The Monster Within Us

Op-Ed

Both Sides, All Sides, Your Side, My Side

15 Sep , 2017  

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?

Both Sides Do It

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.

And let he who is without sin cast the first stone.

Both Sides are Just the Same

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.

The Golden Rule is NOT Do Unto Others as They Do to You

It’s “Do unto others as you would have others do unto you.”

The Ten Commandments could be simplified to this:

  • Be good to one another; and
  • Be good to the earth and the universe.

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.

Apologize or Die, Sucker!

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.

There’s a Monster Lurking Inside Us All

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.

Holly Jahangiri

Holly Jahangiri is the author of Trockle; A Puppy, Not a Guppy; and A New Leaf for Lyle. She draws inspiration from her family, from her own childhood adventures (some of which only happened in her overactive imagination), and from readers both young and young at heart. She lives in Houston, Texas, with her husband, J.J., whose love and encouragement make writing books twice the fun.

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10 Responses

  1. This is a good one, Holly! Sometimes we are our own teacher and yet we fail to see that.I particularly liked Timothy Snyder’s suggestions.

    • Indeed we are, if we take time to observe and think. I liked Timothy Snyder’s suggestions, too! They are still on Facebook (you can see the original post if you click his name in mine), but he did give permission to print and to share, and you just never know if Facebook will shut you down on a whim, one day. This is one of the reasons I want to focus more on the blog, too. Facebook is easy; its lure is that everyone is there and it takes two minutes to bring all your friends together for a quick chat, catch up on the day, whatever. But it’s way TOO easy when it comes to passing around news and outrage. They did psychological experiments on us without our consent. Why would we imagine they’ve stopped, just because they were caught? Surely they’re employing that learning as they tweak their algorithms to determine which posts get seen and which are buried. Why feed their machine?

      • Sreedeep says:

        I understand your concern about Facebook. I think social media relies a lot on these algorithms. When it’s all about user engagement aka money-spinning machinations, they will keep on experimenting. I agree with your views on news and outrage. There’s a whole lot of fake news, yellow journalism and hatemongers as well. It’s difficult to identify the real from the unreal so that’s one area of concern I have too!

      • There are several posts on my old blog about my various concerns about Facebook. I’m determined to go on a “Facebook diet,” to wean myself off of it gradually. No one can just “quit” Facebook when everyone we’ve ever known is there. But what if it quit US? You can’t even back up your contacts – the minute you deactivate or close your account, any contacts that are Facebook only are lost to you. You can download your posts and such. But if you’re used to using Facebook to log in to other sites, you’d best remember your real passwords… it’s a tangled Web out there.

  2. Akshata Ram says:

    Wonderful one Holly! We judge so easily . As they say like like likes – we end up liking people who come from similar culture, background, has studied in the same school or has tastes similar to us. These unconscious biases are a major deterrent in wholly embracing diversity.

    • We do. And we shouldn’t be berated for it. We need friends who are willing to kindly point it out when they see it, and to encourage us to think differently. By the time we’re adults, our biases have become habitual, like breathing. I believe overcoming biases that are ingrained from childhood is a team effort – just like ingraining them in the first place. Babies aren’t born with prejudice, except maybe for their mother’s face and voice. (Having said that, though – have you ever noticed how perceptive, almost “psychic” children can be when it comes to trusting the adults who genuinely LIKE children? Or backing away from those who don’t? They sense it. Some of them are TOO trusting, too willing to go to anyone – but few recoil from truly well-meaning adults who like children, unless they’re just going through a phase where they reject anyone but mom or dad.)

  3. You know, I wrote half of a pretty good comment and decided I didn’t really like any of it, so I’m starting over. lol

    The problem with trying to understand the other side is multi-faceted. In my life I’ve found that most of them will lie to my face and tell me what I want to hear while being something else… and I always discover the something else and feel disappointed. Many of the others won’t even deal with me because of who I am. Frankly, I’d rather not deal with any of them; let them be blown up by their own petard.

    The second part is that people assume we all have the same knowledge about each other and that it’s both fair and unfair to criticize. I’ve written often that in the United States there isn’t a single person of color who’s never interacted with a white person, and many times it’s not good. But there’s probably 20% of the white population that’s never even “met” a minority, so all they know is what they’ve been fed on TV. We’re all a product of our upbringing, but if your upbringing has kept you from a significant part of the population growing up, or your encounters are mainly bad, that’s not a great recipe for good feelings towards the other side.

    The third part is that almost every single day we see the great inequality in business and law enforcement. In the last 3 or 4 years only one police officer was convicted of killing a minority and that officer was a minority himself. Yet people want to know why 76% of black people cheered with OJ Simpson was acquitted but don’t understand why that same percentage is upset when the boys and girls keep getting let off by biased juries even when there’s video… I mean really, video!

