In his reaction to Robert Wright’s thoughtful response, Jonathan Sheehan takes issue with Wright’s assumption that “all players are free to define gain for themselves.” I, too, will critique that assumption, though from a different angle.
The processes that prevent us from trying to achieve particular gains may also distort perceptions about available opportunities. This is because the very social pressures that keep us from acting in our perceived self-interest also discourage us from articulating accurate knowledge about our opportunities. Hence, the body of information that determines whether we recognize or overlook any particular opportunity emerges through interconnected individual decisions concerning what to say, write, share, and intimate. In relaxed environments the publicly available information about opportunities corresponds to the perceptions in our heads. In emotionally charged and politically repressive environments, much useful information remains private and, hence, inaccessible to others. This makes it difficult to think straight and to identify potential gains accurately.
Once again, the final years of the Soviet Bloc offer a striking illustration. Prior to Gorbachev’s reforms of 1985 informed citizens of the Soviet Bloc refrained from criticizing official economic policies, for fear of reprisals. They also refrained from publicizing the gains achievable through privatization and liberalization. Under the circumstances, the majority of the population believed that communism offered a better future than capitalism. Once Gorbachev’s restructuring (perestroika) and openness (glasnost) campaigns got under way, people already conscious of the prevailing inefficiencies took to speaking their minds in increasing numbers. In the process, awareness of the advantages of reforms started to spread. Thus, two dramatic transformations unfolded in tandem: a meteoric rise in awareness of the potential gains from reforms and a vast expansion of public discourses pointing to those gains. Each transformation reinforced the other.
Why is this history relevant to the present challenge of improving Muslim-Western relations? Like Soviet Bloc players of the past, those engaged in present struggles over Muslim-Western relations “define gain” through interactions with others. A Pakistani growing up in a Taliban-dominated region does not form his opinions about the costs and benefits of local policy options freely, or by himself. Likewise, the Christian who believes that a “zero-sum” religious war is under way does not learn about Islam in isolation from others. What these adversaries read, hear, investigate, and discuss is constrained by their respective social environments. Each is bombarded with information selected to support a particular perception of what is right and beneficial. And each is surrounded by people who are reluctant to question dominant opinions. Thus, where ignorance about the potential gains from Muslim-Western cooperation is widespread, a major reason is that information consistent with those gains is getting filtered out of critical public discourses.
Ignorance and misperception are hardly the preserves of the pious or the poorly educated. In rich countries many secular and well-educated people believe earnestly that agricultural subsidies protect the family farm; in fact, the benefits go overwhelmingly to huge corporations whose shareholders live mostly in cities. Many Western misperceptions about Islam and Islamic history, like Muslim misperceptions about the West, are shared by privileged elites.
These observations do not diminish the importance of publicizing the commonness of mutually beneficial interactions, in other words, of interactions with a positive-sum outcome. They do reinforce my earlier point that to reduce global tensions we must weaken the political coalitions that benefit from those tensions. Policies that split and weaken groups promoting a Huntingtonian clash of civilizations, such as the Taliban and Christian churches hostile to Islam, make it easier for individuals to pursue potential gains that they already know about. They also facilitate learning about the enormous advantages of peaceful coexistence, trade, and cooperation.