Before you continue, I should warn you that this is a long post. Keep reading at your own risk:
The conversation started friendly enough.
We had lived together for weeks, sleeping four-to-a-bed and waking up to the rooster’s crow to walk across rice paddies and teach English. We had gotten along without a problem.
Then, the conversation drifted towards U.S.-China relations. “Things were fine for a while after we beat you in Korea,” said my host brother. I looked down at the chicken feet I was eating. “Yeah, that is, until you bombed and killed our Ambassador in Belgrade in 1999,” chipped in Jason. “Everyone was against you in Yugoslavia.” I stood up, put my chopsticks down, and went into my room without a word.*
That’s right, true to my School of Foreign Service roots, I managed to get offended by a conversation about U.S.-China relations. I thought, What do they know? They must be listening to state-owned media. If this conversation had happened in 2010–not 2008–I might have reacted differently.
Richard Wright, in his 2007 book The Evolution of God, explains why it is so difficult for us to sympathize with those whom we have already decided to dislike.
Think about this: if you are a devout Democrat, what would it take for you to change your mind and decide,
“You know what, that Sarah Palin is actually a brilliant woman and a national hero”?
Or, if you are a red-blooded Republican, what could convince you to argue,
“Barack Obama, on second thought, is a wise and moderate president”?
I don’t know about you, but it is much easier for me to make a decision for the first time than it is to change my mind, especially when that decision—the choice of how to view a politician in this example—coheres with some broader opinion (the appeal of a certain political platform, for example).
The moment that you start arguing against a position is the moment that you lose part of your ability to fairly consider other opinions.
As Wright writes:
The way hatred blocks comprehension is by cramping our ‘moral imagination,’ our capacity to put ourselves in the shoes of another person. This cramping isn’t unnatural … It’s part of the machinery that leads us to grant tolerance and understanding to people we see in non-zero-sum terms and deny it to those we consign to the zero-sum category. (page 418)
Either we understand their motivation internally, even intimately…or we understand their motivation externally and in terms that imply the illegitimacy of their grievances. Pure understanding, uncolored by judgment, is hard to come by. (page 421)
Pure understanding, uncolored judgment, is hard to come by.
A moral imagination, then, depends on two assumptions:
- people nearly always have a reason for their actions; and
- it is possible, but uncomfortable and unnatural, for me to sympathize with the reason behind actions that cause outcomes I dislike.
I’m pretty sure Wright unintentionally plagiarized Marcus Aurelius. I started reading Meditations after a fellow blogger, Ryan Holiday, claimed that it is the greatest book ever written. Meditations was written two thousand years before Wright wrote The Evolution of God, before the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, before Sigmund Freud and the ascendance of psychology as an academic discipline. But Aurelius wrote about exactly the same idea as Wright, even though he does not actually use the term ‘moral imagination’:
When people injure you, ask yourself what good or harm they thought would come of it. If you understand that, you’ll feel sympathy rather than outrage or anger. Your sense of good and evil may be the same as theirs, or near it, in which case you have to excuse them. Or your sense of good and evil may differ from theirs. In which case they’re misguided and deserve your compassion. Is that so hard?
You can use your moral imagination in most situations.
And so I may have lied about loving Sarah Palin. But the point, I guess, is that if I have cut out the option that I might love her–or some part about her–in the future, then I’ve already restricted myself. It is not to suddenly try to convince myself to agree with Sarah Palin, but to ask, “Do I disagree with [insert latest comment here] because of what she actually said, or because it was Sarah Palin who said it?” And at the very least, can I understand why she would say that?
So the next time you are on a flight with a cranky flight attendant, in traffic behind an impatient person, or in any situation where your default reaction is to complain or to harden your opinion towards something or someone, think:
this person is doing this for a reason—a reason or emotion that may be identical to one that motivates some of my actions.
Going through this mental process makes things that can be very annoying a lot less….annoying.
And luckily for us, we are young. It will be much easier for us to make sure that our opinions and perspectives have not hardened; to make sure that we are open to changing or softening our minds when compelling reasons arise.
All right, I will step off of my soapbox for another day.
You have survived the rant. Now go enjoy your weekend.
In truth (if Wikipedia=truth), we did not kill the Chinese ambassador. But we did (accidentally) bomb the embassy and three people died. And from the Chinese perspective, the Korean War was a win, not a stalemate.