Every so often we need to regroup and give shape to our scattered ideas, turning them into well-structured paragraphs so that they make sense. From simple observations of events to shower thoughts. That’s what I’ll try to do in this article: swapping heavy words for a lucid mind.
A recurrent and prevailing theme in Lebanon is the widespread toxicity of the social environment. It’s not uncommon to hear the word “jungle” to describe the situation. Indeed, there’s an inclination and attitude among a big chunk of Lebanese to disregard laws and ethical considerations. Some go as far as calling it an impulse to find tricks and ways to break the law to get ahead; it’s even applauded as a type of street-smartness.
Yet, no one comes out as winner in these interactions, and it fosters a
pervasive sense of frustration and stress within the society. It creates
a generic sentiment of cheating, corruption, nepotism, greed, addiction,
violence, and selfishness.
Paradoxically, this disheartening reality is accompanied by another feeling that order and law should only apply to others, ourselves not included. Somewhat, we perceive ourselves as exceptional, and our self-serving transgressions are justified. However, if someone else acts the same way, we assign to them all the malice of the world. In sum, we’re avoiding responsibility, putting our short-term interest first even if it undermines the collective one. As the saying goes:
shu w2fet 3aleye?
What? Why only point it when it’s me doing it, look at the others, they’re cheating too? Why me?
Or another way to translate it:
Why blame me in particular when it’s the whole system that’s broken?
Nevertheless, research has shown that guilt-prone people are less likely to
engage in such unethical behavior. What does it mean when this happens
at a societal scale, are we all feeling entitled to engage in such
actions? Are we just devoid of any remorse? Does this behavior only
manifest itself with certain isolated individuals that have only
experienced the Lebanese environment and no other culture?
These questions are the core of this article, I’ll try to explain the status quo. It’s only through a better understanding that we can strive to move forward.
The marshmallow test is a darling of all who are interested in psychology.
For those unaware, it’s a test measuring a child’s ability to delay
gratification, their ability for self-control. In sum, a marshmallow is
placed in front of the child, and they are told that they can either wait
a few minutes to receive a second one as a reward, or eat it immediately.
The results of the study were amply discussed, especially in relation to decision-making, impulse control, and overall future success. It was found that children who were able to delay gratification tended to have better outcomes in various aspects of life, such as academic performance, social skills, and even health, insinuating that they were able to suppress urges that might have had undesirable consequences.
Despite the oversimplistic and reductivist appeal of this conclusion, there are other parameters at play in the equation, and which were shown in subsequent studies to explain the results. Namely, parenting style - as it relates to socialization - and the adaptation to the environment - as it relates to stability.
On one side, when reproduced across cultures the experiment has
highlighted the influence that cultural norms and parenting has on
In cultures and parenting styles where obedience and conformity are put forward, hierarchical relational socialization, children are more likely to delay gratification if it is coherent with the words from their respected elders. Meanwhile, in cultures and parenting styles where there’s an emphasis on allowing more individuality and personal freedom, psychological autonomous socialization, the children are more likely to give in to the tempting treat.
On another side, when reproduced across different social classes the experiment has shown the influence of stability and security on shaping behavior. Children from lower socioeconomic backgrounds had more difficulty at delaying gratification than those from resource-rich environments.
Hence, the ability to delay indulgence is not solely determined by
a kid’s willpower but is shaped and impacted by essential nuances
in the environment; success isn’t only about self-control.
However, there’s often rationality behind human behavior, and we shouldn’t put a value judgement before pondering on this. Indeed, taking advantage of immediate resources when living in a particular context might be the best strategy. For instance, this could be a highly competitive society, a toxic environment, uncertainty about the scarcity or availability of resources, low trust, instability, etc… Why wait for a marshmallow tomorrow if there might not be any, let’s be spontaneous!
How do these impulsive marshmallows relate to Lebanon?
