War and conflict are persistent patterns of human behavior, as indicated by our long history of violence (Pinker, 18). Regardless of its various modes, war and conflict remain the most destructive forms of human behavior. Therefore, it is not surprising that the causality of war is a crucial subject in various disciplines of the social sciences, especially in the study of international affairs. Although there has been a tremendous amount of research conducted on the causes of war, it remains a highly contested and strangely obscure subject. The purpose of this essay is to use a social psychological epistemology to derive a better understanding of the causes of war. Using the self-perception theory and the norm of obedience, this essay shall demonstrate how social norms can easily persuade individuals to incite violent behavior, subsequently leading to the outbreak of conflict. Furthermore, using the above theory, it intends to illustrate how individuals internalize and self-justify violent behavior that is deemed immoral, once they have been persuaded to act violently (Bem, 183). In order to present the above arguments this paper will first define the notion of conflict as it applies herein. It will then offer an explanation of the self-perception theory and the norm of obedience. Using these concepts, it will determine why war is not a rational decision for the average individual. Continuing on, it will delve into the case of ethnic conflict in Myanmar, in order to exhibit how the self-perception theory can be used to explain various forms of conflict at different levels of agency. Through the exploration of Myanmar’s ethnic war, it will also refute those who assert that conflict is primarily caused by human nature. Lastly, this paper will use the inoculation theory to put forth solutions that prevents social entrepreneurs from promoting conflict.
The Definitions of Modern Conflicts
In order to determine the causality of wars, it is necessary to establish a concrete definition of the phenomenon. This is no easy task, as the nature of war has radically changed in recent years (Kaldor, 74). In the past, wars could be defined as the outbreak of armed conflict between two well defined groups. These “old wars” were commonly fought by states, over ideology, territory and resources (75). The changes introduced by the rise of globalization has led to the development of a “new war”. New wars can be characterized by their unconventional nature. They are fought by a variety of state and non-state actors, blurring the lines between the traditional notions of civilians and combatants. Additionally, the scope of these wars have changed, they are no longer inter-state conflicts and instead tend to be highly convoluted intra-state conflicts. These wars can also be classified by their use of identitarian politics, meaning that they are fought over group identities and groups rights (103). The above classification of old wars provides a series of characteristics that can be used to analyze and categorize contemporary conflicts, thus allowing for a better understanding of the phenomena that is war.
Understanding the Self-Perception Theory
According to Bem, the self-perception theory asserts that the attitudes of an individual are formed by inferring them from observations of their own behavior (Bem, 183). Thus individuals can be considered outside observers of their own attitudes, who rely on weak and ambiguous internal cues to determine their inner state. The hindsight bias makes it easy for people to adopt the false belief that human beings have total control of our behaviors, attitudes and actions (Aronson, 6). The self-perception theory demonstrates that such beliefs are misconstrued, because behavior is a function of an individual in a given environment. Therefore, people’s behaviors and attitudes are highly susceptible to social influences, that are immensely pervasive (177). This explanation of the self-perception theory demonstrates how group pressures and external situations persuade people to conform to certain norms and behaviors, that they do not necessarily believe in.
Furthermore, this theory of social psychology, which has been justified by countless empirical studies, illustrates why people act violently even though violence is often condemned by most contemporary societies. If an individual were to act violently against others, especially against those who are weaker and those who have never harmed them in anyway, this individual would be characterized as unjust and immoral by all standards. If this is the case, why does history depict countless examples of states acting violently against other states who are weaker, and states who have never harmed them? Why do the selectorate majority in countries like Myanmar, Japan and Turkey seek to justify their violent behavior against weaker ethnic groups? The self-perception theory uses the notion of cognitive dissonance, “a state of tension that occurs whenever an individual simultaneously holds two or more opinions that are inconsistent”, to explain the internalization of violent behavior (180). When individuals are pressured to commit acts of violence, which are fundamentally against their adopted values, they endure the uncomfortable experience of cognitive dissonance. In order to escape the uncomfortable state, people seek ways to justify their actions, because people view themselves as rational beings who would never act in unacceptable manners without just cause. Thus people begin to internalize their violent behavior against certain group of people as prescribed by their source of social influence, and view their actions and behavior as necessary.
