Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Gaza and the Rationality of the Weak

Watching the horrible scenes of death in Gaza, it brings to mind something I wrote a while back that I'll discuss again here.

There is no doubt that the sixteen civilian deaths are part of the reason for the disproportionate attack, so, too, is the upcoming Israeli elections, the waning days of the Bush administration, and tacit approval of governments in Egypt and other neighbors who do not hold Hamas in high esteem. But the fact is, while some may think the attack expedient, in the long run it will only worsen the situation, harden those who might have been able to move to a more moderate place, undermine the possibility of eventual trust.

But this, of course, is not how many Israelis see it. As Tom Segev wrote in Ha'aretz:

Israel is striking at the Palestinians to "teach them a lesson." That is a basic assumption that has accompanied the Zionist enterprise since its inception: We are the representatives of progress and enlightenment, sophisticated rationality and morality, while the Arabs are a primitive, violent rabble, ignorant children who must be educated and taught wisdom - via, of course, the carrot-and-stick method, just as the drover does with his donkey.

The bombing of Gaza is also supposed to "liquidate the Hamas regime," in line with another assumption that has accompanied the Zionist movement since its inception: that it is possible to impose a "moderate" leadership on the Palestinians, one that will abandon their national aspirations.

As a corollary, Israel has also always believed that causing suffering to Palestinian civilians would make them rebel against their national leaders. This assumption has proven wrong over and over.
The assumption is the result of the divide of rationality created by asymmetric power.

The approach is based on the old Pavlovian notion of positive and negative reinforcement. If the mouse pushes the left pedal, it gets a painful shock; if it presses the right peddle, it gets a food pellet. Thereby it is trained to push the pedal the experimenter wants it to push. Such conditioning is more effective with progressive disincentives -- the more it pushes the wrong pedal, the more painful the shocks become. The more and the longer you act in a way that we do not approve of, the more difficult we make life for you -- all the time showing you that we will stop the pain if only you do what we want. Of course, the rational person prefers the absence or the alleviation of pain to the experiencing of pain, and so not allowing your will to be bent to ours under these circumstances is irrational because in acting in that way you are freely choosing pain where you do not need to be experiencing it. What kind of idiot prefers the stick to the carrot?

This is the reasoning of people who have something to lose and the foundational standard of rationality that they apply to everyone, regardless of their relative wealth, power, or circumstances.

But, of course, that sort of cost/benefit analysis is not the one made by those with less power. The weak cannot afford utilitarianism. What is on the line for them is not just pain or no pain, but one's very existence as an autonomous person or nation in and for itself. The surrendering of autonomy is a major cost that is not included in the calculation by the powerful. It may be the case that no carrot is worth suffering the stick that takes away one's soul and going along is to give in and give up more than merely spiteful resistance. More pain means nothing to them when it it their very self that is threatened.

Those who are in control think only on the operative level because they are never faced, much less are not virtually always faced with questions on the existential level -- they know their basic status as a free agent is safe and only have to decide what to do as a free agent. Israel's founding mythology -- one that is deeply believed by its residents and cannot be underestimated -- is that Israel constantly remains under existential threat, that any minute it's enemies could wipe it off the map as they threaten with their evil rhetoric. The shadow of the Holocaust is real and lives in the minds of the nation.

But it is belied by the facts on the ground. Israel is not going anywhere. It has the military, economic, and historical means to survive whatever realistically would be thrown at it. The deaths of the sixteen civilians by Hamas rockets is murder, evil, terrorism; but it is not a threat to the existence of the state of Israel. Israelis do have this threat in their minds, but their actions show that it is not in their hearts, for their logic is that of the asymmetrically strong. They do not understand the rationality of the weak. Until they do, they will continue to place landmines along the path to a stable and secure region.

The 1.5 million Palestinians living in a tiny area in enforced joblessness and hopelessness in Gaza are fish in a barrel and no matter how good you think your shots are, you will kill fish that you were or were not aiming at. The shots will not bring peace, just more and more of the tragedy that is the same.