In seeing a lot of the news these days I was quite discomforted by a couple trends in the dialogue surrounding some current events. It took me a serious moment of contemplation and digging into personal feelings before I began to see what was really bothering me. In the US, I see people now suddenly carrying large weapons and the reasoning in it is to “not take weapons away from the good people, leaving only the bad guys with guns.” In the more serious issues going on in the middle east, I’ve seen comments thrown around at times calling other people “beasts” “animals” or “inhuman.”
Well, besides the irony of many animals being actually quite gentle, kind, and cuddly, what really does bother me is this mental act of pushing other humans so deep into this category of otherness.
I’m thinking back and wondering how long as a human society we’ve conditioned ourselves through these stories of “good” and “evil.” It’s so extremely prevalent in most Western cinema, but can be found in many old tales and legends around the world. It’s so simple: We root for the good guys, and hope the “bad” guys lose. Admittedly, it is a natural human function to categorize and put things in boxes. And our brains need it- we couldn’t effectively do anything in this world if we had to rediscover what a chair or table was every time we saw one. But at the same time we have to be soooo vigilantly aware of this human tendency to categorize, especially when it comes to … other humans.
The fact of the matter is in the real world, there are no clear lines that separate the “good” guys and the “bad” guys. These are not real. What is real? Anger is real. Trauma is real. Pain and suffering are real. Even though memories may become distorted, the feelings which arise from them are real. People have pasts. People have stories.
And we cut ourselves off the second that we stop hearing those stories. It’s a little bit natural. When our hearts and minds find something offensive to our sensibilities, whether minor or major, the gut reaction is often to create a sort of mental scab that separates us. But I think, in many cases, this is a scab that does not allow us to heal. It instead masks both the pain we could potentially understand in others and our own pain as well.
I am no professional mathematician, but I’m going to propose a theorem: The extent to which we dehumanize others is directly proportional to the extent in which we allow ourselves to commit or comfortably witness violence upon them.
I fully realize other different factors are involved: e.g., media coverage based more on quality profits and good stock returns than quality journalism; and of course, various social conditions such as lack of security, food, water, and shelter can make people more desperate and inclined to violence. Consider a population in which around 80% of people have been displaced from their homes, mostly living in refugee camps in the (no exaggeration) world’s most densely populated area, while dealing with terrain that offers little water to begin with and only 10% which is clean enough to drink, and to top it off, having that area of land designated by the UN to be likely uninhabitable for humans within 6 years. (Yes, that’s the Gaza Strip). I don’t condone violence, but the realist part of me is honestly surprised there hasn’t been much more violence given such conditions.
However, getting back to the point, even these conditions are still in many ways a part of dehumanization and turning our back on the story of others.
There are no real good guys. There are no real bad guys. There are stories. There is pain. There is suffering. And there are reactions to those.
Sometimes, when we begin to turn off our ears, even slightly, we can also seriously damage our ability to help when bringing good intentions.
There is one American Jewish Rabbi and head of a conflict studies department whom I really respect named Marc Gopin, who has worked plenty with different groups in the Middle East. He keenly observed, “We are particularly prone to generate conflict by our stereotypical expectations of and sensitivity to what we think are the worst qualities of our enemy. Conversely, when reconciling with an enemy – an extremely difficult moment for the human psyche – we offer what we consider to be our best qualities of prosocial engagement, our ideal selves, and utterly reject the methods and character of what we perceive to be our enemies’ worst traits. Most important, we expect our enemies to do exactly the same thing. But here is the catch! We expect them to engage in peaceful gestures that reflect our own highest selves, not theirs. And here the tragic failings in communication occur.”
People are ultimately very similar, but definitely not the same. We share many basic values … but its important to recognize that we might prioritize those values differently. It is a bit tragic that most communication breakdowns come when learning the different priorities, and before listening to hear the similarities that still underlie them.
But this is where listening, openness to others and turning on compassion become so critically important.
There are no good guys. There are no bad guys. What I think is truly bad is anger, greed, and the tendency to turn away from seeing the heart of the suffering before us-and the suffering inside us. Aside from a few extremely rare and highly advanced spiritual people, I’d say we all have at least some of these tendencies. During these moments of wanting to turn away or shield ourselves from what we witness, these are the true moments of battle. Can we become better at recognizing those times? Can the recognition of these tendencies, the understanding of them help towards releasing us from them. Yes, that at least is my own heartfelt religious belief. And I also believe that this can help us to engage the world in ways which don’t simply continue the cycles of violence, but contribute to ending it. I’m not saying that one simple mental thought moment will automatically lead to instant world peace – but the little things are what add up to the big picture, and this is a realistic practice I can do in any moment: See my seeds of frustration, and turn them into seeds of listening and compassion. See those seeds of my own dialog which separate and cause harm, and be open to changing, adjusting them.
I don’t like seeing a dehumanizing world. I don’t like seeing the suffering in it. I honestly wish deep down that as painful as it would be at first – that everyone could feel each other’s pain. In the long run, though, I feel the understanding would help bring it down. I hope that at the very least we can try to see other people for who they are: people.
~ Nathan Michon