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Cruelty has a Human Heart,
And Jealousy a Human Face;
Terror the Human Form Divine,
And Secrecy the Human Dress.

William BlakeSongs of Experience Additional Poem

The issues I have been looking at lately – war, the economy, the rigid approach to mental health – all raise the question, ‘Why do we find it so difficult to fix such problems, even when we can see that something is seriously wrong? One factor, among many, is discussed with great insight by Jonathan Haidt, whom I quote from in a short sequence on conviction, which I have decided to republish now. This is the first: the second will come out on Thursday and the last on Friday.

Terror and the Human Form

The situation in Iran would be enough to set me thinking about intolerance and extremism. Family members of good friends of mine are being persecuted because of their beliefs. Because of my shared beliefs I also feel strongly linked even to those with whom I have no other connection.  The current perilous situation of the seven Bahá’ís who have been arrested reinforces that feeling. (See link on this blog for more details.)

The Seven Bahá’ís in Prison

The Seven Bahá’ís in Prison

I have other experiences that spur me on in the same direction.

I was born just before the end of World War Two. I grew up with images of Belsen and Dachau. My childhood nightmares were of being pursued by the Gestapo.  I grew up in the shadow of the Cold War. (As a child I wouldn’t stand and watch a carnival go past because I was frightened of the uniforms and drums.) I therefore have good reasons to feel deeply concerned about the roots of prejudice, fanaticism and intolerance.

I also had reasons to suspect they might have something to do with our ideas of the divine given that most of my father’s family disowned him when he married a Roman Catholic.

Skating on Thin Ice

I am not qualified to explain the political and social roots of the human face of terror. I have of course noticed that having been oppressed is no guarantee that I will not be an oppressor in my turn if I get the chance. That was clear right from the French Revolution (See Michael Burleigh‘s ‘Earthly Powers‘) and nothing that has happened since causes me to think that anything is different now. I have also seen how injustice and inequity breed enmity, as can extremes of wealth and poverty in close proximity (See Amy Chua‘s ‘World on Fire‘ for example). Philip Zimbardo looks at the disturbing way group and organisational processes foster evil doing and explains ways of effectively counteracting that (‘The Lucifer Effect‘). Michael McCullough looks surprisingly hopefully on the problem from an evolutionary perspective in his recent book ‘Beyond Revenge‘. Marc Hauser‘s examination of morality, ‘Moral Minds,’ comes at the issue primarily from a developmental angle.

I do not feel competent to add anything to their positions.

They all make it very clear that tolerance in any society is a very thin ice and is all the more precious for that. Blunden’s poem, ‘The Midnight Skaters’ captures that precarious feeling as the skaters dance across the deep and frozen pond:

 

. . . .  not the tallest there, ’tis said,
Could fathom to this pond’s black bed.

Then is not death at watch
Within those secret waters?
. . . .  With but a crystal parapet
Between, he has his engines set.

. . . . Court him, elude him, reel and pass,
And let him hate you through the glass.

(Edmund Blunden: ‘The Midnight Skaters‘ – for an interesting critique see Poetry Scene News)

The Horns of a Dilemma

I do though feel that the spiritual perspective informed by psychology and psychotherapy complements those views and fills an important gap they leave.

Jonathan Haidt in his humane and compassionate book ‘The Happiness Hypothesis‘ indicates that, in his view, idealism has caused more violence in human history than almost any other single thing (page 75).

The two biggest causes of evil are two that we think are good, and that we try to encourage in our children: high self-esteem and moral idealism. . . . Threatened self-esteem accounts for a large portion of violence at the individual level, but to really get a mass atrocity going you need idealism — the belief that your violence is a means to a moral end.

Richard Holloway sees it much the same way:

More misery and disillusionment has been visited on humanity by its search for the perfect society and the perfect faith than by any other cause.