The Norm of Obedience to Legitimate Authority
Social norms can be defined as “culturally accepted ways of thinking, feeling or behaving within a group. They are generally most recognizable when being violated” (Schultz et al, 433). Norms can be separated into two categories’, descriptive norms and prescriptive norms. The former are norms that influence the behavior and feelings experienced by people, where the latter are norms that people think they should abide to during certain circumstances (434). The norm of obedience is classified as a descriptive norm because it describes the genuine behavior of individuals when facing a legitimate authority figure. It is one of the strongest social norms, which can be found in most societies around the world (Smith, Mackie & Claypool, 370). It stems from a Hobbesian perspective on the social interaction of people. This norm is the shared view that people should obey legitimate authority figures, because obeying said authority figures will ensure order. There are three criteria that need to be met in order for this norm to persuade individuals to obey the authority figures. Firstly, the authority figure must be perceived as legitimate, which is determined by the figure’s socioeconomic status, physical features, occupation and clothing. Secondly, the authority figure must be present in some way (either in person or through any form of media). The lack of presence of authority figure, can radically reduce the pressure to conform to the norm. Lastly, all incompatible norms must be suppressed in order to avoid the possibility that a stronger norm would trump the norm of obedience (373-375).
The norm of obedience is important in the study of war and conflict because it can depict why individuals often incite violence, under circumstances where violence is unjustifiable. Using the theory of self-perception, one can observe how the norm of obedience to authority can persuade people to internalize the belief that violence and conflict are appropriate means of dealing with contentious issues, particularly with issues against visible groups of people. Legitimate authority figures can act as norm entrepreneurs, allowing them to establish and enforce norms. Social entrepreneurs who seek to further consolidate power and extend their status, institute norms that justify and promote conflict against opposition groups. Given that the norm of obedience is almost universal, most individuals fail to recognize the alternate motives of their legitimate authority figure. As a result, people are easily pressured into accepting responsibility of actions dictated by the authority. The above explanation of norm of obedience to authority questions whether wars can be considered as the outcome of rational decision making.
Prominent IR scholars such as James Fearon (379) have argued that the outbreak of war is the result of rational decision making. According to Fearon’s bargaining theory, it is in the interest of states to go to war when a bargain cannot be reached, or when the bargain is costlier than the risk of losing the war and the overal total cost of the war (391). Although the decision to go to war may be rational and beneficial to a small minority within a state or a group, the majority of people do not have much to gain. Wars are devastating and costly phenomena, especially for the majority of civilian populations that are caught in between the conflict. So why does the average citizen who only suffer in the outbreak of war, come to believe that the decision to go to war is rational and necessary? Why were so many Americans in favour of the irrational and costly invasion of Iraq, especially since they had more to lose than gain (Fallows, "The Right and Wrong Questions About the Iraq War.")? The self-perception theory and norm of obedience utilize the epistemology of social psychology, which allows them to observe all people as individual agents with the capacity to exert some form of change, clarifying why war is incorrectly presumed as rational. When a legitimate authority figure decides to go to war, the overwhelming pervasiveness of the norm of obedience will effortlessly persuade the majority of people under the influence of said authority, to obey the decision to go to war. However, since these people have no true incentives to go to war, and since harming random and possibly innocent strangers is condemned in all societies, the average citizen who forced to obey the decision to go to war experiences severe cognitive dissonance. This is due to the fact that their behaviours to obey the decision to go to war is a fundamental contradiction to their morals. Thus to avoid the cognitive tension caused by the unjustifiable decision to go to war, individuals seek ways to rationalize this decision. Hence they internalize the belief that this decision is necessary and will ultimately benefit them, because humans like to think that they would never commit behaviours that are irrational and unjustifiable. The above demonstrates that wars are in fact not rational for the average citizen, they are only perceived to be rational because it gives people a means of coping with their irrational behaviour. In order to further prove this point this essay will now delve into contemporary case of ethnic conflict in Myanmar.
