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The Arrogance Thing - Scott Adams' Blog

The Arrogance Thing

Warning: This blog is written for a rational audience that likes to have fun wrestling with unique or controversial points of view. It is written in a style that can easily be confused as advocacy or opinion. It is not intended to change anyone’s beliefs or actions. If you quote from this post or link to it, which you are welcome to do, please take responsibility for whatever happens if you mismatch the audience and the content.

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The interesting thing about arrogance is that it’s hard to know when you’re doing it. It’s a challenge to be confident in your opinion without projecting an air of superiority. Objectively speaking, if you think you have the right answer for a given situation, it follows that anyone who disagrees is a little bit misguided, or ignorant, or just plain dumb. If you aren’t a good actor, it’s easy to slip from being confident in your opinion to being a pretentious douche bag. I should know – I’m all over that line. Today will be no exception.

I learned I was arrogant when I moved from upstate New York – where people tend to be direct and plainspoken – to California, where honesty is considered rude. In upstate New York, you can say you’re good at math and people take it as an objective statement of truth. In California, the nearest you can come to that sort of truth is saying you’re bad at spelling, which suggests you might be better at math.

I assume different countries have very different views of what constitutes arrogance. I was thinking about this with respect to Iran and their nuclear program. Ahmadinejad recently said, “"Iran is ready for talks within the framework of equality and justice,” and added they “will never enter talks if enemies behave arrogantly.”

If you take the view that Iran’s leaders are religious nuts who lie about everything and plan to annihilate Israel and themselves in a nuclear war, we can end the discussion here. Maybe it’s that simple. But no matter what you assume to be the underlying reality, it still behooves the United States to push for full inspections and leave no stone unturned for a peaceful outcome.

That’s what brings me to my hypnosis training. One of the most interesting things I learned in hypnosis class is that people often tell us exactly what they want, but we have trouble hearing it. When Iran talks, all we hear is “lie, lie, lie.” But suppose, just for the purpose of discussion, Iran has been telling the absolute and literal truth all along. (I know – it’s hard to imagine. Consider it a thought experiment.)

First, Iran says it has no intention to build nuclear weapons, and can see no benefit in doing so. They even have a religious edict expressly forbidding it. Some observers have interpreted that to mean they only intend to build the capability to quickly make some nuclear weapons if they ever change their minds. From Israel’s perspective, that’s a difference without a distinction. When your very existence is at stake, you treat your enemy’s almost-nuclear-weapon exactly the same as a definite nuclear weapon.

When Iran says it won’t negotiate with “enemies” who act “arrogantly,” that sounds to our ears like “We don’t have any intention of negotiating.” But what if, as my old hypnosis teacher might instruct, we assume Iran is clearly and literally telling us the way out of this mess? What if the biggest problem is that we present ourselves as enemies, and we act arrogantly, albeit unintentionally? Wouldn’t that handcuff the Iranian leadership and require them to be inflexible?

Have we ever tried acting like friends to Iran instead of enemies, or tried acting less arrogantly? And if we were to try that approach, would it give Tehran political cover to open up productive discussions on inspections?

The problem is that there’s no way to test the hypothesis without losing forever our hardline stand. And in the end, the hardline stand might be the only thing that works. Further complicating things, our brains are wired to put a higher value on what we have (our consistent and credible hardline stand), than what we might gain by giving it up. Humans are not capable of objectively evaluating options that require giving up something they value, even if the potential payoff is worth it.

But just for discussion, what would it look like if the United States stopped acting arrogantly toward Iran, and started to be more matter-of-fact about our needs while praising the Iranian people for their general awesomeness as a country?

Suppose we say bluntly that we prefer to be friends, but given our histories, and some things that have been said about obliterating Israel, surely they can understand we need to take reasonable precautions against a potential catastrophe. Likewise, we can understand their ambition to have nuclear energy in a time when oil reserves in Iran have likely peaked. To keep the world safe, we need Iran to be our equal partners in bringing down the risk of war. Oh, and by the way, we’re sorry about meddling in Iran’s internal affairs in the past. We screwed the pooch with the whole Shah situation. That’s on us.

If we’re being honest, we have to say we’re not happy about Iran’s role in Iraq, and in particular we resent the Iranian actions that caused American deaths. But realistically, we expect countries to act aggressively to protect their interests in their own backyards. We can understand without forgiving, and get past it.

Iran’s support for Hezbollah is still a huge issue. But as a purely practical matter, we could choose to treat it as a separate issue from Iran’s nuclear program, even if we believe it’s all related. And the chaos in Syria might change the Hezbollah equation indirectly anyway.

The important question boils down to whether or not you believe the root problem is Iran’s reckless drive toward nuclear weapons. Is it possible that the real problem is the perceived arrogance of Iran’s enemies, which forces Iran to continue on a reckless nuclear path to maintain some semblance of national pride? Put another way, if we started treating Switzerland the way we treat Iran, how long would it take the Swiss to start a nuclear weapons program?

Gandhi would say we should be the change we want to see in the world. Cesar the Dog Whisperer would say the dog only calms down when the owner does. My hypnosis teacher would say people clearly ask for what they want, and all you need to do is listen. All of those guys might be wrong. It might be true, as many of you will be quick to argue, that the Iranian leadership is genuinely insane, and force is the only realistic way to deal with it. My only point is that we’ve never tried the alternative, and it’s unlikely we ever will. In modern times, war is decided by the economics of the news industry, which is another way of saying war is the only option, at least until someone figures out a way to make peace newsworthy.