Both sides, all sides, your side, my side. Can’t we all just try to see things from others’ point of view, and try to get along? Are we really hardwired to see the world as “us vs. them”? Do we need a common enemy to fight, lest we fight among ourselves?
We don’t want to be labeled, yet we label others with a stunning lack of self-awareness.
We dislike bigotry, but fail to see the irony in our own prejudices.
We say “don’t judge,” as if discernment of right and wrong were a sin, or a right that no one else but us could dare to claim.
We all sort and categorize the world around us and the creatures that inhabit it. We are biologically hardwired to do it, and it serves us well, sometimes: we avoid venomous snakes, we avoid lions. We band together to fight what we perceive to be a common threat to our safety, but fail to see that sometimes, we are our own worst enemy. We’re gifted with intelligence enough to fight the urge to rank one another based on irrelevant traits like skin color or gender, disability or sexuality – things we don’t choose as opposed to the beliefs and behaviors that are completely optional. Yet we do it anyway, unthinking.
We’re all inclined to prejudge people based on our own past experiences with others who look, or dress, or talk like them, and based on the beliefs of those we grew up with and now surround ourselves with. Some of us are open to new experiences, new ideas, and new beliefs. Some embrace the challenge; most are a little slow to change. A few would prefer to keep themselves in the shadowbox of a carefully curated history and call it “heritage” and “tradition,” clinging to a whitewashed, imperfect memory of a life that never was, like a tattered battle flag in the midst of carnage.
We all judge. If there is anyone on the planet who doesn’t judge, we could use their moral compass for a ceiling fan in Hell. Those who claim not to judge are often the harshest critics of all, failing to recognize that the statement, “I don’t judge others,” alone, implies that those who do judge are wrong and inferior to them. Better to judge with the exact same criteria we invite and welcome others to use in judging us. In other words, play fair. Be humble. Be compassionate and merciful.
Nonsense. They’re not “just the same.”
Sometimes, the distinction between “right” and “wrong” really is just a matter of perspective. History is written by the conquerors; to the victors go the spoils of heroism in history books. Other times, it’s crystal clear: If you consider something to be your right, then to deprive others of it, based on their immutable traits or accidents of birth is wrong. To hurt others or to damage them on purpose is never right. To use religious beliefs as an excuse for genocide is just plain evil.
“Both sides” are not “equally good” or “equally bad.” People, of course, are a mix of both good and bad, sometimes in nearly equal measure. To endow our historical idols with clay feet is not to erase their accomplishments nor glorify their misdeeds. Social conflicts are wrapped in layers of complexity and the solutions have to balance the needs and address the reasonable concerns of all involved. We can’t undo the past; the best we can do is learn from it and move forward. Quickly, when it comes to basic human rights. In most other areas, the error is in believing there is only one right way, and that all others are wrong or evil or bad. Or, that they are equally good or equally bad.
It’s “Do unto others as you would have others do unto you.”
The Ten Commandments could be simplified to this:
Not just “do no harm,” though that would be an adequate start. It might be all most of us can manage, and a bit of a struggle, at that, half the time. Seems simple enough, but humans are gifted with the ability to split hairs and have a natural inclination to search for loopholes to any “rule.” Free will is a bitch, but if we’d deprive others of it, we’d have to be willing to give it up, ourselves. In fact, we do–when we obey the law in service of the greater good and the ability to live peacefully together in communities. Not all laws are designed with these principles in mind, unfortunately.
Okay, add a third commandment, then: When it comes to the first two, try harder.
I’m no fan of forced apologies. A forced apology is a worthless, insincere apology; it demonstrates no understanding, no empathy, no change of heart. It is formulaic and designed only to get out of trouble.
But there’s where it fails. There’s where it becomes merely the public punishment stock with the added insult that the wrongdoer is forced to lock himself into it and supply the rotten tomatoes of added hypocrisy. When has a forced apology ever gotten anyone out of trouble or earned anyone an ounce of grudging forgiveness?
We can surely forgive others without their ever apologizing; but if no forgiveness is possible, no redemption permitted, where is the incentive for anyone to change their mind or their heart and try harder to do right by others? It seems that the forced apology only builds up a culprit’s defensiveness and causes them to retreat deeper into their own encampment with like-minded people.
On all sides of any conflict or disagreement.
