Here in mid-August, 2014, we find ourselves in interesting times. Two viruses are dominating the news: Ebola, a biological virus whose spread is influenced by conceptual systems, and militant Islamic religious extremism, a memetic virus of the mind that toxifies behavior. Both are moving thanks to modern transport and technologies. Both grow best when particular Gravesian levels are dominant to feed them. And both are capable of mutation. The following is intended to tease out some ideas and to suggest incorporating a bit of levels of existence theory into analysis of such events. It’s neither deep nor thorough, and admittedly glosses over many complexities that deserve whole books. Yet conceptual systems are at the core of behavioral choices, and the ways these two viruses are being thought about shape their impacts and tomorrow’s news.
The first virus is Ebola. That threat is exacerbated where B-O (with C-P egocentric actions and a dose of passive D-Q) is still strong – meaning primary trust in witchcraft and traditional healing mixed with prayer, but distrust of “modern” E-R medical approaches and sanitation practices; trust in elders and shamans/religious figures, but distrust of plastic-wrapped health workers who look like space aliens and work in ‘dying places’; trust in rituals and ancestral approaches to hygiene and illness, but distrust of what appears to be heartless and disrespectful treatment of the dead in contravention to long-standing social norms that worked when Ebola traveled on foot or by bat. But now it migrates by car, truck, and airplane, meaning developing urban centers are vulnerable to infection, and cities at the ends of air routes from infection zones are also at risk from human carriers and contaminated bush meat. Worst case: deliberate spread.
Communicating needs for caution and sanitary practices in ways that resonate in a world where B-O is still prevalent, like less developed rural areas and urban slums of West Africa, has been a challenge for health care workers. Agencies have learned how vital working with the local opinion leaders and story-tellers is to breaking the infection cycle. Creating metaphors and icons – messages framed to fit the context – rather than relying on ‘scientific facts’ delivered on billboards and printed flyers is one useful approach where word-of-mouth – even via cell phone and music – is influential. The thought leader positions held by shamans, elders, priests, family and village heads, even pop stars make them the go-to opinion shapers and sales force for new ways. Sanitary practices have to be adopted locally as a community’s hygienic norms, not remain near-incomprehensible recommendations from westerners or distrusted city folk speaking the wrong psychological language.
Consider, also, a C-P element that actively disregards safety precautions and others’ well-being while wrapped in egocentric fear and anger. Resistance through bravado, beliefs that one’s spirit/magic is mightier than the virus, or simply because the message hasn’t been tuned to reach –P neurology all contribute to the difficulties in containment.
Management of Ebola (and other viruses) needs to become a people’s tradition, a sign of individual power, and something that is right and proper. Add some ignorant bandits stealing infected goods or calculating terrorists planning virus bombs and all bets are off. While the numbers, though tragic, are relatively small so far epidemic-wise, the frightening thought that Ebola might be weaponized by suicide ‘virus bombers’ has been behind some of the research into vaccines that have been administered experimentally thus far.
The ethical decisions the WHO and the American FDA face regarding their administration are complicated and precedent setting given there are other, less familiar diseases that are even more dangerous, and even easier to spread. Perhaps this has been a lesson in the need for more proactive response and better international collaboration in a highly mobile and infectious world.
Aggressive militant fundamentalism
That leads to the second virus: the thought virus of militant fundamentalisms that thrive in a D-Q-rich psychosocial landscape. This one wants no less than to change the world. Although it is present across the globe, the Mideast, both Israel/Gaza/West Bank and Iraq/Syria/Lebanon are hotbeds of the authoritarian aggressive symptoms that appear when this D-Q-dependent virus is breaking out. Let us not forget the crisis in northeastern Nigeria where Boko Haram is moving to purge enemies and take over as Ebola rears up across that country in Lagos, plus Somalia, Sudan, Pakistan, post-wars Afghanistan and other places where similar forces are at work and trying to catch hold. Behind the curtains of fanaticism, less doctrinaire E-R-centered interests also stand to gain advantage as puppet masters and geo-chess players, media manipulators and arms suppliers. Keep them in mind.
