A radical experiment in empathy

By leading the Americans in his audience at TEDxPSU step by step through the thought process, sociologist Sam Richards sets an extraordinary challenge: can they understand — not approve of, but understand — the motivations of an Iraqi insurgent? And by extension, can anyone truly understand and empathize with another?

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16 thoughts on “A radical experiment in empathy

  1. “but understand — the motivations of an Iraqi insurgent”

    why should that be a problem, especially for Americans? How do quite a few in the southern states still feel towards the north?
    Imagine the Russians had occupied your country, or the Chinese would invade it?
    Why should an Iraqi citizen NOT feel violated by the American occupation?
    Just because it is American forces killing your wives and daughters, storming your houses at night? or by disrupting a however authoritarian system permitting sectarian groups to establish themselves, allowing those and Al Qaeda to establish bases they never had before and to kill innocent civilians?

    Is that really a serious question?

    I grew up in Germany after WW2, my father never was a Nazi,
    my Grandfather spent some time in a concentration (not extermination camp).
    How do you think they felt towards the American occupation forces in Germany? Definitely not happy and pleased. Everybody in Germany was tired of the war, the country destroyed to an extent that is more resembling Hiroshima than Baghdad, most of the army in prison camps.
    Therefore resistance was not being thought oft at the time – but that does not mean Americans were received without resentment and sometimes a well hidden hate.

    Americans can just be glad they had destroyed Germany to the extent they did, focussing the mind of the populace upon rebuilding.
    Had they occupied the country at an earlier point, and without the help of Russia who took care of Berlin, the allieds might have encountered the same situation as in Baghdad – but a lot more so.

    Yes, from my personal history – I can definitely understand them.

  2. BTW – to formulate a question like that could only be done by someone and from a country that never was occupied itself, that always had done the occupying. I find the question naive to the point of being almost incomprehensible.

    BTW – i still think Germany got what it deserved for following a criminal organization. That still does not mean I cannot harbour resentment as to the destruction done to those German cities.
    Feelings can be hard to overcome with rational explanations.

  3. I discuss this in my post on xenophobia.


    In Sun Tzu’s The Art of War, (III Attack by stratagem), he says:

    18. Hence the saying: If you know the enemy
    and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a
    hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy,
    for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat.
    If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will
    succumb in every battle.

    The inability to understand the Iraqi insurgents is exactly why the US is having so much difficulty in Iraq. It is why â??shock and aweâ? didn’t work. It is why Iraq and Afghanistan are such fusterclucks.

    The â??leadersâ? don’t have the ability to understand â??the otherâ? (which is why those leaders are racist bigots). Xenophobia derives from an inability to understand the other. If the other cannot be understood, then the actions of â??the otherâ? cannot be predicted, and the other cannot be reasoned with. Diplomacy requires understanding by both sides. War, being diplomacy by other means requires it too.

  4. The first post nails it although I don’t think the analogy with the immediate post war occupation of Germany is entirely apt. The Allied forces did not attack a country in violation of international law they defeated a country which had itself waged a series of illegal wars, along with numerous other crimes against humanity.

    I think a more correct analogy would be between the French Resistance (in all its various flavors) against German occupation and those opposing the US attack and subsequent occupation of Iraq.

    You Americans are bloody insane: a crime against humanity is a crime against humanity, even if committed by the US. How can you not feel sympathy for Iraqi freedom fighters? Are you so indoctrinated that killing over a hundred thousand Iraqi civilians are ok, because the government says so?

    Just curious: were the Viet Cong wrong to oppose the atrocity of that war as well?

  5. Based on the Iraq Body Count data there were 11,516 civilian deaths caused by coalition fire reported from March 20, 2003 to March 19, 2008, or 12% of total reported civilian deaths. The number of deaths caused by the coalition has dropped drastically since then, with ~100 deaths total reported in 2009-2010. In other words, total reported civilian deaths by coalition (US, Iraq, etc.) forces from the beginning of the invasion to this day is less than 12,000.

    These deaths are fairly well documented, which is to say it is extremely unlikely more than, say, 50% of such deaths have gone unreported. This gives a reasonable upper limit of such deaths from March 20, 2003 till today of 20-25,000.

