Too stupid to know that we’re stupid

For those of you who collect words, I came across a new one (well, new to me) the other day: anosognosia. It is a neurological term, defined as a condition in which a person who suffers from a disability seems unaware of or denies the existence of his or her disability.

David Dunning, a Cornell professor of social psychology, gives this example: “An anosognosic patient who is paralyzed simply does not know that he is paralyzed.  If you put a pencil in front of them and ask them to pick up the pencil in front of their left hand they won’t do it.  And you ask them why, and they’ll say, “Well, I’m tired,” or “I don’t need a pencil.”  They literally aren’t alerted to their own paralysis.  There is some monitoring system on the right side of the brain that has been damaged, as well as the damage that’s related to the paralysis on the left side.”

As defined, anosognosia is a clinical condition rooted in physiology. But Dunning, in his book  Self-Insight, also talks of the “anosognosia of everyday life,” an extension of the syndrome into the realm of psychology.

A research program conducted in the Nineties by Dunning and Justin Kruger, a research student, concluded that, to put it simplistically, there are people who are too stupid to know that they are acting stupidly; too incompetent to be aware of their own incompetence. This has become known as the Dunning-Kruger Effect.

It is, Dunning says, a psychological version of the physiological problem that is anosognosia. “If you have, for lack of a better term, damage to your expertise or imperfection in your knowledge or skill, you’re left literally not knowing that you have that damage.”

I’ll put it another way (this is me, now, not Dunning): It has been well-established that battered children have a propensity to become battering adults. The childhood trauma may have been so damaging that the person blacked it out entirely – literally forgot it – but its repercussions live on. Even if the childhood event is remembered, people have a very hard time making the connection between what happened to them (the victim) and their own behavior (the victimizer.) They are, in Dunning’s terms, too battered to know that they are batterers.

What is true of individuals is also true of groups of individuals who have experienced the same or similar trauma, particularly if the group is bound by factors that are independent of the trauma; indeed, the trauma may well have been a response to those binding factors.  Social psychology, David Dunning’s field of expertise, deals with such social-psychological processes resulting from group experiences, such as discrimination.

Which brings us to the Jews and their modern geo-social reincarnation, Israel. What exactly should we make of Bibi Netanyahu’s constant harping on the Holocaust as justification for just about everything Israel does or considers it right to do? And it’s not only Bibi, of course; take Begin’s references to Arafat as Hitler, the settlers’ shouts of “Nazi” at the police who were removing them from Gaza, the ultra-Orthodox habit of dressing themselves (and their children) in Auschwitz-style striped clothing at the slightest provocation and countless similar examples.

Jews, both in Israel and elsewhere, bear Holocaust scars that are passed down from generation to generation. It has become part of our group psychology; a battering, if you will, that provides the subtext for our everyday lives. The Holocaust experience could have made us better people – people with an acute, DNA-resident awareness of the dangers and potential horrors of racism – were it not for two additional factors, one dating back to the roots of Jewish thinking and the second to the last 100 years or so.

The Jews consider themselves to be the chosen people. That in itself is not a healthy syndrome. Countries or groups with pretensions to divine election are prone to mistreating the unelected – consider the Nazis, the Afrikaners in South Africa and even, to a significant extent, the self-mandated foreign adventures of the United States in its role of defender of democracy and free markets. In Israel, the practical expression of being chosen has been the theft of Palestinian land, brutal suppression of any sign of Palestinian independence and turning a blind eye to what anyone else – the UN, in particular – has to say about it.

Combine eternal victimhood (the product of the Holocaust and the pogroms etc. that preceded it over the centuries) with divine election and you have a particularly combustible concoction. To many Jews, every non-Jew is a potential Cossack and every threat is an imminent holocaust. Not only is Israel justified in going to any and all lengths to prevent the next pogrom, auto de fe or holocaust, but it has God’s hechsher (stamp of approval) to steal, lie and murder into the bargain.

The second complicating factor is land. A Jewish people bearing the scars of the Holocaust but not involved in a land dispute might conceivably have become a beacon of redemption for the world. But Zionism, blithely ignoring Arab inhabitation of the land it chose to “redeem” for Jewish settlement, put the Jews on the path of endless conflict, colonization and bloodshed. God decided that we would occupy the land and the Holocaust gave us the justification for doing so with no regard for its inhabitants, morality or international law.

We have become an anosognosic nation. A nation unaware of the consequences of our own actions, due to psychological damage (some of it, such as the claim to divine election, self-imposed) that we are unable to recognize. The overload of our history and our religion has made us insensible to the damage we are causing – both to ourselves and to others. We have become too stupid to realize that we are behaving stupidly.

That stupidity is threatening to break all records with regard to Iran. However the Iran nuclear saga finally plays out, Israel has already distinguished itself by its bombast, bellicosity, hypocrisy and duplicity. The international crisis over Iran’s effort to build nuclear weapons (the existence of which has yet to be conclusively proven, by the way) would never have reached its present nadir, had it not been for the pressure Israel has exerted on the West by threatening to attack Iran.

We’ve been here before. Israeli pressure, both direct and indirect via proxies in the Administration and the Pentagon, was a key factor in persuading Bush to invade Iraq – and we know how well that one went. (You can see a piece I wrote in 2003, if you’re interested.) This time, Israel is threatening to do it on its own, the prospect of which which has brought an alarmed Obama and the European vegetables (remind me to tell you the joke sometime) to their supplicating knees. The sight of prostrate Western diplomats has been Viagra for Israel’s hubristic politicians, who have proceeded to step all over them with their threats and obfuscations. (I wonder who planted all those bombs in Iran, nod-nod, wink-wink.)

It’s not only the West that is confused. Israel’s own population is utterly bewildered by the information, misinformation and disinformation sprayed at it by those who purport to lead the country. It’s all tactics; a game played by the B Team (Bibi and Barak) to get America to bomb Iran instead of Israel. And it’s a game that Israel is good at, having perfected the art of duplicity over many years, particularly with regard to Israel’s own nuclear weapons program.

Which is not to say that Israel won’t attack Iran. Don’t forget that we’re an anosognosic nation; too stupid to know when we’re doing something stupid. Out of that stupidity, real catastrophe could emerge.

4 replies on “Too stupid to know that we’re stupid”

Great article! Complete opposite of what I think about Iran, but great nonetheless. But my comment is this: wtf? You allude to a joke and then say you’ll tell us later? You can’t do that…By the way, I heard the most juicy gossip about someone very close to you……but I’ll tell you later. Maybe.

Chemi – It sure was weird finishing my piece, opening Ha’aretz and seeing yours. Also a very fine piece – and we’re not as far apart as it may seem. I don’t deny the potency of the Holocaust in our national memory; the opposite. I just think that it has conditioned us to kneejerk reactions. Not every Jew-hater and tinpot dictator – and Ahmedinijad is both of those – is a Hitler; and not every incipient Hitler has the means and the backing to be an actual one. Therefore, the Holocaust is not a realistic guide to how we should react in every situation.

The joke goes like this: Margaret Thatcher is holding a lunchtime cabinet meeting. So she’s sitting at the cabinet table with all her ministers and the waiter comes up to her. “What would you like, Ma’am?” he asks. “I’ll have the roast beef, please,” she says. “And the vegetables?” he asks. “They’ll have the roast beef as well,” Thatcher says.

You can’t deprive me of good gossip. I’m waiting for an email.

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