Thoughts on the death of Osama bin Laden

May 2, 2011

I have felt disturbed since reading last night that US forces killed Osama bin Laden. Since then it has been sitting in the back of my mind but I had trouble putting words to my reaction. This afternoon I read an excellent blog post that helped clarify things for me: “Osama bin Laden is dead. One Buddhist’s response.” by Susan Piver. I wish I could quote the whole thing but I will restrain myself with these two parts that particularly hit home:

Was there even a hint of vengefulness or gladness at Osama bin Laden’s death? If so, that is a real problem. Whatever suffering he may have experienced cannot reverse even one moment of the suffering he caused. If you believe his death is a form of compensation, you are deluded.

When we hate, we cause hate. When we think we have won by vanquishing our enemy, we have lost. In killing Osama bin Laden, “they” lose because one of their leaders is gone. But we lose too, because we have deepened the causes and conditions that lead to more hatred and its consequences. This is not over.

I did not feel glad at his death. I felt sadness. And fear. And hopelessness.

I fear because I know that this death is not the end of anything. It will fuel the flames of hatred against the United States that bin Laden himself fueled. Do not be mistaken into a false sense of security: there is no doubt in my mind that there will be attempts at retaliation. It is just another peak in the vicious cycle of hatred and fear, of us versus them.

I feel hopeless that there will ever be an end to this vicious cycle. Hopeless that we will ever be able to move beyond us versus them. I do not believe that bin Laden was an isolated case, one sadistic individual, such that removing him removes all danger of terrorist attacks. No, rather I believe that he was part of a system, a system that the US helps create, in which the US is locked head to head with the terrorists from the Middle East. Another leader will rise to take his place and the cycle will continue. I feel hopeless that we will ever be able to break such a terrible cycle. Will we ever realize that violence is not a solution because it only fuels more violence?

And why do I feel sad? I feel sad because Osama bin Laden was a human being. I feel sad that we cannot see any solutions beyond violence and murder, that we are still stuck in the archaic attitude of an “eye for an eye.” I feel sad that societies do not have healthy ways of handling troubled individuals, ways that keep those individuals from turning into sadistic terrorists. I am sad that more people do not recognize the core humanity of every single human being on this earth.

Osama bin Laden will not harm any more people, but little else has changed. The United States still has an enemy. The people who died in the 9/11 attacks are not going to come back to life. The flames of hatred and fear continue to be fueled.

Lest we forget, we are all human. Every single one of us. I’ll end with this quote from Strength to Love, by Martin Luther King, Jr.:

Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that. Hate multiplies hate, violence multiplies violence, and toughness multiplies toughness in a descending spiral of destruction. … The chain reaction of evil — hate begetting hate, wars producing more wars — must be broken, or we shall be plunged into the dark abyss of annihilation.

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Book review: The Lucifer Effect

March 4, 2011

Note: I cross-posted this at my other blog, Books and Other Miscellany.

I was really looking forward to The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil, by Philip Zimbardo. I had high expectations that it would provide me with a deeper understanding of how “evil” comes about. Unfortunately, I was quite disappointed with it, and did not come away with the sense that I had learned much at all.

Before I delve into my critique, let me start with the caveat that I do not think I was the target audience for the book. In college I took several psychology classes, including social psychology. Therefore many of the studies and psychological principles that Zimbardo discusses in The Lucifer Effect were quite familiar to me. This is probably the major reason I did not feel that I learned much from the book; I was expecting it to somehow go deeper than the classic psychology studies. That said, however, there were other reasons that I did not find the book particularly compelling, some of which I think would in fact be a turn-off to the target audience (the general public, and in particular people who believe that individuals are inherently good or evil).

One major issue I had with The Lucifer Effect is that it is extremely long-winded. In fact, while reading it I did something quite rare for me: I skimmed large chunks of it. Zimbardo’s main goal in this book is to demonstrate that situational and systemic factors have a far stronger influence on behavior than we realize or want to believe (people in general tend to attribute behavior to dispositional – inherent to the individual – factors rather than situational ones). To achieve this goal, he presents an in-depth analysis of two situations: his famous Stanford Prison Experiment and the Abu Ghraib prison abuses. I felt that there was far too much detail; it was not interesting to me and I did not need it to be convinced of the results. In addition, I found the writing itself to be long-winded. Often there would be a sentence or even paragraph that I felt like I had read before. He repeats the same important points over and over in slightly differently phrased ways, and it felt tedious.