    This, of course, is horrendous, and would work as a fairly powerful motivation to fight back in any country, though it is rather less than the “over a hundred thousand” suggested by Mingr above.

    This logic completely fails to explain the insurgents’ unwillingness to rise up in arms against the forces which truly have killed more than 100,000 civilians, and indeed may have killed several hundred thousand.

    It seems to me the French Resistance would have been a very different kind of operation had there been non-German, largely domestic organizations in France that were responsible for 90% of all the violence suffered by civilians — if there had been, say, Corsicans firing mortars at Parisian street cafés, and Pyrenean people throwing hand grenades at bread queues.

    (I live in a country which has been occupied plenty of times, though the last few attempts to do so, since 1917, have failed.)

  6. Internationally, the United States seems to operate under the delusional premise that all people would really want to be Americans and support US policies, if only they were not oppressed by some Evil Person. If the Evil Person is simply removed, the people will spontaneously erupt in peaceful democracy, which will naturally support all US policies.

    Except when the Evil Person is Moammar Gaddafi. Then, we declare explicitly that our intention is *not* to remove the Evil Person, even though that is the only plausible military reason for attacking him. US foreign policy makes my head hurt.

  7. Gee. ‘Only’ 25,000 civilian deaths caused by the US invasion. Of course, we can trust those, lower numbers, because, hey, after all there is such freedom in the country.

    However, the US military, conveniently, does not keep track of the number of civilians it kills. Which is a good thing because killing civilians is always unfortunate, and unintended, when perpetrated by the US military. When done by the ‘enemy’ it is terrorism.

    Maybe Grim Redeemer is OK with ‘only’ 25,000 deaths perpetrated by a superpower upon a people who represented no threat to them whatsoever. Perhaps the statues to G W Bush which will be erected in Iraq one day soon will will include a comment that 25,000 deaths is a small price to pay to keep the US military industrial complex healthy and to expand the US empire.

    The technology of today makes the US occupation of Iraq characteristically different from that of France: one drone makes up for a few battalions stationed throughout the countryside. So, the ‘heroic’ occupiers live in walled encampments and feast on Burger King while the Iraqi resistance strike who it can, where it can. I don’t like the tactics on bit, but responsibility lies with the US, not the freedom fighters.

  8. “can they understand — not approve of, but understand — the motivations of an Iraqi insurgent?”

    That question is based on a false premise. My dictionary (WordWeb, from Princeton University – http://wordweb.info/) gives this as the definition of an “insurgent”:

    “A person who takes part in an armed rebellion against the constituted authority (especially in the hope of improving conditions)

    The Iraqi “government” is as much a “consituted authority” as were Somoza, Batista, Pinochet, the Shah, or Saddam Hussein, who was once supported by the US. Puppet governments are not “consituted authority”, ergo, the opposition is a resistance to the existing government.

    No, that does not mean I agree with them or their motives. But unless you address the real reasons they are fighting, to remove foreign influence on their country, you’re not going to resolve the issue. The question is as dumb as George Bu**sh**’s claim “they hate us for our freedoms”, it’s a means of avoiding the core problem.

    For example, if the US and France had sent the Shah back to Iran after the revolution in 1979 and apologized for supporting his regime, would the Iranian clerics really have spent the next 20 years funding terrorism against the US? Or if the US had not supported Batista and armed him to kill pro-democracy people, would the communists have had enough popular support to take over Cuba?


  9. Holy shit.

    Well, I would just like to repeat that I was only counting the deaths directly caused by coalition military actions, and that the death toll is horrendous whether it’s 12k, 25k or 100k.

    Also, as regards my “nonsense” and deltoid, this is probably in reference to the various surveys on death in post-invasion Iraq which Tim Lambert has mentioned in the past. These produce much higher total death tolls than the IBC, which is logical since the IBC is the absolute minimum amount of violent deaths, since it only takes into account deaths that have been reported.

    However, it seems absolutely reasonable to assume that the IBC data are far more reliable when it comes to deaths caused by the coalition than for other kinds of violent deaths and deaths from other causes related, in some way, to the invasion and subsequent events — if only because there are loads of reporters following the US and other troops around, and plenty of groups with lots to gain from reporting their mistakes. I could find no reference to breakdown by cause in Deltoid’s coverage of the reports, other than “violent” vs. “non-violent”.

