Saving face

For several years in the early and mid 2000’s I worked for a government laboratory and occasionally had contact with the CIA. One of the things I remember more clearly than any other is talking to a manager who had a team of psychologists working for him. They studied the psychology of Arabs and Muslims and how people in the west might influence them. I asked if he could share any insights with me.

He told me, “They think very differently than we do. Perhaps, more different than we can think.”

I don’t know if this came from that same team but the timing is pretty good. It was first published in 2007 and I found it absolutely fascinating:

‘Face’ Among Arabs

In Western cultures a fact is an objective absolute not subject to mutation through human interpretation. But the Arab mentality treats fact and truth as relative, to some extent a projection of the mind for the benefit of the self or ego. With this subjective processing the facts become what the Arab emotionally wants to believe is true. They can thus be made to mesh harmoniously with criteria which stand higher on the value scale because connected with the maintenance of face. Neither facts nor their connotations can stand up against the Arab’s facade of personal dignity or be arrayed to form an attack on his surrogate of face.

Knowledgeable Arabs realize that their people and countries fall in some measure short of the progress and development that some other nations have achieved. Unable to find themselves at fault for this, they are naturally led to seek the cause of their troubles in outside sources-the will of Allah, the imperialists, Israel, family and personal obligations, and many real wrongs which have been done them. This saves the collective face from appearing defective and allows those who can accept subjectively interpreted facts to maintain their sense of personal dignity and self-confidence.

In any situation in which shame or guilt threatens the Arab he will be able to explain away whatever impinges on his personal dignity with an array of facts that are meant to be accepted by the listener and not challenged. Whether the story is believed or not and whether the facts are objective or logical are secondary considerations; it is considered quite unmannerly to embarrass him by challenging his explanations. Many of the stories of Juha and his donkey which abound in Arabic folklore have their point for the Arab not in the happenings, logical or illogical, they portray but rather in the quick wit and inventive genius with which the hero survives each incident.

In many phases of the Arabic cultural setting the Westerner with his fetish for objectivity is decidedly out of place, for a subjective interpretation of facts and truth is most suitable in a milieu where face and personal dignity are the things of prime importance.

In summation, the face concept can be said to have three interrelated aspects. The Arab’s extreme effort to show himself blameless, an effort which seems too transparent and unrealistic to Westerners, is the product of the high value his culture puts upon personal dignity, of his feeling answerable for his conduct to society rather than to any divine conscience within himself, and of his sense of the subjectivity of fact.

While reading this I was struck by the similarities between the psychology described and people and organizations which advocate for socialism, gun control, and other causes of the political left. Think of the sexual scandals of Bill Clinton and the responses by him and his supporters. Think of Hillary Clinton claiming she dodged sniper fire. Think of the Fast and Furious, IRS targeting conservatives, Solyndra, and  Benghazi scandals of the Obama administration and yet today many in the political left claim there were zero scandals.

7 thoughts on “Saving face

  1. Interesting analysis. This thought process could explain why Khashoggi was killed in a Saudi Consulate where the whole world would know the Saudis did it.

  2. I wonder how this stacks up against Eastern (Chinese and especially Japanese) notions about ‘face’?

  3. Yes; Americans are far from immune to that virulent disease.

    This dovetails perfectly, too, with the repeated claims of the “infallibility” of the pope. If “face” is of primary importance among Arabs, “authority” is the over-riding concern at the Vatican. It is all-consuming and they’ll do anything necessary to maintain that claim of authority.

    Logically speaking; if the authority-obsessed are cooperating easily with the face-obsessed, then who’s in charge?

    Who is kissing who’s ring?

    https://ivarfjeld.com/2012/04/21/vatican-pope-to-strengthen-special-relations-with-the-plo/

    If you’ve been talking with people in the CIA, and brilliant as they may be, they haven’t been entirely honest with you, but then what could one expect from a fraternal organization which operates substantially in secret? And ultimately it bears the same question– Who’s ring do THEY kiss?

    Authority, pride, “saving face”…that comes to arrogance and the keeping of secrets.

    Humility, contrition, “saving souls”…that comes to salvation and the uplifting of truth.

    Historically, which of those two competing sets of values has led to a better and more prosperous society?

    Do we need “Redistributive Change” then, under a central authority as the Vatican says, or do we need a revitalized Protestant Reformation?

    On the latter note; next time you speak with a Protestant, of any Protestant denomination, ask him, “What are you protesting?” 99% chance he won’t be able to provide a coherent answer. Not terribly long ago you’d have gotten a vigorous, coherent, enthusiastic and detailed answer.

    So it is that the near death of the Reformation has coincided with the rise of communism, socialism and Fascism, et al, on the global scale. Correlation, causation, or are these completely unrelated topics? Check carefully before you attempt to answer that one.

  4. I understand the analysis of the Arab mentality and, as NRW said above, it’s quite interesting. Could explain a lot.

    As far as the leftists go, I’m split. If one was to say the Arab mentality was due to the Arab being mentally deficient, then I can see the similarities between the “rank and file” leftists. The inability to accept proven facts, for one, would seem to this layman to be an indication of sub-average general intellectual functioning.

    But as far as the “leaders” of the left…the Clintons, Obamas, Soros’, et al…I see their intentions as being a means to further their elitist interests. They’re power and money hungry criminals (and traitors) bent on destroying the sovereignty of nations to further their global agenda. Actions which puts them and theirs at the top of the hierarchy. A hierarchy that perpetually controls the somnambulant prols through crappy dot gov controlled “education”, propaganda (but I repeat myself), and outright violence.

  5. I would say many cultures rationalize their behavior because of a belief structure , a feeling of group superiority or both. Many individuals take that to an extreme.

    Politicians in this country seem to lie strictly because it is more expedient than to deal with the truth or have to re-think a position. People on their side of the political fence tend to turn a blind eye on the obvious fallacy. When I pointed out a blatant falsehood to a relative her answer was it should be true, even though she knew it wasn’t. She was attempting to save face.

    If you asked a bunch of non-Americans, they would say we are as bad as anyone.
    Maybe it is a human characteristic.

    Having worked in the Middle East and Eastern Europe, I know I don’t think like them and they don’t think like me. En Shalla baby

  6. Regardless of which culture/society is “Better” or “Right”, the differences can lead to clashes between cultures. Look at the Balkans. Look at how Blacks and Hispanics hate each other in our inner cities. The various American Indian tribes often clash with each other even in this modern day. I believe there is more than just skin color at play in the racial/cultural conflicts here and around the world. Whether it is cultural or genetic or something else, bringing many different religions, races and cultures together and expecting all of us to be one big happy diverse nation is not realistic. There will be clashes and those will grow in intensity as Western European culture fades from its current position of dominance in this nation.

  7. Read something a few years ago on this subject, and one of the examples stuck with me:
    ‘If you ask an arab for directions to some place, if he doesn’t know, and says so, he’ll lose face because he couldn’t help you. So he’ll give you directions to SOMEWHERE. Doesn’t matter if it gets you lost or causes other problems, because he saved face by giving you and answer.’

    It sounds insane to me, but I’ve actually heard people say “If someone asks me a question and I don’t have an answer, I have to tell them SOMETHING, even if it’s not right.” Which is basically the same thing. Stupid, unhelpful, and unless you can get people past it, a huge problem for the future.

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