Frequently in discussions, the idea of motivation is brought up. What drives behavior? What is the cause of people’s actions? What makes people behave the way they do? Many people stubbornly like to truncate this notion to the idea of belief – that is, they claim people’s actions are a direct result of their conscious beliefs – but belief is only one fraction of motivation. The entire sphere of motivation contains endless subsets of forces, dynamics, emotional states, unconscious and subconscious activity, and various psychological underpinnings, all of which have an influence on the resulting action(s). The idea of “belief” only covers the conscious motivations, which only tells one tiny part of the story.
We know that various socioeconomic factors will have an impact on constituent populations. That is, the presence of certain forces demonstrably have an impact on the behavior of the people living within them. Everyone acknowledges this. People tend, however, to skip the next step and therefore miss the (seemingly) obvious conclusion: if external socioeconomic (political, etc.) forces alter and affect the behavior of the people living inside the scope of these forces, then that means those forces must, on some level, affect the psychological state of those people.
This transformation is not always conscious. In fact, it rarely is. Societal forces act on people in ways that they are not always aware of. We know this. This is what clinical psychology helps the individual parse through. (I have many issues with clinical psychology in that it tends to alleviate pressure and allows people to “fit in,” but that’s a separate gripe for a separate post.) This fact is what advertising and public relations and political campaigning relies upon: that human behavior can be influenced by communicating with the unconscious mind. This means that people can behave in ways due to subconscious or unconscious motivators while simultaneously “believing” that their true motivation is the one of which they are aware (conscious).
This concept is readily obvious when we are talking about our own personal lives. How many people are motivated sexually or intimately by various forces toward which they are completely ignorant? How many people get married “for the wrong reasons”? At the time, certainly each person would tell you they are marrying for “love" and “trust" and whatever other things they think are motivating them. But in situations where it is retroactively realized that wasn’t the case, honest people will eventually start to explore and understand some of the more fundamental and more “truthful” motivations behind their relationship. (Insecurity, lack of identity, replication of paternal dynamics, etc.) To sit there and say, “Well he/she said this is why they did it, so that’s why they did it!” is utter lunacy and leads to some pretty dangerous consequences of thought.
The notion of motivation is on heavy rotation in our current discourse. When someone tries to draw the causal link between, say, Islam and ISIS, they’ll usually quote the members of ISIS as incontrovertible proof that Islam is what is truly motivating them. But this neglects so many important factors that it’s absurdly petulant to stop thinking at that point. Who is ISIS? Where do they come from? Who is funding them? Who is propping them up? What environment did those people grow up in? These are all pertinent factors that will affect a group of people’s ability or willingness to become or join ISIS. These factors all play a part in the subconscious motivation of the people even though many of them truly think their primary motivator is the tenets of Islam. The fact that many of them have grown up around or heavily participated in brutal war their entire lives – some of which have seen their friends and family blown to bits (by U.S. tanks), for example – will have a significant impact on the range of behaviors in which they are willing to participate. It’s possible that their “religion” is merely the unifying ideology that gives context to their rage and action.
Another example: gangs in the United States. It is easy to see that what causes street gangs and street gang violence is poverty, disenfranchisement, lack of education, etc. But how many gang members would tell you these are the conscious motivators for what they do? Some might be able to recognize that and contextualize the situation. But most will probably talk about "territory” or "brotherhood” or “money.” Clearly the environments in which gang members grow up change their psychological state and therefore alter their databank of motivations. From normalizing death at an early age or being surrounded by violence and corruption or having little to lose, these factors help motivate people to do things that would, from another set of socio-economic – socio-psychological – circumstances (ours, for example), seem totally insane.
