Discussing people’s shortcomings and generalizations are not solutions
تاريخ : هفتم دی 1396 ساعت 11:26   کد : 7829

Tehran Times, December 20, 2017. here 

What part of our temperament is essential and unique to our culture and what part is related to social structures and the governmental system? Basically, can we relate all behavior to our nationality or reject a behavior labeling it bad or culturally deficient? To find answers to these questions we met with Mohammad Reza Javadi Yeganeh, assistant professor of the Department of Sociology at the University of Tehran and the Chairperson of Research Center for Culture, Art and Communication. We talked about the Iranian temperament. He had worked on a study on laziness in Iranians and at the moment, he is working on another temperament-related study. 

Q: Recently, in many centers and meeting places, there are discussions on the “Iranian Temperament.” For instance, there was a meeting on Ebrahim Raha’s How Good We Are, or the meeting in the Research Center for Culture, Art and Communication called “A Consideration of Iranian National Character and Temperament with emphasis on the contrast between essentialist and sociological approaches.” These meetings show that the scientific and scholarly community are paying attention to this issue. In your opinion, what is the reason that this issue has gained prominence all of a sudden?

A: I think temperament is similar to other things in that when we are on the brink of losing them, we realize that we need to talk about them. For instance, as long as we have not lost our security or health, we don’t have any desire to talk about them, however, the moment we are not secure or healthy we want to find out why. Maraghehi was quick to find out why Iranians are lagging behind. At the time, the response given by Abbas Mirza’s circle was “modernization,” the concept that some call westernization. 
They believed that if we import western institutions, we can solve our problems, but as history shows, the project of modernization failed by the middle years of Naser-al-din Shah’s reign. When Naser-al-din Shah era reforms failed, some thought that reforms lead nowhere and we should look for another solution. As you see, it was after experiencing failure that attempts were made for finding a solution. 
Back then, we were following two paths simultaneously: anti-west and pro-west. In the pro-west front, the emphasis was on importing western modernity and ideas. It should be noted here that modernization is importing western institutions, while, modernity is the intellectual project. Opposed to this pro-west attitude, the proponents of anti-west attitude thought that the west is the reason that we are lagging behind and believed that we should avoid the west, western ideas and thoughts. 
There are still some people who believe that all problems are created by the West. In contrast there are the ones who think that having a better relation with the West will solve all problems. But when none of these two improve the circumstances, we should look for another solution; namely, the problem is neither the West, nor the government, the laws, the traditions nor the religion. In other words, we should look for a solution within. 

Q: Has this method of seeking a solution – to look within instead of without – come up in the past? Is there a historical record? 

A: Yes. A return to self has been conceptualized by Jamal-zadeh in the past. In fact, this self-consciousness is established by Jamal-zadeh. One of the books on Iranian temperament is Haji Baba of Ispahan, which is among the most critical books about the Iranians. Ebrahim Beig’s Travel Memoires is a sequel to Haji Baba of Ispahan that also examines Iranian temperament, although in Ebrahim Beig’s Travel Memoires the main cause of problems are the rulers not the people. 
Jamal-zadeh is fair. He writes about Iranian temperament and his goal is reforming. Another book on Iranian temperament is Iranian Compatibility by the late Mr. Bazargan. Bazargan was a social reformist. When he was the prime minister, he had a television program on Tuesdays in which he talked to people about different issues among them people’s social ethics. Since then, besides the Supreme Leader no other authority figure has discussed it. 
This lack of attention is surprising, because we don’t have a good social, political and economic situation. We don’t observe the law, we litter the streets, badmouth each other in the blink of an eye, drive carelessly, have a sexist view of women, instantly get angry, etc. Therefore, denying the awful situation that we are in is not useful. Whoever talks about these issues is protested against and labeled as someone who exaggerates or misrepresents problems or someone who is insulting people. 
However, I don’t blame the people for everything. For instance, [my colleagues and] I wrote a paper on laziness among Iranians. We found out that although Iranians do not have a lazy disposition, but laziness is prevalent among them. This can be deduced from the low productivity rate during the working hours. One who sees the current state of society regarding social ethics and temperament, is probably trying to bribe people. In addition to economic and political subsidies, there are social subsidies as well; namely, complementing people all the time and spoiling them. Even though, a reformist is someone who would point out people’s shortcomings. 

