Need for applying ‘Pollyanna principle‘ to International Relations… writes Falguni Tewari from the London School of Economics and Political Science
“From India right up to Morocco, there seem to be only three stable governments, those at New Delhi, Tehran and Tel Aviv. The entire swathe is engulfed in some or the other form of instability, anarchy, bloody schism, terror, genocide and upheaval. Much of the trouble in the Middle-East involving ISIS, goes right back to the global scenario at the time of the First World War”
I don’t follow literary events. So, I don’t know if the centenary of the publication of “Pollyanna” was celebrated two years back in the world of letters. The novel ‘Pollyanna‘ written by Eleanor H. Porter, published in 1913 went on to become a classic because it fulfills the basic need of all the human beings, the need to feel glad. I will transgress into the field of clinical psychology and brazenly state that even those suffering from depression or anxiety or having masochistic tendencies are fundamentally happiness seekers who have lost their plots.
I know how naïve it is to suggest the application of an amateurish principle in a world hardened with political realism and dismissive of anything which does not conform to the framework of a realist theory of international politics. But a blend of deliberate amnesia and naiveté is what the world needs in order to save itself.
The year 1978 witnessed two ‘intellectual’ events which have been among the most under-rated. The first one is about Matlin and Stang describing the ‘Pollyanna principle‘ as a psychological principle which portrays the phenomenon of people filtering the past with the help of a positive bias. The brain processes pleasant experiences in a more precise manner. There is a tendency to think of the past as far more happier than it actually was. Matlin and Stang had taken forward a hypothesis proposed in 1969 by Boucher and Osgood.
The second event is the publication of ‘Janus: A Summing Up‘ by Arthur Koestler has been justifiably damned for his allegedly misogynistic tendencies. Some of his ideas, however, need to be taken seriously without in the least diluting the posthumous condemnation that he received in the form of his bust being removed from the University of Edinburg. Koestler stated that the world is living on borrowed time, post Hiroshima. He went so far as to say that instead of ‘BC’ and ‘AD’ (CE was not in vogue then) we should be looking at the calendar in terms of ‘PH’ and ‘AH’ (post Hiroshima and After Hiroshima).
He was only restating the apprehension expressed long ago by Bertrand Russell who had said, with remarkable prescience, that it would be a matter of time before nuclear devices reach private and rogue hands. But the real new point that Koestler made was about the upward and downward, the integrative and disintegrative tendencies among the human beings. Koestler says that homo sapiens are the only species who kill their con-specifics without any reason. Other animals kill their own only under exceptional circumstances. So, human beings keep killing each other for settling historical disputes, as individuals, as families, as clans, as tribes, as religious communities and as countries.
Then Koestler goes on to prescribe a solution which does read like pages from a sci-fi. But it does merit some pause. He says that the upper hemisphere and the lower hemisphere of the human brain do not have any linkage. The lower hemisphere is the repository of animal instincts, xenophobic and disintegrative tendencies.
The lower hemisphere gets out of control and takes catastrophic decisions. Koestler suggested mass scale surgical interventions to link the two brains, so that the more humane upper brain is able to moderate the destructive lower brain. Anticipating the ridicule which such a suggestion was likely to attract, Koestler gave the example of surgical interventions for birth control which have played such a major role in sustaining the global balance of resources.
Coming to the world of international relations, we find countries suffering from collective prejudices, hatred and violence targeted at the other state or non-state entities. The analogy of individuals suffering from depression or anxiety and coming under the influence of negative bias is not too farfetched.
From India right up to Morocco, there seem to be only three stable governments, those at New Delhi, Tehran and Tel Aviv. The entire swathe is engulfed in some or the other form of instability, anarchy, bloody schism, terror, genocide and upheaval. Much of the trouble in the Middle-East involving ISIS, goes right back to the global scenario at the time of the First World War. The ISIS seeks to restore the Caliphate lost during the First World War. At the root of all this is preservation of memories of collective wounds.
Germany and France have been as hostile to each other as any two countries can be. The cultural, political and military divide has been fierce throughout history. Yet the two countries decided to come together under the European Union. They decided to see the benefits in what unites them against being weighed down by what divides them. A common market unites them. They saw the benefits. They saw the wisdom.
They came together. It can be said that in the changing dynamic of international relations, the two countries found themselves in a position where they had no option but to get together. But this kind of thinking amounts to robbing these countries of their sovereign character. These countries went beyond the overwhelming burden of recent history and tried to move forward without the historical baggage. Neither of them is hopelessly weak compared to the other. It is a coming together of two nations who are almost at par and who can rake-up any number of disputes from their pasts. But fortunately for Europe and for entire human kind they have chosen otherwise.
