I think American discourse has more than enough evidence to show it does take a genius or a psychologist. Either that or our political class is truly stupid.
You can say a lot of bad things about Colin Powell, Dick Cheney, Hillary Clinton and all the others who to varying degrees got us into Iraq, but with the exception of W himself, you’d have trouble persuading anyone that these are dumb people. (And for the record I don’t think W was dumb by conventional standards.) The answer, then, is not intelligence or the lack thereof.
The bigger problem — and I sincerely think this is the problem for the human race — is insufficient empathy. Empathy and its absence are common throughout humanity. But empathy’s power is, tragically, the weakest where it’s most needed: among the wealthy and powerful. You might recall this study from a little over a year ago, the one about how wealth makes jerky people even jerkier. It’s not the definitive take on the whole human nature thing, but it’s still worth a second skim:
Are society’s most noble actors found within society’s nobility?
That question spurred Paul Piff, a Ph.D. candidate in psychology at the University of California, Berkeley, to explore whether higher social class is linked to higher ideals, he said in a telephone interview.
The answer Piff found after conducting seven different experiments is: no. The pursuit of self-interest is a “fundamental motive among society’s elite, and the increased want associated with greater wealth and status can promote wrongdoing,” Piff and his colleagues wrote yesterday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
The “upper class,” as defined by the study, were more likely to break the law while driving, take candy from children, lie in negotiation, cheat to raise their odds of winning a prize and endorse unethical behavior at work, the research found. The solution, Piff said, is to find a way to increase empathy among wealthier people.
“It’s not that the rich are innately bad, but as you rise in the ranks — whether as a person or a nonhuman primate — you become more self-focused,” Piff said. “You can change that by reminding upper-class people of the needs of others. That may not be their default, but have them do it is sufficient to increase their patterns of altruistic behavior.”
Forgive the snark, but I simply love Piff’s “solution.” All we need to do, y’see, is make all the powerful people good. Oh, that’s all? Yawn. So easy.
Anyway, I think this can explain how a dude like Ignatius (or the countless others, many of whom haven’t even written passive-aggressive faux mea culpas) can sincerely find it surprising that the globe’s great unwashed care just as much about their own humanity and dignity as Westerners do. You’d wish that a guy who travels as much as Ignatius would be more attuned to noticing the universal nature of so many human traits — but he’s not only a guy who travels a lot. He’s also the most influential foreign policy writer at one of the most influential newspapers in the most influential nation on Earth.
You could spend 3 weeks with taxi drivers in Timbuktu and still not be able to shake off all that intellectual baggage.