Q: Based on what you just said, what do you think has changed in the Iranian society that suddenly everyone is paying attention to these issues?

A: Partly, it is because theories come and go. At one point in time, a theory is more welcome. There might be no academic reasons; it depends on social circumstances. However, it is partly due to the gradual increase in social problems in the Iranian society and the lack of ability to solve them. Thus, in this period, since 1376/1997 and the publication of Rezagholi’s killing the Elite, temperament has been considered as a fundamental problem and gained recognition. Additionally, this problem was discussed in a timely manner; therefore, it gained recognition. 

Q: Recently, authors who write books on temperament categorize their books as sociological, although there are no sociological issues discussed in them. What is your opinion on this? 

A: That is right. Unfortunately, this happens and I think that the reason is the popularity of these books. Publishing popular books under scientific names and appearance which are bereft of scholarly arguments is disadvantageous. For instance, they write books, claiming that Iranians are not frank or complain a lot or that they are not very good at team work; when asked what is their argument or evidence, they say that all their acquaintances act in such a manner!
Usually these books contain exaggerations or incorrect generalizations. For instance, if someone gave you a free ride, it does not mean that all Iranians are good people; or when a driver speeds and splatters mud on your clothes, it does not mean that all Iranians are bad people. These are personal observations and accordingly limited and cannot be considered scientific research. Essentialism and ahistorical approach to the problem are detriments to studies of temperament. 
Let me explain this with an example. For years, it is repeated that Iranians are not good at team work and consequently it is generalized that we are better in wrestling than football; even though, our women’s football, volleyball and futsal teams do very well on international levels.  Or for instance, we liken disorderly and disorganized behavior to the way things are done in religious mourning parties during Muharram. In contrast, the management in mourning parties is much better than management in other group activities; in mourning programs everything – booking and decorating the venues, grieving sessions and catering – is done in an orderly and organized manner. Have you ever seen a mourning party that lacked a eulogist or an orator or has not been able to arrange a meeting in the first night of Muharram? Therefore, we must be aware of incorrect generalizations. 

Q: So, you are saying that the problems can be traced back to the individuals or the system/state? 

A: Although there are problems on the educational level; nonetheless, they pale in comparison to the social and cultural level. Majority of problems in Iran can be traced back to the system.  For instance, Asghar Farhadi’s A Separation shows that one cannot abstain from lying in Iran. If Iranian society is so bad – as Mr. Naraghi and Raha have described in their books – then, social life should not be possible here.

Q: Based on your remarks, it can be assumed that not all traits that we identify as Iranian are necessarily negative, is this correct?  

A: That is absolutely correct. I am saying that the term “trait” does not necessarily has a negative connotation. For instance, if Iranians are not frank, must it be considered a problem? If we litter the street, are greedy, etc. it is bad but what is wrong with getting complimentary words and things? It should be noted that I am neither unconditionally praising the Iranian society, nor ignoring the chaos within it. 
Dr. Piran has said wisely that for the past 2500 years the Iranian society has preferred having security over freedom. Namely, we do not want to bear the side effects of freedom of speech and independence of opinion. Therefore, there is not much social criticism in Iran; we cannot criticize people’s behavior a lot. However, the people cannot solve these problems, it is the state and the scholars’ responsibility. 

Q: Nonetheless, recent books blame people rather than the state or the government?

