Self-fulfilling prophecies and the Oedipus effect

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, left, and his Chinese counterpart Wang Yi, right, attend a meeting, in Tehran, Iran, Saturday, March 27, 2021. Iran and China on Saturday signed a 25-year strategic cooperation agreement addressing economic issues amid crippling U.S. sanctions on Iran, state TV reported. Photo courtesy of Ebrahim Noroozi / AP Photo.

What do Devin Nunes, the Committee of Union and Progress, the United States Military and Barbara Streisand have in common? They all are suspect to the Oedipus effect or its relatives. The Oedipus effect, named for the actions in Sophocles’ Theban cycle posits that in social sciences, what you posit often affects what actually occurs.

This effect can explain why reprisals tend to produce the exact results they wished to avoid. Sarah Ahronson’s fear of Turkish reprisals against Jews in Palestine once they had completed the Armenian Genocide is considered one of her motivations for forming the NILI spy ring that helped the British defeat the Ottomans. After all, the cost benefit analysis is simple. One: Be accused without being guilty and end up just as poorly off as you would be if you had been guilty. Secondly, actually commit the crime you will be accused of regardless of whether you are guilty or not and have a chance of escaping the consequences through regime change.  This can also be seen in how Maliki’s de-Baathification of Iraq was blamed for the rise of Al-Qaeda in Iraq, and thus ISIS. Furthermore, his purging of the state of Sunni officials persuaded Sunnis in Iraq that attempting political involvement in Maliki’s government was useless. A mythological example of this backfire of reprisals against a population occurs in the Passover story. In the Passover story, the Pharaoh claims that the Hebrew people are too plentiful and will side with Egypt’s enemies in a war. This is an easy way to alienate the Jewish People and ensure that if a war did occur, there would be no Jewish loyalists.

This also hinders peace accords. Both sides in the conflict feel that the other side is not sincere and will break the ceasefire. This leads to a build-up of military resources on both sides. Seeing that the other side is in fact violating the ceasefire, one side complains that they are being hoodwinked and refuses to continue the ceasefire. This continues and prevents peace from being achieved. Someone has to break the cycle, but no one wants others to continue the cycle and thus peace is prevented. As long as we fear others, disarmament must be unilateral, postponing its fulfillment. 

Worryingly, the results of such self-fulfilling prophecies can be used to justify the very actions that make them self-fulfilling. Following the example given above, when a politician argues that such a course of action is impossible to follow. They will also neglect to mention how stating the impossibility of a course of action renders it impossible. For example, if Donald Trump says that Iran is not complying with the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action and reverts to the pre JCPOA status quo. In response, Iran starts up their nuclear program again. Trump then uses this proliferation to justify increasing pressure on the Iranian government. However, he neglects to investigate whether they were already violating the agreement. This quickly leads into cycles of repression where an incendiary politician accuses a group of something and then uses the results of those actions to further exclude them. We ask the wrong question when we use the effects of policies to justify them. We need to ask the question about counterfactual scenarios. Is Oz truly green or is that only our spectacles that make it so? 

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