Sunday, January 11, 2015

To explain, or the attempt to explain, is not the same as proffering a justification, rationalization, or an excuse

I thought it should go without saying, but the attempt at explanation of why someone behaves a certain way (at the individual level, what motivates action) is not equivalent in any way to a defense of the proposed reasons that motivate an actor and that are part of said explanation, nor does it amount to any sort of apology (or ‘excuse’) for the behavior under examination. Rather, it helps those on the outside looking in, as it were, to make sense—insofar as we can make sense—of such behavior (along the lines of ‘nothing human is foreign to me’). So, for example, when a FB friend linked to a speech by Egypt’s president Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi calling for a “revolution” within Islam, I wrote the following: He’s a tyrant, in large measure responsible for crushing the Revolution (such as it was) in Egypt, evidencing no respect for legal due procedure or basic human rights. His indiscriminate crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood or other—more avowedly—radical Islamists (in addition to members of the Left) only serves to plant the seeds for radicalization of young Muslims, alienating them from their own society. He’s speaking more for the benefit of a “Western” audience (especially the elite decision makers at the helm of its most powerful countries) so as to blunt criticisms of his regime (in particular, its growing catalogue of egregious human rights violations). I am not thereby endorsing the political program of the Muslim Brotherhood (in fact, there is no one such program insofar as there are well-known conflicting positions and tendencies within the group),  nor attempting to excuse the behavior of radical Islamists or self-identifying “jihadists” that Sisi is ruthlessly crushing in Egypt. I am interested in what makes these radical Islamists “tick” (no pun intended), what makes the actions they decide in favor of, in their minds, palatable or otherwise indispensable to achieving their aims (some of which may be irrational or repugnant) or living out their commitment to (their understanding of) an Islamic worldview. I am also interested in why discrimination against and the ruthless suppression of such groups only tends to backfire, in other words, prepares the political and social psychological soil propitious for sowing the seeds of further radicalization among a new generation of Muslims. 
It’s not so much a “revolution” in Islam that is needed (after all, the vast majority of Muslims around the world are perfectly reasonable and peaceful*), but an understanding of the social-psychological and political conditions that make radical Islamist ideology or “jihadist” Islamist ideology an attractive or compelling “option” for some Muslims. For an exemplary illustration of this, see Scott Atran’s book (as well as several of his articles), Talking to the Enemy: Violent Extremism, Sacred Values, and What It Means to Be Human (Allen Lane, 2010). As for the political variables that help account for abandoning the reliance on violent if not terrorist methods among these radical Islamists, see Omar Ashour’s The De-Radicalization of Jihadists: Transforming Armed Islamist Movements (Routledge, 2009). Nothing said here amounts to a defense of or an apology for how these radical Islamists behave (they still need to be held legally and morally accountable for their actions), but is rather part of an endeavor to understand why they in fact find the choice of indiscriminate or terrorist violence a viable option (i.e., why does it appear ‘rational,’ in an instrumental sense, for them). Another work that exemplifies this “sense-making” endeavor is the aptly titled volume edited by Diego Gambetta, Making Sense of Suicide Missions (Oxford University Press, 2006). Jon Elster reminds us, “It is usually easier to change people’s circumstances and opportunities than to change their minds.” In the first instance, this is no doubt true, and I would only add, for our purposes, that a change in circumstances and opportunities may indeed serve as a necessary condition for the sort of change in mind (with regard to interests, passions, beliefs, values) that prompts a favorable change in behavior. 
Another FB friend who happens to model the virtues of “cause lawyering,” expressed frustration if not incomprehension in a comment thread on the recent terrorist events in France when someone attempted to articulate (more or less) the conceptual and practical difference between social scientific explanation and moral-political and legal defense or justification (what was defensively termed ‘excuses’ by those who disagreed with him). So, for instance, if one knows something about the life of recent Muslim immigrants in France (or other European countries for that matter), about the history of colonialism and post-colonialism, and so forth and so on, facts and events that might serve as background variables (part of the set of real, felt or imagined constraints, i.e., the ‘opportunity set’) central to any such endeavor, one is heading down a slippery slope of rationalization or excuse-mongering. If one further attempts to combine an appreciation of this opportunity set with a peak (so to speak) into the mind of a person who is willing to or actually does commit terrorist acts, this is not tantamount to an endorsement of the putative or proposed individual motivational (hence causal) reasons (for the actor: desires and beliefs as interests, passions, commitments, etc.) that make for the proposed explanation and thus enhanced understanding (bearing in mind that a causal explanation of mechanisms has a finite number of links). Our lawyer appears to understand such causal explanations on the order of “necessitation” (perhaps this is an instance of conflating causality and determinism, which both physics and philosophy have taught us to distinguish) in other words, in our endeavor to explain the causal mechanisms of behavior we are at the same time saying the actor in question had no choice in the matter, he or she was forced or compelled by circumstances or situation to act as described in our hypothetical or suggested explanation, and so we are, in effect, offering an apologia, an excuse, a (moral or political or legal) rationalization for the behavior in question. But that is a blatant non sequitur.
The endeavor to explain and understand in such cases is not unlike what Erich Fromm tried to do in his pioneering study of the Weimar working class, a project in which he and his colleagues tried to explain (in particular, as a species of a ‘social psychological’ explanation) why an ostensible identification with “the Left” was swiftly abandoned in favor of an ascendant populist fascist ideology. This, in turn, is related to the larger political concerns and psychoanalytic praxis of Freudian psychoanalysts in post-World War I Europe as told in Elizabeth Ann Danto’s important book, Freud’s Free Clinics: Psychoanalysis and Social Justice, 1918-1938 (Columbia University Press, 2005). The Viennese psychoanalysts of the 1920s and early 1930s justifiably believed that “psychoanalysis had an implicit political mission.” In sum, an understanding of history, situations, circumstances, and psychology is essential to the long-term struggle to undercut the causal variables that create the social psychological conditions necessary for the cultivation of fanaticism and extremist ideologies, ideologies like those of jihadist Islamists who believe they possess sufficient justification for their resort to indiscriminate violence.
 * I take this piece on Muslims in Germany to be fairly representative of Muslims in Europe and North America: “Despite rising racism, European Muslims embrace democratic values.” As for Muslims around the rest of the world, they may not all be “democrats,” but the vast majority of them clearly do not subscribe to the sorts of radical Islamist ideologies that legitimate indiscriminate or terrorist violence.

     Further Reading:
    • Elster, Jon. Nuts and Bolts for the Social Sciences. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1989. 
    • Elster, Jon. Explaining Social Behavior: More Nuts and Bolts for the Social Sciences. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2007.
    • March, Andrew F. Islam and Liberal Citizenship: The Search for an Overlapping Consensus. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009. 
    • Miller, Richard W. Fact and Method: Explanation, Confirmation and Reality in the Natural and the Social Sciences. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1987. 
    • Rodinson, Maxime (Roger Veinus, tr.) Europe and the Mystique of Islam. London: I.B. Tauris and Co., 2002 ed. (first published in French in 1980).  
    • Wickham, Carrie Rosefsky. The Muslim Brotherhood: Evolution of an Islamist Movement. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2012.  

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