By Daniel Chejfec
How do you define a specific moment in history as a time of crisis? One of the possible definitions is that of a time when established institutions loose their authority and they loose, partially or completely, their ability to administer the affairs of the society. In that sense, we are living times of crisis. After the fall of the Soviet Union conditions changed dramatically in the world, and many social factors that were serving as stabilizing factors in the context of the Cold war simply disappeared. We have yet to find a new balance in world affairs, and indications are that we are not doing a good job, with conflict becoming more dominant in today's world than at any time since world war II. Truth be said, it is not the kind of conflict as defined by the Korean or the Vietnam war but a low level simmering that never stops and a generalized confrontation with no clear front lines - and that makes the conflict more difficult to handle.
So what happens to people in times of crisis? Many thing, obviously, but I want to focus on one of them: the way people think and the way they perceive the world around them. When we live in crisis, we live in an unstable environment and that generates fear and anxiety in society, and people look for ways to feel more secure, more stable, so they can continue to function. Some people choose denial and continue doing business as usual; others try to actively shore up the existing conditions so they can continue to do what they were doing, and yet others take to ideologies as a life saver. When I use the word "ideology" I use it in a broad sense, as a system of ideas that provides structure to the perception of reality. In that sense, religion is a form as ideology, as are political ideologies and even to some extent science itself.
What makes the use of ideologies in times of crisis as a life saver different, is that the more profound the crisis the more firmly people stick to their particular ideology of choice. At a time when everything around them becomes confusing and difficult to understand, religious fundamentalists of any stripe find comfort in the unchanging character of the Divine revelation (however they interpret it) and the more likely they are to look at that revelation (Torah, Gospels, Quran, etc) literally rather than in the context of the world where the authors lived or where the readers live. Dogma is more attractive than a changing reality.
The same is true of political ideologies. While their dogmas are not religious in nature, they do have their own dogmas that define the structure of their ideas, and the more frightening change becomes, the more likely are individuals to seek refuge in those dogmas and become more irredentism in their reading of reality. This is how political polarization becomes exacerbated in times of crisis. Few people, if anybody, are willing to see their beliefs challenged once they used them successfully to create their own little island of stability in a world in crisis, so they begin to redefine reality to fit their interpretation rather than the other way around.
Some typical examples:
After 9/11, many Muslims couldn't believe that real Muslims would perpetrate such an act of terrorism because it ran contrary to their perception of Islam, so they reached the conclusion that either the Jews or the Americans (depending on which newspaper you read) were responsible for the attack in order to blame Muslims.
In November 1995, many Israelis couldn't believe that a Jew would assassinate an Israeli Prime Minister, so the killer came to be seen as part of either a government or a Palestinian conspiracy (again, depending on which papers you read)
There are many more examples, political as well as religious, but they all have something in common: it is easier to believe that reality is something else from what we see than to accept that our beliefs, that provide us with a sense of security, could be mistaken...in times of crisis, pragmatic decision making goes out the window and ideological decision making is in.
This can be seen not only in the large scale of society but also in the smaller scale of organizations and even family.
A German philosopher once said that "If being born is to become aware of the world around us, then many die without ever being born" - in time of crisis, our ideological myopia makes more likely to be part of the many...