Monday, December 06, 2010

What do you really think?

By Mike Dorf


Perhaps the most interesting reaction that I've seen to the latest WikiLeaks trove comes from Hamid Karzai.  According to the NY Times, Karzai took the position that "people might say things casually in private that might not reflect their more considered and accurate positions."  (That's a quote from the Times story.  Although the next sentence quotes Karzai, this particular line is not attributed directly to him; it's simply the author's prose characterizing Karzai's position.)  I find this statement interesting because: a) It's almost the exact opposite of the conventional wisdom; and b) it strikes me as correct, at least some of the time.


According to conventional wisdom, what people say casually reflects what they are really thinking.  That is why politicians caught on open mics can pay such a high price for being overheard.  Think Jesse Jackson's "hymietown", George Allen's "macaca," and Ronald Reagan's "We begin bombing in five minutes."  In each case, the slip was damaging because what the politician said in an unguarded moment jibed with what many people thought he really believed--and it was so much more raw than his typical prepared remarks.


I'll grant that there is something to the hymietown/macaca/bombs phenomenon.  Freud did not invent the Freudian slip, after all.  But I also think that Karzai has a point.  Sometimes people say different things to different audiences because they don't actually have stable beliefs.


Let's begin with an example from the social domain.  Suppose Steve is familiar with baseball but not an active fan.  Steve grew up in Baltimore and so, to the extent that he follows professional baseball, he cheers for the Orioles.  While visiting his family, he attends a cocktail party where a number of people are talking about how much they hate the Yankees (a division rival of the Orioles and all-around object of hatred by non-NY baseball fans who believe that their financial advantage is unfair).  Steve might chime in that he also hates the Yankees.  But Steve now lives and works in NYC, and a few months later his boss asks Steve if he wants to come to a Yankees game with her.  Knowing that his boss is an ardent Yankees fan, Steve readily agrees and cheers loudly for the Yankees.  (Unlike the Seinfeld episode on which this example is based, in my hypothetical the Yankees are not playing the Orioles on the particular day.)  Has Steve lied to his boss by pretending to like the Yankees when he really hates them?  Did he lie to the people at the cocktail party by overstating his dislike for the Yankees?  Did he lie in both circumstances?


I think the right answer to all of these questions can be "no."  Steve's views about the Yankees are not a fixed fact about Steve in the way that his age or birthplace are.  His views are fluid and situational.  Surrounded by ardent Orioles fans, he really hates the Yankees.  Trying to impress his boss, he really wants the Yankees to win.


And so it is with diplomacy, indeed with many mental states more generally.  We think different things about the same issues depending on the context.  Pollsters know this phenomenon from the fact that the distribution of opinion depends on how questions are framed.


How much of the reportage in the WikiLeaks trove can be dismissed in this way as not reflecting the considered views of diplomats or the people whose views they were transmitting?  I have no idea, but I would think it's a non-trivial fraction, perhaps something on the order of a third.  That leaves a good deal of unadulterated accurate reportage in the cables.  But one can't simply dismiss the reaction of Karzai and others as self-serving smoke-blowing, given the reality of the phenomenon to which he points.