A: Right. Consequently, the TV panels on pathologies usually invite psychologists rather than sociologists. Sociologists look at the structures; while, psychologists look at the individual and say that if one is, for instance, an addict, it is their own fault or their parents’ fault. However, sociologists consider the system as significant as the individual. 
For instance, when discussing laziness, it is not right to say that Iranians are lazy, but that the existing systems makes them lazy. When civil servants see that their bosses are indifferent to work, or have fewer qualifications or less experience than them, they will put in less hard work. Or for instance, when there are so many holidays, people get used to laziness; however, having holidays is not their individual choice. 
Thus, when the system is not operating properly, it leads to problems. This is the same in discussing temperament. We have ignored the system and are only looking at individuals; while the problem originated somewhere else. During Amir Kabir’s chancellorship, carrying machetes was banned. Amir Kabir stated that people can have machetes, but no one dared to use it. Consequently, security got better at his time. 
Whenever the rulers are engaged, the goals are met and the circumstances have gotten better. As I mentioned before, during the three-year chancellorship of Amir Kabir fundamental changes transpired in Iranian society. I give you another example from Iranian Revolution. Our people are the same people of the time of the revolution; however, how is that they helped each other and had each other’s back during those difficult times when fuel was hard to get, and now it is not the case? At that time, people needed coupons to buy their necessities but they were kinder to one another. Meanwhile, we are worried now that if there is going to be an earthquake in Tehran, no one might help the others. Considering all these, one should see how many people in the government are concerned about these issues.

Q: Of course it is not possible to solve problems only through governmental actions and without people’s cooperation. 

A: Yes, definitely. For instance, the traffic police issued an obligatory order that everyone must wear their seatbelts. The citizens cooperated and now you can see that people are wearing their seatbelts without obligatory rules and the threat of being fined. My main emphasis is that we should disrupt the vicious circle of perpetual self-blame. This self-blame is one of the negative traits. Constantly repeating that Iranians are bad is hurting us. If we are to solve problems, we have to identify the missing link of improvement within the government and the elite. 

Q: However, do you agree that sometimes we blow things out of proportion in the other direction and exaggerate and praise ourselves excessively? 

A: Yes, in some cases we are extremely narcissistic. For instance, we are always saying that Iranians are the smartest people on earth; although, we have average intelligence. We always have an Other – the Arabs, Turks or the Afghans – whom we allow ourselves to ridicule. Yet, we are not that different. 
Generally, how different Iranian men are from the Afghan men? In my opinion, right now, Iran is the Other of Iranian identity, and all of us are trying our best not to be ourselves. Consequently, the businesspersons take their capital to Dubai; although, their Other is the Arab. We are dissatisfied with what we have; the grass is greener on the other side. Our story is what Shafiei Kadkani poem talks about: “Where are you going so hastily?/I am going anywhere, any place that is not here.”

Q: Right now, there are two ways of thinking about Iranian temperament. The first group are the intellectuals who look at the problem from an external perspective, have a belittling attitude and consider culture an instrument for progress and advancement. The second group are the ones who do not consider culture instrumental, and believe that culture is significant in itself and the goal is to reform or improve the society. Which one, do you think presents the better solution?

A: I don’t like the first approach. Because it would result in something called “playing Iranian,” that results in the kind of behavior that Iranians have outside Iran. When they are interacting with non-Iranians, everything they do is ok and orderly; but the moment, they start their interaction with other Iranians, they cannot agree on anything. Most Iranians who live outside Iran don’t associate with other Iranians, because they believe that when Iranians get together they start “playing Iranian.” Sometimes, they change their appearance to the extent that they cannot be identified as Iranians. They put on a performance to hide their nationality; even the names have become strange and hint neither at Islam, nor at Iran. 
Among the commentators there are some who believe that we, Iranians’ problem is our being Iranian. On the other hand, some say that we are essentially good people and should find solutions for fundamental problems. Mr. Raha’s book title, How Good We Are, is very beautiful. This phrase became famous when Adel Ferdousipour used it during reporting a football match to express that winning or losing is not as important as playing well.
In my opinion, neither saying “we are very good,” nor saying “we are very bad” solves our problems. By reforming the structures problems can partly be solved. I will give you an example. A general problem in Iran is line or queue jumping. In the past, people were so disorderly that the banks were forced to install long glass partitions between the clients and the clerks. A few years ago, when automatic sequence allocation machines were introduced, this problem was solved and resulted in a series of good changes. Chairs for sitting in the waiting area, catalogues for reading were added; the glass partitions were removed, the counters were lowered so the clients can sit, and so on. You can see that sometimes complicated problems are solved through simple solutions. Therefore, it is misleading to blame the people for the faults originated from the system. You have to know that I am not sanctifying the Iranian people; I am only expressing that there are fewer problems on an individual level than the government level. 
Accordingly, if we want to solve the problems, the government must do the work. In the banking system, you saw that the problem was solved with installing sequence allocation machines. Now, the government should seek out solutions for other problems such as traffic jams, sudden rage, divorce and financial corruption. 

