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CULTURAL UNDERSTANDING: What Possesses People To Do The Things They Do?


A look at burning Korans, President Karzai, Terry Jones and cultural differences

Why Do People Do What They Do New Directions Consulting

On March 20th Terry Jones, the pastor of the Dove World Outreach Center in Gainesville, Florida burned the Koran, igniting a terrible situation in Afghanistan where twelve UN workers were killed by Afghanistan protesters.  As I watched the interview with the unrepentant pastor on TV, I asked myself – “What possesses people to do the things they do?”  There must be some logic in his mind that I just don’t understand.  Likewise, I struggled to understand those in Afghanistan who attacked the UN compound, killing completely innocent people as a way to get even.  And then later I learned that Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai was reportedly responsible for escalating this firestorm by sharing the information with three influential mullahs who fired up the people.   Why would Karzai position the Afghanistan people against the US?  Doesn’t he know where his proverbial “bread is buttered?” Somewhere the logic in the entire situation seems twisted and well, frankly, illogical.  We could choose to chalk it up to the lunatic fringe or political maneuvering, but it might be interesting to explore some truths about motivation and behavior to see if we can make something so senseless, make sense.

terry jones_cropFirst of all we have to accept that people do things for their reasons, not ours.  Somewhere in this dynamic triangle (the pastor, Karzai and the Afghanistan people), each has a reason for behaving in a certain way.  Their behavior is based on their beliefs (See Belief: Behavior Connection).  We never act contrary to our belief system – what we think governs what we do.  What we believe, we become.  The pastor held a mock trial of the Koran and framed a belief that the Koran was guilty of five crimes against humanity. The Koran’s punishment was determined by an online poll of his 30 parishioners ranging from shredding, drowning, facing a firing squad or burning the book.  Based on the results of the mock trial of the holy book and our First Amendment (Freedom of Speech) rights, he believed it was acceptable to burn the Koran. All of this fell within his “Zone of Acceptance.”  As he explained to the news media, “It is not that we burn the Koran with some type of vindictive motive.  We do not even burn it with great pleasure or any pleasure at all. We burn it because we feel a deep obligation to stay with the court system of America. The court system of America does not allow convicted criminals to go free. And that is why we feel obligated to do this.”

afghan people_cropFor the Afghan protestors, burning the Koran is a horrendous act of degradation against their religion; they believe the Koran is a living embodiment of Allah.  To destroy the Koran is equivalent to trying to destroy their God – an act that falls completely in their “Zone of Rejection” and cannot be tolerated.  To avenge the burning of the Koran, thousands of protestors overran the UN compound; the dead included at least seven UN workers — four Nepalese guards and three Europeans from Romania, Sweden and Norway – none from the US.   Their “Zone of Acceptance” included killing innocent people who had nothing to do with the burning of the Koran.  Motivation is an emotional force, not a logical one.  When we take an action in an emotional state, it doesn’t need to make logical sense to us, because at that point we don’t really care.   The emotional center of our brain responds at the most basic level of emotion – fury, blind rage and mob mentality.

Both Afghan and international news media had initially ignored the actions of Terry Jones, the Florida pastor. On Thursday following the incident, however, President Karzai made a speech and issued statements condemning the Koran burning and calling for the arrest of Mr. Jones for his actions. On Friday, that theme was picked up in mosques throughout Afghanistan. Karzai’s speech was seen as provoking people into taking action, rather than encouraging patience and explaining it as the actions of one individual.

hamid karzai_cropJust as we can’t control why people are motivated to take a particular action, we also can’t control whether the action is productive or unproductive.  One would assume that Karzai would have chosen a productive action to reduce tensions and violence, similar to say, Nelson Mandela.  In the workplace, we are as equally surprised by the employees who while striving for perfection produce below quota, or who deliver below average work because of feelings of unfairness or anger and are then surprised when confronted about their performance.  Our sense of productive is not always as others see it. One also wonders here whether cultural differences played any role.  In North America we are much more individualistic and rational, while European and Middle Eastern countries are more collective and situational in their responses.  In the curious interest of human psychology, I interviewed my stepson who studied Middle Eastern culture at Dartmouth and has visited and lived in the area off and on for the past 5 years.   He notes first of all that there is a significant cultural and linguistic difference between the region we call the Middle East (including North Africa), and South Central Asia, where Afghanistan is located. While they have Islam in common, the people of Afghanistan are not ethnically Arab and do not speak Arabic, like the countries of the Middle East. As most of us know by now, much of Afghanistan is very rural, sorely lacking in infrastructure, and highly organized along tribal and kinship lines. What is best for family and tribe is an important consideration in every decision, and many decisions may have consequences that determine whether a family survives or starves. Can we expect the average American family of today to share the same worldview or decision-making process?

One thing we do know, we will never understand the behavior of others unless we can understand their motivation.  Yet in this circumstance, it is so difficult to understand what could possibly motivate the burning of a sacred book, the killing of twelve innocent people and the injuring of 81 others, and the inflammatory remarks of a President who should be advocating understanding and peaceful disagreement.  No one would have disagreed if the Afghani people had asked the US for an apology for the actions of the Florida pastor.  But that’s our Americanized view of how people should be motivated, not necessarily how the rest of the world sees it.  What makes one culture “tick,” doesn’t influence another culture the same way.

The world always becomes troublesome when we can’t logically explain the actions of other people.  What we expect to happen in “our perfect world,” doesn’t happen.  It upsets our basic belief in human decency, fairness and tolerance.  It confounds our sense of trust in humanity.  It teaches that the boundaries of civility and respect, of care for humanity can be violated by all parties.  And how does it affect our own boundaries of acceptable behavior when we see on TV actions that exceed the limits? Does it begin to make it confusing for people to know right from wrong, to control their most base instincts of revenge?   Did this incident fall within our Zone of Acceptance, Zone of Rejection or do we position ourselves as neutral – as a way to stay out of it altogether?  While we can’t control circumstances that happen around us, we can use them to examine how we would react in a similar circumstance and explore our own beliefs, boundaries and motivations.


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