“Let us dedicate ourselves to what the Greeks wrote so many years ago: to tame the savageness of man and make gentle the life of this world.”
–Robert F. Kennedy, on the night of Martin Luther King’s assassination (1968)
“Have I sinned?”
— Anwar Congo, The Act of Killing (2012)
“They are souls, like us.”
— Greek fisherman Babis Manias, after saving a refugee child from the ocean (2015)
The inherent dilemma of all social animals is the tension between balancing two obligations — the ones we we have to ourselves, and those we have to others. One cannot be completely selfless, sacrificing everything for others. Nor can we be totally self-absorbed, ignoring the rights of others. Somewhere in that tangled mess of sometimes overlapping, sometimes competing, interests we get a sloshing mixture of cooperation and conflict.
As primates, humans have a deep history as social beings, probably going back tens of millions of years. According to Shultz et al. (2011), primates began their path as intensely social animals around 52 million years ago, probably as a means of protection from predators as our ancestors made the shift from nocturnal to diurnal living. One benefit of living in groups was strength in numbers, but a reliance on the group also had drawbacks, such as the need for at least some modicum of self-restraint to maintain group cohesion. After all, one cannot just do whatever they feel like whenever they want, particularly if those wants conflict with the wants of others.
Unfortunately, our wants often conflict. Somewhere, interests overlap, but there is a continuum between cooperation and conflict, and what you want will not always be what I want. In humans, our wants are imbued with meaning through language, culture, and values, and we will prioritize some values over others.
Over the last several months, as I’ve observed the many conflicts in the world, I keep returning to Isaiah Berlin’s 1994 essay “A Message to the 21st Century” because I think it’s about as close to an honest depiction of humanity’s predicament as social, biocultural animals as we’re going to get. His synopsis was that we are forced to deal with perennial conflict as a result of competing values and interests. Berlin wrote that there may be a core of values that most people share to some degree: dignity, liberty, security, piety, equality, happiness, justice, knowledge, power, etc. However, each of us champion some of those values more than others, which is where conflict can arise.
His solution was compromise, which he admitted seemed “too tame, too reasonable, too bourgeois” because it lacked the idealism and certitude that attract people who find fundamentalism appealing. But, to me, there is wisdom in Berlin’s appeal for measured compromise because the alternative is too destructive, too savage. In his words:
“the search for a single, overarching ideal because it is the one and only true one for humanity, invariably leads to coercion. And then to destruction, blood—eggs are broken, but the omelette is not in sight, there is only an infinite number of eggs, human lives, ready for the breaking. And in the end the passionate idealists forget the omelette, and just go on breaking eggs.”
Another solution is empathy, recognizing that other people are “souls, like us,” even if they don’t share our favorite values. Of course, I don’t mean ‘souls’ literally; it’s simply shorthand that others to have their dignity recognized. At the very least, there is a need to tame any impulse to impose singular values on others, particularly through violent means.
Some, like Paul Bloom, have argued that empathy has limits, that we are more likely to extend it to people closer to us. Ironically, some have called these the ‘empathy wars.’ If we can have ‘wars’ over empathy, then perhaps we really are in deep trouble. But I hold out that there is a power to empathy, despite its limits. In the film The Act of Killing, Joshua Oppenheimer followed an older Indonesian man named Anwar Congo, who was still hailed as a local hero for his role in killing many suspected communists in the 1960s. In the final powerful scene, Anwar appears to have an epiphany when he fully realizes, at last, that the people he killed were not just communist ‘others’ who needed to be eliminated because of their differing values, but full humans people who suffered pain and fear as a result of his actions. This leads him to ask Oppenheimer, with tears in his eyes: “I did this to so many people. Have I sinned?”
In that scene, we witness a failure and triumph of empathy. It failed Anwar as a younger man, and Oppenheimer argued elsewhere that this was because Anwar had to keep lying to himself that the killings were justified in order to avoid confronting his role in committing atrocity. That empathy then emerged full-force in Anwar as an older man, as he becomes visibly sickened by what he did. Oppenheimer also said that for most people who’ve committed such atrocities (or who witnessed them and remained silent), they have a choice to make: do you want to grow old — destroyed, broken, and hollow — or take a stance against the injustices of the past?
I’d like to say I have it all figured out, but I don’t. Too often, current events remind me of our limitations, selfishness, and savageness. Still, I see hope in Anwar’s empathetic epiphany, that even though it took him a long time to recognize it and it failed him when it could have spared innocent lives, that he found it in the end. Now, if people could only find it more consistently and earlier in life.
Shultz S, Opie C, Atkinson QD. 2011. Stepwise evolution of stable sociality in primates. Nature 479: 219–22. Link