    To be clear, I in no way disagree with Tim Lambert’s estimate of the total net cost of the war being (by this time) being somewhere between 800,000 and 1.5 million. The fact that I referred to some groups having “killed several hundred thousand” civilians was supposed to be a clue.

    My own philosophy of causation is very simplistic, and hence all this discussion of whether the US is ultimately responsible for deaths caused by a suicide bombing by an al-Qaeda affiliate in Mosul is meaningless to me. I objected to the idea that the US has “killed” 100+ thousand civilians, but I’m sure some also feel I personally enslave Chinese children by buying cheap clothing.

    Likewise when it comes to whether the invasion was a “good thing”. It wasn’t as horrible as Polenfeldzug and not as good as Overlord. Other than that, I am depressed enough about the state of the world without worrying about the justification for one particular brand of shittiness in the Middle East, especially in the middle of a situation as fluid as this is.

  10. I think bridging the gap of understanding between differing worldviews is harder than most of us suppose.

    For a classic survey of some relevant aspects, itâ??s hard to go wrong with David Riesmanâ??s â??The Lonely Crowdâ??. If you havenâ??t read it already, I recommend it as a good starting place for the issues youâ??ve elicited in your post.

    A more recent line of research and criticism is in the rather broad rubric of social construction, or it is sometimes called social constructivism (even just constructivism). Kenneth Gergen is one of the progenitors of the theory of the social construction of knowledge. In the following passage, Gergen was speaking directly about professional psychology, but the critique certainly could be applied to any discipline, any cognitive framework for viewing the world (political ideology, religion, cultural affiliation, etc.):

    Theory & Psychology, Vol. 7, No. 6, 723-746 (1997)

    The Place of the Psyche in a Constructed World


    â??In the case of ideological unmasking, constructionist critics point to the societal ramifications of psychology’s modes of describing and explaining human action. As professional accounts are disseminated within the culture, bearing the stamp of scientific authority, so do they inform people’s actions and instruct social policy. In Foucault’s (1980) terms, there is a close relationship between claims to knowledge and cultural power. Given the capacity of the profession to generate multiple and diverse accounts of the person, choices in description and explanation are thus matters of moral and political consequence. Within this context professional psychology becomes a prime target of critique, criticism exacerbated further by the profession’s seemingly disingenuous claims to value neutrality. Thus, constructionist scholars have variously set out to demonstrate the ways in which existing psychological accounts (and the practices which they sustain), lend themselves to broadening governmental control (Rose, 1990), destroying democratic foundations (1984), promoting narcissism (Wallach and Wallach, 1983), championing individualist ideology (Sampson,1977; Fowers and Richardson, 1996), eroding community (Bellah et al, 1985; Sampson, 1977), fostering racism (Jones, 1991), sustaining the patriarchal order (Hare-Mustin and Marecek,1988; M. Gergen, 1988; Morawski,1994), contributing to western colonialism (Gergen, Gulerce, Lock, and Misra, 1996), and more. ..

    A third logic of constructionist critique, the social-analytic, is stimulated by significant developments within the sociology of knowledge and the history of science. Here scholars have been particularly concerned with the ways in which social processes shape the profession’s assumptions about its subject matter, its methodologies, and ultimately its conclusions regarding the nature of the world (see, for example, Kuhn,1962; Latour and Woolgar, 1979). For psychology, the significant argument is that it is through social negotiation that investigators determine the grounding assumptions within which research will occur. Once the grounding assumptions (paradigms) have gained consensus, then all interpretations of evidence will necessarily serve as support; paradigms are not thus “tested” against fact; they determine what will be counted as fact. Informed by these developments, the critical analyst shares the previously voiced concerns with the unwarranted and totalitarian claims of scientific psychology to accurate and objective readings of the mind. Unmasking the social processes intrinsic to the production of “scientific truth” serves the additional function of challenging longstanding boundaries within the discipline. Because of traditional commitments to truth through method, there are strong tendencies for the sub-disciplines to become insulated and self serving, thus absenting themselves from broader dialogic engagement – both within the academy and the society more generally. Social critique thus serves as a catalyst for broader interchange.â?