(‘Between the Monster and the Saint‘: page 136)

Both Haidt and Holloway emphasise that not all such ideals are by any means religious. Haidt, for instance,  also quotes the attempt to create utopias as well as the defence of the homeland or tribe as frequently implicated.  Also, when Hitler’s probably narcissistic self-esteem successfully cloaked itself in the rhetoric of idealistic nationalism, mixed with scapegoating anti-semitism, we all know what happened next: narcissism and idealism make a highly toxic and devastatingly deadly combination.

What Haidt regards as central is this:

Idealism easily becomes dangerous because it brings with it . . . the belief that the ends justify the means.

He is aware though that idealism enhances life in some ways also (page 211):

Liberalism and the ethic of autonomy are great protectors against . . . injustices. I believe it is dangerous for an ethic of divinity to supercede the ethic of autonomy in the governance of a diverse modern democracy. However, I also believe that life in a society that entirely ignored the ethic of divinity would be ugly and unsatisfying.

How are we not to throw out the precious and in fact indestructible baby of idealism with the bathwater of zealotry, fanaticism and intolerance? This feels like an issue well worth exploring further. It will lead us to considering, in the next post, how three ids interact: idealism, ideology and identity.

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bahais-in-iran

At the end of November a searching article by Mohammad Heidari, originating with the BBC, appeared in translation on Iran Press Watch. It concerns the persecution of the Bahá’ís in Iran. Below is a short extract: for the full post see link.

The “Baha’i problem” in Iran is one of the central predicaments for us. Baha’is are “the true Other ” to majority Shi’ites; how we deal with them is to examine the merits of our society, through the transition from tyranny and oppression and out of darkness. In Iran, we face discrimination, injustice, and various atrocities, but there is something distinctive about the “plight of Baha’is” that is related to our “modality of encountering others”.

On the one hand, we have been silent in the face of the injustices Baha’is have faced. On the other, we do not express the solidarity and compassion we need to have with this oppressed group. Silence and collective consensus turn suppression of Baha’is in Iran into “collective guilt”. A similar situation does not exist for any other oppression. That is why we need an alternative way to confront this problem. It is also one of the complexities of our society that must be dealt with.

Babis, Azalis and Baha’is are those Shi’ites who left Islam in its Shi’ite definition and became believers in separate religions. There are no signs of Babis or Azalis any more, but Baha’is are still a large group. According to the ruling of religious scholars, “exit from Islam” leads to apostasy. Oppression against Baha’is and silence in the face of this oppression is rooted in this inward religious approach. Though Baha’is today, unlike their predecessors, are not Muslims and have not “exited” Islam, the same anger and rancor is expressed toward them. In the religion of the ruling majority, leaving their faith deserves punishment, and our society accepts it.

The Shi’ite majority in Iran considers the Baha’i minority to be frightening, mysterious and unknown, and their religion to be false. Hence, the true “Other” for the Shi’ite majority has been Baha’is. Therefore examining the tolerance of the majority should not be measured against other minorities, but against Baha’is.

Suppression of Baha’is in Iran is ongoing repression: vast, boundless, and epidemic. It is ongoing because it has never stopped, not only in the decades after the revolution in 1979, but even before that: it has remained stable for the past hundred and fifty years. It is widespread, as it is applied across the country; from a small village in Mazandaran it has captured the big cities and the capital of Iran. It is boundless, as it includes discrimination, exclusion, displacement, exile, imprisonment, torture and murder. It is all-consuming, because this repression, regardless of Baha’i activities, covers them all. In fact, their crime is to be Baha’is – nothing else.

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All round the world examples of injustice force us to confront humanity’s limitations and our need to transcend them. This article on Iranwire takes a close look at the cruelty one family in Iran has had to endure simply for privately practising their faith. Below is a short extract: for the full post, see link.

When the doorbell rang, his elderly mother, who lives on the floor below, pushed the button to open the door without asking any questions. She assumed that a friend or a relative had come to visit. When she didn’t hear anything, she called upstairs, letting her son know that she had opened the door but that nobody had come in.

Her son, Farhang Amiri, went outside to see who rang the bell. But a few minutes later, Amiri’s daughter and wife heard him moaning loudly. When they got to the door, they found his bloody body.