I do believe that the points Zimbardo makes in The Lucifer Effect are important ones. However, I fear that the length of the book and the details it contains detract from these points reaching the people who are skeptical – would they really spend the time needed to read such a heavy and long book? On the other hand, for those of us already convinced of the general principles and hoping for new insights, it is a disappointment as it seems to mainly re-hash the standard psychological experiments (for example, the Milgram obedience study and the blue-eyed/brown-eyed children experiment).

The other major issue I have with The Lucifer Effect is that I do not feel his systemic analysis, particularly in the case of Abu Ghraib, goes far enough. While he thoroughly covers one systemic aspect – the way in which even the top of the chain of command was aware of and allowed the sorts of abuses that occurred – he spends only a couple pages addressing the fact that the very core of the military is in training people to kill and in dehumanizing other people because they are the “enemy.” The fact is, the individuals who committed these “evil” deeds existed in a culture with an authoritarian and violent mindset, and to me that is an important influence on their behavior that needs to be taken into consideration.

I believe that, while situational factors are certainly important, the picture is not complete without examining the societal context as well. Most cultures, including the American culture, normalize authoritarian, punitive, and dehumanizing behavior at some level. In the American culture, most children are raised using punishment, sometimes physical punishment, people who have broken laws are routinely dehumanized, and we have a powerful military actively fighting wars. Most people act morally in the normal situations they encounter in their life, but this morality is layered on top of the non-verbal messages in our culture that normalize authoritarian, punitive, and dehumanizing attitudes. When a particular situation then provides the additional factors necessary to normalize actually acting in such ways, it is not surprising that many people do in fact then act in ways we label as “evil.”

I suggest that if our culture did not in any way normalize authoritarian behavior – that is, if children were raised using non-punitive discipline, people who broke laws were treated humanely (such as through restorative justice programs), and we did not engage in wars – then far fewer individuals would turn evil even in the situational factors described by Zimbardo. Although as Zimbardo says, we can never know for sure how we ourselves would act in a particular situation until we are actually in the situation, I am fairly sure that I would not treat other people inhumanely no matter what the situation. I was raised non-punitively and any form of violence against another human being is completely outside of my way of being in the world.


Pieces of a puzzle

September 17, 2010

Creating a world and culture of peace is like putting a jigsaw puzzle together. In a jigsaw puzzle, each individual piece by itself gives only a glimpse of the picture of which it is a part. It is only when all the pieces interlock together that the whole picture becomes clear. Peace is the same way. We have a general idea of the big picture, but can only imagine what the final result looks like. We catch glimpse of it when two nations resolve a conflict non-violently, when an individual strives to lead a sustainable life in harmony with the earth, when a girl in Africa is able to pursue an education and earn her own income, when a Muslim and a Jew in the Middle East become friends, but it is not until all these pieces come together to form a whole that we will have peace.

It is possible to construct sub-groups among the individual pieces, in both a jigsaw puzzle and the path of creating peace. The natural way to work on a puzzle is to look for pieces with similar markings and put them together to create something larger. In peace, some of the pieces are naturally more related to each other than others, and through looking at these groups we can begin to gain an understanding of what the whole might look like.

The edge of the peace puzzle might be the values on which a culture of peace is based: healthy relationships and communities, cooperation, compassion, and the inherent worth and dignity of all human beings. These values are the container in which actions towards the creation of peace take place. When two neighbors decide to use mediation rather than the adversarial courts, one reason is because they value their relationship. When we push our government to provide social services, it is because we have compassion and believe in the inherent worth and dignity of all humans.

Another sub-grouping of pieces are the ones focused specifically on building cooperation and addressing our tendency to categorize into “us” and “them”: conflict resolution, bridge-building, and restorative justice. These actions encompass inter-faith and inter-cultural dialogues; story-telling; groups with differences doing cooperative activities together; individuals learning non-violent communication and learning to listen; individuals, groups, and nations resolving conflicts non-violently; and restoring, rather than punishing, people who have caused harms in the community.

Closely linked to the cooperation and conflict sub-group is another group related to education and treatment of children. Our parenting methods and educational systems must teach children the values of peace: cooperation over competition, listening, valuing needs and feelings, compassion for others, and democracy. We must teach children that they are valued as human beings with worth and dignity, and that community and relationships are important. Perhaps most importantly, we must model the behavior we would like our children to learn.

