Over the past couple of weeks, there’s been an unusual amount of drama in my particular corner of the social media world and it’s got me thinking about the problem of loving one’s enemies.
Christ clearly commands us to do this. He doesn’t say that we have to be friends with everyone, but He does say that we have to love everyone. He models this Himself in a truly astonishing way, praying for the guys who are literally driving nails through His hands. Not only does He forgive these men, but He prays that God will forgive them “for they know not what they do.”
One of the difficulties, of course, is that we don’t have the ability to read hearts. We have no idea whether the people who hurt us know exactly what they’re doing, or whether they are completely clueless. This is especially true when the folks who hurt us are strangers. With a close friend or relative, I can pretty easily step outside of myself and see why they are behaving in a way that causes me pain. But with a stranger? I have no idea.
Unfortunately, evidence suggests that we may tend to attribute other people’s bad behaviour to intentional causes or character flaws, whereas we’re more likely to see our own faults (or those of people who sympathize with) as a product of situational or involuntary pressures. So, for example, if I was a fan of Ayn Rand for a couple of months when I was seventeen, it was because I was going through a phase, I was young, I was influenced by peers who were also reading Atlas Shrugged, I hadn’t really thought through the real-life implications of Objectivism, etc.
On the other hand, if I encounter a Randian in a random forum on the internet, I may leap to the immediate conclusion that they are an idiot: intellectually stunted, socially inept, incapable of empathy, probably living in their parents basement having wet dreams about one day ruling the world from their private jet.
If the other person has made the mistake of subscribing to a deplorable philosophy that I happen never to have fallen for personally, I’m even more likely to assume that they are deeply deficient as a human being. Instead of thinking about the stupid things I have believed in the past, and what caused me to hold those beliefs, instead I assume that the other person has made a deliberate, probably malicious choice to hold opinions that I find execrable.
Since we think badly of our ideological opponents, we can become outraged when they respond in ways that are, actually, very similar to the ways that we respond. For example, most of us don’t take it very well if we are schooled in the middle of a contentious debate – but when we school someone else we see ourselves as “educating” them, and often expect that they will immediately accept correction. It doesn’t matter how condescending or contemptuous we are in presenting our arguments or evidence. If the other person balks at our tone, it’s because they lack either humility or good will.
Underlying all of this is an assumption that other people basically have access to the same store of information that we have access to, and that they are making culpable decisions about their beliefs based on that information. If we do consider the likelihood that ignorance is at play, we assume that the ignorance is one-sided (we have the facts, they are stupid). If a person arrives at wrong conclusions based on false information, we often unconsciously believe that their beliefs are in bad faith or that they are responsible for not having educated themselves adequately.
Part of this stems from our tendency to think of certain foundational elements of our own belief systems as “common knowledge.” I recall, for example, a conversation in which I referred to Immanuel Kant as one of the philosophers that “everybody knows.” Someone quickly pointed out to me that this is absurd: large swathes of the human race could not tell you that Kant is a philosopher, much less identify any of his beliefs. But because I first read Kant in high-school, I naturally think of him as someone that any reasonably educated person knows.
Because we assume that we have come to our beliefs based on a rational survey of “the evidence,” we often behave as though belief systems are essentially voluntary. Having correct beliefs is a product of devotion to truth, it is a fundamentally moral undertaking. So if somebody has beliefs that we find wildly problematic, we assume that there is some sort of moral deficiency in their character.
However, in reality, our beliefs are far less voluntary than we like to think. Most of the time, we don’t have a lot of conscious control over the information that we are exposed to. Even those of us who go to a lot of effort to be intentional about our reading still face a lot of unchosen constraints and limitations. We are influenced by the social media algorithms that control what news makes it into our feeds, by the availability of books at our local libraries, by the ways in which we have learned to find information on Google, by the recommendations of our peer groups, by the exposure to texts in formal education settings, by the media that we have been taught to trust, and by our own responses to texts.
Finally, there are always cultural and social pressures to adopt or eschew particular beliefs. We all have a store of received wisdom from our families and our parents. We are educated with specific values, both in formal education and in religious formation. Our friends will quickly correct certain types of error while encouraging others. Others seek to influence, or in abusive situations even control, our beliefs. If you’ve never felt the kind of severe anxiety, or experienced the social exclusion that can accompany a move away from an acceptable belief system towards one that is socially penalized, it probably means you’ve exercised relatively little real intellectual freedom.
This means the beliefs we arrive at are usually chosen from a fairly small range of real options. The circumstances of our lives dictate our philosophies to a much higher degree than most of us are comfortable acknowledging. Of course, this means that we are rarely willing to acknowledge the degree to which other people’s beliefs are the consequence of their experience rather than of conscious deliberation.
Loving our intellectual enemies, therefore, becomes difficult. We find it very hard to say “Forgive them, Father, for they know not what they do.” Instead, we want to castigate and shame them for having arrived at such egregious conclusions. More importantly, we want to make it clear, both to ourselves and to others, that we could never, ever, fall into the same error.
Escaping from this trap involves an exercise of imagination. It involves being willing to get inside the head of someone who thinks very differently. It involves asking ourselves difficult questions. What kind of experiences or information might lead me to arrive at that same belief? What thought process could lead me to arrive at those conclusions? It involves seeing the other person as another self, possessed of the same kind of fundamental human inclinations, abilities and limitations that I, myself, possess.
My own method for doing this is perhaps idiosyncratic. Basically, I use my fiction writing as a vehicle for exploring perspectives that are divorced from my own. Eros & Thanatos is essentially an exercise in seeing different debates (the homosexuality debate and debates about revenge, capital punishment and the afterlife) from a variety of viewpoints without allowing my own convictions to take centre stage.
I come up with fully formed characters that have complex life experiences, and then I let myself get inside of their skin, as it were, until I’m able to understand the ways in which they think and the ways that their experiences have shaped their thinking. This allows me to get outside of myself, and to entertain ideas that I would normally find foreign or threatening. Because I love my characters (I sincerely believe that an artist can’t truly create without loving their characters into being), I’m able by extension to love real people who have arrived as similar conclusions.
There are other methods, of course. Foucault talks about using philosophy to step outside of your own cultural assumptions, your own experiences. Instead of approaching philosophical texts as a series of propositions to be accepted or refuted, Foucault focuses on trying to understand ideas within the context that generated them – the idea is to step into a different way of seeing and understanding the world, both by immersing oneself in the texts of a different discourse and also by examining and understanding the culture that gave rise to that discourse.
In any case, the object is to arrive at a kind of “humility before truth,” that is, a stance in which you no longer assume your own beliefs and experiences to be paradigmatic. A perspective in which not only are you prepared to forgive your enemies for their ignorance, but also to acknowledge that you may need their forgiveness for yours.
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