As far as parenting goes, the power-distance, a measure that sort-of put a number on how much a society respects hierarchy, is in the top 15 worldwide, one of the highest (in 2023 PDI is 80 while the lowest is Austria at 11). This would mean we’d wait a long time for a marshmallow and would follow the rules by the letter. Yet, the order should come from someone we’d listen to, an authority figure, and it’s hard to find one that everyone respects in Lebanon. Thus, we have hierarchies but not at a societal level. That’s something we’ll talk about later.
For now, let’s focus and explore the second aspect, the one we’re deeply affected by: the scarcity mindset that leads to seeking short-term selfish decision-making, one that develops through years of shaped behavior passed down from generation to generation.
It’s not hard to imagine why Lebanese would develop a sentiment of scarcity when you take a look at history. It’s always been an unstable place, the theatre of war, regional tensions, economic turmoils, unpredictability, and ambiguity; “tomorrow” has never been taken for granted and people are living carpe diem. Even in periods of prosperity we’re expecting the worst. Hence, the scarcity mindset has anchored itself in the public psyche.
Undoubtedly, the scarcity mindset is pervasive and seen through all
actions: it’s a perception that there is never enough, that we’re running
out of everything, that it’s slipping away unless we rush — whether
that be time, money, connections, or any type of resource. The vision
that the world is a zero-sum game, dog-eat-dog free for all, fight or
flight, “game theory”, that someone will try to step on our feet, that we
have to stand up and fight all the time to get what we need.
Unsurprisingly, this background noise reveals itself as a constant worrying monster that whispers: “in case something happens”.
When someone lives with this mindset for a long time, it changes how they approach life, namely in three big aspects: impatience, insecurity, and anger.
If time is seen as an asset that’s running out, then impatience is but a reaction. Then, events unfolding will always seem to pass swiftly and running, pushing, and rushing will be prioritized. In such cases, we’re regularly looking for shortcuts not to be left behind.
A world of scarcity is a world of omnipresent comparison and an anxiety
of the other, a world in which we keep looking for an anchor but struggle
to find any. This is illustrated through a thin and insecure ego that
feels inadequate, defensive, our self-worth attacked, threatened and
triggered by everything that is not like it. This “like me or wrong”
applies to everything ranging from race, religion, politics, sports,
etc… We demean everything we desire or envy but can’t attain and this
coerces us into a lack of openness.
To rectify these insecurities one has to find a foothold in an obsession with legacy, greed, reputation and social status; using shallow appearances to heal the deeper wounds. Indeed, Lebanese are overtly generous and welcoming, yet it’s often in a not very courteous or gentle manner, but instead in an ostentatious, ritualistic, and conspicuous one. Our hospitality is a tiny bandage on the sores of our trauma.
Impatience and insecurities intermix as catalysts to animosity and anger outbursts. Since 2021, Lebanon is the angriest country on the planet, with at least 49% of people feeling anger on a day-to-day basis. This adds acrimony and toxicity to banal interactions that can instantly derail because of the incontinency of people who cannot repress their emotions.
When all the above happens at a societal level it gives rise to a
vicious cycle, a self-fulfilling prophecy that cements us in place.
Understandably, carpe diem stands on the opposite of carpe posterum (seize the future), because how can we really give our best for a future we might not believe in. The more we dig ourselves into the scarcity mindset, the fewer promises of this future are realized, the less stability will ensue, a perpetual precariousness. Lebanese know they might only be one step away from catastrophe, but not how much their role is in it.
However, we know that we do better if we believe in a future, if we believe that discipline, patience, grit, and determination are rewarded, and we encourage the behavior we would like to see in others. Still, the cycle is hard to break, and we revert to it out of fear, especially in hard moments.
There’s no panacea to this situation, no materialistic or monetary pacifier exists when a patient is not aware of their own disease. Nonetheless, realizing the situation is a step forward, especially for the society as a whole to better live together. But are we “living together”? What does it mean to live in a society?