The intractable conflict between Israel’s need to feel secure against dedicated enemies and the Gaza Palestinians’ need to be liberated from entrapment in an expanded prison camp are incubator conditions for extremism. The absolutism expressed by both Hamas’ ‘no Israel’ policy and Israel’s militancy in defense of state existence lead to the classic Gravesian D-Q:D-Q confrontation where neither side is willing to back down, neither can admit to being wrong or let go, and both prefer to go down with principles intact rather than compromise – while claiming to have yielded beyond reason because of so many layers of grievance. It is hard for extremists to maintain discipline, despite pleas by moderating voices; thus cease fires come and go. Peace punctuates periods of conflict because the deepest problems cannot be addressed while the surface is in turmoil and some find advantage in the chaos.
Note the different valuations of individual lives with more willing sacrifice on one side versus heavy emphasis on protecting individuals of “our kind” with some attention to theirs. Israel leans more toward E-R until threatened when the D-Q retrenchment sets in. Gaza recalls past E-R opportunity and wants it back, using D-Q sacrifice to obtain it. So both Israeli expansion and blockades, and the Gaza-based rockets and terror tunnels provoke perpetual conflict by blocking E-R possibilities and undermining D-Q stability. The fundamentalist-driven impasse ultimately hurts all parties while providing fuel to the ancient Sunni/Shiite denominational war still overlapping the region.
That leads us to the surging Sunni-centric Islamic State (IS, née ISIL, then ISIS) in a region where ethnic tribalism, religious sectarianism, and entrepreneurship overlap. When a group is too extreme in its aggressive fundamentalism even for al-Qaeda, that’s problematic, especially in a region filled with young people who feel stuck and hopeless in this life, but excited about the prospects in an afterlife to come. Many are bored and hunger for purpose and an organizing principle to live – and die – for. Children at phases ready for structure are willing recruits for big brothers whose wives anticipate the virtue in their husbands’ martyrdom.
This is a dangerous (they would say glorious) slice of the jihadist movement that could, like forest fires burning together, blow up globally if the narrow radical fundamentalist D-Q virus isn’t smothered by kinder alternatives and broader D-Q expressions, along with more complex systems moving in leadership roles. With militant theocracy an organizing principle in a region fraught with chaos, E-R’s tendency to put up with pluralistic options and to look at alternatives is threatening to adherents singular right ways.
Evidence of challenging E-R, and certainly rival D-Q forms, must be purged to ensure obedience and order. A crucial element is D-Q’s ‘dangerous world’ perspective which leads to a polarized “us” or “them” perspective, and the drive in the closed D-Q to either convert or eliminate the threat of them. Aggression gets framed as defense. At extremes, “they” are other – non-people. (also see “Drawing Lines on Paper and Sand” under Advanced Resources.) In Iraq, this polarization was exacerbated by the American invasion which focused on removing Saddam Hussein and simultaneously dismantled much of the D-Q (with e-r) structure that had glued civil Iraq together with an eye to outside enemies.
Religion is another form of cement. Because sectarian and statesmanship-challenged Nouri al-Malaki’s government in Iraq has lacked credible central authority and never managed inclusive nationalism, pulling Iraq together and putting the brakes on IS(IS) advancement will lie with the next iteration in Baghdad, perhaps under Haidar al-Abadi, maybe someone else. The power struggles at the top of post-U.S. Iraq, the horrific and regionally destabilizing civil war within Syria that the Lebanon-based Hezbollah faction has joined, the Gaza conflict, and the geo-jousting with D-Q/E-R Iran have left a space that IS(IS) has moved rapidly to fill by using militancy, social networks, sermons and medieval brutality against those declared enemies. With the faith that a martyr’s death, especially while knocking off infidels and apostates, is the surest route to a glorious heavenly reward, plus the opportunity to build the base of a righteous caliphate and gain worldly authority over territories where ‘immorality’ appears to reign thus in need of reforming under a theocratic state’s rules (first of the region, and then the world), and a congruent and charismatic leader (like Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi since a visible spokesman for ultimate authority is required), we look on as large swaths of war weary territory in Iraq and Syria get occupied without much opposition.
