Expectations have a huge influence over our resultant reality. If you expect that people will act rude towards you, the probability of that goes up. (You might perceive offense where others would see good-natured jesting. You may well bristle at the least provocation, triggering a series of responses that make rudeness of some form not just more probable but inevitable.) If you expect a region of the world to react like zealots, you may well get that reaction. And this scares me.
The current issue of Newsweek shows a small child in Iraq holding a weapon and states, The Next Jihadists. Right-wing talk show hosts have been blathering on about the threat of Islam with the glee that they once reserved only for Bill Clinton's libido. And now even the intelligentsia is sounding alarm bells; atheist Sam Harris, in part of his larger agenda against religion as a whole, warns that Muslims are bent on world conquest and death to non-believers.
And this is the problem with expectations: all of this is true. There are Jihadists, Islam does have recurring patterns of, or references to, violence in its scriptures, and there is plenty of evidence that some Muslims would gladly kill themselves in order to kill innocent civilians. Yet there is a difference between what is true and the whole truth, as is said in a court of law.
Our own society provides plenty of evidence of a violent streak. We are gun-toting extremists who believe that God has blessed us and our wars. Our God is the true God and we are willing to send in invading armies to make it possible for our ministers to teach non-believers in foreign land. Just as most of what the alarmists say about Islam is true, so is most of what critics of our culture and policy (people like Noam Chomsky) say is true.
Life is, at any moment, so full of possibility that our minds would be overwhelmed if we could truly perceive it all. So like a radio tuning in to a particular station, we focus on one set of possibilities and, very often, make those real. (You doubt this? Think about what you expect each day about how your day will unfold, from breakfast to commute, to work. Now think about how little difference you regularly get from that.) We see what is true but not the whole truth.
The Middle East is a place of moderates eager to modernize, temper religious extremism with tolerance, and raise their children in a peaceful place that encourages economic and scientific advances. This, too, is true and is at least as true as the alarmists’ notions that have by now hijacked the thoughts of the right and left, the reactionaries and the thoughtful. And what is so alarming about that is how often expectations steer us towards one set of possibilities.