Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Generational shift in perceptions about foreign policy

Times, they are a changin'. And not only with fashion, music, and communication technology. Times are also changing in terms of vast social trends, including acceptance of multi-racial marriages (and - presumably - the children from such marriages), homosexuality, marijuana use, etc.

One more thing that is changing is the perception of how the US should act militarily.

In a recent Pew poll, there is a very interesting - and very stark - contrast between what members of the "millenial generation" (aka "generation Y") and the "silent generation" think about the how the US should conduct foreign policy.

Apparently those Americans born from 1930-1945 are less willing to take allies' interests into account, even if it means making compromises. They also tend to prefer military strength over good diplomacy in order to ensure peace. Oh, and they don't believe as strongly that reliance on the military to achieve foreign policy goals is related to the hatred that breeds more terrorism.

True, some of this is likely due to youthful enthusiasm and empathy versus age-honed cynicism, and it would be nice to know what those born between 1930 and 1945 thought about similar topics when they were 20-35 years old. (Of course, the world was also a very different place in 1950-1965.) Still, those of us who grew up during Reagan and HW Bush seem to have a very different opinion about foreign policy than those who grew up during conscription. And the number of us who are voting will continue to increase in comparison to the Silent Generation.

For shits and giggles, I've put (some) of the information in the table into a graph. Line "A" is the response percentages to "In foreign policy, the U.S. should take allies' interests into account, even if ti means making compromises." Line "B" is the response percentages to "The best way to ensure peace is through good diplomacy." Line "C"is the response percentages to "Relying too much on military force creates hatred that leads to more terrorism." It's pretty clear how each successively older generation tends toward less favorability in just talking shit out (and less willing to accept moral backlash from those people who come across our military actions).

There is evidence that people - when forced into a minority position - tend to become even more militant in their views. That when their viewpoints - which they feel to be perfectly valid, and used to be perfectly normal - become challenged, there is a tendency of associating that changed social connection with being "wrong"; and how could they be wrong if they are moral people? It is - I think - an extension of the psychology of the "just world" belief to which many Americans (apparently) subscribe.

To borrow (a bit) from Shawn Lawrence Otto's book, Fool me Twice, there is a perfectly understandable reason for this type of behavior:
When presented with evidence that confirms our beliefs and conclusions, we tend to accept it uncritically. When presented with evidence that contradicts those same conclusions, however, we subject it to withering scrutiny, ignore it, argue with it, or try to intimidate its proponents, much like the opposing counsel at a trial does.
When one's viewpoints are the majority viewpoint, it is like being constantly presented with evidence the confirms one's own beliefs and conclusions. However, when time change and one's viewpoints are no longer in the majority, then it is sometimes easier to complain ("you kids don't know what you're talking about"), ignore ("yeah, whatever"), argue ("you're wrong"), or exert control ("let me tell you what we did that actually worked, and none of this namby-pamby bullshit"). This is part of the problem. There is, of course, another part of the problem, which is the base psychology that Americans (supposedly) tend to hold: the "just world" belief. To continue with Otto:
Beyond mistaken reasoning, rhetorical thinking, and a predisposition not to question authority, Americans as a whole have a high level of what social psychologists call the just world belief... People tend to believe that the world is inherently just: The wicked are eventually punished, and problems are corrected....
[This] view is a treasured part of the American ethos, and Americans as a whole have a much stronger belief in a just world than, say, Europeans, who tend to be less idealistic, more cynical, and more likely to believe that good or bad luck rather than individual merit or lack thereof plays a significant role in a person's circumstances....
The idea that despite your best efforts your fate is influenced by luck or the collective actions of others is antithetical to the classic American story that we have self-determination and that with hard work and responsibility anyone can grow up to be president.
Research shows that this conflict makes it more difficult for Americans to accurately assess personal responsibility. For example, the tendency to blame the victim, which is unusually high in Americans, is an effort, psychologists say, to maintain the just world belief that people get what they deserve... If we believe we are responsible for our circumstances, this prejudice makes sense.
My argument that the just world belief affects the results in this manner only serves to reinforce one's position when confronted with the evidence of a changed world, since it is easy to interpret a discontinuation of a particular moral stance as a question of "right" and "wrong" under the just world belief system. However, such a change (from being "right" to being "wrong") flies in the face of seeing oneself as being a moral person. Therefore, it must be the fault of the other, and it is the duty of the United States to change it; with force if necessary. Of course, who knows: I might well turn into a conservative hawk with time, too.

Finally, the just world belief system really does seem to explain why conservatives (who hold even more strongly to this belief) seem less inclined to accept that people in "war zones" are innocent, that the military can do wrong (especially to our own people), and that their moral code may not be universally applicable (oh, and that the US might not actually be the best place on God's green earth). In other words, it can explain a lot of the reason why the shape of Line "C" looks the way it does.

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