Bell Curve The Law Talking Guy Raised by Republicans U.S. West
Well, he's kind of had it in for me ever since I accidentally ran over his dog. Actually, replace "accidentally" with "repeatedly," and replace "dog" with "son."

Friday, August 14, 2009

Culture and Intelligence

We have had a long running debate on this blog about the chicken-egg effect of culture on a society’s policy choices. Without revisiting that long treaded discussion, I was very interested in an interview I heard on NPR yesterday with Maj. Gen. Michael Flynn , head of NATO forces in Afghanistan. He said that rather than focusing on operations, they needed to focus more on the “population”. So they are now bringing in anthropologists, archeologists, and social scientists to help them understand the people of Afghanistan better. He acknowledged that the “culture” changes from region to region, so it is very hard to understand what motivates each group and how to address these groups effectively. I know from my work that more emphasis is being placed on cultrual knowledge, with pay incentives for those who demonstrate having it.

OK, what General Flynn and I mean by “culture” is not so much the art and music, but the traditions and attitudes that regulate or govern a given society. I have always said that there is a nature/nurture relationship between culture and policy. I am not sure what came first, and I don’t really care. The bottom line is that each affects the other and drives a society’s motivations and choices. It is a very dynamic relationship. Sometimes the logic of policy is the bigger driver, other times it is culture (as defined above). The balance changes depending on the issue. And of course, culture changes based on trade, interaction with others, generational turn over, etc. People adapt to the situations they are in. And those situations are often the results of economic and political policies which are made internally, or in the case of a war torn place like Afghanistan, externally.

I am pleased that the military has taken a more enlightened approach to intelligence gathering. It is part of Sec. Gates push to deal with counter-insurgency and terrorism that I think will take time, but pay off in the end. It is about time that Americans see the value in understanding other people and communicating with them. This is why I value foreign language teaching. This is why, when I am fed up with my job, I keep on because at the end of the day, we are giving young men and women the opportunity to learn a foreign language (and in some instances two of them) who might not have bothered otherwise. It changes their lives. And with language comes cultural knowledge and understanding.

That is a change for the better.


Raised By Republicans said...

For practical purposes it doesn't matter if culture is ultimately determined by economic conditions or not. The military needs to communicate with these people now in the short term. This is a good idea.

I've had conversations with anthropologists about this kind of thing and the ethical considerations of cooperating with the military are quite controversial.

I've heard about similar controversies among psychologists dealing with optimizing interrogation techniques.

The Law Talking Guy said...

The ethical dilemmas confronting psychologists and torture are much deeper and more serious than that posed by anthropologists cooperating with the military in helping to understand cultures. I would not call them similar dilemmas.

The Law Talking Guy said...

I think RBR is more or less in agreement with me on this: culture REALLY matters a lot. It is not relevant for practical reasons whether culture is an ultimate cause of behavior or just a convenient label for a set of preferences that could be better explained by other theories or labels. I am just finishing reading a book about the final months of the war against Japan (WWII) and the author makes a great deal of culture in the communcications over surrender, both Japanese and American, in a very intelligent way. Most people analyze this from the Star-Trek perspective, "why weren't Americans more sensitive to Japanese culture." This author is quick to point out the reverse too, that the Japanese were intelligent, rational human beings equally capable of callibrating their actions and words to the expectations of American culture. And, in fact, he explains Hirohito's surrender decision in part - to his credit - to a very sensitive understanding by some within Japan, including Hirohito, of what the Americans really meant by the Potsdam Declaration, not a "japanese-culture" understanding.

Raised By Republicans said...

Whether and how culture matters depends on your context and question. If you are interested in communication with a group of people, then yes it matters a lot - it's part and parcel with learning the language, it's that basic.

But if you are trying to explain broader social phenomena that unfold over a longer time span, I go back to arguing that it is primarily an intervening variable.

uswest said...

It's not letting me post for some reason. Testing testing . . .

Uswest said...

Part I

I understand, too, the debate in cooperating with the military. But knowledge gathering is what all nations do to safe-guard their national defense. Any knowledge can be put to good or bad use. We also use it to train our people to resist interrogation. My tolerance for ethical arguments has weakened in recent years partly due to my experiences. The debate should not be whether we impart knowledge and expertise, but how we use that expertise The military is a tool of civilian politicians. When there are troubles, it is a failure of leadership. People who get uppity about the military training people in language and cultural are the same people who get pissed off at the 6 years of messing around in Iraq and Afghanistan. Maybe if we had bothered to understand these people BEFORE invading, we might have had much shorter, cheaper, less bloody wars. These are the same people who talk about the inadequacy of our intelligence services to protect us of to get Osama Bin Laden,. Don ask the military ort he CIA to do something then resent them for trying to build the capacity and ability of their people, our people, to do it.