Myanmar’s War on the Rohingya
The state of Myanmar, formerly referred to as Burma, is an ethnically diverse state located in South East Asia, with more than 35 different ethnic groups (Zawacki, 18). Myanmar was once a former colony of the British Empire and obtained its independence as a democratic state in 1948. However, its democratic government was short lived, when its military leaders consolidated power through a Coup in 1962 (Fink, 3). Under the military rule of General Ne Win, Myanmar evolved into an incredibly secluded state, and as a result much of its ethnic wars were ignored by the international community. Ever since its independence, Myanmar has been subject to “new wars” (ethnic civil conflict and civil wars) due to the governmental institutions, which systematically entrench disparities in the distribution of power. The 2015 state election marked the state’s progression towards democracy, since it was the first of its kind in 25 years (Holmes, “Final Myanmar Resutlt…”). During this election, the National League of Democracy a party led by Aung San Suu Kyi, a reformist renowned by liberal democratic states for her efforts of paving Myanmar’s path to democracy, achieved a landslide victory and majoritarian government. Though Aung San Suu Kyi’s presidency was once again prevented, this time on the “grounds of her marriage to her now deceased British husband and the British citizenship of their two sons” (Holmes). Nevertheless, many remained optimistic that the new government which was supported by all ethnic groups in the country, would finally diffuse ethnic tensions and intergrade its polity. Although conflict and war between the major ethnic groups in the country has radically decreased, the new found optimism diminished rapidly when it became evident that the new government was also leading a campaign to eradicate one of its smallest ethnic minorities. Thus, in the past two years Myanmar’s ethnic conflicts have evolved into the state’s full-scale war against the Rohingya people. Countless organizations, such as the Human Rights Clinic at Yale Law School and the non-governmental organization Genocidewatch, have categorized this as the systematic extermination of the Rohingya people (Maung & Cowley, 683).
The Rohingya are an enclave of Muslim Indo-Aryan people, with an estimated population of 1.5 million, 87% of whom are located in the Rakhine state of Myanmar (683). The origins of the Rohingya is highly disputed. Some scholars claim that the Rohingya are the indigenous people of Myanmar., while other historians claim that the enclave is comprised of migrants who fled Pakistan, Bangladesh and India during various periods (Zawacki, 21). The government of Myanmar views the Rohingya as illegal immigrants who migrated to the state from various parts of South East-Asia, most specifically migrants fleeing the Bangladesh’s war of independence. Regardless of their origin, the Rohingya remain the most persecuted group of people in the world (Maung & Cowley, 683). According to several reports by the United Nations Commission on Human Rights and the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, the state of Myanmar has systematically violated all the basic rights of the Rohingya people, and labelled the state’s actions as “crimes against humanity” (Aljazeera News, "Rights group: Act now to avoid Rohingya genocide."). It is important to note that the Rohingya have been suffering human rights violations since 1962. They are deprived of access to education, the freedom to move and most importantly they are restricted from obtaining citizenship in Myanmar (Aljazeera News). As a result, the Rohingya are effectively stateless, with no government to protect or ensure their basic rights. Due to their statelessness they are highly vulnerable to malicious attacks from organized groups of criminals and religious extremists.
The above brief description of the Rohingya people and politics of Myanmar evidently demonstrates the existence of a dangerous ethnic conflict. Throughout Myanmar’s recent history all its governments have notably painted the Rohingya as the primary public enemy. Most recently the incumbent president identified the Rohingya as the world’s most undesirable group of illegal immigrants (Aljazeera News). Through the negative categorization of the Rohingya people, the government of Myanmar has established the means to effectively justify its ethnic war against the Rohingya. According to some scholars, the Rohingya have been targeted by the government because they represent the largest minority religious group within the state. As a result, the Rohingya and their different cultural practices present an evident threat to both the government and Buddhist leaderships of Myanmar. So long as the Rohingya remain in Myanmar they will in the eyes of the international community have a legitimate stake in the countries domestic political affairs, and as such have the ability to resist and undermine the authority of incumbent governments.