Sociability is not Civility
To understand what it means to live together, we’ll have to contemplate two related topics: Sociability and civility.
To be part of any group we have to somewhat adhere and grasp its cultural
norms, skills, and values, what we call enculturation. This suggests a
direct or indirect transmission to attain, abide by, and interpret them.
Likewise, sociability is the disposition to be sociable, to be inclined to seek companionship, friendliness, and pleasant relations, which often requires enculturation.
This frame of mind can be internalized at different levels, either at a benign societal level, or at a clan- or peer-only level, or in an oversocialized way where “the system” overrides individuality and leads to conformity.
While cultural norms might not be homogeneous in a society, civility, on the other hand, is all encompassing. In a superficial way, it denotes orderly behavior, good manners, and politeness. In a deeper way, it denotes public-mindedness which emphasises the virtue of working together, an intent to sincerely respect each others, along with the responsibilities and engagements of civic duties. Hence, this also needs an open-mindedness and acceptance of differences.
Civility demands honest and pure empathy, an ability to connect and make peace with our own emotions. We need this awareness to be able to foster our ability to connect with others. The more shallow civilities are usually selfish — about good-looking appearances, and appearance is vapid and reflects insecurities, not ethics or morals.
This quote encapsulates this perfectly:
Civility does not here mean the mere outward gentleness of speech cultivated for the occasion, but an inborn gentleness and desire to do the opponent good. — Mohandas K. Gandhi
A recent survey asking how people thought Lebanon stood on these topics
heavily swayed in the direction of clan-socialized but barely
civilized. Naturally, the definition of incivility applies: verbal attack,
intolerance, discrimination, etc…
Yet, we can all feel that we aren’t “savages”, we aren’t at the throat of each others, killing, robbing, and being buried in broad daylight, we’re far from complete anomie and anarchy. There’s still a semblance of morality dictating the behavior of people (at least for now and since the civil war). What does this mean? Are we then really living together? Are we decent people making up a country?
State, Nation, and Country
The modern affliction of Lebanese is that they are puzzled about their
identity. Who and what is the Lebanese people? This question makes us
uncomfortable, uneasy, and self-conscious.
To resolve or better grasp the identity crisis we have to make a detour to seek the debated essence of the words state, country, and nation.
A state is a delimited territory’s machine that makes it work. This encompasses the bureaucracy, justice system, institutions (political, financial, educational, or others), organizations, infrastructure (water, transport, electricity, or others), etc… It can take many forms, centralized, decentralized, republic, monarchic, etc…
Once this state’s governing body has a permanent population and is able
to interact with, and is recognized by, other states through treaties and
agreements, then it becomes a sovereign independent state, also known as
a country (flexible definition).
A country then acts as an accepted distinct part of the world through the acquiescence and international external representation as a political entity. The most well-known intergovernmental organization that confers such status is the UN, the United Nation (confusingly named as such).
Often, a country comes into existence because people were already living
on the land and wanted to organize and coordinate themselves for the
common good, or it can also be because of the influence of other states
and their agreements. The first scenario exemplifies what a nation is.
A nation is a large group of people inhabiting a territory and that wants to stay together to build a future, continually consenting to this implicit contract and voting through their every day actions. While some essentialists try to base this concept on hollow things such as language, culture, race, or religion, the French scholar Ernest Renan reframes it as “making something together”, the years and social capital given to strive for a common good. I’ll let you enjoy these quotes:
The existence of a nation (you will pardon me this metaphor) is a daily plebiscite, just as the continuing existence of an individual is a perpetual affirmation of life.
