Why They Hate Us: The Role of Social Dynamics

By Sunstein, Cass R. | Harvard Journal of Law & Public Policy, Spring 2002 | Go to article overview

Why They Hate Us: The Role of Social Dynamics


Sunstein, Cass R., Harvard Journal of Law & Public Policy


I. THE THESIS

My goal in this brief Essay is to cast some new light on a question that has been much discussed in the aftermath of the attacks of September 11. The question is simple: Why do they hate us? I suggest that a large part of the answer lies, not in anything particular to Islam, to religion, or even to the ravings of Osama bin Laden, but in social dynamics and especially in the process of group polarization. (1) When group polarization is at work, like-minded people, engaged in discussion with one another, move toward extreme positions. The effect is especially strong with people who are already quite extreme; such people can move in literally dangerous directions. It is unfortunate but true that leaders of terrorist organizations show a working knowledge of group polarization. They sharply discipline what is said. They attempt to inculcate a shared sense of humiliation, which breeds rage, and group solidarity, which prepares the way for movement toward further extremes and hence for violent acts. They attempt to ensure that recruits speak mostly to people who are already predisposed in the preferred direction. They produce a cult-like atmosphere.

With an understanding of group polarization, we can see that when "they hate us," it is often because of social processes that have been self-consciously created and manipulated by terrorist leaders. These social processes could easily be otherwise. If they were, terrorism would not exist, or at least it would be greatly weakened and its prospects would be diminished. There is no natural predisposition toward terrorism, even among the most disaffected people in the poorest nations. When terrorism occurs, it is typically a result of emphatically social pressures (2) and indeed easily identifiable mechanisms of interaction. More broadly, ethnic identification and ethnic conflict are a product of similar pressures; (3) an understanding of "why they hate us" is thus likely to promote an increased understanding of social hatred in general.

We can draw some conclusions here for the law of conspiracy, for freedom of association, for the idea of "political correctness," for the system of checks and balances, and for possible responses to terrorist threats. Thus I shall identify the distinctive logic behind the special punishment of conspiracy: those who conspire are likely to move one another in more extreme and hence more dangerous directions. I shall also urge that freedom of association helps to fuel group polarization--a healthy phenomenon much of the time, but a potentially dangerous one in some contexts. I shall urge, finally, that an especially effective way to prevent terrorism is to prevent "terrorist entrepreneurs" from creating special enclaves of like-minded or potentially like-minded people. It might seem tempting to object to such efforts on the ground that they interfere with associational liberty, which is of course prized in all democratic nations. But we are speaking here of terrorism and conspiracy to kill American citizens; in such cases, the claims for associational liberty are very weak. Conspiracy is the dark side of freedom of association, and it is a form of conspiracy that I am discussing here. One of my largest goals is thus to provide a window on the nature and consequences of conspiracy in the particular context of terrorism.

II. THE BASIC PHENOMENON

A. What Groups Do

Let us begin with some social science research that seems very far afield from the area of terrorism. In 1962, J.A.F. Stoner, an enterprising graduate student, attempted to examine the relationship between individual judgments and group judgments. (4) He did so against a background belief that groups tended to move toward the middle of their members' pre-deliberation views. Stoner proceeded by asking people a range of questions involving risk-taking behavior. People were asked, for example, whether someone should choose a safe or risky play in the last seconds of a football game; whether someone should invest money in a low-return, high-security stock or instead a high-return, lower security stock; whether someone should choose a high prestige graduate program in which a number of people fail to graduate or a lower prestige school from which everyone graduates. …

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