By Dr. Haider Mehdi

Solitude shows us what should be; society shows us what we are. Anatol Rapoport                                                                                                                       

Anatol Rapoport, the late eminent mathematical psychologist, asserted quite cogently that a theory is a collection of theorems, and a theorem is a proposition which is a strict logical consequence of certain definitions and other propositions.  Hence, in the construction of a theory, or in other words, in the pattern of general beliefs, the underlying assumptions become vitally significant.  If one really assumes the irrationality of human behavior, for example, one must at the same time accept its unpredictability, at least for the time being, until human behavior becomes rationally penetrable.

In the social universe, therefore, the way we perceive human beings determines our attitudes towards them.  Perhaps the significant presence of conflict among people can be attributed to the basic irrationality of our assumptions towards human behavior.  Administrators believe that subordinates will act irresponsibly; law-makers around the world keep slamming heaps of legislation on citizenry fearing that human conduct is unmanageable without strict controls; teachers punish students presuming punishment will improve pupil learning; wives distrust husbands imagining overstretched sexual fears; customers believe that all shopkeepers will cheat; customs officials are quite certain that most passengers intend to smuggle; army generals are absolutely convinced that death unto the enemy is the only recourse for their national survival; bad photographers think most cameras are unfit to take good pictures; uncouth drivers always blame accidents on other drivers; bad cooks blame defective ingredients for their undesirable cuisine, and the list continues endlessly.

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We have come to live in an age of distrust and suspicion.  After 9/11, this distrust and suspicion was suddenly directed towards the Islamic world as the focal point of all Western fear and hatred. The Western media, utilizing subtle and very apparent propaganda, established the image of the blindly religious suicidal terrorist bent on destroying all things American and Western – personified by all Muslim people everywhere.  

And yet, none of our daily tortuous experiences are based on any appropriate theorems and propositions.  Administrators do not have to impose strict rules because most people are responsible; student learning does not improve by punishment; almost all people like to drive safely and do not espouse a death wish on the roads; the majority of passengers have never smuggled a thing in their whole lives, and most Muslim people do not condone terrorism – they, in fact, want nothing more than peace for themselves and their families, and for all families everywhere.

It is encouraging to see an establishment where workers do not have to punch in time cards; it is equally hopeful to find an educational institution where administrators and teachers relinquish control strategies by flexible responses; and it is reassuring to be in an airport where a green lane towards an exit allows passengers to walk through unchecked, even if the people are noticeably Muslim.  For all these scenarios, no matter how insignificant, indicate a positive change in the underlying assumptions of social policy makers towards human behavior.  For, in the forthcoming social milieu, the test of human welfare will not be judged only by material affluence, but by the extent with which people will live in social harmony within and outside of their defined borders.

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As Rapoport has said, “One cannot play chess if one becomes aware of the pieces as living souls and of the fact that the Whites and Blacks have more in common with each other than with the players.  Suddenly one loses all interest in who will be champion.” 

Let us hope that world leaders will someday view global issues and resolve world problems through political dialogue of commonalities of human beings for conflict-resolution rather than imposing threats and intimidation because of the notion of the clash of civilizations for purely self-serving interests.   If not, in the end, all of humankind will be in dire straits, facing the ultimate catastrophe.

Let us hope it does not come to that.

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