Mayhem followed. Amiri’s daughter ran after the man who had been talking with her father. She screamed so much, the neighbors came out to help, and they caught a man. He had plunged a knife in her father’s back, while a second man struck his face and his midriff. Half an hour later, the ambulance arrived. But by then, Farhang Amiri was dead.

The two men who carried out the attack on September 26, 2016 are brothers. “He was a Baha’i, so we killed him to buy us paradise for seven generations,” they wrote on their interrogation papers.

On October 27, the Baha’i community issued a warning to Baha’is in Iran, informing them of what happened to Amiri and saying they might be in similar danger.

Farhang Amiri lived in the ancient city of Yazd in central Iran. He was 63 years old and retired. He was the father of two daughters and two sons. According to people who knew him, he did not know his killers, had no enemies, and had never proselytized for the Baha’i faith. They said he always instructed other Baha’is to proselytize through their behavior rather than with their tongues.

A Repeated Tragedy

This is the second time that Amiri’s mother has lost a loved one because of their religion. On his paternal side, Farhang’s family were originally Muslims who converted to the Baha’i faith. His mother’s side of the family were originally Zoroastrians who had also converted. And they have paid for it. A group of extremists murdered Amiri’s father, Hedayatollah Daftari, and six others in the village of Hormozak in Yazd province more than 60 years ago. At the time, Farhang was 13 months old, his older brother was five years old and his mother was a young woman of no more than 22.

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CampaignEarlier this week a very thorough exploration, by  Reza HaghighatNejad, of the current situation of the Bahá’ís in Iran was posted on IranWire. It suggests that there are positive influences at work under the surface. Below is a short extract: for the full post see link.

“It’s very simple,” tweeted journalist Mahsa Amrabadi on May 16. “When you live for so many months with somebody, you are not just going to miss her, you are going to miss her terribly — especially if that person is Fariba Kamalabadi.”

On May 10, prison authorities granted Baha’i leader Fariba Kamalabadi temporary freedom. She had spent eight years behind bars, and missed some of the key moments in her family’s life, including her daughter’s graduation and wedding, and the birth of her first grandchild. She was told she had five days to catch up with family, and then she would be returned to prison, where she would serve out the remaining two years of her sentence.

But Mahsa Amrabadi and others, including Faezeh Hashemi, the daughter of former president Hashemi Rafsanjani, the human rights lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh, Sotoudeh’s husband, the graphic artist Reza Khandan, and journalists Zhila Bani Yaghoub and Bahman Ahmadi Amouee jumped at the chance to visit her at her home.

Mahsa Amrabadi and her partner Masoud Bastani were among the first journalists to be thrown in jail after the 2009 disputed presidential election. They each received a seven-year prison sentence, and are now free. Both have been banned from journalism, but are active and outspoken on Twitter.

Three hours after Amrabadi’s tweet, Masoud Bastani tweeted, describing one of his experiences while in prison: “The warden came for inspection. He insulted a Baha’i cellmate’s faith. When he looked at me, I said ‘My fellow citizen. I feel ashamed by your behavior.’”

All of Fariba Kamalabadi’s visitors had one thing in common: at one time or another, they had shared a cell with a Baha’i prisoner. “I did not know any Baha’is before going to prison,” said Faezeh Hashemi. “I had no connections to the Baha’i community. By putting me in prison, the Islamic Republic opened a new window in my life. I came to know them.”

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CampaignAt the end of last month a new campaign was launched on the Bahá’í International Community website on behalf of the seven imprisoned Bahá’í leaders. Below is a short extract: for the full post see link.

In observance of the eighth anniversary of the arrest and incarceration of seven Iranian Baha’i leaders, the Baha’i International Community is launching a global campaign calling for their immediate release.

Taking the theme “Enough! Release the Baha’i Seven,” the campaign will emphasize the fact that, under Iran’s own national penal code, the seven are now overdue for conditional release.

