Friday, March 19, 2010

Anchoring Bias and Confirmation Bias in the Middle East

"So, let's just accept that Israel's handling of the Ramat Shlomo settlements announcement during US vice-president Joe Biden's recent visit was cack handed and self-defeating. Prime Minister Netanyahu has admitted as much by apologising. It was a diplomatic faux pas, and it provoked a torrent of protest from the State Department to the Palestinian Authority. It also received saturation coverage in every major outlet in the western media. ...
Now consider the response [from the rest of the world] to the Palestinian Authority's decision last week to celebrate the worst terrorist atrocity ever perpetrated inside Israel (the 1978 bus massacres which left 38 dead including 13 children) by naming a central square in Ramallah after its perpetrator, Dalal Mughrabi. That was a statement of values and intent, glorifying mass terrorism and signalling to Israel and the world that the Palestinians can never be trusted to abide by civilised norms. It tells you everything you really need to know about Israel's conflict with the Palestinians and why peace with them has proved elusive for more than six decades. What follows is a list of the western news outlets that have covered what, I repeat, is an immensely significant and illustrative story:
1. The New York Times. 2. Nobody… That's right, every other major media outlet in the western world has effectively censored it. ...
By leaving the general population in a state of near total unawareness about the realities that Israel confronts in its dealings with the Palestinians, even neutral and unbiased observers are bound to come away with the impression that Israel is the guilty party in this conflict.
This is real censorship. And it works." 
and more,
"Accordingly, I support a "Middle East Apartheid Education Week" to be held at universities throughout the world. It would be based on the universally accepted human rights principle of "the worst first." In other words, the worst forms of apartheid being practiced by Middle East nations and entities would be studied and exposed first. ...

Under this principle, the first country studied would be Saudi Arabia. That tyrannical kingdom practices gender apartheid to an extreme, relegating women to an extremely low status. Indeed, a prominent Saudi Imam recently issued a fatwa declaring that anyone who advocates women working alongside men or otherwise compromises with absolute gender apartheid is subject to execution. The Saudis also practice apartheid based on sexual orientation, executing and imprisoning gay and lesbian Saudis. Finally, Saudi Arabia openly practices religious apartheid. It has special roads for "Muslims only." It discriminates against Christians, refusing them the right to practice their religion openly. And needless to say, it doesn't allow Jews the right to live in Saudi Arabia, to own property or even (with limited exceptions) to enter the country. Now that's apartheid with a vengeance.

The second entity on any apartheid list would be Hamas, which is the de facto government of the Gaza Strip. Hamas too discriminates openly against women, gays, Christians. It permits no dissent, no free speech, and no freedom of religion.

Every single Middle East country practices these forms of apartheid to one degree or another. Consider the most "liberal" and pro-American nation in the area, namely Jordan. The Kingdom of Jordan, which the King himself admits is not a democracy, has a law on its books forbidding Jews from becoming citizens or owning land. Despite the efforts of its progressive Queen, women are still de facto subordinate in virtually all aspects of Jordanian life.

Iran, of course, practices no discrimination against gays, because its President has assured us that there are no gays in Iran. In Pakistan, Sikhs have been executed for refusing to convert to Islam, and throughout the Middle East, honor killings of women are practiced, often with a wink and a nod from the religious and secular authorities.

Every Muslim country in the Middle East has a single, established religion, namely Islam, and makes no pretense of affording religious equality to members of other faiths. That is a brief review of some, but certainly not all, apartheid practices in the Middle East.

Now let's turn to Israel. The secular Jewish state of Israel recognizes fully the rights of Christians and Muslims and prohibits any discrimination based on religion (except against Conservative and Reform Jews, but that's another story!) Muslim and Christian citizens of Israel (of which there are more than a million) have the right to vote and have elected members of the Knesset, some of whom even oppose Israel's right to exist. There is an Arab member of the Supreme Court, an Arab member of the Cabinet and numerous Israeli Arabs in important positions in businesses, universities and the cultural life of the nation. ...

There is complete freedom of dissent in Israel and it is practiced vigorously by Muslims, Christians and Jews alike. And Israel is a vibrant democracy.

