Hmmm. I’m struggling a bit at the moment with a question of difference and conflict – in my real life. Also, I read something on someone else’s blog that got me thinking about the question of judging other people’s choices and actions. So, I’m burbling – please feel free to ignore. Also, know that nothing I’m writing is meant to cause offence. Of course, it might do that – and if it does then I’m sorry.
I write from an atheist position, so I have no belief in a ‘one true way’ for people to behave. I am a situation ethicist – what is right in one place and time will not be right in all circumstances or for all people. Of course, I do have passionately held beliefs about choices and actions in this place and at this time – both my own, and those of other people. There are some central beliefs at the heart of my overall philosophy. I try to keep these beliefs in mind as I meet difficult situations. They are especially important when I am about to ‘take offence’ or ‘have my feelings hurt’ – or otherwise withdraw.
The first is that people are fallible – they always do, and always will, make mistakes. In all our beliefs and choices we are foolish if we don’t leave ourselves room to change our minds in the face of evidence that we are wrong. Equally, we will have a very limited understanding of other people’s actions if we don’t remember that they could be making a mistake too – and they may be about to recognize and correct it.
Secondly, our freedoms to be who we choose are ethical only in so far as they do not restrict the choices of others.
This second belief is especially important to me when it comes to dealing with conflict between children. I think that children need to be given time, and lots of positive example, to develop the art of truly respecting other people’s freedoms. They can often do this wonderfully well, but generally not consistently, when they are young. Actually, I think we all have trouble doing it consistently!
So, the learning of empathy is a challenge for humans, but, then again, it is a pretty amazing thing when we get it right. I think we need a constant, low level, empathy to operate happily in communities - of all sorts. Some people find empathy much harder than others – and that is part of human diversity.
It is hard for some children to remember that the desire to feel the squish of chubby flesh between your teeth will be paid for in extreme pain for someone else. (I speak as a person who once bit her kind brother very hard on the back, when he was giving me a piggy back!) It takes time for children to understand that everyone’s freedom to hear the film will be restricted by their choice to talk in a loud voice.
So, how about my child’s choice to shout an insult at someone else, or whack them on the head? What if it is done in retaliation? What if it is done out of revenge – over something that happened half an hour ago, or last week, or last month? Well, I think that those moments are the ones to step in and help the children develop empathy. You don’t have to be best buddies with someone to understand that their head will hurt if you lob a car at it. You don’t have to be someone’s friend to know that your aggressive words will make them scared and defensive. ‘They feel things just like you do’ is a simple message but something I think we do need to re-iterate with children – and remind ourselves of. And from there you can realise that no good will be served by increasing the amount of unhappiness.
This is not simple – it is hideously thorny and there are grey areas. Like, should you restrict someone’s choices ‘for their own good’? I think that most of us do that with children to some degree. Some people fetishise it and glory in the distress they can cause for a ‘good reason’. I try to make sure I am watchful and intervene only when my extra years of life can give an insight that the child just can’t see, and damage is about to be done. This has to be done with a constant awareness of your own fallibility and from a place of respect. It can get distorted very easily – like burning people to death to save their souls. You know the kind of scenario… I guess I would say that if people are adult then they make their own choices and any action you take to restrict their choices, for their perceived good, should be done only in extreme circumstances – like they are unconscious or seriously divorced from reality.
Another key belief of mine is that people who make different choices, who have very different beliefs about people and the world, should talk – often. I think that hope lies in a few, a very few, places. (Not hugely optimistic about the fate of our planet with us as this swarm species!) But I am hugely inspired by the dialogue between Jo Berry and Patrick Magee. A great effort has been made by people who could have chosen to stay in their own understanding. In spite of the massive challenge of a deadly and destructive act they have found the ability to talk – and that inspires me.
I don’t really know why I think talk is so important. I suspect because I believe that it is harder to harm, or even kill, someone with whom you have conversed. If we don’t communicate there is always the danger of ‘extreme otherness’ creeping into our views of each other. Then terrible wrongs are easily done – and the challenge of communication is harder still – and the whole thing descends in a spiral of hate and violence. It is easy to think people deluded, or dangerous, or just plain evil – if you never talk to them. And then they are so frightening, so very frightening. Most of us in this privileged little part of the world aren’t having to operate in conditions of such terror – most of the time. So, if we can’t manage to talk, then who can?
Of course, you are on much shakier ground if you are attempting communication with people who already believe you to be ‘the extreme other’. If people believe that to talk to you would be corrupting in itself then there’s not a lot you can do. In that moment you just have to hope that someone else’s voice will be heard and the fear decreased by someone else. If people are shoving you into the gutter, raining glass bottles down around you then that is not the moment to try to talk. But up to that point I am a talker – I have some hope.