Thursday, August 18, 2005

The Obvious Choice

As I perused the usual assortments of websites and blogs this morning, I hit upon something interesting on my friend Dan's site, Orthodox Anarchist ( .

One of the commentators was actually accusing Dan of not being a real anarchist, which was striking in itself, but among the reasons he gave, the commentator wrote, "I'd like to say that if Mobius (Dan) truly was an anarchist he'd have made the obvious choice of going to live on the other side of the wall." The guy was referring to that structure I like to call the Arafat Wall. And living on the other side, of course, means living with the Palestinians.

The part that got me was how the commentator thought it was an "obvious choice" for any radical to side with the Palestinians. Never mind the fact that this level of solidarity with the Palestinians means a tacit acceptance of terror as a political tool. It also means supporting the side that ruined a functioning politicial process by launching a campaign of terror against Israeli civilians. Never mind those facts because it is possible to support Palestinian rights without supporting terror. But to call it an obvious choice...that requires some attention.

To me, it's another glaring example of the groupthink about Israel that has taken hold in the radical movements, the far left, and even sometimes in the mainstream left, especially among the people who consider themselves members of the "human rights" community. Blindly supporting the Palestinians, no matter how much they resort to terror and how little effort they make to improve the lives of their own people, is considered an obvious choice. There is no reason to think about this issue any further, to consider the possibility that the Palestinians may bear a measure of responsibility for their current plight. No, the obvious choice is to move to the other side of the Arafat Wall and to stay there.

The issue of groupthink is particularly relevent to me because I'm currently reading the book The Wisdom of Crowds by James Surowiecki, which happens to address the issue directly. The premise of the book is that the aggregate decisions made by groups of individuals of varying levels of skill, intelligence, and expertise are better than decisions made by individuals, even experts, by themselves. However, for groups to function properly, they must be sufficiently diverse. When groups lack the proper diversity, the threat of groupthink creeping in increases.

"Homogeneous groups become cohesive more easily than diverse groups," Surowiecki explains, "and as they become more cohesive, they also become more dependent on the group, more insulated from outside opinions, and therefore more convinced the group' s judgment on important issues must be right. These kinds of groups share an illusion of invulnerability and a willingness to rationalize away possible counterarguements to the group's position."

He points to experiments involving people being shown cards with lines on them and asking them to indentify which lines were the same lengths. In one such experiment, the experimenter brought six to eight people together, but only one person was the subject. The others were plants that would intentionally give the wrong answer. The question was, would the subject go along with the group and pick the wrong answer, or would he rise above the groupthink and make the right answer on his own. The experiment found that while most people said what they really thought, about 70% changed their minds at least once, and a full third of the people went along with the group. And that's when the answer the group was pushing was objectively wrong.

But the same experiment also revealed how weak a hold groupthink has on its victims. The experimenter tried different variations on the experiment, including one in which one of the plants would actually say the right answer. In those trials, when the subject had an ally expressing the right answer, the numbers showed significant improvement in how many subjects said what they really thought was right.

That's why Israel advocacy must make every effort to reach people in those groups where anti-Israel groupthink is at its strongest. Because when people encounter diverse ideas, they become less dependent on their groups's ideas and become less willing to rationalize away the possible counterarguments.

One thing is certain: there are people in radical movements who believe that unquestioned support for the Palestinians is an obvious choice. The job of Israel's advocates is to make that choice less obvious. If people really consider the situation and conclude that they should support the Palestinians, that's one thing. But it should not be an obvious choice, reached without any thinking whatsoever.


At 7:06 PM, Blogger manuscriptboy said...

Hey Kalman! I didn't know you had a blog. Will I be seeing you around this year?

At 11:28 PM, Blogger Kalman Rushdie said...

Hey ManuscriptMAN, great to hear from you. I would love to come around once in a while, but I don't think I'll be part of the program this year. Too much on my plate already. But I have recommeded your class to friends, and I'm glad to see you will be returning.


Post a Comment

<< Home