What is true of Israel proper, including Israeli Arab areas, is not true of the occupied territories. ... I have long opposed civilian settlements in the West Bank, as many, perhaps most Israelis, do. But to call an occupation, which continues because of the refusal of the Palestinians to accept the two-state solution, "Apartheid" is to misuse that word. As those of us who fought in the actual struggle of apartheid well understand, there is no comparison between what happened in South Africa and what is now taking place on the West Bank. ...

The current "Israel Apartheid Week" on universities around the world, by focusing only on the imperfections of the Middle East's sole democracy, is carefully designed to cover up far more serious problems of real apartheid in Arab and Muslim nations. The question is why do so many students identify with regimes that denigrate women, gays, non-Muslims, dissenters, environmentalists and human rights advocates, while demonizing a democratic regime that grants equal rights to women (the chief justice and speaker of the Parliament of Israel are women), gays (there are openly gay generals in the Israeli Army), non-Jews (Muslims and Christians serve in high positions in Israel) and dissenters, (virtually all Israelis dissent about something). Israel has the best environmental record in the Middle East, it exports more life saving medical technology than any country in the region and it has sacrificed more for peace than any country in the Middle East. Yet on many college campuses democratic, egalitarian Israel is a pariah, while sexist, homophobic, anti-Semitic, terrorist Hamas is a champion. There is something very wrong with this picture."

from, emphasis added by

My question, of course, is "why does this happen?" Anti-semitism (not equal to anti-zionism, but undeniably co-existing sentiments in way more people than would care to admit it) is certainly part of it.
However, I don't believe every American news outlet is ragingly anti-semitic, and my friends who believe Israel is wrong (largely liberals) are certainly not all anti-Israel or anti-semitic or biased (some probably are, but not all).
Something that I've been wondering lately is whether anchoring bias and confirmation bias are skewing the media presentation of what's actually happening in the Middle East.
We think about the Muslim world, and about Palestinian actions in the past, and we think of a large number of negative things: theocracies, abuse and mistreatment of women, executions for political dissent or non-crimes like "sorcery", suicide bombings, terrorism, etc. Even the not blatantly-negative things have negatives: Dubai and excessive wealth, oil-driven economies, etc. We thus "anchor" on this perception, and thus behavior that "confirms" our stereotype isn't really even news. Who cares if Lebanon is launching rocket attacks into Israel or Gazan suicide bombers or terrorists are attacking innocent civilians? That's the norm; we dont' think of it as anything unusual, so it's not reported on. This is exacerbated because their cultures and systems of government are so different to ours, that we just assume that their behavior stands as normal.
Then look at Israel: high-tech, democratic, diverse, and fairly tolerant of a wide variety of religious viewpoints (excluding the treatment of reform and conservative Jews by orthodox Jews, but that's not what anyone here cares about). We then see that they are building settlements in East Jerusalem, or launch a rocket into a pre-warned and pre-evacuated part of Gaza, and immediately associate with them. They are like us, and we "anchor" to a stereotype of "like us". Thus, any deviation from what we do (never mind that we're not surrounded by enemies) is something newsworthy, and worth criticizing them for. Israel gets trashed, functionally, for engaging its enemies with anything other than open arms, despite engaging the most civilized war in history (seriously, who else text messages all of their enemies with alerts as to where will be bombed and when, far in advance, so that people can evacuate themselves and their legal and illegal property and only buildings get destroyed?) while the Palestinian atrocities against civilians (and yes, they are atrocities) get ignored.
There's also definitely an "underdog bias", as well - Israel has lots of technology and wealth (which it built for itself, through a productive society), while Gaza is still dirt poor (because it has spent more time fighting Israel than building itself). So people root for the underdog without really focusing on how they got there.
" Israel withdrew from Gaza unilaterally, leaving behind a substantial infrastructure that was subsequently trashed by the Gazans.
  • Israel re-invaded Gaza to halt the firing of rockets into Israel.
  • and don't forget that there is a major blockade on the Egyptian side of Gaza. Why aren't Gazans upset about this barrier? At least the Israelis provide electricity to Gaza and allow some exchange.
  • Palestinians, in general, left their homes and land at the behest of Arab leaders in 1947. For the most part they were not driven out by the Jews, but rather they were enticed out by promises that the Jews would be driven into the sea.
  • Palestinians, again for the most part, were not welcomed in Syria, Jordan, Egypt, etc. Instead they have been kept at refugee status for generations. Why are the arab leaders of these countries not hated by Palestinians for having misled them in the first place and then not having welcomed them later? "
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