Thursday, June 16, 2011

On Men and Monsters

These first few posts are a little late in regard to the events that inspired them, but I just now got this blog up and running and I feel that I should put them somewhere, so here they are.

I am convinced that empathy is one of the highest forms of human reasoning. It combines imagination -- one of the highest intellectual achievements -- with selflessness -- one of the highest reaches of morality. Putting ourselves in the shoes of another, particularly someone who appears vastly different from us, keeps us from becoming completely self-serving automata. I have heard it postulated that self-reflection is a form of (and even gives rise to) consciousness. If this is true, then reflecting on the self of another is even greater. Not only do we recognize that we think and have a being, but that others also have a being unto themselves that is very much like our own -- and similar enough that we can imagine how we would feel if we were in their circumstances.

I am also convinced that the greatest atrocities in human history occur due to a loss of empathy. These tragedies occur when a group in power ceases to view people as people and instead sees them as either tools to be used or obstacles to be eliminated. Offenses like this can range from the obvious repression by totalitarian governments who, at best, see the people they expend as tools "for the greater good," to individual bases of "just using someone for their _____." In all cases, there is a fundamental sense that this is wrong, even if it is efficient and utilitarian, and the argument against such actions boils down to the sentiment, "but they're people, too." This can even be applied to the perpetrators; no one ever sets out to be evil (aside, perhaps, from mental illness). They can certainly become that way, but rather than aiming at being the worst possible human they can imagine, they do so by focusing so much on their own interests and ideals that they forget the reality of the selves of others. In thinking (consciously or not) that they are the only true men, they become monsters.

It is very important to remember this in your interactions with others, particularly those you don't like or disagree with. Every person you interact with is human and everything that comes with it. They are not perfect (just like you), but they also have intellectual processes and emotional responses very similar to your own. Aside from environmental conditions, the differences arise in each person's interests and the way in which they pursue and protect those interests. Now, it is perfectly reasonable to find fault in these set of priorities (I just stated that blind pursuit of misplaced priorities can lead to inhumanity), and I'm certainly not against the destruction of erroneous arguments and points of view, but there's a reason ad hominem attacks are considered fallacious. Never forget that the other person is a person.

The whole issue of the monster-izing effect of the lack of empathy is very prevalent in the United States' current War on Terror. I seriously doubt that those who perpetrated the 9/11 attacks thought of the people in the Twin Towers as the same sort of being as their loved ones. I'm fairly certain that those in terrorist cells fit my earlier description of monsters. And I see a war of and against an "us and them" mentality toward Muslims. Several weeks ago, Osama bin Laden was killed in an operation by Seal Team Six. In the United States, this was met with relief, rejoicing, and sharp criticism toward those who were rejoicing. I would tend to side with the third group. Personally, I felt very little emotion at the news other than a very pragmatic acknowledgment of threat mitigation on one hand and the increased threat of retaliation on the other. There are people who are far more emotionally connected with this war than I am and I cannot pretend to know their feelings, but I do not think that bin Laden's death should be celebrated. I'm not trying to detract from the Seals' accomplishment; they very admirably completed their mission and neutralized a threat, but it was not victory, it was the death of a man. The death of a human being who was working to protect his interests. These interests were wrong and they manner in which he protected them was unjust, but in his mind, there was reason behind his actions.

I know there's a very fine line between celebrating a success and a victory (though, again, not ultimate victory), and celebrating the death of the man Osama bin Laden, and so I am not directing any criticism against those who felt glad when they heard the news. I am, however, critical of those who proverbially danced on his grave, who became so focused on their own jingoism that they viewed him as little more than a one-dimensional enemy, an obstacle with a name.

Was I able to fully empathize with Osama? Absolutely not. Personally, I find it very difficult to empathize with anyone who is more than slightly different from me. But it is an ideal toward which I aim. Was bin Laden a monster? Yes, but he was also a man, and if we forget that we become more like him than we would want to admit.

1 comment:

  1. I have thought more about this in light of service on Sunday and especially since we have been in Romans 12. I desperately want to get to a place of being able to love my enemies. To not only say I desire them to know Christ, but to be the one to forgive them face to face and extend the forgiveness of Christ to them and share the Gospel in word and deed. It's also easy to see someone like Osamam bin Laden as an enemy and for me, that actually made him easier to love (comparativley) because he was so desperately lost. But what about those we see everyday who may even call themselves believers but live in absolute rebellion to His ways,who persecute the church more subtly with "reletavism" or "tolerance", or those who are more hypocriical and may even seem like our friend? This, for me, is th real struggle...loving those who are more like me than I would like to admit...Thans for sharing, Grey. :)