Confirmation bias in Lebanese politics

Similarly, unlike what “March 14” believe, the US Embassy statement isn’t a NATO-like commitment to support Mr. Jumblatt.
by Dan Azzi

9 August 2019 | 15:19

Source: by Annahar

  • by Dan Azzi
  • Source: Annahar
  • Last update: 9 August 2019 | 15:19

Anti-government protesters chant slogans as riot policemen stand guard in front of the government building, in central Beirut, Lebanon, Sunday, Dec. 23, 2018. (AP Photo)

My high school, IC, is one of the most demographically diverse schools in the country, with students from all religions and sects, neighborhoods, and political parties.

In those days, there was a slight awareness of the ostensibly “Christian / Muslim issues,” which seeped in from outside the school campus, but almost no Sunni-Shia tension. In my day, it had another beautiful trait — you couldn’t tell the child of a multi-millionaire from the one on a need-based scholarship. Today, many students arrive in tinted SUVs, picked up by drivers with suspicious bulges in their sides, accompanied by uniformed Asian women.

While IC was always diverse from a sectarian perspective, back then, the Christian students were primarily from the “left” wing, secular Lebanese parties, such as the Lebanese Communist Party and the SSNP.

After opening the Ain Aar campus towards the end of the war, IC also started to include the Lebanese Christian “Right” like the Lebanese Forces, Tayyar, Kataeb, and the other smaller ones. I use “left” and “right” in quotes, because on an international scale, the SSNP is actually a right wing party, whose #2 enemy, per their doctrine, is Communism. Clearly, the hodgepodge of Lebanese alliances, and definitions of left and right, have nothing to do with the theoretical ideologies of these parties, made even more confusing by the periodic shift in alliances.

This is why the secular, even atheist, Lebanese Communist Party is currently allied with the religiously fervent Hizbullah today, which was actually assassinating Communists in the 1980’s. In the 1958 “Civil War Light” the SSNP was allied with the Kataeb, in support of President Camille Chamoun’s Administration, which in turn, was backed by US Marines, in an amphibious landing. In the 1975 civil war (until today), the SSNP were enemies of the Kataeb, albeit during elections, anything goes.

We’ve come a long way since then, with divisions at a much more granular level.

IC wasn’t always in just Beirut and Ain Aar. It used to have a sprawling campus in Mechref, that would give AUB a run for its money. After the start of the war, it shut it down, and later opened a satellite school in Bchemoun, 5 kilometers away from Qabr Chamoun, which you might have heard of recently.

I ran a small test on a hypothesis I have, by sending the following news item to my IC chat group:

“Reuters: The Islamic Republic of Iran supports fair and transparent judicial review without any political interference. Any attempt to use the tragic June 30 event in Qabr el-Shamoun to advance political objectives should be rejected.”

One of my friends from the group (“Ali”), who identifies politically with “March 8,” thus sympathetic to Iran and its proxies in Lebanon, reacted to the statement by saying:

“It’s normal for Iran to say this, to match the Americans ... [Iran] does not interfere in internal Lebanese politics.”

He was referring to the US Embassy statement issued this week, which has been highly criticized by the left wing press; while the right wing press interpreted it to be a statement of support for its alleged allies in Lebanon, and specifically Mr. Walid Jumblatt (another IC graduate, by the way).

So when the US said it, to Ali it was a highly toxic statement. When Iran said the same exact thing, it was perfectly innocent, in his mind. I then pointed out to him that I’d made a small typo in replacing the USA with Iran, causing confusion, and making it hard to backtrack from his response.

The point of this little exercise wasn’t to pick on him specifically — we’re all susceptible — but to show how, in Lebanon, the statement would never be assessed on its own merit. Detractors would extract a conspiratorial, evil interpretation and supporters would interpret it positively.

This is an example of “confirmation bias.” According to a 2015 article from Psychology Today, Dr. Shahram Shehmat, defines it as occurring because of “the direct influence of desire on beliefs. When people would like a certain idea or concept to be true, they end up believing it to be true. They are motivated by wishful thinking. This error leads the individual to stop gathering information when the evidence gathered so far confirms the views or prejudices one would like to be true.”

In the case of Ali, if he’d taken the time to do a cursory search, he would have known that I was propagating fake news, but he didn’t need to — he could explain it away anyway.

Similarly, unlike what “March 14” believe, the US Embassy statement isn’t a NATO-like commitment to support Mr. Jumblatt. It wasn’t run through Secretary of State Pompeo, and endorsed by President Trump in a National Security Council meeting dedicated to the Qabr Chemoun incident. It was simply a local initiative, within the leeway of their general guidelines for Lebanon. Just pretend a neutral guy (if such a person exists) said it. How would you interpret it? It might end up being a benign statement (meaning without the backing of the military might of the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit), similar to what Human Rights Watch or IMF, might say.

Regardless of the underlying motivations, it’s pretty good advice.

The parents of the young men who died must have been proud of them, working for such an important person. I wonder if they believe that their sons died for a worthy cause. Do they consider them martyrs or wasted deaths?

Why not stop exaggerating this incident, as tragic as it was, let the judiciary handle it, as it would any other case, such as a “mashkal” over right-of-way in traffic, and get on with the serious business of dealing with our huge impending monetary quagmire?

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Dan Azzi is a regular contributor to Annahar. He has recently been invited to be an Advanced Leadership Initiative Fellow at Harvard University, a program for senior executives to leverage their experience and apply it to a problem with social impact. Dan’s research focus at Harvard will be economic and political reform in a hypothetical small country riddled with corruption and negligence. Previously, he was the Chairman and CEO of Standard Chartered Bank Lebanon.

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