What some of us think about

It is worth noting that Europeans or people of European descent are not the only people with wrong ideas.

Hans Eysenck (photo credit: Courtesy)
Hans Eysenck
(photo credit: Courtesy)
A human being is a very complex phenomenon. When we deal with groups, often large, the complexity is compounded. What we call politics is an effort to describe what goes on when such large groups interact and we do this with the ultimate simplistic model of “left” and “right.” This idea has lasted a long time. At the time of the first civil war in the Roman republic, Sulla was right and Marius, a sympathizer of the plebeians, was left. Left in Latin is sinistra and note the similarity to our English sinister. That is no accident.
But perhaps matters aren’t so simple. Hans Eysenck, an eminent British clinical psychologist, argued that the “left-right” spectrum was wrong. A word about Eysenck is in order here before we explore what he said in his monograph, The Psychology of Politics.
Eysenck, a Jew, escaped from Nazi Germany sufficiently early to establish himself as the senior clinical psychologist at the Maudsley Institute of Psychiatry in London. He did government work during World War 2 in which he demonstrated that the best predictor of success of a potential officer in a training unit was standard intelligence testing.
Unfortunately for his reputation in the 1960s, he conducted a study on a sample with mixed ethnicity and reported his results in a way which seemed to imply that people with pigmented skin were less intelligent than those of paler complexion. He was attacked in the popular, and not so popular, press as a racist; a charge which he denied vigorously in view of his own ethnicity and life experience. Nevertheless, his reputation was seriously damaged.
It is worth noting that Europeans or people of European descent are not the only people with wrong ideas. I made aliyah in 1991 at the time of a large Ethiopian immigration, and many of my fellow immigrants from that community were temporarily installed in mobile homes just behind the Clalit clinic in which I worked. A popular health perception questionnaire at that time was the SF36 and it might have served a useful purpose in managing the Ethiopian population’s health problems. So a very bright young Ethiopian medical student was attached to me to translate the questionnaire into Amharic. It is important to understand that the translation involved both language and ideas.
The young gentleman explained to me in condescending terms that as a Westerner I had to understand that these people – the Ethiopian immigrants – held different and often primitive ideas and his example was their belief that drugs, administered by injection, were more potent than those taken by mouth.
I had news for him. I had worked 35 years as a GP in Dundee, Scotland and many of my less privileged patients held the same belief, sufficiently strongly on some occasions to cause a stand -up row. The lesson, if he took it, was that we are all the same irrespective of skin color or, as we Scots say, “We’re a’ Jock Tamson’s bairns.”
We can now return to the main topic. A common result of the Eysenck situation is that the baby is thrown out with the bath water. The baby in this case is his study into the psychology of politics.
Eysenck observed that politicians of presumably opposite camps often demonstrate similar attitudes. He stressed attitudes to the death penalty and noted that those on the extreme left and right agreed that it was a necessary sentence for crimes such as murder, but they also agreed that it could be used in other serious legal breaches. There may have been disagreement over the exact nature of the offense, but the sanction was considered a necessity.
While Eysenck deliberately emphasised this agreement, perhaps because he reasoned that it would have maximum effect on his readers, he found other areas of agreement such as a preference for a hierarchy of authority and authoritarian government, dislike of opinions which differed from one’s own, a reluctance to engage in debate and a willingness to use force if necessary.
He began with the extremes and when he found these similarities he studied the opinions and attitudes of less extreme people and ultimately reached what we would regard as those in the political middle, he found that on both sides of the division, left and right, the type of softening of the hard attitudes of the extreme was agreed.
Based on these findings, Eysenck suggested a different terminology to identify political attitudes. He designated people who occupied extremist positions as “tough-minded” and those with the most relaxed and permissive attitudes as “tender-minded,” and from this one can argue that our current view of political attitudes (from left to right) is misleading if not downright wrong.
The horizontal scheme obscures the similarity in attitude and behavior of the extremes and those who occupy a more central position. If one rotates the extremes of the horizontal vertically through 90 degrees, one can replace conventional political terms with the description of attitudes “tough-minded” above to “tender-minded” below.
There is no significance in presenting the order in this way. If the maneuver had been to turn the extremes downwards, the top position would be occupied by the tender-minded population. The conclusions are identical.
Eysenck did not quantify his findings but it is clear that a quantitative scale could be devised by giving the extreme of choice a maximum score and reducing that by stages until the opposite extreme is reached. One might question whether there is any value in this type of speculation. I suggest that it is a useful explanatory tool. Let’s take the Gaza situation as an example.
If the people holding authority in both Israel and Gaza are tough-minded, a solution involving compromise is improbable. If the key personalities on both sides are tender-minded, compromises on both sides are possible and successful negotiation can be anticipated. But if one side is managed by tough-minded people and the other tender-minded, a solution obtained by force is likely to be the strategy of the tough-minded in response to the flexibility of the tender-minded.
There is no inconsistency in this model, unlike the left-right model.