    This statement really stands out for me: â??Because of traditional commitments to truth through method, there are strong tendencies for the sub-disciplines to become insulated and self serving, thus absenting themselves from broader dialogic engagement – both within the academy and the society more generally.â?

    I think this gets at the heart of the question you pose (at least implicitly), whether we can effectively understand, and perhaps communicate with those we consider adversaries (on the battlefield, or in the realm of ideas). Once weâ??ve committed to a perspective, a worldview, and reify the concepts that are woven into that worldview, it becomes very difficult to â??see through the eyes of the otherâ??. The conceptual framework of our worldview becomes â??realityâ?? for us, and can blind us to alternative perspectivesâ??like that of the insurgent.

  11. Grim Redeemer said:

    “To be clear, I in no way disagree with Tim Lambert’s estimate of the total net cost of the war being (by this time) being somewhere between 800,000 and 1.5 million.”

    I do. I’m not sure exactly where your range comes from but it looks sort of like this posting: http://scienceblogs.com/deltoid/2008/01/deaths_in_iraq.php

    But really this is just arbitrary interpretations and extrapolations done to inflate the numbers as much as possible. And then it largely relies on a bogus source like the ORB poll and the highly dubious Lancet survey to justify the upper end of this ‘range’. See here on the ORB poll: http://www.iraqbodycount.org/analysis/beyond/exaggerated-orb/

    But then really these fanciful numbers are for “excess deaths” too, which is not really what you were talking about. Getting back to what you were talking about before, people killed in the fighting, you said,

    “In other words, total reported civilian deaths by coalition (US, Iraq, etc.) forces from the beginning of the invasion to this day is less than 12,000,” and suggest “a reasonable upper limit of such deaths from March 20, 2003 till today of 20-25,000.”

    I’m not exactly sure how you derived these numbers, but I’ll assume this is right. You then make something of a big deal of the idea that something around 90% of civilian deaths were directly caused by parties other than US forces. There are a couple problems with this.

    First, the IBC has also said this, “the Iraq War Logs still record 20,499 (20,006-20,992) â??Enemyâ?? deaths”. These are basically Iraqi insurgents or militia members who were also killed by US forces. Even if they are not considered “civilians” as such, they are still the relatives and friends of other Iraqis who probably won’t think of such a distinction as being all that relevant when people they care about are being killed by a foreign army. So the raw number of Iraqis killed directly by US forces would probably be closer to 40,000 or more.

    Then secondly, I very much doubt many Iraqis would find some overall percentage of direct US-caused deaths to be very important either, be it ‘10%’ or whatever number. If someone sees their relative or friend killed by US forces and are enraged by this are they really going to think “well, maybe there were 9 other people killed somewhere around the country today that weren’t killed by US forces. So I’m not mad anymore.” I don’t think many people would think this way, even if that were the case.

    Thirdly, I also very much doubt that many Iraqis would share your “very simplistic” view that the foreign forces have no responsibility for any deaths that have occurred during the war except for those they directly killed with their own bullets or bombs. Again, most people just aren’t going to think this way.

  12. martinpierce: “I’m not exactly sure how you derived these numbers […]”
    They’re based on this study, or more accurately its abstract which states:
    “We analyzed the Iraq Body Count database of 92,614 Iraqi civilian direct deaths from armed violence occurring from March 20, 2003 through March 19, 2008, of which Unknown perpetrators caused 74% of deaths (n = 68,396), Coalition forces 12% (n = 11,516), and Anti-Coalition forces 11% (n = 9,954).”

    The numbers beyond 3/19/08 were from the year-end analyses for ’09 and ’10. I did make the mistake of not including any data from 3/20/08 to 1/1/09, which would increase the number of reported civilian deaths caused by coalition military action to just above 12,000.

    The Iraq War Logs material seems likely to increase this figure, but I haven’t seen any breakdown of the deaths included in the logs but not yet in the IBC by cause.

