At the fourth annual conference of the Project on Middle East Political Science here at GW, I was discussant for an outstanding paper which in part explored how and why protestors "broke the barrier of fear" in hyper-repressive states such as Syria and Libya. It's a truly fascinating question for political science theory, one for which I still don't think we have any really good answers. But as a discussant, I was at least able to pull out my iPhone and demand to know why the author hadn't engaged with and cited this leading theorist of the causal dynamics of fear:
"Fear is the path to the dark side. Fear leads to anger, anger leads to hate, hate leads to... suffering."
That's a pretty clear articulation of one potential causal pathway by which violence and state failure produces the kind of horrors which we've seen in Iraq or Syria. But is it the full story? During the early days of the Arab uprising, the overcoming of fear was generally cited in a positive light, as brave protestors took unbelievable risks to rise up and demand their rights. But breaking the fear barrier isn't always and only a heroic narrative of personal liberation and the assertion of universal norms. It can sometimes be that. But fear of shaming, legal punishments, or retaliation can be a necessary component of social order, after all, and losing such fear can clearly unleash ugly new behaviors, identities, or hatreds. I expect to see the Yoda Theory fully cited in future academic work, and tested against alternative theories.
That was just part of an amazing conference here at GW. We had twenty-five oustanding academics participating, with eleven papers workshopped and four plenary discussions on big themes such as democracy, mobilization, violence and gender. Hopefully we will be putting out a collection of conference memos over the summer, similar to this one we did last year on "New Opportunities for Political Science" - stay tuned!
Also, my column this week is now up. It argues against emerging the master narrative of Sunni-Shi'a conflict structuring regional politics. I argue that a lot of what appears to be Sunni-Shi'a conflict is actually "power politics dressed up in sectarian drag," and that intra-Sunni competition and local power struggles are actually more important. At the same time, I'm extremely worried that the cynical manipulation of sectarianism by these political forces, combined with the turbo-charged circulation of images of sectarian violence from Syria, and before that Iraq, is generating a self-fulfilling prophecy. You can read the column over at the FP main page. As always, I appreciate the feedback already received and look forward to more discussion and debate!