Paradigms and the Middle East Conflict: Introduction

This is a revision of one of the essays first posted at the Second Draft in the section Media: Reflections. It consists of four segments, each of which will be a separate post, and to which I invite comments, suggestions, further links, etc. (most of the links come from summer 2005).


Paradigms provide overarching frameworks within which people try to understand major issues. An example of a major paradigm shift occurred in astronomy when scholars realized the earth and planets revolved around the sun instead of the sun revolving around the earth. The resultant paradigm shift meant that the same data (observations of planetary and solar position in the sky) fit into a different framework.

People require frameworks in all areas of life in order to function, including political paradigms, because they help orient us, help us measure the relative importance and significance of any given detail and/or its causes and effects. On the other hand, all paradigms have weak points, are necessarily partial. By focusing on some details, they inevitably slight others; and they must do so. Hopefully, they focus on the important details and slight the less important ones.

But any paradigm, any framework must confront data that does not “fit”perfectly, data that contradicts either the expectations of the paradigm or its own stated principles. If we are to look honestly at the world then we must explore the anomalies in our paradigms. Refusal to do so contributes to dogmatism or blind adherence to a chosen “truth.”

Political paradigms are vastly more problematic and uncertain than scientific ones. Because political paradigms deal with subjective value judgments, they involve one’s beliefs, values, and personal morality. In this subjective terrain one can find many more anomalies, especially when political climates change. No political paradigm can justify a claim as “scientific” or “objectively true”.

Despite these weaknesses, political and social paradigms are as important as scientific paradigms in orienting our thoughts and behavior. They attempt to explain the behavior of important people and current events, and in so doing offer us ways to think about how to solve political problems. When people align themselves with a political paradigm, they often also express their own attitudes towards “others,” either their faith or lack of faith in their good intentions. People may prefer one paradigm over another less for its explanatory abilities than because they like its moral implications, either by giving the believer a sense of moral rectitude, or by offering an excuse to dismiss moral concerns.

But choosing a paradigm for the wrong reasons can be dangerous. When people are committed to a certain set of conclusions, regardless of the evidence, the paradigm ceases to aid an accurate assessment of reality and asserts a zero-sum relationship to any other approach to the issue. You are wrong because I am right; I cannot be wrong lest you be right. My solutions will work; your solutions will backfire.

One of the key indicators that paradigms have become dogmatic is the presence of verbal “landmines”: when one says certain things (see the “catch phrases”) from one paradigm, adherents of the other immediately either turn off or get hostile, accusing the person of racism, fascism, idiotarianism, islamo-bolshevism, on the one hand, or of being a flakey angéliste (moral perfectionist/narcissist) and moonbat idiotarian, on the other.

As a result paradigms become dogmatic, a tool to wield, or a weapon with which an activist can strike, rather than a map to explore. Ultimately, this shift to an activism that blinds can have a huge negative impact on our world, even as it promises to further our hopes. It can insist on a “truth” that directly contradicts important evidence, and proposes solutions that will indeed backfire in real life.

Ultimately, we need to be able to think flexibly, exploring our social and political world by treating paradigms as working hypotheses that get confirmed or disproved in any individual case, rather than axiomatic truths that impose “right” on every case. Then different paradigms can have a positive-sum relationship, and improve our ability to solve problems by increasing our ability to understand them.

Ultimately this all comes down to a question of judgment — which framework best suits which situation, and, given human nature, what way of understanding people’s actions and attitudes offers the most hope for significant changes. As promoters of civil societies, we want to avoid both inaccurate and unfair judgments. If we don’t, we may find that poor judgments encourage the very evils we think we oppose. And in today’s current climate of terrorism, judging poorly and taking sides unfairly can be suicidal.

It has become fashionable, in our post-modern age to renounce judgment. “Who are we to judge?” one hears often, especially from self-critical Westerners eager to avoid accusations of superiority complexes, moral imperialism, and racism. (I have yet to hear an Arab or Muslim say, “who are we to judge the West?” Please notify me if you have an example.)

Above all, we must learn to judge wisely. And while it is true that not judging is often wise, sometimes not judging is folly. I think we are in one of those occasional moments where failure to make fair judgments may well cause great damage to the very values we prize.

What follows is a discussion of two of the major “paradigmatic” (comprehensive) approaches to the Arab-Israeli conflict. Neither is completley “wrong” or “right.” But each may be appropriate at different times and places. We need to be able to discuss both, now.

2 Responses to Paradigms and the Middle East Conflict: Introduction

  1. […] is Part III of “Paradigms and the Middle East Conflict.” For previous posts, see: Paradigms and the Middle East Conflict: Intr […]

  2. […] an honor-shame culture the value of life is reduced to […]

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