Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Analyzing a Confusing World

Many problems in global affairs are either created or aggravated by the tendency to focus on personalities, ideologies, and what "we" think "they" are either doing, trying to do, or planning to do. Personality, ideology, and perception of others are clues whose value is rapidly degraded by taking them out of context. Context, unfortunately, means understanding far more about others (their perceptions, culture, history, etc.) than is usually possible without a great deal of thought - almost certainly far more thought than someone busy trying to get elected and make day-to-day decisions will have time for and almost certainly far more thought than someone busy trying to cope with the day-to-day struggle of managing family and career will have time for.

So what is a concerned person to do? Start with rational self-interest: assume that the other guy is rational (at least sort of; don't get hung up on technical issues). You may of course be wrong. The other guy may be crazy, evil, drunk, or totally obsessed. If you get persuasive evidence that such is the case, take the evidence into account, by all means. But start with the assumption that an opponent wants power, prestige, and security just as much as you do.

Then ask yourself how much light that sheds on your opponent's behavior. You will usually be much closer to understanding a puzzling adversary if you reason like this than if you assume the adversary is evil just because he has a personality that irritates you, or because he has an ideology that makes you nervous, or because you think he is trying to do something you don't like.

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