A special campaign page has been established with information about their current legal situation and other resources, which can be found here. The campaign will also be reflected on a Facebook page, which can be found here(link is external). The hashtag for the campaign is: #ReleaseBahai7Now

“The theme – Enough! – states simply and clearly our urgent call for the release of these seven innocent prisoners,” said Bani Dugal, the principal representative of the Baha’i International Community to the United Nations. “They should never have been arrested in the first place and their long incarceration – based exclusively on their religious beliefs – is unjustifiable legally, logically, and morally.

“The campaign,” said Ms. Dugal, “is to encourage individuals, governments and organizations from all sectors of society around the world to call on the government of Iran to follow the rules of its own national laws and to immediately release the seven imprisoned Baha’i leaders.

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Trucks line up to demolish the Bahá'í cemetery in Shiraz, Iran.

Trucks line up to demolish the Bahá’í cemetery in Shiraz, Iran.

A post by Moojan Momen and  Jason Pack on the Newsweek site raises serious questions about the current flurry of activity aimed at securing trade deals with Iran, a country whose human rights record is seriously flawed. Below is a short extract: for the full post see link.

In July this year, British Airways will relaunch six weekly direct flights from London to Tehran. And if you sit in first class, you are likely to see well-heeled Western executives jetting off to try to establish joint ventures or sell their high-end technologies in what is one of the only remaining lucrative and relatively unpenetrated markets.

Just this week it was the turn of President Matteo Renzi of Italy to take two hundred Italian business leaders to Iran. In preparation for the trade mission, Italian letting agencies have extended a 5 Billion Euro credit line to the country.

Similarly reliant on government financing to prime the pump, the American aeronautical giant Boeing has just entered into negotiations with Iran, hoping to land its highest profile deal of the decade.

This flurry of activity stems from Iran and the West settling their long-running nuclear dispute when the multilateral negotiations were signed on 2 April 2015. The multilateral sanctions were then lifted on 16 January 2016.

Iran has enormous oil and mineral wealth and is, therefore, set to become a large and rapidly expanding market just at a time when the most of the world’s economies seem to have stalled.

The Situation in Iran

But doing business in Iran raises the ethics question. Businesses like to demonstrate that they are not only profitable but also benefit the community. Many feel compelled to show that they are green, gender equitable, ethnically diverse, philanthropic—and ethical. . . . . . .

Many accuse Iran of human rights abuses, even “crimes against humanity,” also identifying it as one of the world’s most corrupt societies. They accuse it of genocide, ethnic and cultural cleansing, torture and human rights abuses against journalists, lawyers, women and ethnic and religious minorities.

In the freedom indexes published by Freedom House, Iran scores in the lowest two categories in all areas: civil liberties, political rights, press freedom and Internet freedom and is in the lowest quartile of Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index.

The U.N. General AssemblySecretary-GeneralHuman Rights CouncilInternational Labour Organization and Special Rapporteurs have repeatedly reported over the last 30 years their deep concern at serious ongoing and recurring human rights violations in the Islamic Republic of Iran” and “over reports of targeted violence and discrimination against minority groups”Governments and organizations such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch express grave concerns, while the World Bank reports Iran among the world’s worst three countries for the legal position of women.

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Altruism Black EarthThe previous post, triggered by two contrasting books – Altruism and Black Earth – raised the possibility that we might repeat the horrors of the Holocaust. We may not have travelled as far down the road of moral enlightenment as we would like to think. We are prone to rationalising our self-centredness and have not freed ourselves from the virus of racism.

Ayn Rand (for source of image see link)

Ayn Rand (for source of image see link)

Ayn Rand

That a popular strain of American thought idolises the guru of egotism, Ayn Rand, should give us pause for thought. While proponents might contend that Rand and her acolytes place sufficient emphasis upon preserving the powers of the state to protect individual freedom in a way that will prevent any repetition of Hitler’s state destroying excesses, it is worth examining for a moment some of her ideas and the results that they are having to this day.

Ricard (page 302) recalls a televised interview in which Rand stated: ‘I consider altruism as evil . . . Altruism is immoral . . because . . . you are asked to love everybody indiscriminately . . . you only love those who deserve it.’ Her ‘sacred word’ is ‘EGO,’ but it did not bring her any happiness (page 305).