Q: Based on what you just said, can we claim that the government and the official institutes have left people on their own?

A: Yes, definitely. In some cases the thought that Iranians are good people has led to leaving people on their own devices. While, on the other hand, there are extreme measures in place to control people. Many official institutes do not fulfill their responsibilities. At the moment, there are these cases of bank debts and financial corruption, and no one is doing anything about them. However, Imam Ali has said in Nahjul Balagha that if an official was financially corrupt, he should be publically shamed and disgraced. Nevertheless, nothing happens to the financially corrupt. 
I am not saying that the government is not doing anything at all, but if every institute and organization only do their own thing, no problem will be solved. These institutes and organizations might have an enormous amount of budget at their disposal, but their lack of coordination leads to no results. An academic study has shown that Iran has enjoyed the best social, economic, and cultural conditions between 1380/2001 to 1384/2005. In this period, the highest level of coordination among the branches of government existed and the lowest rate of rejecting the regulations of the executive branch by the parliament was experienced. 

Q: One of the issues brought up by some about the Iranian temperament is believing in essentialism. This view is expressed on different occasions by Dr. Farasatkhah. Can you elaborate on this?

A: Believing in essentialism means that there are clear-cut borders that demarcate being an Iranian. However, this view is not correct. How different we are from the Afghans or the Iraqis? Domestically, the diversity is so high that it is not easy to talk about a common Iranian identity. 

Q: Therefore, this approach that says we were always like this is wrong?

A:  That is correct. Granting, there are some behaviors that have been repeated in history; they have historical causes. For instance, we were located on the crossroads of different ethnicities and there were always wars and conflicts. Under such circumstances, trust becomes an issue. Trust issues of Iranians is a product of lasting historical insecurities. For instance, compare Iran to Turkey. In Iran the rulers changed every 200 years (197 years) and another dynasty came to power; meanwhile the Ottoman Empire lasted 623 years. In Iran no dynasty has ruled even near 500 years. 

Q: Thus, we can consider history influential in our temperament? 

A: Right, but we cannot say that the history is the cause of our behavior. We can say that history influences our behavior. 

Q: Well, now we have identified the problem and currently working on elucidating the problem and formulating the questions. In your opinion, when should we get to the practical aspects and carrying out the solutions, when should we implement these remarks in the society? 

A: Understanding that there is a problem is great. Diagnosis is the first step for treatment. But we have not yet identified the problem, we are only experiencing the symptoms. At this level, usually some odd solutions are proposed. Fortunately, numerous meetings are being held about this issue and many books have been published. But I think that saying that Iranians are good or bad does not solve the problem and we should find a solution. 
A solution is not something that one person can present us with, but it is a combination of different theories accumulated over time, which leads to finding a solution. However, at the moment demonstrating people’s unfavorable traits and belittling them does not produce results. On the other hand, covering up people’s shortcomings and labeling people who have shown despicable behavior as pseudo-spectator (in the sport stadiums) or pseudo-actors (in cinema) is not right as well. Therefore, focusing on the symptoms is not a viable solution and we must look for structural solutions. Consequently, we do not need to look far to find and solve the problem; the problem is right here and we must solve it immediately, because it is already late. The high rate of immigration among the elites shows that it is already late to consider this problem. 

Q: As the last question, please talk about research projects that you have done and planning to do.

A: In 1387/2008, I did a field study on laziness, and published two papers based on it. Based on the papers, we found out that Iranians do not tend to be lazy and that the system makes them lazy. Second, we are better than Latin America, Arab countries and African countries but worse than other countries. At the moment, I am working on a project about the perceived temperamental traits of Iranians in travel memoires written by non-Iranians, which will soon be published in a 10-volume series. Additionally, I have worked as a supervisor and referee for numerous theses written about Iranian temperament.