The same is true about the 9/11 hijackers. In the U.S., we swallow whole the propaganda surrounding 9/11. We act as if we were peacefully minding our own business and then, out of nowhere, some religious lunatics decided to cause death and destruction. People then claim, “They did it because of their beliefs! Listen to what they said!” Well, okay. If we were actually interested in learning why 9/11 occurred, we could listen to the mastermind himself, Osama Bin Laden. In November 2002 he wrote a Letter to America in which he outlined a very detailed explanation of why he (they) attacked the U.S. (us). The primary reason is because “you [the U.S.] attacked us and continue to attack us [Muslims].” He then lists various ways in which (he believes) this is the case: Israeli occupation in Palestine, U.N. sanctions against Iraq, extortion of oil, among many others. The controversial nature of these statements notwithstanding, at the very least we have to acknowledge that living on the butt-end of those factors and the subsequent interpretation and internalization of those factors could motivate an individual in a way that supersedes “religion.” Sure, some religious pretext can be used to galvanize and cohere certain ideas and emotions, but it’s reckless to assume that without religion, this very real resentment would be pacified internally in some way.
This is not, as some will inevitably accuse, an excuse or, worse, a condoning of these acts of violence. That couldn’t be further from the truth. Rather it is a demand to avoid oversimplifying things to such a childish degree and instead inspect the true “root” of violence so that we may better find a solution to stopping it. It does absolutely no good to point a finger at Islam whenever people carry out violence “in the name of Islam.” The effects of doing so are demonstrably disastrous. Continual bombing of populations to “root out” terror is what is causing and continuing terror in the first place. (The number one factor in the existence of suicide bombing, for example, is foreign occupation, not religion.) Not just by galvanizing “anti-American” support but also by imposing war-torn conditions on populations which then serve as motivating factors in the “radicalization” of populations.
Conscious motivations toward violence are very often non-religious in the traditional sense. (Although the fervor driving them can aptly be described as religious.) Look at the United States. The United States over the past 5 or 6 decades has been by far the most violent, aggressive country in the world. What drives our “state-capitalist extremists” (military) to violence? A lot of things. First of all, we have a complex system of propaganda indoctrinating every citizen with jingoistic views of geopolitics and history. This starts in the schools and is corroborated by media outlets, Hollywood, and the like. We are the good guys who stand for freedom, democracy, and sanity; “they” are insane lunatics who pose a threat to our values. This is a constant throughout our society and most of the West. From 9/11 (“they hate our freedom”) to Charlie Hebdo (“they attacked our freedom of speech”), various mouthpieces spew propaganda into our minds which change our fundamental motivations. (For example, the week after the Charlie Hebdo attack, after an avalanche of anti-Muslim rhetoric and discussion, the movie “American Sniper”, in which Bradley Cooper kills hundreds of Muslims, earned $90 million, breaking the Winter opening weekend record.) These “patriotic beliefs” are just as religious as Christianity or Islam as they are based on emotion and insulation rather than empirical data and reality.
What motivates a U.S. soldier to storm Iraq or Afghanistan? Or fly a drone into Pakistan? These people are motivated by irrational beliefs of “democracy” or “freedom” (two things that don’t actually exist in America) as well as the fraudulent notion of an “enemy.” This paradigm is not only implanted and installed by outside forces (media, schools, parents, society, etc.) but it is reaffirmed and lauded nearly unanimously by all agents of authority in our society. To go against this narrative is considered taboo. Dangerous. Uncouth. Anti-American. Unpatriotic. Many other words that they invented to discredit the truth. The unwillingness of many of us to inspect our own institutions with the scrutiny and critical eye with which we apply so easily and callously to “foreign” societies, populations, religions, and nations is the textbook definition of petulant hypocrisy.
It’s a cozy bed-time tale to tell ourselves that we’re the good guys fighting the bad guys. This is almost never truly the case. The 9/11 attacks did NOT pose a “threat to our freedom.” That’s an unjustifiably insane belief. Ironically, the government and media reaction to those attacks did pose a substantial threat the very freedom they claim to be protecting. From the Patriot Act to increased security measures to the increased violence overseas which help create “anti-American sentiment," these are actual infringements of our civil liberties, spearheaded by our friendly local, mom and pop federal government. However, many U.S. citizens happily complied with these new “security measures.” Three quarters of the population initially approved of the invasion of Iraq. If you asked U.S. citizens what their motivation was to submit to or approve these policies (if they knew about them at all), they’d tell you it is to “fight terror” or “defend freedom” or “kill the bad guys." However, in truth it was yet another example of a frightened, ignorant population capitulating to very calculated fear-mongering from institutional powers.
Funny how we’re not always completely aware of what drives us.