Monday, January 22, 2007

Sensemaking - the story of this blog

Dan Russell from the wonderful Creating Passionate Users asked "How do you make sense of something that’s big and complicated?". He wrote that he "has been thinking a great deal about sensemaking" ... i.e., "what you do when you’re trying to organize your taxes, or when you want to understand what’s going on in the Middle East".

This immediately reminded me of the process that I went through on this blog. Since Dan asked his readers for examples of their own sensemaking process, I thought I'd share the process I went through on this blog. It was a sensemaking process that caused a tremendous paradigm shift for me.

During the recent Lebanon war, I had set up this blog - in order to explain the Israeli point of view to Arabs. I didn't mean to understand anything. I read some anti-Israeli remarks on Lebanese and Egyptian blogs, and wanted to explain the Israeli point of view (e.g., here)

At some point, I decided to invite Zeinobia - who seemed to me a very anti-Israeli Egyptian blogger - to a dialog. She kindly accepted, along with several other Egyptian bloggers who also joined the discussion.

I was really glad of that, and started imagining how this blog would really make a difference. But on the following day, an Israeli bomb destroyed a house in Qana, and several children were killed. Fearing that the dialog would die, I urged the Arabs not to let this happen. I also said that "While I remain proud of the Israeli soldiers for protecting my life with theirs - I am ashamed of the Israeli Army for not doing more to avoid such brutal killings of innocent children", and that "I hope that you, my Arab partners to this discussion, are ashamed of Hizballa for its cruel use of innocent children as human shields".

Since the people I was talking to seemed reasonable, I was expecting a similar response from them. Something along the lines of "yes, you're right, it is wrong of Hizballa to use children as human shields, but your army leaves them no choice".

But no - they didn't say that the Hizballa didn't have a choice. Not even one of them said that. They ALL said that the Hizballa weren't even there. They claimed that the whole thing about Human shields is a lie, and that all Israelis are murderers.

Boy, was I surprized by their response!

My total surprize at their consistent point of view trigerred one heck of a sensemaking process for me. I started trying to figure out "what the **** was going on here?".

I couldn't sleep that night. I kept asking myself what was causing these people to write this. Were they simply being patriotic? Were they falling for propaganda? I started suspecting, however, that they were really speaking their mind. I then had a small "flash" - a realization that Arabs may actually see themselves as freedom fighters in a war against the blood-thirsty Israelis. I wanted to verify this, so I asked the Arab bloggers if that was indeed so. I used a metaphore from Lord of the Rings - that in the Arab eyes, Israel is Isengard, and the USA is Mordor. One of the responses from the Arabs was basically a - "no, it's actually even worse".

The next night, I couldn't sleep either. I was asking myself: "These people are educated human beings. They use the Internet. They're bloggers. How can they fall for such propaganda???"

Then the "big flash" came. I don't know how it came - it just did. I made sense of the whole thing (not just the conversation - the whole Arab-Israeli conflict). I realized that this is all a matter of mental models: each side has a different mental model of "reality", and makes assumptions on the intentions of the other side based on that model. Each side see itself as "the good guys", and cannot accept that it wrongs the other. I explained it on the blog in the second part of this post and further in this post.

So why did my sensemaking process end up with the mental model theory? I think that this has to do with my prior experiences, and with having certain things on my mind at the time. I was familiar with mental models, and was quite occupied with philosophical ideas about thought processes within groups of people. When the puzzle came, I just let the data simmer in my brain for a few sleepless nights, until the answer just hit me.

BTW - I can now even extend the theory about the Arab-Israeli conflict to include sensemaking: Given the same data, the sensemaking process for each side achieves a totally different conclusion - becase each side has a different mental model of the conflict.

Now that I personally have a different mental model from other Israelis, my own sensemaking process - given the same events that are seen by other Israelis - achieves totally different conclusions then they do.

I believe that my new mental model explains much of the Middle East conflict, and can be used to find a solution. My big question: what is it that would cause others to go through this same process of realization?


richards1052 said...

Yes, I think I understand what you're saying and I agree with it. I must say though that I'm a little surprised that you were so shocked at the Arab response to the Qana bombing. After a tragedy of such proportions, even if I wanted an Arab to tell me they detested Hezbollah as much as the IDF I wouldn't ask them to do so in the midst of such intense emotion.

But I DID have similar discussions w. Lebanese after an anti-Zionist Arab wrote me some horrible crap during the war. He reassured me that such bloodthirsty views were an aberration as far as he was concerned, which reassured me.

The reason this conflict is so hard to resolve is precisely because neither side can imagine the perspective or needs of the other. This is as you said. Positions are so entreched, emotions run so deep, so many have been killed--you just can't expect someone to be able to jump into the shoes of the other based on such bitterness.

And yet without such empathy there can be no end to the conflict. I don't know how to get there myself. But I blog because besides allowing me to express my own views, I hope that others might clarify their own & get us that much closer to empathy w. "the other."

I think you're on the right track & I hope other Israelis (& Arabs) can get to where you are some day.

Israeli Blogger said...

Thanks Richard.

I wasn't shocked by the Arab response to the Qana bombing, but by their complete and utter denial that Hizballa could possibly be firing from civilian homes, even though I saw videos showing that. I was shocked that a very clear video does not even suggest to them that this could be a possibility. To them: the videos were faked by the Israelis. No doubt about it whatsoever.

It was quite a challenge to try and put myself in their shoes and figure out what would make someone so utterly convinced that there is no possible way in the world that Hizballa could be firing rockets from civilian homes. I only understood how people can think like that after they told me (and an Arab living in the US confirmed it) that Israel is perceived by the Arab world as a totally dark and evil entity (actually comparable to Mordor in Lord of the Rings, or the Evil Empire in Star Wars).

That opened up the way towards my being able to empathize with them. I had to understand how they see the world in order to put myself in their shoes. Once I did that, everything that previously seemed to me like fanatic racism - suddenly became clear. I realized that to them, this is logical reasoning, and I could simulate this sort of reasoning. This was a paradigm shift to me.

A very interesting outcome of my personal paradigm shift, was that in addition to becoming somewhat capable at empathizing with Arabs, I found myself able to empathize with Israeli right wingers as well (something I could not do in the past). The common Right wing view of the world is based on the absolute belief that the Arabs are barbaric primitives that only want to kill us Israeli Jews, and that we Israeli Jews are an advanced society with a right to live here. By temporarily adopting a mental state of this sort, I can also empathize with Israeli Right wingers, and understand their way of thinking.

Richard, if you would allow me some constructive criticism: reading your conversation with Amir (and the other Israelis commenting on that post), a got the feeling that if you show some more empathy to them, you might be able to create a more constructive dialog. Just my 2 cents.

Israeli Blogger said...

Richard - one more note about the Arab mental model (at least as I understand it): besides perceiving Israel as evil, they perceive themselves as warriors for justice. This keeps up coming again and again in my conversations with them.