Saturday, April 14, 2012

Global epidemic of bullying

... by Islamists and other fundamentalists.

Just when I thought I had mellowed on the religion front, taking a more anthropological, psychological view of the matter as an involuntary and evolutionarily successful form of delusion, an article in The New Republic reminded me all over again why I got into this topic in the first place - rampant, ignorant bullying.

That the US should be undergoing a consciousness-raising about bullying among children in schools is intriguing, when, under the guise of politics and religion, bullying is an enormous international issue as well. Perhaps, like in late colonial times when consciousness of liberty and freedom was honed on the abject slavery in our midst, our raised awareness of Islamism since 9/11 has made us more sensitive to similar phenomena closer to home.

And what is that phenomenon? The use of intimidation to win arguments that could never be won by reason. Apparently, it is simply one of the "deep" beliefs of Islam that Muslims who leave the faith should be killed. Nothing personal! Apparently, it is part of the "deep" beliefs of Islam that women must make themselves into posterboards of patriarchy by veiling, or better yet, burka-ing themselves into oblivion. Apparently, the existence of infidels so enrages the omnipotent Allah that good Muslims can not help but help him out by going on jihad and killing them. Apparently, free speech about the shortcomings of Islam, its founder, gods, etc. are so impolite that Salman Rushdie should be killed. That does turn out to be personal.

What makes people both so righteous and so insecure in their beliefs? What makes them so group-ish? Tribalism is hardly the sole posession of religion, but religion has a peculiarly common and powerful way of combining propositions of cosmic and transformative importance with intellectual foundations empty of any facts or evidence while full of assertions of complete authoritativeness and certainty. Surely you have heard that the Koran has anticipated all the discoveries of modern science?

It is a very special kind of con job, that doesn't on the short term make any difference. Unlike false beliefs about gravity or what is good to eat, false beliefs about the origins of morals or the universe have no terrible immediate impact. And they have the beneficial effect of bonding people who share a harmless story- a narrative of origins and meaning. No problem, right?

Oh, god, what a question! What happens when people are righteously certain about the most important aspects of the universe, but can't really support what they think (if it is conceptualized at all) against the simplest skeptical question? What happens when one's scriptural / religious system is particularly confused and contradictory? What happens when the morals reputed to be so pristinely perfect look, in detail, appalling in their source material and persistently incapable of sponsoring humane societies in the real world?

Well ... there are two common answers. One (typical of liberal temperaments) is to accept the ambiguity of the situation, retain some faith in one's position, and ignore the skeptics & questions or drown them in some sophistry. The other approach, more typical of conservatives and fundamentalists, is to- psychologically speaking- lose it: to shut down questions, lash out at skeptics, and at least close ranks if one can not, perchance, purify the entire society of the contagion of doubt.

Unfortunately, we live in a global society, so this purification process is a rather arduous affair, requiring the terrorism of vast populations outside one's own immediate culture. So the forces of Islam are busy branching out into anti-blasphemy resolutions at the UN, warning killings like 9/11, intimidation of writers and cartoonists far and wide, and ritually broadcast protests inspired by Friday "prayers." Aren't there better things to be angry about?

Not that Christianity should be let off the hook, either. Western societies have proven to be better able to deal with modernity, mostly in spite of Christianity, but certainly with some of its influences echoing still. Yet the conservative, patriarchial, anti-progress, pro-guns and pro-capital punishment party in the US also happens to be the home of hyper-religious Christians, whose top priority seems to be re-establishing a lost patriarchy over the reproductive lives of women. Which party issues threats to secede from the union? Which party threatened to blow up US credit-worthiness? Which party favors bullying other countries over mostly imagined dangers? Which party seeks opportunities to use the coercive powers of the state to push religious projects like ten-commandments monuments, contraception and abortion restrictions, and creationism?

You know the one. Communities have many virtues for us as humans, aside from being essential, and require some amount of discipline and even coercion to perpetuate themselves. One can not live with complete freedom from everything and everyone. Yet the practice of founding communities in bizarre narratives and otherworldly theologies, for all its strengths and occasional virtues, has awful defects as well- ones we need to keep in mind as we fight bullying on all fronts.

P.S. One may ask, from the Islamic perspective, isn't the US the one doing the bullying? Invading countries, killing innocent people from the air, carrying on some kind of weird socio-political crusade to make us all atheist and/or Christian evangelical junk food-eating, TV-watching drones? Fair enough. But is terror really the instrument of US policy, or does it only seem that way when we torture people, bomb civilians, and mess up whole countries? It should be evident that we don't use terror as a matter of policy, but target bullies directly as best we can. It isn't easy. How does one draw the line between defeating bullies and being a bully oneself? Hitler thought that other countries were forcing him into war, since they didn't want to give him the land that he deserved, like Poland, etc. The power of victimization narratives to justify bullying is as common as it is ironic.

I am sure it is self-evident to Muslims that no one should speak ill of them or their religion. But empirically speaking, that has not exactly been the golden road to human prosperity and fulfillment, either in the Islamic world or elsewhere. The West (and Islam too, in its golden age) has found a truly universal political principle, which is that of proportionality and tolerance- that social and especially state coercion must be avoided as far as possible, and employed as minimally as possible, for identifiable, civil / secular ends. That is to say that people should be afforded extensive rights of conscience and self-expression. Whether Afghanistan, say, wants this kind of social tolerance is an internal decision, but serving as a springboard for international terrorist bullies trying to eliminate such rights in other cultures is another matter. Target countries such as the US can't stand idly by, however reluctant to interfere with anyone's self-expression and governance.