A nation is a soul, a spiritual principle. Two things which, properly speaking, are really one and the same constitute this soul, this spiritual principle. One is the past, the other is the present. One is the possession in common of a rich legacy of memories; the other is present consent, the desire to live together, the desire to continue to invest in the heritage that we have jointly received. Messieurs, man does not improvise. The nation, like the individual, is the outcome of a long past of efforts, sacrifices, and devotions. Of all cults, that of the ancestors is the most legitimate: our ancestors have made us what we are. A heroic past with great men and glory (I mean true glory) is the social capital upon which the national idea rests. These are the essential conditions of being a people: having common glories in the past and a will to continue them in the present; having made great things together and wishing to make them again. One loves in proportion to the sacrifices that one has committed and the troubles that one has suffered. One loves the house that one has built and that one passes on. The Spartan chant, “We are what you were; we will be what you are”, is, in its simplicity, the abridged hymn of every fatherland.
Sadly, not all nations have sovereign states, and not all countries are, or are not anymore, nations.
So what’s the place of Lebanon in all this?
It goes without saying that we barely have a state.
Our justice system is sick, our infrastructure crumbling (water, electricity, garbage, education), the finance institutes need hospitalization, corruption is endemic, and the government of the second republic, after the Taif agreement, is a buffoon that can barely handles juggling balls and take decisions.
On the international scene, the country is a dwarf with its borders contested and barely sovereign of its own fate.
The biggest existential question is whether Lebanon is a
nation. Apparently, it seems to never have expressed itself in a single
voice, the citizens always revert to their local fiefdom instead and
protect the personal instead of the national community and identity.
Yet, a few events have temporarily raised a sentiment of nationhood such as the 2019 protests and the Cedar revolution, but even then not everyone agrees on the unity and how organic or grassroots the movements were. A true revolution always leads to systemic change and both of these events have barely shaken the second republic mode of thinking. The country is still divided by alliances emanating from the war.
Since the delimitation of its territory, carved out of Syria in 1943,
Lebanon hasn’t been sovereign but always been founded on institutionalized
compromises of numerous internal and external interests. We keep
struggling at progressively creating national cohesion.
The current government is split and monopolized among the powerful corrupted sectarian militias of the sixteen-years civil war; it is split by sectarian, regional, economical, and ideological oppositions. The structure of the system is such that political decisions are shaped by other regional powers, allies and patrons of the political parties, relationships and other regional interventions. In other words, the civil war never truly ended, it’s only in a long ceasefire. This removes most sovereignty that the country possesses. Curently, the main rift is between the “March 8 alliance” and the “March 14 alliance”. Regardless, there are many more fissures within this simplistic dichotomy: the pre-/post-Cold War axis, the Syria/Israel axis, the Saudi/Iran axis, the Arab-Israeli conflict influence, the Turkish/Ottoman remnants, the anti-colonialist vs western mindset, the French mandate influence, the religious axis influence, the pro-/anti- monarchic movements, and so many more.
The citizen is then torn and amnesic of the past, and when looking for
their identity they find solace in the support of these alignments. They
are indirectly swayed by foreign issues, counting on foreign powers to
“beat” their rivals that threatens their temporal newfound identity.
The country is in a perpetual deadlock, paralyzed, spending more energy at keeping the equilibrium of the status quo rather than moving forward and creating a nation. Furthermore, the political elite adds fuel to the fire through patronage, clientelism, wasta, and nepotism to keep their followers at bay. On top of this, any regional event will instantly reverberate through Lebanon, and it’ll be used as an antagonist pretext to attack political adversaries, making the local identities tense up on themselves out of fear instead of solidarity. Failure begets blame, and sectarian tensions are back.
With all this, the neighboring wars have inadvertently made Lebanon a land of refuge, more than Lebanon could handle. The demographic changes have accelerated the above tensions, from Armenian, Syrian, and obviously Palestinian, but let’s not forget the countless exodus of Lebanese from their homeland. The dream of the Lebanese youth is to not be Lebanese, to press the restart button and wake up somewhere else.