If she were not so influential in the States her bizarre position would not matter. Many Americans, in a 1993 survey, ‘cited Atlas Shrugged, her main work, as the book that influenced them most, after the Bible!’ Furthermore, as Ricard points out, she has powerful advocates (page 301):

Alan Greenspan, former head of the Federal Reserve, which controls the American economy, declared she had profoundly shaped his thinking, and that “our values are congruent.” Ayn Rand was at Greenspan’s side when he took the oath before President Ford. . . . Paul Ryan, who was a candidate for the American vice-presidency in 2012 as Mitt Romney’s running mate, requires his co-workers to read the writings of Ayn Rand; he asserts it was she who inspired his political career.

She has shaped libertarian economic thinking (page 303) which regards the poor as ‘killers of growth, beings who harm entrepreneurs.’ Moreover, ‘Only the individual creates growth; society is predatory, and the welfare state, a concept that prevails in Europe, constitutes “the most evil national psychology ever described,” and those who benefit from it are nothing but a gang of looters’ [The quote is from Ayn Rand 1976 in The Economist, 20 October, 2012, page 54].

I understand that it is important not to be simplistic about this and dismiss all libertarians as narrow-mindedly self-seeking. Jonathan Haidt analyses some of the complexities in his excellent The Righteous Mind. He clarifies that on the American political scene the word ‘libertarian’ denotes someone of a conservative mind set.  He teases out some important aspects of this world view in order to get out from under his preconceptions about it (pages 305-306):

[Libertarians] do not oppose change of all kinds (such as the Internet), but they fight back ferociously when they believe that change will damage the institutions and traditions that provide our moral exoskeletons (such as the family).

He unpacks this in the context of his understanding of the value of moral capital (page 292):

. . . we can define moral capital as the resources that sustain a moral community . . . . . .  and thereby enable the community to suppress or regulate selfishness and make cooperation possible.

He writes (page 307):

We need groups, we love groups, and we develop our virtues in groups, even though those groups necessarily exclude nonmembers. If you destroy all groups and dissolve all internal structure, you destroy your moral capital. . . . . To be attached to the subdivision, to love the little platoon we belong to in society, is the first principle (the germ as it were) of public affections. It is the first link in the series by which we proceed towards a love to our country, and to mankind.

So, after this analysis of the way that liberals, with whom he identifies, fail to understand some of the crucial insights of their political opponents (and of course vice versa), he reflects upon a disturbing trend (page 309):

America’s political class has become far more Manichaean since the early 1990s, first in Washington and then in many state capitals. The result is an increase in acrimony and gridlock, a decrease in the ability to find bipartisan solutions. . . . .

So even from within his own balanced critique which accepts the value of moral capital, he is clearly aware of the dangers of group identity and especially of any group identity with a black-and-white view of the world and/or with an egotistical creed.

Narrow ideologies of this type are many and varied.

Collaboration

During the Second World War, for example, those who believed in some form of nationalism, originally well-short of Nazism’s totally racist ideology, when battered by the depredations of the Soviet Union during the period of its cynical pact with Hitler, were more likely to collude with pogroms (Snyder: page 130-31):

Insofar as the Soviets removed states that people wanted, and insofar as the Germans could pose as the ally of those who wished to restore them, the Germans could manipulate a powerful desire. The nature of this opportunity depended, of course, upon what leaders of national groups believed they could gain or lose from occupiers.

He explains exactly what this specifically meant in practice (page 142):

By destroying the Lithuanian and Latvian states, the Soviets gave the Germans the ability to promise a war of liberation.

What the Germans learnt (page 143) ‘was to exploit the experience of the Soviet occupation to further the most radical goals of their own, and what they invented was a politics of the greater evil.’

That pogroms were in fact somehow related to the sense that the Nazis were liberators is made clear (page 150):

. . . pogroms were most numerous where Germans drove out Soviet power, . . . Pogroms and other forms of local collaboration in killing were less likely in Poland, where anti-Semitism had been more prevalent before the war, than they were in Lithuania and Latvia, where anti-Semitism was less prevalent.