The bottom line is that the nature of military work and military engagement have changed. Nation building is part of the game now. I'd rather do it right than keep screwing it up. I’d rather the deaths of our service people and of the Afghans and Iraqis be due to real war issues rather than innocent misunderstandings. Many people have been killed in both these places due to intelligence mistakes that were rooted in an inability to properly understand the languages these people speak or their culture. Once American troops understood, for instance, that Afghans shoot in the air as celebrations at weddings, they were less prone to shooting back.

USwest said...

Part II

I tend to resent people who take the side that language and cultural training for military use is bad. That is a luxury of a liberal elite (of which I am often a part), often who had done nothing more than present their research at conferences in luxury hotels and write papers for their shaded offices on campuses across the country, but have never gotten their hands dirty. These are the same types that apply for government research grants (often awarded through he Pentagon) and then bitch about the military. My favorite was going to a conference in Boston where a woman from Cuba sat there with a name tag that said, "Columbia University" on it, and bitched about U.S. colonel aspirations and how American policy was consciously against the third-world, the whole time looking at me with my government based name tag. I couldn't help but to point out that she obviously had some sort of legal status in this country and the right to live and work here unmolested. That is a pretty vicious colonel power, isn't it? And I pointed out that her university is one of the largest recipients of Pentagon grants. And I pointed out that we have welcomed refugees from her nation for years and they hardly lack a voice or a lobby in this country. When was the last time she had been to Cuba to help her fellow countrymen? That sort of stuff makes my blood boil. From the comfort of their offices, they are a "voice" for their nations. Spare me. Just get a "Free Tibet" bumper sticker and drive your SUV to the nearest Chinese restaurant for dinner. You be a good armchair hero while the CIA agents grow Castro beards and try to kill the asshole for you. Wheew! That little outburst makes me feel better.

I think the American military has been a bit naive and flip about the importance of cultural knowledge in its work. I am glad to see this change. True that this type of knowledge can be used for negative things. But it can also be put to great use. And when military personnel leave service, they have learned something important. I see the military as another avenue to higher learning. There is more than a solider at the end, there is a potentially literate, disciplined, educated civilian.

In addition, when the academic institutions in this country, universities AND K-12 education, start doing a better job in language and cultural training, and educating in general, then maybe the military can back down. One thing to realize is that the military/national defense is powerful force for social and political change in the U.S., be that integration of women and minorities (and soon gays) or education. Math and science got a huge push because of the needs of national defense. Black and white people were forced to integrate because of the military. Women are seen more as equals in part because they are fighting in the military. Troubled individuals have been reformed because of the military. Now it is the turn of language and culture.

The Law Talking Guy said...

Here's my fear, and I'll be as diplomatic as possible. The bulk of the military's recruits may not be the best raw material for a lot of sophisticated linguistic and cultural training. I suspect that what will be, for some, highly specialized training will be, for others, just learning a few basic principles about how to talk and act in a manner that is not perceived as offensive - generally speaking, with less of the characteristic bluntness and condescension to which they are prone.

Raised By Republicans said...

US West..."Anthro classes don't kill. People do." :-)

I'm not one of the people who think anthropologists shouldn't help train soldiers or psychologists (who mostly advise against physical abuse as ineffective) who train interrogators. If a psych professor can convince the CIA that torture isn't the best way to get what they want, so much the better.

LTG, by "similar" I meant that the controversy seems to be building up among a non-military, academic community about cooperation with the military. Obviously, the details of that cooperation are different.

USwest said...

LTG, the miltiary has wasy to pick the people who are most likely to be successful linguists and culturalists. They can seperate the wheat from the chaff.

Some basic awarness helps everyone. Some will be chosen for greater things.

RBR, I know do not fit the description that I laid out in my post. Wasn't implying that, or didn't mean to anyway.

Raised By Republicans said...

US West,... "Vi haff vays of seeing if you kan talk."

The Law Talking Guy said...

A friend of mine, too old for regular service (i.e., my age) signed up for a special naval reserve intelligence unit shortly after 9/11 out of patriotism. He was interviewed by a man who asked him various questions about his abilities. The memorable moment was asking whether he spoke "thay" which was spoken to rhyme with "hay" with the initial consonantal sound of "thistle."

It took my friend a country minute to realize that the inquiry, being read off the questionnaire, was, "Do you speak Thai?"

Indeed, USWest, many are called, but few are chosen.