Because this is human nature, not some manifestation of rottenness within. It is merely a form of self-defense. And if we believed that this aspect of human nature was a sign of irredeemable rottenness, we would not suffer a child to live past ten. We forget that some adults have the emotional IQ of a five year old, and rather than try to reach out with kindness, we condemn them for their failure to develop and mature. We assume they’ve had adequate love and compassion shown to them by the arbitrary age of 18, and that anything past that age is all on them. We point to the shining examples of those who’ve beat the same odds stacked against them and say, “See? You’re just a horrible, rotten failure. Human garbage.” But even if we accept that their bad attitudes and unacceptable bad behavior were a choice, can we assume they knew there were better choices open to them?
No, a lousy childhood is no excuse for inflicting yourself on others, especially if you do know right from wrong or hold a position of power or authority over others. Nor is mental defect or illness reason enough to allow a psychopath loose in society to follow their twisted impulses. Of course we need the means to separate dangerous people from their past or potential, future victims. We don’t have to accept or condone bad acts, we certainly have a right to defend ourselves, but we should try not to commit bad acts in retaliation.
Holding adults accountable for their actions does not mean that we must be cruel and withhold empathy and compassion, either. We can build a better network of mental health facilities and resources; we can treat imprisoned convicts with human decency. Whether they “deserve” it or not isn’t always the issue; we deserve to sleep at night knowing that we and the people in our community are kind and decent human beings, doing our part, as best we can, to leave the world just a little better than we found it. I think that “better” does not mean harsher, colder, or crueler.
It’s easier to think of “them” as evil and “us” as good. But a friend reminded me, earlier today, of the Stanford Prison Experiment.
[F]unded by the U.S. Office of Naval Research as an investigation into the causes of difficulties between guards and prisoners in the United States Navy and United States Marine Corps…Guards and prisoners [were] chosen randomly from the volunteering college students. Some participants developed their roles as the officers and enforced authoritarian measures and ultimately subjected some prisoners to psychological torture. Many of the prisoners passively accepted psychological abuse and, by the officers’ request, actively harassed other prisoners who tried to stop it.
Similarly, the Milgram experiment on obedience to authority figures demonstrated that we’re all capable of being monsters.
The experiments began in July 1961…three months after the start of the trial of German Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann in Jerusalem. Milgram devised his psychological study to answer the popular question at that particular time: ‘Could it be that Eichmann and his million accomplices in the Holocaust were just following orders? Could we call them all accomplices?'”
[Researchers] measured the willingness of study participants, men from a diverse range of occupations with varying levels of education, to obey an authority figure who instructed them to perform acts conflicting with their personal conscience; the experiment found, unexpectedly, that a very high proportion of people were prepared to obey, albeit unwillingly, even if apparently causing serious injury and distress.
The experiments have been repeated many times in the following years with consistent results within differing societies, although not with the same percentages around the globe.
If we are naturally inclined to follow authoritarian rule, a better question might be, “How do we overcome our natural inclinations, and resist authoritarian rule?” Because we’ve seen the hellish path down which such power leads, and we must resist. Timothy Snyder has some good, and practical, suggestions, which I am reprinting here in case Facebook, one day, deems them “inappropriate”:
Americans are no wiser than the Europeans who saw democracy yield to fascism, Nazism, or communism. Our one advantage is that we might learn from their experience. Now is a good time to do so. Here are twenty lessons from the twentieth century, adapted to the circumstances of today.
1. Do not obey in advance. Much of the power of authoritarianism is freely given. In times like these, individuals think ahead about what a more repressive government will want, and then start to do it without being asked. You’ve already done this, haven’t you? Stop. Anticipatory obedience teaches authorities what is possible and accelerates unfreedom.
2. Defend an institution. Follow the courts or the media, or a court or a newspaper. Do not speak of “our institutions” unless you are making them yours by acting on their behalf. Institutions don’t protect themselves. They go down like dominoes unless each is defended from the beginning.
3. Recall professional ethics. When the leaders of state set a negative example, professional commitments to just practice become much more important. It is hard to break a rule-of-law state without lawyers, and it is hard to have show trials without judges.
4. When listening to politicians, distinguish certain words. Look out for the expansive use of “terrorism” and “extremism.” Be alive to the fatal notions of “exception” and “emergency.” Be angry about the treacherous use of patriotic vocabulary.
