The Grammar of Hubris

verb word cloudIt’s natural that we will place ourselves and our institutions in the driver’s seat.  We assume we can be in charge because our language lets us imagine it.   

Rhetoricians like to say that language has its way with us. The phrase is meant as a reminder that everyday language steers us to conclusions that usually promise more than we as individual agents or nations can deliver.  Word choice can easily create perceptions that can make the unlikely more likely, the improbable possible, the fantasy an imagined outcome that will surely happen.  We can tie a wish to an action verb and we are off and running, creating expectations for things that probably will not materialize. Who knew that simple verbs like “is” and “will” can be phantoms of deceit?

I was reminded of this by a recent article in The Atlantic by Stephen Biddle and Jacob Shapiro. Their thesis is the title of their piece: “America Can’t Do Much About ISIS.” (April 20, 2016).  The article includes a solid analysis of the roots of ISIS in the civil wars affecting Syria and neighboring states. Their point is that internal struggles like these have to “burn out” from the inside.  This kind of civil war cycle might take nine or ten years to complete, an outcome outsiders can’t change very much.

What seems inescapable is that the rhetorical ease of committing ourselves to the control or transformation of complex political forces is too easy. That’s something we’ve come to know all too well since the Vietnam era, reconfirmed more recently in Afghanistan and Iraq. The military and social problems associated with nation-building are unforeseeable.  Substantive reasons for caution tend to get lost behind the neon glow of action verbs.

Blame our overly-deterministic language.

We construct the world as a web of causes and effects.  It’s natural that we will place ourselves and our institutions in the driver’s seat.  We assume we can be in charge because our language so easily lets us imagine it.  Blame our overly-deterministic language, along with the hubris that comes with being the world’s preeminent military power.  Both set up tight effects loops that seem clear on the page but elusive in real life.

If we put individual culprits in a lineup they all look more or less innocent: verbs like affect, make, destroy, brake, results in, causes, starts, produce, alters, stops, triggers, controls, contributes to, brings about, changes, and so on.

In the right company these can be companionable terms.  But let them loose within the rhetoric of a leader determined to make his or her mark on the public stage and they can turn lethal. This is the realm of the familiar idea of “unintended effects.”  Fantasies of power and control impose more order on human affairs than usually exists.  They depend on verbs that flatter us by making us active agents.

This is ironically aggravated by our devotion to the scientific method. As Psychologist Steven Pinker has observed, we can’t do science without buying into the view that we can identify first causes. That’s surely fine for discovering the origins of a troublesome human disease. But even though this logic is diffused through the culture, it cannot hold when we immerse ourselves in the infinite complexities of human conduct.  Discovering the reasons and motivations of others is far more difficult.  Add in entities such as nations or tribes, and first causes are often unknowable.  And so strategic calculations based on efforts to influence or control behavior are bound to produce disappointment.

It’s a great paradox that we are easily outgunned by ourselves: by the stunningly capricious nature of the human condition. Take it from someone who has spent a lifetime studying why people change their minds.  We have models, theories, tons of experimental research and good guesses.  But making predictions about any specific instance is almost always another case of hope triumphing over reality. We may be able to say what we want, giving eloquent expression to the goals we seek.  Our verbs may sing their certainty, but forces we can’t predict are going to produce their own effects.