Like most modern societies, Myanmar’s society stems from the Hobbesian philosophy. Under this philosophy the sovereign (incumbent leader of the state) comes to power through a social contract, in which the people voluntarily give-up specific freedoms, in exchange for basic civil services and protection against “a violent death” (Hobbes, 14). The social contract adjudicates all power and authority to the sovereign, and all the people of the state accommodate the political and social order established by the sovereign (18). Therefore, Hobbesian philosophy showcases how the norm of obedience is rooted into the structure of modern societies. The most recent elections in Myanmar reaffirmed the societies weak social contract and intensified the influence of the norm of obedience. These elections fully legitimized the authority of the incumbent president and the parliament amongst all the major ethnic groups. Through its recently obtained legitimate authority, the government employed various social norms into Myanmar’s society. One such norm was the promotion and acceptance of violence against the Rohingya people, which mobilized the general populace against the government’s largest opposition group.
Like all other individuals, the hindsight bias hinders Myanmar’s citizens from observing how their behaviour is effected by the norm of obedience. As demonstrated above the self-perception theory elaborates on how the people of Myanmar come to justify and rationalize their violent behavior against the Rohingya, even though the Rohingya have offered very minimal resistance against all persecution. When the people of Myanmar come to accommodate the various policies and norms of their government; which promotes violence against the Rohingya, they experience cognitive dissonance. As explained this occurs because the people of Myanmar have very little to benefit from harming an existing group within their own society. However, the norm of obedience compels individuals to behave in ways that are fundamentally against their own morals. Given that humans are outside observers of their own behavior, the Burmese people recognize that their behavior against the Rohingya is both irrational and immoral. Thus in order to escape from the uncomfortable cognitive dissonance caused by these external pressures, individuals come to internalize their violent behaviour as a necessary method of ensuring the survival of their society and themselves.
There are several strategies employed by the Burmese government which complement and or further strengthen the norm of obedience to authority. For instance, the government of Myanmar still continues to heavily restrict access to free information, and restrict the freedoms of the press and media (Holiday, 1040). This occurs because as illustrated above the incumbent government, still upholds many authoritative powers that were established by the previous regime. Hence, through their total control of the media and press, the authority figures of the state effectively control how people observe various domestic issues. As such, the government can depict the Rohingya in ways that benefit their own political agenda. Therefore, the government can easily propagate the Rohingya as the publics enemy. The government is also able to blame the Rohingya for a wide range of issues that exist in Burmese society. The most evident example of this is the governments accusations that the so called illegal immigrants are the catalyst for the state’s low economic progress (Maung & Cowley, 685). In recent years Myanmar has opened itself up to the global market, and its rich abundancy of natural resources has attracted several possible investors. However, the implementation of unsuitable economic policies, in addition to general discontent by conservative populace over free-market economy, has led to grievances and frustrations regarding the current state of the economy (Fink, 63). The grievances have the power to undermine the consolidated power of the government and other authority figures. Hence, government has argued that the consumption of goods and occupation of territory by the Rohingya is one of the causal factors that has hindered the states potential economic growth. Therefore, through its control of the media and restrictions to the flow of knowledge, the government of Myanmar has portrayed the Rohingya as illegal immigrants who forcibly have taken the rightful lands and resources of the Burmese people (Maung & Cowley, 685). Since the people of Myanmar have an endless exposure to this form of information, the self-perception theory argues that it becomes even easier for them to internalize and self-justify their persuaded violent behaviour.
Furthermore, through its control of the media the state can ensure the constant presence of the authority figures of the government. This is fundamentally important to the norm of obedience, because without the constant presence of the authority figure, the influence of the norm begins to fade. Through the use of films and photographs, the media can constantly evoke the presence of the authority figures by arousing a cults of personality, in which the people are continuously exposed to various leaders who symbolize the government. Moreover, it is essential to observe the significant role of religious authority figures in Myanmar, as is the case with all most all other ethnic conflicts.