Seemingly, Lebanon fits all the criteria of a buffer and proxy state, a country geographically lying between hostile rivals, and its existence benefiting all parties. Buffer states are often conquered and occupied, which Lebanon was, is used as a puppet, a sort of testing ground of ideological warfare. The only way for a buffer state to be fully sovereign is to strictly follow a politic of non-alignment and neutrality, but Lebanon is far from this.
Even so, Lebanese do have a common heritage and are still somewhat
living together in peace for the past few years in this collective
mishmash. However, there’s still no belonging, no nationhood, no common
identity created. This would require a will at both ends of the spectrum:
political, and from the citizens themselves, because no change can happen
without a mentality change. At a higher level it needs to be concretized
through rules, services, and laws that strive in the direction of that
prosperous future. Current laws go in the opposite direction: civic,
political, and personal affairs are delegated to the specific local
religious jurisdiction to which the individual belongs instead of
If anything, maybe it’s this chaotic raison d’être that is the embodiment of the Lebanese spirit, yet if that is true then Lebanon will never be a nation.
Today, the reality on the ground is grim. What could’ve once been a libertarian utopia of freedom, living without a state or nation, has turned sour. Apart from the countless ailments we’ve mentioned above, Lebanon suffers from a declining population, the most rapid rate since its inception. The head of state seat, the presidency, is vacant since October 2022 (9 months as of this article), amid persistent deadlocks. Similarly, the head of the central bank will also retire at the end of this month and the financial institution employees are threatening to leave if no one is appointed beforehand. Furthermore, the cash economy has established black money and illegal activities, pushing Lebanon to be noticed by the FATF and given one year to fix its system before MENAFATF 2024. The economic crisis has driven all state employees salaries to the ground, keeping only the ones that rely on corruption. The salaries of the army personnel, the LAF, is now funded by the USA as a lifeline for the only institution that isn’t sectarian. The average citizens are blocked out of their saving accounts, and multiple arbitrage exchange schemes are going on. In light of everything, the World Bank has said that it’s a self-imposed crisis and that the normalization of the crisis is no road for stabilization. Yet, the political class has taken a masterful inactivity as their motto, not taking any action.
Corruption begets corruption. Are there resolutions to these issues? The
antidote and the poison are faces of the same coin.
We know that the “Lebanese model” doesn’t work, it only fosters a game-theory-like scenario in which no one wants to be the next sucker. Hence, changing the people at the top will never have the desired effect without prior change in the population’s mentality. However, there’ll never be a mentality change without actions from the leadership. Indeed, we need a third republic as the second one was only a temporary utilitarian compromise, an excuse of a country. How can one be civil without feeling that they belong to a nation with a future. Hence, we’d also need a civil/national status that is attached to the state only and not local fiefdom.
The above ideas might be impossible to achieve on a personal level,
but instead of despair, we can act on a small scale. We need to start
by realizing that we’re all flawed, that we’re all doing wrongs, and
to erase the self-justifying and self-entitlement that is prevalent in
the society. While it’s hard, we can also try to switch to an abundance
mindset, one that when adopted would make it easier to live together. For
that, we require acceptance, self-compassion, a clear conscious effort,
and awareness of when we’re slipping into the scarcity mindset and
overwhelmed by toxicity. It might be easier to start this by creating
our own virtuous circle of people that have the same outlook.
Overall, as we’ve previously said, we should shun the behavior we don’t want and encourage the one we’d like to see in others to be able to build a future.
This whole post might just be a word salad, a stream of consciousness, but I hope it reaches and resonates with similar-minded people, that it can confirm their fear and give them hope.
I’ve written about Lebanon in the past, 7 years ago, in a much more poetic and emotional way. The situation hasn’t changed since then, but instead has amplified, and the description I’ve given still applies:
Impatient opportunistic exploiter
In 2020, I’ve also had to put down my thoughts on whether we’ll pass the crisis, but we haven’t, and we’re collapsing since then. The country now feels like another one, on the brink of a precipice. Culture is hard to understand.
On that gloomy note, let me know if you feel the same.
Have a wonderful day!
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