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01/07/10

To Sign or Not to Sign an Open Letter of Protest

By Nader Habibi

Recently I was invited to sign an open letter that was addressed to Iran's high ranking clerics (Grand Ayatollahs). The letter called on these clerics to condemn the government's violence against the participants in recent political protests. I agreed with the content of the letter and wanted to add my name to the list of signatories. However, I was hesitant because I was afraid of the consequences of signing such a letter for myself and my family. I have many close relatives in Iran and occasionally go back for short visits. Two specific concerns prevented me from signing this letter: the risk of facing arrest and punishment during my future visits to Iran, and the danger that my relatives in Iran might be punished or harmed as a result of my support for this open letter. 

I believe I'm not the only one who hesitates to sign this type of protest letter for safety reasons. Participation in political protests against governments that are not committed to protection of free speech is often risky and for every brave activist there are always several silent supporters who refuse to stand up and openly express their views.  While it is admirable to be brave, I cannot blame the more cautious individuals (after all in many occasions I end up behaving exactly like them).

Just as different individuals have different levels of risk tolerance for business investments, they also have different appetites for political risk. As the risk of arrest and punishment that is associated with a political activity diminishes more people will be prepared to participate in that activity. With respect of signing open letters of the type that was mentioned above, the risk of punishment is partly dependent on the total number of people who will ultimately sign the letter. The probability of arrest and punishment has an inverse relationship with the number of participants. If the number of participants in a political protest (such as signing a protest letter) grows larger, the expected punishment for each individual will decline.

Studies in political psychology have shown that when an individual is invited to participate in a political activity he takes the number of other participants into account. Depending on his political courage and his commitment to the cause (the political issue under consideration) he or she decides on a threshold of minimum participants that must already have joined the cause before he is willing to join. For example one person might say I will sign an open letter of protest if at least 1000 people sign it. Another, more cautious individual might say "I'm willing to add my signature if at least 10,000 people have already signed it".  One reason why most people stay away from high risk political activities is that they believe the number of expected participants fall bellow their minimum threshold. (1)

In light of the discussion above, the sponsors of an open letter can increase the number of signatories if they can introduce a mechanism to assure each participant that his or her name will not be revealed as a signatory until a minimum number of signatures have been collected. I like to call this mechanism the Pre-participation Threshold Assurance (PTA) Mechanism. The PTA mechanism will allow each individual to declare his conditional commitment to sign a protest letter based on his personal threshold and receive information about the total number of people who have declared their conditional commitment. His name will only be added to the list of signatories when the total number of recommitted individuals exceeds his threshold. The power of the PTA mechanism is that it allows a large number of interested individuals to coordinate their participation and gain assurance of each other's participation in a high risk activity before it is initiated.

Let me clarify this mechanism with an example. Lets say a popular nationalist leader has been arrested and an Iranian professor, (lets call him Professor Shahamat) who teaches in an American University wants to invite members of the Iranian community in the US and Europe to electronically sign a letter of protest that he has distributed over the internet. He sends the letter to various email lists and invites people to sign it. Majority of those who sympathize with this protest will be hesitant to sign for the reasons that I discussed earlier. Often such a letter will only be signed by a small number of highly committed individuals, whose number rarely exceeds 500. Due to the small number of participants the letter will not prove effective or attract enough attention. Furthermore, because the number of signatories is small, there is indeed a danger that the signatories might face punishment. 

Now consider the following strategy, which demonstrates the effectiveness of the PTA mechanism: Professor Shahamat sends out his letter of protest to all the Iranian mailing lists available to him. He invites people to sign the letter and email it back to him. He also makes a commitment to submit the letter of protest and list of signatories to the media, only if he receives at least 10,000 signatures. Otherwise he will erase all the emails and abandon this initiative altogether.

If the Iranians who receive his letter consider him trustworthy and believe his promise, then they would be more willing to sign the protest letter because they know that their name will only be published if the total number of signatures exceeds 10,000. Consequently, a larger number of people will sign the letter. Application of this strategy has two benefits. First, the chance of punishment for each individual is much smaller and second, the protest letter would have a stronger political effect because it enjoys the support of a large group of people.

Based on this example a PTA initiative needs a political sponsor (or a team of sponsors) who is trusted by all the potential participants. With regard to our example, the main duty of this sponsor is to collect all the electronic signatures and protect the identity of the signatories. Once the total number of submitted signatures exceeds the threshold he will inform all the participants that the threshold target has been achieved. (A variety of internet services such as Facebook, MySpace and  online petition hosting websites such as www.petitiononline.com can help automate this process and reduce the required labor hours. The sponsor will then release the signed letter to the media along with the list of signatories.

*Nader Habibi teaches Middle East economic studies at Brandeis University
 

1)  The role of threshold in political behavior has been extensively analyzed by Timur Kuran, Professor of Economics at Duke University. Interested readers can look at the following articles, which are available on his Internet home page:

"Sparks and the Prairie fires: A Theory of Unanticipated Political Revolution" Public Choice, Vol. 61, pages 41-74 (1989) "The Inevitability of Future Revolutionary Surprises" American Journal of Sociology, Vol. 100, No. 6, Pages 1528-51, (May 1995).

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