5. Be calm when the unthinkable arrives. When the terrorist attack comes, remember that all authoritarians at all times either await or plan such events in order to consolidate power. Think of the Reichstag fire. The sudden disaster that requires the end of the balance of power, the end of opposition parties, and so on, is the oldest trick in the Hitlerian book. Don’t fall for it.
6. Be kind to our language. Avoid pronouncing the phrases everyone else does. Think up your own way of speaking, even if only to convey that thing you think everyone is saying. (Don’t use the internet before bed. Charge your gadgets away from your bedroom, and read.) What to read? Perhaps “The Power of the Powerless” by Václav Havel, 1984 by George Orwell, The Captive Mind by Czesław Milosz, The Rebel by Albert Camus, The Origins of Totalitarianism by Hannah Arendt, or Nothing is True and Everything is Possible by Peter Pomerantsev.
7. Stand out. Someone has to. It is easy, in words and deeds, to follow along. It can feel strange to do or say something different. But without that unease, there is no freedom. And the moment you set an example, the spell of the status quo is broken, and others will follow.
8. Believe in truth. To abandon facts is to abandon freedom. If nothing is true, then no one can criticize power, because there is no basis upon which to do so. If nothing is true, then all is spectacle. The biggest wallet pays for the most blinding lights.
9. Investigate. Figure things out for yourself. Spend more time with long articles. Subsidize investigative journalism by subscribing to print media. Realize that some of what is on your screen is there to harm you. Learn about sites that investigate foreign propaganda pushes.
10. Practice corporeal politics. Power wants your body softening in your chair and your emotions dissipating on the screen. Get outside. Put your body in unfamiliar places with unfamiliar people. Make new friends and march with them.
11. Make eye contact and small talk. This is not just polite. It is a way to stay in touch with your surroundings, break down unnecessary social barriers, and come to understand whom you should and should not trust. If we enter a culture of denunciation, you will want to know the psychological landscape of your daily life.
12. Take responsibility for the face of the world. Notice the swastikas and the other signs of hate. Do not look away and do not get used to them. Remove them yourself and set an example for others to do so.
13. Hinder the one-party state. The parties that took over states were once something else. They exploited a historical moment to make political life impossible for their rivals. Vote in local and state elections while you can.
14. Give regularly to good causes, if you can. Pick a charity and set up autopay. Then you will know that you have made a free choice that is supporting civil society helping others doing something good.
15. Establish a private life. Nastier rulers will use what they know about you to push you around. Scrub your computer of malware. Remember that email is skywriting. Consider using alternative forms of the internet, or simply using it less. Have personal exchanges in person. For the same reason, resolve any legal trouble. Authoritarianism works as a blackmail state, looking for the hook on which to hang you. Try not to have too many hooks.
16. Learn from others in other countries. Keep up your friendships abroad, or make new friends abroad. The present difficulties here are an element of a general trend. And no country is going to find a solution by itself. Make sure you and your family have passports.
17. Watch out for the paramilitaries. When the men with guns who have always claimed to be against the system start wearing uniforms and marching around with torches and pictures of a Leader, the end is nigh. When the pro-Leader paramilitary and the official police and military intermingle, the game is over.
18. Be reflective if you must be armed. If you carry a weapon in public service, God bless you and keep you. But know that evils of the past involved policemen and soldiers finding themselves, one day, doing irregular things. Be ready to say no. (If you do not know what this means, contact the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and ask about training in professional ethics.)
19. Be as courageous as you can. If none of us is prepared to die for freedom, then all of us will die in unfreedom.
20. Be a patriot. The incoming president is not. Set a good example of what America means for the generations to come. They will need it.
–Timothy Snyder, Housum Professor of History, Yale University,
15 November 2016.
We evolve. We need not let our favorite dystopian or apocalyptic fiction become our reality. The 24/7 news cycle feeds and nurtures our adrenaline-fueled addiction to dramatic news. The negative attention given to wrongdoers feeds their craving for attention and drives them to compete for it with more over-the-top outlandish acts. That said, read “What if Everyone Just Stopped Watching? Reflections on the Hunger Games – Part 1.” Maybe it’s not as simple as flipping the TV switch, but if we replaced the propaganda of doom and gloom with the propaganda of hope, it would be a good start.