    The 50% figure was based purely on my own suspension of disbelief: for various reasons which should be obvious to anyone who’s been following the fighting, I cannot imagine more than half of the civilian deaths caused by coalition military action not being reported. People, including media, tend to notice massive running firefights, or blocks of flats suddenly blowing up.

    Regarding non-civilian deaths caused by coalition forces, I would agree with you that they are likely to bring up a similar emotional response as any other deaths. I should have been more careful with this point, even if it is beside the scope of what I originally set out to comment on (civilian-killing in Iraq), since it no doubt has plenty to do with the motivation of the Iraqi insurgents.

    As to the rest, I don’t disagree that, if asked what motivates them, many if not most Iraqi insurgents might point out the civilians killed by the coalition. I simply wanted to make the case that, if this really was the main cause of an armed uprising, there would be far more appropriate targets.

    Surely something else must be going on as well, if the armed resistance against the people who’ve killed 12k, 20k or 30k civilians is far greater than that against the people who’ve killed 100k, 200k or 300k+. I would suggest tribal loyalty, religious fervor, xenophobia, nationalism, power struggles, etc. — the same stuff that motivate nearly all wars between and within nation states.

  13. As to the rest, I don’t disagree that, if asked what motivates them, many if not most Iraqi insurgents might point out the civilians killed by the coalition. I simply wanted to make the case that, if this really was the main cause of an armed uprising, there would be far more appropriate targets. Surely something else must be going on as well, if the armed resistance against the people who’ve killed 12k, 20k or 30k civilians is far greater than that against the people who’ve killed 100k, 200k or 300k+.

    I’m sure you’re right that there is more behind the motivations than just killings by the coalition. Just having an unwanted foreign army occupying your country would be enough for some. Then there are many other things that factor in. But I still think you are somewhat off the mark in thinking that “there would be far more appropriate targets” on the simple basis of drawing a proportion of deaths with basically Coalition vs. “The Rest”.

    You seem to be basing this on the idea that the coalition-caused number is smaller than the one for “The Rest”, as if the latter is one party that could or should be the “more appropriate target”. But it isn’t any one party. It’s many. The ‘Anti-Coalition’ numbers you cite are lower than the Coalition ones, and even this would not be one group that could be targeted, as this would be made up of a lot of different groups, many of which have nothing to do with each other and may have different aims and tactics but share only the broad objective of fighting the invader.

    And then there’s everything beyond that. A huge chunk of the deaths were from all the killing in the civil war of 2006-07, which is then not only unconnected groups but ones that actually opposed and fought each other directly. So if you actually were to break down “the people who’ve killed 100k, 200k or 300k+”, it would be a large number of different groups, many of which are unconnected to each other, or even directly opposed to each other. So I just don’t think this proportion argument works.

    That said, it’s not as if the violence of actors other than the coalition, such as the insurgency, didn’t draw a response or resistance too. I think that is, at least in part, something that led to the civil war.

  14. I surely don’t think all the non-US, non-government murderers in Iraq are united under one banner. I’d also suggest a significant portion of the “Unknown”s would end up in the “Anti-Coalition” column with additional information — which the locals, or at least the next of kin, probably have.

    But I have perhaps considered the anti-coalition forces to be slightly more unified than they truly are. Armed opposition to thousands of bickering splinter groups would have to be very different in nature from resistance to a loose alliance of a few dozen self-styled battallions — and neither is likely to resemble an insurgency against one unified force (the US military or the Iraqi government). It also seems logical to assume that plenty of the “Unknown”s may be retaliations against prior “Anti-Coalition”s or “Unknown”s, etc. In addition, joining the Iraqi Security Forces might be considered one form of equivalent armed opposition.

    At this point, it is becoming clear to me that I’m mostly just trying (and so far failing) to justify the motivations of the Iraqi insurgency being similar to the motivations of soldiers in most armed conflicts that I am more familiar with.

    As far as I know, even soldiers who volunteer to defend free, wealthy, democratic countries from genocidal dictatorships tend to be motivated by emotions that might be considered unsavory by most inhabitants of said free, wealthy, democratic countries. The conclusion seems so obvious to me that I can’t objectively check the logic.

    So: thank you, martinpierce, for providing me with the criticism necessary to hone my thinking on Iraq.

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