If Germany and France can come together, why can’t China and Japan? Why can’t India and Pakistan? Why can’t Shias and Sunnis? In fact a better poser would be as to how China and Japan can come together. How India and Pakistan can come together. This ‘how’ leads us to the ‘Pollyanna principle‘.
Nations have to re-define their approach to history. Nations under the burden of mutual hostilities need to do so very urgently in today’s post Hiroshima period. For the nations and entities entangled in hostilities, history is facts, perceptions, interpretations, prejudices, folklores and cultures totally mixed together. It becomes impossible not to hate the other.
Leaderships need to apply the ‘Pollyanna principle‘. They need to select the positive elements from their shared pasts. A Pakistani student needs to know that Gopal Krishna Gokhale was among the role models for Mohammad Ali Jinnah. Indian students need to know that Jinnah disagreed with the Indian National Congress on the issue of secularism because Jinnah was against supporting the theocratic elements in Turkey and he was in favour of the modern secular government which had replaced the Caliphate. Students in both the countries need to know about the fact that all the revolutionaries in the battle for independence waged in 1857 fought under the banner of the Mughal Emperor.
The common march of all the nationalists up to the point of departure is to be emphasized. Here comes the difficult point. The very idea of Pakistan is based upon the two nation theory. Now, Pakistan and India have to set aside the ideological polemic. They have to work on the cultural unifiers. They have to highlight the integrative elements and suppress the disintegrative even as acknowledging their existence.
The world has become so complex that it needs simple solutions. This sounds counter intuitive but this is how it is going to work. The Secretary General of the UN has to act as the ‘Pollyanna Principal‘.
It is time to write a history of the mankind with a focus on its future. This has to be a history of the endeavour of the mankind to become better equipped and also to become better human beings. It is to be a history of how China, India, Mesopotamia, Greece and Egypt learnt from each other during different epochs. There is a need to acknowledge the invasions by the Huns, Mongols, Crusaders, Nazis and terrorists as painful historical facts which need to be ignored by the application of ‘positive bias’ so that the comity of nations moves towards a happy future.
The spirit of Koestler’s prescription lies in emphasizing the integrative and de-emphasizing the disintegrative. Whether the surgical intervention suggested by him is a ridiculous brainwave or a discontinuous, yet plausible, alternative is a question to be dealt with by the experts. But the policies makers and leaders would do well to look at areas of convergence and de-emphasize the areas of divergence.
When China and India decide to let the boundary-issues wait and engage themselves in areas of mutual cooperation, the future of humanity gets a booster dose. The images of the Indian Prime Minister guiding the Chinese President and his spouse to a friendly stroll on the banks of Sabarmati River in Gujarat, India, should be highlighted and the almost simultaneous incident of the Chinese soldiers shown to be entering the territories under dispute needs to be de-emphasized. Such repeated re-emphases on the positive or the integrative and de-emphases on the negative or the dis-integrative will help both the countries move forward. It will help over 2.75 billion people living in the two countries to harness their energies in the pursuit of the awesome creativity shown by them in the past. The sheer brilliance of the two cultures and civilizations has ensured that the mutual hostilities between China and India never touched the sub-human lows of those between France and Germany.
Leaderships all over the world need to realise that hardened positions taken by the world leaders had always pushed the world towards disasters. The tragic rise of fundamentalism, the associated violence, the return to barbaric and brutal savagery have made some sections in the West conclude that there are forces worse than communism. The idea is not to compare the cold war and post-cold war world order. The idea is to emphasis the point that unless the leaderships look at the positives in history and in others, the resultant conflicts will make the world much more dangerous a place.
The task of the United Nations University is cut out. The mission of this global think tank is to contribute, through collaborative research and education, to efforts to resolve the pressing global problems of human survival, development and welfare that are the concern of the United Nations, its Peoples and Member States.
In carrying out this mission, the UN University works with leading universities and research institutes in the UN Member States, functioning as a bridge between the international academic community and the United Nations system.
Now, the resources of the UN University need to be up-scaled manifold. All the stakeholders in the survival of mankind (and I do believe that each and everyone is a stakeholder), all the nations have to build a global team of historians, psychologists, sociologists, economists and other experts who work as the missionaries of integration driven by the spirit of the ‘Pollyanna principle‘.
The spirit of internationalism expressed by the likes of Gandhi, Tolstoy, Tagore, Romain Rolland and others needs to be fleshed out by the experts of international relations. Till now most of the experts have been dismissive of the ‘principles’ of universal brotherhood as banalities. We need experts and institutions who make our planet a happy place to live.