“There are no whole truths only half truths, and taking half-truths as whole truths is playing the devil.” – Alfred North Whitehead
The question of the future of youth in the Middle East can lend itself to inaccurate generalizations - even the categorization of youth as a politically distinct category is fraught with ambiguity. Furthermore, it is very difficult to generalize across a region with enormous diversity, the context is very different in Lebanon than in the Gulf, or elsewhere.
However, there are two major trends and dynamics that are worthwhile examining more closely as they affect the nature of society in the Middle East moving forward. The first is that youth, and especially young men, are prone to be drawn to radical political groups and violent extremism. This is partly based on socio-biological realities.
As Joe Herbert, a professor emeritus in neuroscience at the University of Cambridge, has said, “[Young men] are particularly liable to become fanatics. ...They readily identify with their group. They form close bonds with its other members. They are prone to follow a strong leader. This is why young males are so vulnerable ... and why they are so easily attracted by charismatic leaders or lifestyles that promise membership of restricted groups with sharply defined objectives and values. They like taking risks on behalf of their group – and they usually underestimate the danger that such risks represent.”
Young men are built to fight, and this powerful drive can be channelled by any strong ideology, it does not have to be religious extremism. Indeed, unlike what many believe, it is not poverty that leads men to join extremist groups - many are of a middle-class origin and well educated - it is unmet or badly met emotional needs, such as a search for meaning, belonging and status.
Critically, heritage and identity often provide the symbolic language and backdrop for motivating these groups into action. Most successful political organizations in the region are ideological but also based on identity and tradition, eg religious Zionism or Iranian and Shia inspired militias. This is a hijack of both basic human motivations and culture, and it is a great harvest of human capacity towards demonization of others, and an outsize political role that sways a society in directions that majorities do not necessarily support.
Management of such a vulnerability among youth, and especially young men, lies in a much better understanding of the psychological infrastructure that underlies these developments. Such greater knowledge will help us manage the forces at play in a more constructive fashion. A first step involves a much better understanding of our innate emotional needs and motivations. The Human Givens paradigm of understanding well-being, developed in the United Kingdom, is a clear and straightforward account of these needs, and how they play out
As important as the development of extremism among youth is, there is another, in some ways opposing, trend that also needs to be attended to. Joseph Henrich, a Professor in Evolutionary Biology at Harvard University, in his book, The Weirdest People in the World – How the West Became psychologically Peculiar and Particularly Prosperous, describes how a universalist ideology is spreading across the world that is ‘Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich and Democratic’, or, as per its acronym, WEIRD.
This ideology focuses on the primacy of rights, entitlement and the individual rather than on social roles and relations or cultural context. It puts a great emphasis on individual choice and in its more radical manifestations questions even basic kinship and the nature of biological gender.
This approach has many benefits, including greater independence and empowerment of individuals which can lead to economic achievement, and protection against oppressive forces. However, it also creates problems that need to be looked at:
Being WEIRD takes apart an implicit cultural fabric and replaces it with an explicit set of institutions and regulations. This unravelling of an organic domain can lead to a Tower of Babel with no shared narrative, accepted rules for behaviour, and, possibly worst of all, an anomie derived from a lack of meaning that had derived from social links and heritage.