    Both sides… both sides have opinions, both sides have knowledge… but both sides don’t have the same experiences in dealing with the other side. Just another problem that needs to be addressed before there can be a real meeting of the minds.

    • Was that opener a sly comment about my blog redesign? 😛

      The problem with trying to understand “the other side” is that there are as many “sides” as there are people, and people are multi-faceted. We fought for years against labeling whole groups of people, but we all still do it. It’s still a valid, instinctual method of threat assessment, sometimes. That’s the thing to constantly fight against, but it’s a two-pronged attack. Members of that group need to disassociate themselves and call out their own when it comes to the bases for negative stereotypes (and most have some basis, whether it’s fair or not). We have to work from within to change ourselves and our own in-groups; we have to work from without to establish a basis for trust. Here’s the thing: It would be insane to trust all the individuals that are part of any group, because they are all still individuals.

      [Ed. note: If by “side” we mean “Is white supremacy good or bad?” or “Is fascism good or bad?” then we can reduce it to two sides: It’s a binary yes or no. It involves involuntary subjugation of one group of people to another group of people, based on stupid criteria like skin color or power. But to understand the attitudes and life experiences that could let these ideas resurface after what should have been an ignominious end and a face-down burial in concrete, that is more complex and I think the effort is necessary, so that we can get at the root causes and bury those, too. The risk of any sort of racial supremacy movement is that the oppressed eventually rise up, reverse the tide, and become the oppressors. This is probably what keeps white racists up late at night, fearful and determined, because in their heart of hearts, they know they deserve it. The rest of us don’t, I don’t think – nor should anyone suffer the role of oppressor, because that’s not a healthy place to be, either.]

      You know what OJ Simpson is? A formerly-popular, very wealthy sports celebrity who could afford the BEST legal team. Yeah, he’s a Black Man. But he’s not your average Black person, is he? I’m upset when biased juries let officers off the hook (or only convict minority officers) in the face of video evidence, myself. I’m horrified by what happened to Philando Castile and others. I don’t understand it, and it makes me sad to think that people of color do, all too well.

      Your “20% of the white population that’s never even “met” a minority, so all they know is what they’ve been fed on TV” is possibly accurate, though so far removed from my own experience I’m sitting here with my mouth hanging open. WTF? But I get it. My father-in-law had done business in the U.S. for years, knew plenty of people here through work, but had odd notions of our family values and social issues based on watching entirely too much American TV – like “Three’s Company” and “Little House on the Prairie.” Think about just those two shows for a minute. (Or, for that matter, some of the first TV with black actors considered sufficiently non-threatening and interesting to be “acceptable” in a mostly white market.) It’s no wonder we have weird ideas, and again – AGAIN – it can be traced back, in part, to the media pandering to and creating the demand. Shaping our beliefs and our tastes in entertainment and news.

      I really love this Facebook post by Nkrumah Steward: https://www.facebook.com/nkrumah.steward/posts/10154943661705893

      I do the same things he describes, largely for the same reasons (different perspective – I do them from the POV of a white woman racking up positive experiences and sending them out into the world, with strangers, men, POC, people from other cultures – but it’s the same idea, and if we just stay safe in our little shells, we just get more and more entrenched in our comfort zone and our habitual prejudices). I don’t know of any other way to fix it, frankly, on a day to day basis within my control.

      I read something the other day about a group where they asked women what they do to prepare to walk to their cars at night. They listed off things like calling for a security escort, holding their keys between their fingers as a weapon, checking under their car for someone hiding there, listening for footsteps… Men just said, “I walk to my car.” In a way, I feel hopeful – because most of the time, “I walk to my car” is the same answer I’d give. Oh, the insanity of that might cross my mind, but I don’t feel a need – 99% of the time – to carry Mace or a gun on me. It helps that I’m tall and not petite; it helps that I’m older and not drop-dead gorgeous.

      Change happens, but when we’re talking about human rights, change can’t come fast enough. The end state should’ve always been a given.

  4. Alice Gerard says:

    Every day, we make judgments. We look at people and we judge, especially of people who we don’t know and don’t understand. Maybe it’s part of human nature. I truly don’t know. We try not to judge or, at least, not to give the appearance of judging. But we fail. I think that’s OK. It’s OK because another day will come along and, eventually, we would get it right. It’s OK to be human. It’s not OK to be mean and cruel and racist and to do that on purpose and, unfortunately, that sort of behavior seems to be encouraged these days.

    • I agree, Alice. It’s okay to not always be “nice.” I don’t believe it’s possible or even healthy not to judge at all – but again, we should never judge more harshly than we’re willing to BE judged. Or we will be judged more harshly than we can imagine, one of these days.

      It’s not okay to be cruel, mean-spirited, or bigoted. I say “bigoted” because it includes so much more than race, and it’s so stupid in all its forms, even when we can trace it back to its origins in individual experience. It’s punishing the innocent, rather than letting one guilty person go free.

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