Tuesday, June 5, 2007

Can Our Leaders Learn?

A particularly invidious psychosis plagues the world: the refusal to learn from enemies held in contempt. This very special type of cutting off one’s nose to spite one’s face is a major reason why international conflict resolution is so difficult. Whether the despised opponent lays out his conditions for compromise plainly in a speech or engages in transparent behavior, the other side will all too often make it a matter of (false) pride to learn absolutely nothing.

Almost never is a person utterly and implacably evil. Even the utterly evil get tired, and most have a price. Sometimes that price is close to paid simply by treating opponents with respect. When decision makers fail to learn from the lessons taught them (be they actions taken by an opponent or statements made by an opponent), the country is in serious trouble. Circumstances are always in flux, and no country can function very well without learning.

The critical ingredient is dissent. One can of course have internal feedback that passes up information, but in practice dissent is the critical form of feedback for a political system. The degree to which leaders pay heed to apathy, critical media, demonstrations, and violence directed against the state or people is a fundamental measure of the degree to which they are in touch with reality.

These phenomena do not come out of the blue. They result from some mix of reality and perceptions and can therefore be used as signals by open-minded decision-makers. When ruling circles ignore the message of those who oppose them, this indicates a pathology of the system. The refusal to learn is pathological.

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