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Understanding Conflicts And Human Stupidity Through The Lens Of Political Science

Introduction


Each morning, as we pick up the newspaper, we are confronted with headlines that plunge us into the complexities of war. Whether it is the heartbreaking situation in West Asia, where thousands of innocent lives are lost in the relentless struggle against terrorism, or the ongoing conflict in Russia and Ukraine, where the debate centres around the choice between joining a security alliance and the looming threat it poses. Amidst all these discussions, we often overlook one fundamental human trait: stupidity. In this article, we will delve into the notion that many wars throughout history have been driven by sheer foolishness. 


Understanding Human Stupidity


It is difficult to express the exact definition of stupidity. It is rather easier to call someone stupid than to recognise ‘what’ act is stupid. Nobutaka Otobe (2013), a professor of Law and Politics at Osaka University, mentions very vividly in his thesis ‘Stupidity in Politics: Its Unavoidability and Potential’, “Stupidity is an endogenous problem of thinking. Stupidity cannot be reduced to exogenous problems such as error.” By this Otobe means that stupidity cannot merely be regarded as the inability to do something or to make errors. 


It has been understood that the label of stupidity is used in three different situations: the first one being when the individual fails to balance between the confidence they portray and the abilities they have; second one being when people make mistakes by not paying attention; and finally third, which is when people fail to grasp control over themselves and their responsibilities. 


Carlo M Cipolla also delves into this topic through his book The Basic Laws of Human Stupidity, outlining a few fundamental laws regarding human stupidity. According to Cipolla, when a person's actions are counterproductive and do not benefit society or themselves, they can be deemed stupid. Furthermore, a stupid individual tends to maximise disorder in their surroundings (Purtill, 2017). For instance, the decision of Benito Mussolini to involve Italy in World War-II without adequate military preparedness can be considered stupid. This move not only failed to benefit the Italian people but also shattered  their morale, leading to Mussolini's humiliation.


In summary, stupidity is a complex phenomenon that goes beyond mere mistakes or errors, encompassing a range of behaviours that hinder progress and create chaos (Otobe, 2013).


The Ultimate Trigger of Stupidity: Greed


Greediness is a natural human tendency that drives humans and guides human behaviour from the very  moment they enter the world. The morality of greed is a debatable topic as many renowned personalities have given their take on it, with some justifying greed and some calling it the potential reason for human extinction. In terms of political science, we can see some historic moments or decisions that certainly tell us about human nature characterised by greed.


In the book Merchants of Death, Engelbrecht and Hanighen have beautifully portrayed how capitalist ideas paved the way of greed for industrialists to build ‘death machines’, which were initially used in the 1800s and then later the first world war. This sale of arms was being justified by these industrialists as a ‘fair’ business and no different than that of a furniture store (Harris, 2024). This greed for money led to many unequal fights, between the oppressors and the oppressed, and it threw the world into a never-ending arms race. 


Another historic event that was fueled by greed was the westward expansion of the United States of America. Soon after independence, America decided to expand westward beyond its existing western boundaries that were in place at that time. This expansion to the left happened in the 1810s and led to many fights with the native American tribes that were asked to leave their homes to accommodate the incoming American crowds and towns. The westward expansion was done with many materialist reasons such as the gold rush. The Americans believed that it was in their ‘destiny’ to own all the land between the Pacific and Atlantic oceans. This shows how superficial ideas such as ‘destiny’ were used to cover the imperialist truth. The aspect of stupidity here comes from the detrimental loss of lives due to the pursuit of the westward expansion and the uprooting of cultural diversity in an instant, all because one man said it was destiny.


In the contemporary era, one instance that symbolises human greed is the political landscape of Afghanistan, where the leadership of Taliban, a religiously dominated institution, leverages Islam to fortify its political authority in a nation that is already recovering from a long war. In this instance stupidity emerges from the situation whereby a nation’s leadership beset by economic, social, and political challenges, necessitating a unified effort towards its recovery uses religious doctrines to impede education and becomes complacent to growing regional backwardness. The adoption of such a political structure safeguards the political elite but drastically fosters an environment that has the risk of spiralling society into chaos and ultimately becomes a threat to their existence (Raine, 2022).


We can infer from the above that greed of a few men at the top of the political power chain contributes to the argument of greed triggering stupidity.


Some Historical Conflicts that had Peculiar Catalysts or Reasons


When we talk about human stupidity in conflicts it is hard to overlook the Pig War of 1859. The confrontation known as the Pig War between the United States and the United Kingdom arose from boundary disputes due to vague legislation. Oregon County was contested, leading to joint US-UK occupation until a resolution. American migration via the Oregon Trail swelled their numbers in the region, strengthening US claims supported by President James Knox Polk. Avoiding war due to economic and political factors, a straight border was drawn to the Pacific from existing boundaries, sparking controversy over islands and straits. The treaty's wording left room for disputes, notably over a channel with islands, escalating tensions between the two nations. 


James Douglas, a governor stationed near the disputed islands, decided to maintain British control by settling British individuals like Charles Griffin and Hawaiian shepherds on San Juan Island, where they raised sheep and prized Berkshire pigs. The Gold Rush brought American migrants to Oregon and San Juan, with a dozen settling on San Juan, including Lyman Cutler. Cutler, residing in the sheep run, planted a potato plantation without fencing, leading to disputes with Griffin over the animals ruining his crops. One morning, finding the pig eating his harvest, Cutler shot the pig, escalating tensions in the region.


The shooting of the pig caused immense issues to the point where Lyman Cutler was almost arrested. This didn’t sit well with US Army generals posted in the area as they believed that the islands were American and thus started a long period of military standoffs. Army advisors deescalated the situation before there was any other casualty than the prized Berkshire pig (Johnson, 2023).