Since the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917, the Soviet Union and its satellites have been regarded as the ultimate left-wing model for modern times. It is worth noting, though, that a successful revolutionary must be tough-minded.
There is no doubt that the early Soviet Union was dominated by tough-minded characters, which led to deaths rather than argument.
World War II was a complicating factor but when it ended, the conventional left-right squabble resumed. No one ever described the Soviet Union and the people who controlled it as right-wing.
When the Soviet Union had problems in 1956 with its Hungarian satellite, Kruschev solved it by sending the tanks in. The same happened in Czechoslovakia in 1968 when Dubchek tried to establish a more tender-minded regime there.
By that criterion, the use of force in these cases could be described as the solution of the extreme left. Thus, if Israel was to send tanks into Gaza, it should be described as a left-wing attempt at a solution to the problem and not the activity of a right-wing faction.
The psychology underlying these issues is usually ignored. Gaza is a good example because it allows one to consider Avigdor Liberman’s role in the conflict. We all know that Liberman resigned as defense minister last year because he did not consider the cabinet’s approach to the Gaza problem as sufficiently tough-minded. His detractors complain that he was expressing his extreme right-wing attitudes. They ignore the fact that he was simply complaining that the government of Israel failed to act as the Soviets would have done in the same circumstances.
Liberman was persecuted by the Soviets, so naturally he has no love for the left-wing. It took a great deal of tough-mindedness to withstand the intense pressure imposed on him by the Soviet regime. But one must remember that he spent his formative years as a citizen of that regime so it would be surprising if he had not absorbed some of the attitudes and opinions current in that environment, which raises the age-old question, “Is it nature or is it nurture?”
Throughout human existence, there have been two contrasting situations. One is when resources for supporting life are in short supply. This is the more frequent of the two. There have also been periods when resources have been plentiful.
Consider the first situation. Two individuals are in conflict to obtain these resources and there is insufficient to support the two opponents. If both attempt to survive by using the scarce resources they will both die. The best survival strategy is for one to kill the other. The survivor will pass his or her genes on to the next generation. These genes trigger aggressive behavior and probably predominate in tough-minded people.
But when resources are plentiful, aggression is a poor survival strategy. Hunting is more successful as a group activity than as an individual activity. Cooperation is a better survival strategy in these circumstances and this is ensured by altruism. That is the best title for that set of genes.
As society develops, the family grouping enlarges to become a village. The members of a village identify with each other. They become an “in-group” while other, more remote, villages become out-groups in competition for resources.
In time, villages become towns and cities. Note that most of the kings described in the Chumash ruled over towns and today would be described as mayors but their subjects identify with these communities which each form as an in-group hostile to the neighboring out-groups. At that stage of development, mobility was limited simply because early agriculture and limited methods of travel were restrictive.
In due course, the towns became part of larger geographical units, ultimately ending in nation-states. Although large, the nation-state is still an in-group and other nation-states are out-groups to their citizens and the gene-determined psychology remains unchanged; altruism for the in-group and aggression towards the out-group. This is partly because a different behavior pattern has not had time to evolve and because, unfortunately, the resources for survival, even in modern complex society, remain scarce. One need only to inspect the history of war between states to see that most disputes are about territory and the victor annexes more territory than his nation had before. Territory gives access to resources and in most cases there is not enough for the combined populations, hence the concept of “them and us.”
This is the basis for racism. Racism, like other attitudes, varies in intensity from person to person. It is at its most intense in tough- minded people. Tender-minded people, who are more inclined to compromise, prefer to resolve conflict by dialogue and negotiation. Because of the variable mixture of the genes which determine tough- mindedness and tender-mindedness a substantial proportion of a population fall in between the two extremes.
Neville Chamberlain illustrated this when he wrote to his sister that, “Jews are an unlovely people but that does not excuse the excesses of the Nazis in Germany.”
The same argument explains antisemitism. Racism, to develop, requires an in-group and an out-group. The Roman dispersal scattered Jewish communities throughout the populated world and Jews became the universal out-group and the target of the major communities as the potential robber of the resources required for survival. These resources also include mates to produce the offspring necessary to maintain the genes. This accounts for Julius Streicher’s obsessive writings about the risk that Jews would monopolize Aryan womanhood if given the chance.
India and China are the exception to universal antisemitism, probably because their native populations are so huge and their indigenous Jewish populations are so small in relative terms that the Jewish population does not cross the threshold required to make them noticeable.
These considerations offer an explanatory model for many of the problems which afflict the human race. They do not offer a solution.
A solution requires a different human characteristic, one which depends on nature and nurture, one which informed people recognize as “heritable,” and that is intelligence. Unfortunately, although there is no shortage of intelligence, the intellectual effort to utilize it constructively appears to involve too much effort to attract many people to employ it and we remain with the effects of our hunter-gatherer genes and the psychology which they generate.
The writer is a retired doctor from Scotland who lives in Beersheba.