“The Violent Buddhist Monks of Myanmar”
The Buddhist leadership in Myanmar, has always maintained a crucial role in the state’s politics and culture. This is not surprising since 88% of the country identify themselves as practitioners of Buddhism (Zawacki, 18). Though, how can a religion which is celebrated for its pacifist teachings ironically promote violence and gross human right violations? These paradoxes occur because religion is often used as a tool by corrupt individuals who seek to achieve their own political agendas. This has been found across all religious groups, throughout various periods of human history, and signifies the importance of establishing secular governments in ethnically diverse states. In the case of Myanmar, the Buddhist leadership feels threatened by the large number of Rohingya Muslims, who could potentially undermine the Buddhist leadership’s power and authority, when and if the state becomes more democratic. Therefore, prominent Buddhist monks in Myanmar have advocated acts of violence against the Rohingya (Beech, "Straying from the Middle Way: Extremist Buddhist Monks Target Religious Minorities."). Once again the self-perception theory clearly demonstrates how the authoritative figure of the Buddhist temple can utilize the norm of obedience, as a way of pressuring the vulnerable practitioners of the faith to incite violence against the Rohingya. However, unlike political authoritative figures, religious authority figures have the advantage of deliberately justifying their own political agenda as the rightful and morally correct path forward. Thus, practitioners of Buddhism in Myanmar who perceive their religious authority figures as moral guides, easily internalize the irrational and unmoral acts they are being pressured into committing.
Human Aggression: Nurture v Nature
In order to further justify the arguments of this paper, it is necessary to consider possible criticisms. One such criticism stems from the notion that human aggression is biologically determined. Proponents of this argument would claim that the self-perception theory and the norm of obedience to authority, are insufficient explanations of the causality of conflict, because they are overtly reliant on cultural factors. They further argue that culture and societal norms do not have a substantial influence on human nature (Gat, 572). According to these critics, human nature, which is a set of behaviours inherent amongst all humans, is more effective at predicting patterns of social interactions between two actors. Violence and the ability to react violently to external pressures is often considers an innate human characteristic. Gat demonstrates that the proliferation of conflict throughout human history is caused by this natural tendency to be violent (575). Hence, proponents of this argument claim that conflict is biologically determined because it was developed through the evolution of the human species. Gat’s theory on the Evolutionary Shaped Human Objects of Desire explains violence as an innate part of human nature, because as animals, humans have constantly been fighting over scarce resources, the desires to procreate and the desire to maintain a dominant status. These interconnected factors provided humans with incentives to learn violent traits, making violence a universal feature among all humans (589). This argument is also defended by Konrad Lorenz (24), who reasons that aggression, the human tendency to react violently, is rewarded by nature itself. Lorenz identifies three main reasons on how aggressive behaviour is rewarded. Firstly, he argues that aggression is “always favourable to the future of the species” (27). Secondly, he uses an ecological argument to state that aggression enables the equal dispersion of humans within an ecosystem, decreasing the number conflicts over resources (28). Lastly he argues that aggressions provide the necessary tools that offer brood protection, especially when defending offspring (30).
From the above arguments one might conclude that humans are genetically programmed to be violent, hence human nature can be credited as the catalyst of all conflict. Although you cannot deny that humans pose evolutionary traits that allow them to react violently and aggressively, it is misconstrued to claim that contemporary conflicts can be explained solely by human biology. Violence and the ability to react violently have been maintained because they have clear survival values. However, it is important to consider the fact that as social animals, humans have evolved strong inhibitory mechanisms that enable them to suppress aggression and violent behaviours (Gat, 583). Aggression is a reserved tool that is only used under rare conditions, which is why the above critics do not offer an adequate insight into the causal mechanisms of conflict. Alternatively, the self-perception theory which based on constructivism, is able to establish a more concrete understanding of conflict. It exhibits how human interactions are primarily influenced by the social construction of norms and social roles (Thompson, Richard & Wildavasky, 28). The processes that leads to the eventual outbreak of a conflict are dependent on these social interactions, as result conflict are highly influenced by the social interaction of actors and their social conditions. For instance, although humans “seem to have an inborn tendency to respond to certain provocative stimuli by striking out against the perpetrator. Whether aggressive tendency is actually expressed is a function of complex interplay and the precise nature of social situation (Aronson, 175).”