That pogroms tended not to escalate where that hopeful belief in liberation was absent is confirmed by their rarity in Poland where (page 161) ‘Germany could not even pretend to offer Poland to the Poles. Germany had already invaded Poland once.’ It seems as though people are not inclined to go the whole hog with wholesale systematic slaughter on the basis of psychological or material gain alone: you need an ideological component as well.

Narrow ideologies, possibly always in combination with greedy and/or self-serving tendencies, make us more vulnerable to perpetrating systematic atrocities against those who are seen as beyond the Pale[1] we have ourselves arbitrarily created. Self-interest and dissonance reduction seem to have played a strong part in the Holocaust as well: for example, blaming the Jews for all the ills perpetrated under Soviet occupation exonerated everyone else in those territories from the shame of their own collusion as well as ensuring the property they had gained would not be restored to their original owners (Snyder page 152-54). Killings do, of course, occur without an ideology to back them, and can involve large numbers of victims, but never on the same massive and sustained scale.

Raising a more general and bleakly pessimistic point, Snyder earlier quoted Herling, a victim of the Gulags (page 122): ‘. . . There is nothing, in fact, which a man cannot be forced to do by hunger and pain.’ Herling became convinced that ‘a man can only be human under human conditions.’

While the examples of heroic self-sacrifice in Nazi and Japanese concentration camps, in the cases of Martin Luther King, Mahatma Ghandi and Nelson Mandela, as well as in the current example of Bahá’í prisoners in Iran, suggest most strongly this is not true for everyone, Herling’s point is probably true for most of us under such extreme conditions. In our relatively benign social climate, the rarity of whistleblowing in the face of toxic reactions within an organisation suggests that most of us are too craven to stand up against abuses.

Expanding our Circle of Compassion

Zimbardo in Warsaw 2009

Zimbardo in Warsaw 2009

This sad probability is what drove Zimbardo, after his many experiences of humanity’s inability to resist evil, to formulate his ‘ten-step programme for resisting the impact of undesirable social influences and at the same time promoting personal resilience and civic virtue’ (The Lucifer Effect – pages 452-456). He ends his explanation of the steps by saying (page 456):

Before moving to the final stop in our journey, celebrating heroes and heroisms, I would like to add two final general recommendations. First, be discouraged from venal sins and small transgressions, such as cheating, lying, gossiping, spreading rumours, laughing at racist or sexist jokes, teasing, and bullying. They can become stepping-stones to more serious falls from grace. They serve as mini-facilitators for thinking and acting destructively against your fellow creatures. Second, moderate you’re in-group biases. That means accepting that your group is special but at the same time respecting the diversity that other groups offer. Fully appreciate the wonder of human variety and its variability. Assuming such a perspective will help you to reduce group biases that lead to derogating others, to prejudice and stereotyping, and to the evils of dehumanisation.

All this has confirmed my conviction that there is an imperative need for our society to actively believe in two fundamental truths: first, that altruism is as natural as egotism and can therefore be nurtured in our children, and second, that in this age it is not enough for us to extend our compassion only as far as our family or immediate neighbourhood – we can and should learn to embrace the whole earth and its inhabitants, living and non-living as our concern.

A core aspect of this is articulated in a message of the Universal House of Justice to all those gathered on Mount Carmel to mark the completion of the project there on 24th May 2001:

Humanity’s crying need will not be met by a struggle among competing ambitions or by protest against one or another of the countless wrongs afflicting a desperate age. It calls, rather, for a fundamental change of consciousness, for a wholehearted embrace of Bahá’u’lláh’s teaching that the time has come when each human being on earth must learn to accept responsibility for the welfare of the entire human family. Commitment to this revolutionizing principle will increasingly empower individual believers and Bahá’í institutions alike in awakening others to the Day of God and to the latent spiritual and moral capacities that can change this world into another world.

There is a challenging aspect to this as we discovered as we explored this together in a recent workshop at the Bahá’í Summer School in Keele.

