Monday, December 15, 2008

A space-time-action comment about terrorist mindsets

UPDATE — March 21, 2009: I'm dimming the text here, and may yet delete it. There's no point in offering it to possible readers. An improved version of the first three paragraphs has been incorporated into this subsequent post providing an overview of the STA framework. And an improved version of the final paragraph has been folded into another subsequent post about millenarian terrorism.

But do read the comment left by Spartacus — a reason to keep rather than delete the post.

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imagine all kinds of people with all kinds of belief systems. then strip away their ideologies, values, norms, etc., until you get down to the most fundamental notions they have that still amount to social cognition, before you end up with a quivering mess of emotions, impulses, and instincts.

what’s there is a layer or module in the mind that consists of people’s basic orientations to social space, time, and action. by space, i mean how people see their identity in relation to others, and how they perceive objects as being structured, distributed, and linked -- or not. by time, i mean how people discern past, present, and future, and relations among them -- or not. by action, i refer to people’s sense of whether and how they can affect things -- or not.

all three kinds of orientations are essential. this module takes shape in childhood, and it’s always there from then on. it is rarely analyzed on its own, yet no mind can work without it, and most everything that people think and do gets processed in it. it amounts to a set of cognitive knowledge, and i suppose it sits between rational reason and irrational emotion. some major ideas -- like the shift from believing in “fate” to believing in “progress” -- owe to shifts in the beliefs that end up in this module.

what might this have to do with terrorism? people who have made statements about becoming a terrorist often refer to having lacked identity, feeling small and humiliated, facing obstacles and barriers, feeling lost after moving abroad, feeling a new sense of worth from finding new connections and understandings, etc. curiously, these are mostly spatial referents. thus, the keys to understanding the attraction to the terrorist mindset may lie more in the recruits' spatial than in their time or action orientations. this may also apply more broadly to the nature of the tribal mindset, which is so emphatic about upholding solidarity, respect, pride, honor, and dignity.

1 comment:

Jay Taber said...

If the fabric of global society is analogous to a constantly shifting patchwork of cognitive relationships between tribes, institutions, markets and networks, then the fabric of each component of this weaving of narratives is comprised of the beliefs, opinions and views of the individuals interacting with each of these basic forms of human organization. As such, our foundational psychic identities, comprising ethnic or tribal origins and their cosmologies, are the sole authentic basis of determining who we are.

This is not to say that other, superficial identities, like race or religion, cannot exert powerful influences on our thoughts, words and deeds, but merely to point out that these identities – unlike our cultural heritage from original nations – are transitory. Much like ephemeral state boundaries arbitrarily overlaid on ancient lands and territories, coerced identities associated with modern states are transferable, even when underlying cultural characteristics remain.

Given the degree of disconnection today from our cultural and geographic roots, indeed from historical awareness, the voluntary and coerced identities we assume are largely superficial. But this doesn’t mean they are unimportant, only that they are more tenuous and vulnerable to subversion by dominant social ideologies. With few opportunities to find genuinely supportive social structures and organizations, most of us are left to fend for ourselves in creating an identity that both suits our needs and our understanding.

Absent the connectivity that defines relationships at a tribal or aboriginal level, we are faced with crafting a persona that blends and distinguishes what Manuel Castells calls the legitimizing identities of institutions, the project identities of reform, and the resistance identities of excluded peoples, depending on our view of history. Economic and political affiliations, of course, play a role in forming these views, but even they can be transcended by strong, determined individuals whose identities are supported by authentic philosophies and organized networks.

Fulfilling our various duties and responsibilities within this often frantic construct requires that we seek an identity we can live with; otherwise, when tested by the turbulence of social conflict, it will assuredly unravel. Being respectful and honorable, treating others with dignity, is something to take pride in; indeed, it is a foundation worthy of building solidarity.