Kuran on the Collective Nature of Public Opinion

Timur Kuran has a great response to Robert Wright at Cato Unbound:

Wright’s three claims contain many grains of truth. Moreover, there is no doubt that changing Muslim and Western perceptions concerning their interactions with one another would diminish interreligious tensions, facilitate solutions to various global crises, and make it easier to generate effective responses to chronic problems of the Muslim world. Yet, achieving these desirable outcomes requires much more than campaigns to alter perceptions. Two of Wright’s claims are only partly true, and the missing factors have critical policy implications.

People’s actions and reactions depend on more than their mental models. They depend also, and in politically charged contexts primarily, on the prevailing social pressures. Consider the resident of an impoverished, Taliban-controlled area of Pakistan. When he opts to participate in an anti-American demonstration, he need not be acting on the belief that global trade produces zero-sum effects. His principal motivation may well be that by endorsing Islamism publicly and openly aiding a Taliban-supported cause he gains social status, economic advantages, and even physical security. Suppose we pluck that person out of the Pakistani-Afghan border area, place him in a peaceful neighborhood of Lahore, and give him a lucrative job. Living among Muslims at ease with modernity and facing a different set of social pressures, he will no longer feel compelled to demonstrate against foreigners. Obviously, what goes for one demonstrator goes for the rest. Each joins the demonstration, in part, because others in his neighborhood are demonstrating. Hence, what explains the anti-American demonstration in question is a collective process, not simply a faulty mental model that shapes myriads of individual actions independently. (…)

My two key points are (1) that Muslim hostility toward the West, such as it exists, is a collective process and (2) that the individuals who join anti-Western movements are motivated substantially by their opportunities. It follows that teaching radical Muslims to view their interactions with non-Muslims as positive-sum processes will not necessarily turn them into friendly, peaceful, and democratic-minded negotiators. For one thing, wealth-generating positive-sum processes are of no use to them if they themselves have no hope of sharing in the benefits. Although Pakistan as a whole benefits handsomely from producing footballs for Nike and Adidas, its youth in Swat and Waziristan remain mired in poverty. For another, Muslims trapped in radicalized areas will not consider themselves free to cooperate with even secular Pakistanis, let alone foreigners. Knowing that abandoning the radical cause is to risk severe retaliation, they may refrain from publicizing their changes of heart and mind in the interest of self-preservation.

Read the whole thing.

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