There is no get-out clause in the wording that this message uses: ‘Each human being on earth must learn to accept responsibility for the welfare of the entire human family.’ So that means everyone must take responsibility for the welfare of everyone. I can’t wriggle out of it. This means me: I have to take responsibility for the welfare of everyone – no exceptions allowed.

Some aspects of this are not too challenging. I live near a college for the visually handicapped. Quite often as I walk to town I spot a blind person with a white cane at a difficult crossing, where traffic is hard to judge if you can’t see, struggling to decide whether or not it is safe to cross. It’s easy for me to offer help and let them take my arm as I choose the right moment to cross. It costs me no more than a minute or two and I know exactly what needs doing.

It gets harder with large groups that are equally in need of my help, if not more so, because effective help would require more effort and more knowhow. I might baulk at the idea of helping thousands of refugees even though I wanted to.

That was not the biggest problem though. What about those who undoubtedly are playing a part in creating the refugee problem, Isis for example? I have no problem helping the physically blind. What should be my attitude to the morally blind, those who might harm me if I try to help them and who are impossible for me to like let alone love? Isn’t moral blindness deserving of compassion and effective help?

In the workshop we got as far as realising that society has a responsibility to understand their deficiencies and seek to remedy them compassionately, while keeping those individuals who are doing this work safe from harm at the hands of psychopaths or fanatical ideologues.

It was heartening to find that Ricard’s book addresses exactly the same issue more effectively (page 28):

Like the sun that shines equally over both the “good” and the “bad,” over a magnificent landscape as well as over a pile of trash, impartiality extends to all beings without distinction. When compassion thus conceived is directed at a person who is causing great harm to others, it does not consist of tolerating, or encouraging by inaction, his hatred and his harmful actions, but in regarding that person as gravely ill or stricken with madness, and wishing that he be freed from the ignorance and hostility that are in him. This doesn’t mean that one will consider anyone who does not share one’s moral principles or deeply disagrees with them, as being ill. It refers to people whose views lead them to seriously harm others. In other words, it is not a matter of contemplating harmful actions with a equanimity, even indifference, but of understanding that it is possible to eradicate their causes the way that one can eliminate the causes of an illness.

In explaining a related meditative exercise he recommends (page 263):

Go further; include in this loving kindness, those who have harmed you, even those who are harming humanity in general. That does not mean that you want them to succeed in their malevolent undertakings; you simply form the wish that they give up their hatred, greed, cruelty or indifference, and that they become kind and concerned for the well-being of others. Look at them the way a doctor looks at his most seriously ill patients. Finally, embrace all sentient beings in a feeling of limitless and love.

fallon2-b0ee8cb596cc89ff6f00864002eb74ed8351d68e

James Fallon (far right) with his wife, daughters, and son.

What becomes even clearer both in terms of Ricard’s argument in his book as a whole, but also in terms of the Bahá’í model of civilisation building, is that prevention is infinitely better then cure. We need to address the problem of how to enable our society as a whole to widen its compass of compassion so that everyone who grows up within its sphere of influence embraces the whole of humanity in its circle of concern. There is some evidence (see link for Fallon’s view) to suggest that certain kinds of positive experience can temper the destructive aspects of even a genetic predisposition to psychopathy.

And once we have convinced ourselves of this, and we must do it soon, we need to ensure that we educate our children to become citizens who will feel inwardly compelled to take responsibility for the care of everyone and everything that lies directly or indirectly within their power. We must ensure that this sense of responsibility is not just a feeling. We must ensure that it is active.

More of this next time.

Footnote:

[1] The term ‘pale’ came to mean the area enclosed by a paling fence and later just figuratively ‘the area that is enclosed and safe’. So to be ‘beyond the pale’ was to be outside the area accepted as ‘home’. Catherine the Great created the Pale of Settlement in Russia in 1791. This was the name given to the western border region of the country, in which Jews were allowed to live. The motivation behind this was to restrict trade between Jews and native Russians. Some Jews were allowed to live, as a concession, ‘beyond the pale’. (See link for source of reference.)

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