Through analysing this conflict, we can understand how peculiar of a reason it was to use the shooting of a pig as a catalyst to start conflict between two powerful nations. While this was a clear instance where human stupidity overpowered logical reasoning, there are many wars in history that seem on surface level to be logical but when analysed deeply while understanding the main motive behind it, we realise that this particular conflict was stupid in nature. 


The World War-II is an example of a war that, upon deeper analysis, can be seen as a conflict with a foolish nature. Lasting for six years and one day, it resulted in almost 80 million casualties, which accounted for approximately 3% of the global population at that time. When we examine the surface reality and justification that was being circulated to the German population, we think that Hitler’s motivation came from the idea that the German people were stripped off their dignity by the Treaty of Versailles. He also blamed the people who opposed Germany’s involvement in the first world war and considered them to be anti-nationals. He believed in the idea that the German army had never failed at the war; it was rather the left-wing government and Jewish people who made Germany throw in the towel. While this idea of Hitler might seem nationalist and justified to German people of that era, in reality it was not out of the spirit of nationalism; rather it was the role of messiah that he wanted to play in order to gain power. Having emerged from a humiliating defeat in the World War-I, Hitler chose to scapegoat the Communists and the Jewish population in order to garner support from the common people. By providing them with a justification for their grievances and promising economic upliftment, the restoration of German prestige, and retribution against those allegedly responsible for Germany's loss in the World War-I, Hitler managed to earn the trust of the German masses (Anne Frank House, 2022).


Unfortunately, the stupidity of this particular conflict resulted in the loss of approximately 80 million lives, with no tangible gains for any nation. Carlo M Cipolla, in his book ‘The Basic Laws of Human Stupidity’ highlights the ability of profoundly foolish individuals to convince others that their ideas should be accepted as standard operating procedure.


How does understanding this help us in the contemporary era and the field of political science?


Today, to us, many conflicts currently happening around the globe may seem justified for the reasons that are given to us. but we must understand that previous generations and their conflicts and wars such as westward expansion in America, The two world wars, Cold War, et cetera were justified in their eyes as well, but when we, the future generation look back at history and see the peculiar catalysts and reasons of these conflicts; it seems to us that it was stupid. It is natural that generations after us would feel the same way about the conflicts and wars that are fought in the timeline of our generation. 


It is only human nature to justify our greed in order to avoid the feeling of cognitive dissonance but considering that we aim to create a civil society, we must not ignore the natural tendency of greed and stupidity in our arguments that is often hidden behind the curtain of Nationalism. Taking example of current day conflicts, perhaps the Russia-Ukraine War is happening for reasons of greed by either party. Perhaps it is the greed of Russian leadership that believes in restoring the glory of the USSR or it is the greed of the Ukrainian leadership to reap the benefits of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) alliance. While this is still a highly debatable topic, it can be looked at from another perspective.


In order to solve questions like this in political science we must approach its heart which is the art of debate and deliberation along with putting ourselves in the position of our future generations and thinking from their perspective whether this war is being fought on the idea of justice or is it being fought on the basis of human greed.



Conclusion


From the above analysis of conflicts and human stupidity, we can infer that the field of political science must explore the logic behind conflicts and understand that human greed triggers stupidity which has historically claimed lives. Being the current generation, we must analyse the motive behind our conflicts and understand whether it is greed-driven or justifiable, because not all wars are stupid. Some are necessary. But the ones which are not necessary are born out of greed, and greed, by definition, is stupid.


The author is a student at Ramjas College, University of Delhi.






References


Aczel, B., Palfi, B., & Kekecs, Z. (2015). What is stupid? Intelligence, 53, 51–58. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.intell.2015.08.010 


Anne Frank House. (2022). Why did Hitler hate the jews?. Anne Frank Website. https://www.annefrank.org/en/topics/antisemitism/why-did-hitler-hate-jews/ 


Cipolla, C. M., & Taleb, N. N. (2021). The basic laws of human stupidity. Doubleday.

 

Harris, J. (2024, February 29). How capitalism changed the face of war. YouTube. https://youtu.be/d-gjsTh4cQg?si=bUhQ0f87lNcWJIeg 


Hayat, Q., Raza Naqvi, S. M., & Rauza, R. (2021). Greed: Theoretical, religious and Business Perspective. Journal of Islamic Business and Management (JIBM), 11(02). https://doi.org/10.26501/jibm/2021.1102-009 


HistoryExtra. (2023, November 1). Laurence Rees on the perpetrators of the Holocaust: “what they told us was, at the time, they felt it was the right thing to do.” https://www.historyextra.com/period/second-world-war/nazis-justify-holocaust/ 


Johnson, B. (2023, December 12). The Pig War of 1859. Historic UK. https://www.historic-uk.com/HistoryUK/HistoryofBritain/The-Pig-War/ 


Mueller, J. (2021, June 2). Mueller: The Stupidity of War. Human Progress. March 28, 2024, https://humanprogress.org/mueller-the-stupidity-of-war/ 


Otobe, N. (2013). Stupidity in politics: Its unavoidability and potential


Purtill, C. (2017, April 29). The five universal laws of human stupidity. Quartz. https://qz.com/967554/the-five-universal-laws-of-human-stupidity 


Raine, J. (2022, January 28). Afghanistan’s state failure and the problem of ‘humanitarian ... International Institute for Strategic Studies. https://www.iiss.org/en/online-analysis/online-analysis/2022/01/afghanistans-state-failure-and-the-problem-of-humanitarian-containment/ 



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