This is the second of two articles analyzing the mode of thought and the language in public discourse on Syria from the perspective of cognitive science and linguistics.
Every language in the world has a way in its grammar to express direct causation: a local application of force that has a local effect in place and time. You pick up a glass of water and drink it: direct causation. You bomb a hospital, destroying it and killing those inside: direct causation.
No language in the world has a way in its grammar to express systemic causation. You drill a lot more oil, burn a lot more gas, put a lot more CO2 in the air, the earth’s atmosphere heats up, more moisture evaporates from the oceans yielding bigger storms in certain places and more droughts and fires in other places: systemic causation. The world ecology is a system — like the world economy and the human brain.
From infanthood on we experience simple, direct causation. We see direct causation all around us: if we push a toy, it topples over; if our mother turns a knob on the oven, flames emerge. And so on. The same is not true of systemic causation. Systemic causation cannot be experienced directly. It has to be learned, its cases studied, and repeated communication is necessary before it can be widely understood.
The daily horrors in Syria are direct: shootings, bombings, gassings. When the media reports on “Syria” (as it should), it is reporting on the direct horrors. If “Syria” is the problem, the problem is the daily horrors, the 100,000 killed, the ongoing shootings and bombings, the persistent hatred and oppression. If the president is understood as addressing “Syria,” and he proposes directly bombing Syria, the natural question is whether that eliminates the daily direct horrors. When he admits that it does not, when Secretary Kerry says correctly, “There are no good options in Syria,” the question naturally arises, “Why bomb when it won’t solve the direct problem, but might create other problems?”
To President Obama, “Syria” is not primarily about direct causation. It is about systemic causation as it affects the world as a whole. It is about preventing the proliferation of poison gas use and nuclear weapons. It is about the keeping and enforcement of treaties on these matters. That is what he meant when he said that the red line is not his, but “the world’s red line,” “the international community’s red line.” The president has a broad perspective. To him “Syria” does not just mean Syria; it means the effects of the horrors in Syria on the world. “Limited” bombing in Syria is not about directly stopping the horrors there; it is about an attempt to prevent proliferation of gas and nuclear weapons and about an attempt to move toward a peaceful resolution.
But the president has not made this clear, and he could not possibly do it in one speech, given that most people don’t viscerally react to systemic causation, and many don’t understand it at all. He could only do it by discussing it overtly, distinguishing what is systemic from what is direct, and repeating it over and over. Even then, it would be a hard sell for cognitive reasons — even though he has good reasons to base his policy on it.
Then there is Russia. In his September 10 speech, Obama addressed the Russian plan to take control of the poison gas in Syria from Assad’s hands, which Assad has assented to. He discussed the plan, but never mentioned why the usual rational distrust of Russia should not apply here. It shouldn’t apply because taking control is in many ways in Russia’s interests: there are business interests, and there are many Russian citizens in Syria working on technology or going to college or married to Syrians. An American bombing could lead to gas falling into the hands of jihadists from Chechnya and elsewhere, who could use gas in terrorist attacks on Russia. Russia has a very strong interest in taking control of Assad’s poison gas and we can trust Russia to act in its interests. But the president didn’t say that Russia has a real interest in a peaceful diplomatic resolution in Syria, just as we do. Why not? Given the deep suspicion of Russia in the American psyche, that is a hard sell, too.
Just as there are no easy direct options in Syria, so there are no easy direct short-run communication options for a reasonable policy based on systemic causation. The reason is that the communication of unfamiliar ideas like systemic causation is itself a systemic problem. You can’t just mention it once and expect it to be widely understood. It has to be repeated over time by a lot of people in a lot of situations.
As a result, the president’s logic of limited bombing is not understood: he wants to bomb to prevent the systemic effect of the use of poison gas, not to stop the direct killing via other means, which we cannot stop. Obama has two hard sells, which for cognitive reasons lie beyond his immediate control. Systemic causation is not a natural concept that is automatically learned. In the September 10 speech, these ideas were mentioned, but they were not put front and center. And moreover, there has been no communicative groundwork over the past five years that would help citizens understand the logic of systemic causation versus direct causation and how it applies to Syria and other issues of our times.