The record is pretty clear. After a dismal period in the cold war where the US deposed several democratic governments and suported many authoritarian ones, much to our everlasting shame, the last few decades have witnessed the US typically deposing unquestionable bullies with execrable domestic as well as international records, from Manuel Noriega to Slobodan Milosevic, Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi. Being the most powerful nation in the world, we hardly get any thanks, of course. This is hardly a war on Islam, but a policing of the international scene, as far as we are able, for our own benefit but also that of others, including the oppressed countries themselves, now possibly with the exception of Iraq whose occupation was so catastrophic, and that of Afghanistan, whose "reconstruction" is heading who-knows-whither.

  • Theocratic Christianity still going strong.
  • It would be one thing if Catholics were actually consistent...
  • Yes, conservatives & authoritarians are closed-minded and easily led. But they have high theological intelligence!
  • Becoming one with the archetypes.
  • Monarch butterflies hang out in California.
  • The European crisis stutters on towards long-term decline. Roubini: no growth.
  • Corporatocracy, Gresham's law, and accounting fraud. "... for a looter, the highest return on assets was always a political contribution."
  • More on Minsky- the importance of expectations and psychology.
  • Economics quote of the week, from Bill Mitchell:
"Governments should not worry about deficits."
  • Economics bonus graphic, of economic models and their uniform failure to predict reality (black line).


  1. "Just when I thought I had mellowed on the religion front, taking a more anthropological, psychological view of the matter as an involuntary and evolutionarily successful form of delusion...". Yes, and therefore you should focus on the underlying machanism why religion may be an "involuntary and evolutionarily successful form of delusion". Religion helps to resolve the collective action problem of a group (tribe) by homogenizing the tribe's belief system. This is invariably a form of bullying; anyone who doesn't accept the dominant theology is pressured to accept it or eventually excluded from the group. Furthermore, religion helps the group (tribe) destinguish itself from other groups and even demonize the other groups, making it easier to defeat them. Again, a form of bullying.

    So, as you point out, bullying is intrinsic to religion and basic to its evolutionary value in a tribally-based socially. Furthermore, the major world religions -- Christianity, Islam, Buddhism -- were a major innovation; separating religious-group belonging from ethnicity and geography. Dramatically increasing the scale on which the evolutionarily beneficial bullying (intrnal and external) can take place.

    Islam is not unique in this phenomena. It is merely notable in that it exists in countries with more primitive social, political and economic levels of development. All the deformation in some modern islamic sects were seen in earlier stages of christianity.

    Furthermore, there are many different strains of Islam -- wahhabi, hanafi, sufi, bektashi, just to name a few, as well as modern offshoots like Bahai and siehk. Many are far more tolerant than wahhabi/salafi. Ironically, one of the major innovation of islam in the 6th century was great protection of women's rights. The harsh treatment of women we see today has far more to with certain primitive cultures (e.g. Pashtun, Bedouin) than with islam. The big tragedy being that one the most primitive strains of tribal islam (arab bedouin wahhabis) suddenly was given massive oil wealth to prosteletize throughout the islamic world.

    Therefore, in summary, bullying is inherent in all religions and fundemental to religion's evolutinary benefits. Islam is not really worse than other religions, but the sudden oil wealth of one of its most culturally primitive sects has distorted the development of gobal islam.

    Bottom line, it's not religion that's the problem, but rather the sudden enrichment of culturally primitive sects.

  2. Hi, Catfish- I bow to your excellent analysis. Indeed, for its day and place, Islam was quite progressive, and there are wonderful branches of the faith. I've written a few blogs about Islamic history and theology, however, and I think the fundamentalists are on to something, in terms of the orginal documents ... that they lead to quite a primitive religion if they are not extensively, even brutally, reinterpreted. Jihad, for instance, is explicitly not an introspective, namby-pamby affair, but war, pure and simple.

    I agree that unusual enrichment of the Arabic and other Islamic cultures might be the difference between stray bedouins tending their flocks, and this very painful contest of modernity and fundamentalism. A mega-resource curse, if you will, though few of the afflicted countries are complaining. Egypt and Turkey stand as resource-poor examples of countries on seemingly more moderate tracks.

    But on the whole, I think Islam is a particularly egregious example of a religion. It succeeded precisely because of its martial qualities and intolerance, carving out a vast military empire which evolved to a quite tolerant and cosmopolitan height, but now has settled into a resentful old age, giving vent to crotchety complaints and conflict, putting its most primitive elements and exemplars in the cultural vanguard. One can also note that terrorism was part of the mix from the beginning, the assassins being a classic example.

    Yes, we are group-ish. What is to be done about it? The answer is in how we cultivate ourselves and the next generation. We always have choices about what path to take, culturally and individually speaking. The Madrassas sprinkled all over the Muslim world are not offering the Waldorf program. They are, typically, perpetuating ignorance and intolerance, heavily funded by the Saudi/Wahhabi axis. That should be one element of our relations with the Muslim world- to promote civilized standards at all levels of education.