The fact that ISIS currently controls the Mosul Dam on the Tigris River gives them leverage over what might prove to be the most significant resource in this whole conflict, flowing water. The Kurdish men and women (who have long dreamed of an independent Kurdistan, themselves), the Iraqi government and military, and the still-engaged and ethically ‘Pottery Barned’ U.S., plus whichever interested parties decide to join in must choose a course of action, or inaction. This bizarre situation could even lead to some cooperation between the U.S. and Iran because of shared interest, as well as seeing the Saudis (whose efforts to undermine Syria’s admittedly brutish Assad regime blew back to generate recruits for ISIL), Jordan, and the Gulf States (such as Qatar) finally step up to protect Arab lives and bring peace to the region. Or not. For now, the U.S. and U.K. have begun taking action along with the Iraqi government and Kurdish forces to provide some humanitarian aid to the beleaguered Yazidi people who were driven by ISIS to die in the desert heat on Mt. Sinjar because they held to their own faith.
U.S. weapons, as well as air strikes, are moving in support of the Kurds so they can defend their territory against the American weaponry ISIS gathered from Iraqi stores and abandoned or contributed by collapsing Iraqi forces. But the problem isn’t just guns; it’s rigidified militant mindsets, too much focus on single personalities and too little on fixing dysfunctional, dis-integrated systems without cohesion. That’s a vacuum militant and energetic millennial jihadists are anxious to exploit and pull under their jihadi-cool banner. Over the years, simplistic, often divisive solutions didn’t take culture and mindsets into account. A century of imposed fixes has led to the present mess.
It will take better thinking on the part of open-minded tribal leaders, influential clerics, and politicians, and especially a rising generation of local thinkers to bridge the underlying schisms and developmental gaps to move beyond impasse as a self-perpetuating lifestyle. Islam can serve as an organizing principle to pull tribal and ethnic factions into one tent through a D-Q opening. But radicalized forms of extreme Islamicism keep setting that tent on fire with the aim of pulling it together under a black flag, as if war is good. Islam is hardly alone in hosting extremists; there are radical militant elements in Zionism, Christianity (this is the edge of Mesopotamia, after all), and in versions of many other religions and movements when members hold their Truth to be the sole truth and feel duty-bound to eliminate any who threaten by disagreeing. These are victims of the fanaticism virus that grows so well in D-Q.
Though there are no guarantees, unless something out-of-the-box happens and it spreads exponentially into urban settings, this Ebola virus outbreak will be managed in a few months as communities learn better how to prevent it and health care reinforcements move in to put out the Ebola fire. That depends on appropriate kinds of education and support to improve sanitation and to rebuild clinic infrastructure and staffs that are tragically being decimated while doing vital work. Because the enemy is a killer virus, rallying against it is easy. Assuming it is again beaten back, new lessons will be learned for the next time; and there will be a next time for this or some other awful germ as our world becomes more interconnected.
The psychological virus – the fundamental, absolutistic, authoritarian-aggressive “convert or die” idea – is harder to treat, though the lessons learned in that will have broad implications in places like Ukraine and nuclear-capable Pakistan, as well as Iraq. And as planners funding anti-Ebola research have known for years, if a biological virus like this should converge with an aggressive mind virus like fundamentalist jihadism, the result could explode into a health emergency to go more global that the 1918 flu.
The Ebola virus spreads until E-R learning gets translated into B-O, C-P, and even D-Q terms for managing it. Scary, but quite doable. The absolutist mind virus contagion is harder to deal with because it’s in reaction to what its carriers see as E-R dangers and failings, though that’s the very system that lies next in the series for so many, and the ceiling off of which many young new militant recruits have bounced in a frustrated backlash, proudly carrying skills and memes back to build a more D-Q-centric future from e-r stones. For many, the apparently amoral situational relativism of F-S is totally confounding, pitching those operating more in that way into the enemy camp, as well. So now they stand straddling the D-Q/E-R transition, shouting slogans and verses while following Twitter and taking selfies. But rather than easing assimilation of new thinking, this mind virus blocks multiplistic toleration and crams new ideas within the walls of its rigid box. It installs antibodies that foster immunity to full-on E-R and beyond, partly because the forms of e-r and E-R that so many have experienced failed to span the broad range of Gravesian systems that comprise the Mideast’s complex mindset congruently.
The poor fit of contemporary, westernized expressions of E-R has led to regression and fed the radical D-Q-based virus. Some will argue that its actually advancement toward proper morality, and that saying otherwise is blasphemous because ultimate hegemony of the One True Way is the greatest good that can be wished upon the world. We’ll respectfully disagree and hope that diversity can endure, that genocide won’t be something to ignore, and that more complex minds will move into positions to influence the course of events because the problems of this world, in this life, with viruses like these, demand it.