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April 17, 2006

Hundreds of Elections A Day, Part I
Guest Author: Mehrdad Hefazi

Figure1-Hefazi.jpg A Society's Mentality: An Underrepresented Factor

In reviewing some of the articles posted on FToI about the prospect of recent political changes in Iran, I have been given the unpleasant impression that, like many of their compatriots, the Iranian students who are studying abroad and have had the opportunity to analyze Iran's political situation from outside the country, are also falling into the trap of overemphasizing the role of a few media-attracting political figures in the prosperity of their nation. Although I cannot help but appreciate the genuine concern of the authors, many of whom are my old friends and classmates, I believe they have failed to recognize the strong relationship that exists between the social and cultural background of a people and their political insight. The mentality dominating a society exerts an effect stronger than on just approving or disapproving the policies initiated by politicians. It is, in fact, responsible for molding the characteristics and attitudes of the politicians in the first place and is reflected not only in the political changes brought about through elections, but also in all economic, social, and technological progress a country makes in its struggle for a better future.

Looking Back at History

When recalling past historical events, people tend to attribute the triumphs and failures of their nation to the governing capabilities of the leaders in power at that time. Although such a simplified explanation may suffice for the developments happening in a short period of time, the rise and fall of civilizations is more complex and, thus, requires a more comprehensive interpretation. What actually caused the mighty Persian Empire to dissolve after having ruled the world for centuries? Was it all the last dynasty's fault? Has this downhill trend started and continued until today solely because of a succession of incompetent rulers who have come to power since the Qajars? By admitting that a lackluster Iran has emerged due to the absence of capable leaders, we have to answer the question why no successful leader has appeared in the modern epoch even though there were plenty of them in our glorious ancient times. Has it all been due to our bad luck? Or was it mere chance that our country has not been able to regain its dignity whereas countries such as Germany and Japan could flourish so quickly after being brought down to their knees in two devastating world wars?

The Psychology of National Character

The answer to the above questions lies deep in human nature and a concept identified as "national character"—dominant personality traits of a country. Although when first introduced in the works of 19th century historians, this idea was based on little more than prejudice, a fresh look at history shows that the description of national character is not entirely baseless. The personality, cultural traits, and psychological characteristics of people vary from region to region, as well as from generation to generation. Just as societies can be distinguished by their physical characteristics, there is also a "geography of thought and behavioral features" which may help explain historical processes.

Long-lasting character traits have turned out to be a basis for the prosperity of nations, influencing not only people’s political insight, but also their ideological beliefs, cognitive skills, and social behavior. All of these are, in fact, a platform for shaping the social and political affairs of a society, including the characteristics and administrative approaches of its leaders at every level. Whether or not people are directly involved in choosing their officials, those who rule at the top are generally those who best match public opinion and the dominant mentality of society. Political figures are, in fact, no more than labels for naming different historical periods and social circumstances.

An explanation for the twists and turns of history emerges from the fact that human nature has been constantly evolving just as human physical features have been modified according to the environment. The evolutionary changes in the psychological traits of people are responses to selective social pressures that have worked on the human personality over many generations. Personality is heritable and the genes responsible for a specific character trait can be targets of selection in a population where there is a greater demand for that characteristic. As a result, societies have been constantly reshaped throughout history with cultural traits that once dominated a society being completely replaced by new ones. While countries which possess the most desirable dominant personality for the situation at hand find themselves on the right track towards prosperity, those with unfavorable traits will lag behind and end up blaming external factors as obstacles to their progress.

Read Part 2 here!

Mehrdad Hefazi is a General Practitioner and a graduate of Mashhad School of Medicine and Mashhad NODET highschool (SAMPAD).
azadeh akbari at April 18, 2006 04:06 PM [permalink]:

I am an iranian journalist and I have started writing an english weblog. I wonder if you come and visit me.

ali at April 20, 2006 10:17 AM [permalink]:

It was a real treat to read your article. I personally agree with your point of view.
Your unpleasant impression about the line of attack of the Iranian student can also be analyzed in the framework of your paradigm: One of the traits of the contemporary Iranian society has been herophilia. The elite are generally not exempt. They look for a person (like Khatami), a nation (like US), a system (like liberal democracy) to bring prosperity to their nation, while they do not always pay enough tribute to the importance of the national-traits.
As a second point I would like to mention that I am not underestimating the effect of the government on changing national-traits, as the degradation in moral standards in the Iranian society in recent decades can be attributed to a great extent to the policies of the Islamic Republic. As an example, the widely accepted belief that "the government is responsible for providing the citizens with their basic needs: food, electricity, jobs" is a result of the slogans preached during the revolution, and the policies taken by the Islamic Republic. As a result the value of genuine "labor" has been eliminated from the man in the street's mind. He has been looking for somebody to hand-feed him.
My final point is that "construction is always much harder than demolition". Changing the mentality of the people and their traits, for the better, is unbelievably hard. It may need decades and generations. Do not forget that many cultural traits and mentalities are passed on from generation to generation.