Another crucial sub-group of pieces are social services and basic human rights, the economy, and the environment. Basic human rights include water, food, shelter, health care (including control of one’s reproduction),  education, and dignity. It is crucial to the big picture of peace that our societies, economies, and governments be structured in such a way that all humans are ensured these rights. In order to do so, our economy must be based on measures of health and happiness, not on ever increasing consumption of material goods. Resources must be distributed equitably and created in ways that are sustainable and not using up finite sources. In our economy and our lifestyles we must value community and the inherent worth and dignity of all humans.

Two last pieces each exist in their own sub-group: empowering women and inner peace. It is impossible to believe in the inherent worth and dignity of all humans without recognizing that throughout most of recent history women were not valued with the same worth as men nor afforded the same dignity, and that in creating peace we must take positive actions to reverse these effects. This piece is in fact linked to all the sub-groups I discussed above: we need education that teaches that women are as important as men, social programs targeted towards women (for example, job training and reproductive health care), an economy that values work traditionally labeled women’s work, and bridge-building between women and men.

Finally, there is the piece of inner peace. Although it is up to each individual to find and create it for themselves, many of the pieces I have discussed can help and encourage individuals on their path to inner peace. Conversely, as people reach inner peace, it will be easier and more natural for them to work towards peace through one or more of the actions above.

I am not under any illusion that I have definitively defined all pieces of the puzzle. What else can you think of that contributes to the big picture of peace?

As we work on our individual pieces in the puzzle of peace, let us remember to look as well for where we might fit in to the big picture. Together, and only together, we can create peace.


We must dialogue

August 6, 2010

In most conversations, we talk at each other, often without even really hearing what the other party has to say. As others speak, we are already preparing in our head how we are going to respond. This sort of conversation is often sufficient to get us through the day – we pick up on the content that is relevant to ourselves, the parts with which we already agree, and let the rest slide by.

However, when we get into conflict or encounter individuals different from ourselves, our usual approach to conversing will lead us to dehumanize each other. Typically, if we are having a disagreement, we work hard to convince the other party of our position, without making an effort to understand their perspective or attempting to discover common ground. We take our beliefs as a given and do not let ourselves question the assumptions on which our views are based. We will quickly become stuck in intractable conflicts with this approach, as each party refuses to recognize the validity of the other party’s perspective.

In order to move beyond the “us vs. them” mentality, beyond dehumanizing people different from ourselves, beyond the concept of “the other,” we must make intentional efforts to engage with each other differently. We must dialogue.

In dialogue, we enter into conversation with the intent of understanding each other better, understanding ourselves better, and being understood. Together, we uncover and explore the assumptions and experiences that lead to our different perspectives. We listen attentively to each other’s words, and speak openly and honestly. We do not use rhetoric to try to convince others of our position, but instead share personal experiences that influence our current beliefs.

To dialogue, we must be willing to change. It requires us to put ourselves in a place of vulnerability. We may question previously held beliefs. We must be interested in valuing relationship above closely guarded views of “right” and “wrong.”

In order to create a world in which we can each reach our full human potential, where we live with our differences without feeling threatened, and where we resolve conflicts through non-violent means, we must be willing to enter into dialogue with each other.

I am particularly inspired by the work of Libby and Len Traubman, who founded the Jewish-Palestinian Living Room Dialogues in San Mateo, CA, 17 years ago, and continue to do inspiring work with dialogue.

For a more in-depth exploration of the dialogue process, I recommend an excellent essay at BeyondIntractability.org. Here is an excerpt:

In dialogue, participants explore the presuppositions, beliefs, and feelings that shape their interactions; they discover how hidden values and intentions control people’s behavior and contribute to communication successes and failures. For example, it begins to become clear why a group avoids certain issues, or why it insists, against all reason, on defending certain positions. Participants can collectively observe how unnoticed cultural differences often clash, without their realizing what is happening.[18] These observations help participants to determine what is blocking effective communication.[19]

However, this can happen only if people are able to listen to each other without prejudice and without trying to influence one another. Because its broad goal is to increase understanding about parties’ concerns, fears, and needs, dialogue centers on inquiry and reflection. Participants refrain from assuming that they already know the thoughts, feelings, and intentions of the other.[20] Instead, they assume that the other is speaking honestly from experience, and listen closely. This process of deep listening and reflection typically slows down the speed at which parties converse. The slower interchange enables individuals to observe the conversation while it is actually occurring, so that they become more aware of both the content of the communication process and the structures that govern it. They gain insight into the “assumptions and unspoken implications of what is being expressed along with that which is being avoided.”[21] Each participant can examine the preconceptions and prejudices that lie behind his or her opinions and feelings, and then share these insights with one another. Participants not only expose ideas to one another’s scrutiny, but also open themselves up to the possibility that their ideas will be changed. This means that they try to appreciate what the other side is saying and keep their ears open, even when they do not like what they hear.[22] To be fully open to new ideas, participants must be ready to abandon their old ideas in the face of new and better ones. They must be willing to change their minds and emerge from the dialogue as altered people. If they instead strive to convey their own points of view and defend their positions, genuine dialogue will not be possible.[23]


