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Egypt, Tunisia, Yemen,… Understanding Social Change

04Feb 2011

If you are like me, you may be intrigued by the events of the past two weeks in the Middle East.  The rapid social change that is happening (or trying to happen) in Egypt, Tunisia, Yemen, Jordan, and potentially other countries is both fascinating, curious, and sometimes scary.

I clearly have little knowledge or expertise of Middle Eastern politics or of Arab cultures (they are not unitary, you know.  Just like there are cultural differences among Western countries.)  But there are some common themes that may be helpful to watch for as we watch, hear or read the news.

  • People are reacting to decades of being controlled by their governments. Think about the frustration and angst that we feel here in the U.S. when elections don’t go our way, when the prevailing political party is making decisions upon which we have little, if any, influence.  But we have the hope that maybe next election the party which more closely represents our views will have more influence.  Take the level of frustration that we experience and multiply it by 30 years of no change, with virtually no avenues for dealing with injustices or being taken advantage of.
  • High levels of mixed emotions. People in these countries are probably feeling significantly intense feelings — feelings which vacillate daily or hourly.  Hope.  Joy.  Anxiety.  Fear.  Frustration.  Anger.  Confusion.  Worry.  They are all there, and the feelings wax and wane as circumstances change (or as rumors change).  Eventually, people will become worn out — which can lead to further erratic behavior.
  • Social contagion. The process of people’s moods, beliefs and actions being highly influenced by those around them (especially in crowds) is one way to understand social contagion.  It’s the process that occurs when you are thinking one thing, and after to exposure to numerous other people thinking differently, you change your mind. Or, if you were thinking similarly to others, you become far more committed and emotional to your line of thinking.
  • Influence of the media. Remember, most of us do not really know what is going on in these countries.  We primarily know what the media is showing or telling us.  Obviously, the communication which is occurring through social media (the Internet, cell phone videos, Twitter) provide some direct communication — but even most of these are being filtered through the mainstream media to us (as opposed to you getting an email from someone on the streets in Cairo.)  I am not trying to propose bias or be suspicious of intent; I am just saying — we mainly “know” what we receive from the media.  Clearly, we do not have most of the information.

These issues raise some interesting questions, I think.  First, and most importantly, why are we so interested in what is going on across the ocean?  Obviously, there are different answers for different people (and even different answers for each of us at different times):

*We are concerned about the welfare of the individuals and families being affected.

*We are curious and just fascinated by the information we see and hear.

*We may have a personal connection with someone in the region.

*We are worried how the events in the Middle East may impact our lives in the future.

*Other reasons?

I have no major answers here regarding:  Why is this happening now?  What is going to happen? What should the U.S. government do, if anything?  What should our response be as individuals here?

I do think that one of our best responses is to seek to understand, to be compassionate and to accept that there is much that we don’t know about the events we are watching unfold before our eyes.

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