Preventative Policies (Inoculation Theory)
The above analysis of the self-perception theory and norm of obedience offers a psychological argument on the casual mechanisms of conflict. The notions depict the vulnerability of most people, to internalize violent behaviour against other individuals, due to their social tendency to conform to important norms. Therefore, it is necessary to identify a solution, that would reduce the number of individuals who internalize violence, subsequently lowering the risk of conflict. Social Psychologist William McGuire has derived a method to overcome the challenges of the norm of obedience to authority, and its ability to promote violent behaviour. This method has been dubbed the inoculation theory. It suggests that individuals can increase their resistance to the persuasion of social influences, through repeated mild exposures to sources of persuasions, that can be easily refuted (McGuire, 192). Through this process of refutation, the individual will be immunized against future persuasions of the same kind. This theory was supported by an experiment, in which young adolescents were asked to state their opinions, these opinions were then subject to mild attacks, which were then refuted. In the latter portion of the experiment, the subjects were once again subject to attacks on their state opinions, however this time the attack was significantly stronger. The experiment concluded that the members of this group showed a significantly lower tendency in changing their initial opinions McGuire, 200).
This theory is a highly applicable solution to conflicts, because conflicts can easily arise due to social influences that persuade people to act aggressively. Taking into consideration the case study of Myanmar, the inoculation theory illustrates how individuals can immunize themselves against the norm of obedience, to prevent them from conforming to social norms that promote violence. Various non-governmental organization, who seek to resolve the issue and prevent the further escalation of an ethnic war, can play an important role in helping the average citizen resist strong forms of persuasion. These organization, with the support of intergovernmental organization, such as the UN, can condition the people of Myanmar to maintain their moral values, and resist changing them due to the demands of religious and political authority figures. Once the people of Myanmar develop a higher resistance to the norm of obedience, they can hold on to their moral values against harming innocent people. Thus they avoid cognitive dissonance, and no longer seek to internalize violence as a necessary action. On a broader scale, this theory sheds light on methods of reducing the risk of conflict that may arise due to authoritative figure’s political agenda, and their ability to persuade citizens through societal norms.
Through a social psychological analysis, this paper demonstrated that people construct their own understanding of reality. This is significant because it allows us to consider alternative causal mechanisms of conflict, through the lens of an individual actor. The above discussions on the self-perception theory revealed that the norm of obedience, like so many other social norms, can act as a highly pervasive form of social pressure that would promote violence. Furthermore, the exploration of Myanmar’s ethnic war against the Rohingya showcased how people come to internalize the violent behaviour which they were coerced into performing. The discourse also identified how conflict is incorrectly perceived as rational, even though it is self-rationalized by people. It was evident that partaking in violent behaviour often results in cognitive dissonance, since it contradicts the commonly held belief that violence against innocent people is immoral and unjustifiable. People dissolve their state of dissonance through adopting the belief that their actions are in fact necessary and justifiable. Contradictory to the belief that human nature is the primary cause of war and conflict, it is clear that social contraction of norms and societal roles are the factors that truly influence contemporary conflicts.
Additionally, it is important to note that the intention of this paper was not to demote the norm of obedience, or any other commonly observed societal norm. Norms such as the one discussed in this paper, play an important role in guiding social interactions, and for the most part can be very beneficial to societies. However, it is necessary to identify the potential risks they pose in promoting and inciting conflict, especially given that the nature of war and conflict have significantly changed in recent years. Thus on a broader scale this essay demonstrates the necessity of educating individuals on how to resist potentially harmful social norms and influences. The inoculation theory demonstrates that with the proper guidance, people can be primed to reconsider their actions and avoid internalizing the behavior they might be coerced into performing. This paper highly promotes the idea that in order to cease existing conflicts and decreasing the risk of wars, the individual actors involved must overcome their hind-sight bias and beliefs. This is necessary because these misconstrued beliefs proliferate the notion that people are full in control of their actions and behavior. As a result, people often neglect to understand the true implications of their actions. Therefore, educating people about the above process is a fundamental step towards more peaceful times.
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