Conflict among Fallible Humans

I thought I would start this post by turning a comment I made recently on another post into a meme. One of the challenges of all conflict, for those concerned not about winning but about principles, is how to combat what we perceive to be evil without being turned into that which we hate in the process. Even on a pragmatic level, it is possible to recognize that lashing out in response to attacks can be counterproductive at the very least. But I want to suggest that there is something more to it than that. We need to find ways to balance having strong convictions and recognizing our own fallibility, standing against what we perceive to be evil while recognizing that we and our opponents are all human beings with the same inherent worth and capacity for both good and evil. That is not to suggest that some do not do inflict more harm on others. But often those actions are motivated by things the individuals in question perceive as good, such as protecting their family, their nation, their heritage.

Nostalgia for the past – even an imagined idealized past – is something that all human beings are prone to. And so surely we can find ways to combat the harmful effects of mistaken beliefs that we see across the aisle, without dehumanizing those who hold the beliefs. Failure to do that would be to engage in precisely the sort of unkindness, lack of compassion and empathy, that we have criticized them for, making us the worst sort of hypocrites.

On a related note, Mark Grabe made the case that learning to argue is the most important skill we should be teaching at the moment.


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  • John MacDonald

    I am reminded of the racist, dehumanizing propaganda art of WW2 depicting, for instance, the Japanese as demons.

  • Ivan T. Errible

    There is no god.

  • Tom

    Humanization of the opponent is no way to fight a war. I struggle with this when I sit in the company of those whose theology I wildly disagree. The problem being that, as I sat and listened to them, I fell in love with them. I found people, as individuals, who were just trying to make sense of it all using the tools they were taught to use. I saw their struggle as I see mine and I lost the ability to fight them, because I realized the fight was, truly, with myself. But then again…I could be entirely full of shit.

    • Iain Lovejoy

      Dehumanization of the Japanese by the US, and mistreatment if prisoners and civilians in islands captured, so I have read, prolonged the war. Japanese propaganda prepared its population to fight to the last man (and woman, and child) by convincing them that the US would do to them what the Japanese did to those they conquered, and worse, if they invaded, and so better to go down fighting.
      The Japanese did not surrender after Hiroshima, but did after Nagasaki, because in the meantime Russia had entered the war against them (and they definitely did not want to be invaded by the Russians) and the US had softened their stance on keeping their emperor.
      All wars end when one side decides it is no longer worth continuing to fight. The better they think they will be treated in defeat, the more likely they are to accept it.

      • John Smith

        Japanese surrendered when they got concessions; but the Nazis fought on until Hitler was dead, Wehrmacht destroyed and Germany occupied, and some still kept fighting guerilla battles for years afterwards.

        Not all wars end or even an end in a compromise. Some fights are to the death. Conservatives might be fighting to protect their families, nation nor heritage, but they’re also they’re fighting to protect their privilege. Privilege and equality are mutually exclusive concepts; having privilege means you’re oppressing those who don’t have it. There can be no peace between them; one must fall. And it’s not going to be equality.

        Japanese wanted to have an emperor over themselves, but the Conservatives want to be the emperor over all.

        • Iain Lovejoy

          I am not aware of guerilla battles for “years” afterwards. I would be interested in any citations / evidence. As far as I am aware, the only Germans who continued fighting after Germany’s surrender were those who would otherwise have been captured by the Red Army, and they continued to fight the Russians to escape and surrender to the US and the British instead, which rather demonstrates my point.

          Forgot to add: the allies insisted on unconditional surrender by the Germans in WW2, which was one of the reasons why they fought to the bitter end, again illustrating my point: the harsher you propose to treat your enemy, the longer and harder they fight.