Restorative activism

April 17, 2010

Today I attended a workshop on Restorative Activism, offered by Scott Brown and John Ehrhart of Open Path Trainings. It was a beautiful, inspiring, and renewing experience.

Below is a short summary of what restorative activism is, but I recommend Scott Brown’s blog post on it if you want to learn more.

The fundamental premise of restorative activism is that we must prioritize relationship, recognizing that we are all connected. A quote from Neem Karoli Baba captures the essence of this philosophy:

Do what you must with people,
but never let anyone out of your heart,
not even for a moment.

Engaging in restorative activism requires engaging with oneself, by cultivating mindfulness and self-awareness. Through connecting with our inner self and paying attention to what is deepest in our heart, we can then reach the place from which we can be out in the world. Being authentic with ourselves is the only way in which we can be authentic in the world. True activism stems not from anger and hatred, but from love, compassion, and recognition of our interconnectedness. This form of activism is not divisive and does not lead to shaming or blaming. Instead, it leads to healing and repair of relationships.

The atmosphere at the workshop was calm, safe, and accepting. Everyone spoke authentically and we all went deep in our self-exploration. Much of the content resonated deeply with me, and I came away feeling connected and less alone in my beliefs in peace and compassion. I also feel that I gained some small bit of clarity about how I need to engage with the world, in part through the many mindfulness exercises we did. I found these exercises both challenging and renewing, and I am contemplating finding a mindfulness practice to incorporate into my routine life.

The workshop was a beautiful experience and I will hold it in my heart as a source of inspiration.


A little reminder

April 15, 2010

There is nothing like looking at the homepage of my local paper after a long day and finding some inspiring words:

Speaking to several hundred people at the University of Colorado, Jordan’s Queen Noor said the path to peace — and solving other daunting problems such as global warming — lies in understanding and humanizing people who are different than we are.

Yes! Exactly! It is important to be reminded from time to time of the fundamental importance of humanizing “the other.” It is possible and we need more people like Queen Noor out there making a strong call for it.

Read the full article: Jordan’s Queen Noor at CU-Boulder: Better understanding will bring peace – Boulder Daily Camera.


Book review: The Other

October 24, 2009

Note: I also posted this on my other blog, Books and Other Miscellany.

The Other, by Ryszard Kapuscinski, is collection of six lectures written and delivered by Kapuscinski between 1990 and 2004. He was a Polish foreign correspondent who spent a great deal of time in the developing world reporting on the events taking place there. I had never heard of Kapuscinski when this book caught my attention while browsing at the library (although I have a vague memory of seeing the title of one of his other books, Travels with Herodotus, somewhere before, perhaps on a blog). I was intrigued by the subject matter, as “othering” is something I have thought quite a bit about, and I was not disappointed. Kapuscinski draws on his own experiences and various philosophical lines of enquiry both to acknowledge our experience of “the Other” when we encounter someone who is different from us and to make a strong case for recognizing our common humanity as our world becomes more and more globalized and multi-cultural.

One section I found particularly illuminating was his breakdown of the possible reactions when we encounter “an Other.” He points out that all options have always been there, and that we choose which one to take:

And so the three possibilities I have mentioned have always stood before man whenever he has encounter an Other: he could choose war, he could fence himself in behind a wall, or he could start up a dialogue.

Over the course of history man has never stopped wavering between these options; depending on the situation and culture he makes now one, now another choice; we can see that he is changeable in these choices, that he does not always feel certain, and is not always standing on firm ground.

It is hard to justify wars; I think everyone loses them, because it is a defeat for the human being. It exposes his inability to come to terms, to empathise with the Other, to be kind and reasonable, because in this case the encounter with the Other always ends tragically, in a drama of blood and death.

These paragraphs immediately resonated with me because it puts in to words something I have felt for a long time, that war represents a human failure. The perspective that Kapuscinski offers is an important contribution to the discussion of peace.

The Other is under 100 pages and a quick read. The translation from Polish is good: the language flows easily and it does not feel translated. I highly recommend it!