A (R)evolution of Tenderness

“Compassion is more important than intellect, in calling forth the love that the work of peace needs, and intuition can often be a far more powerful searchlight than cold reason. We have to think, and think hard, but if we do not have compassion before we even start thinking, then we are quite likely to start fighting over theories. The whole world is divided ideologically, and theologically, right and left, and men are prepared to fight over their ideological differences. Yet the whole human family can be united by compassion. And, as Ciaran (McKeown, co-founder of the Movement of the Peace People in Northern Ireland) said recently in Israel, “compassion recognises human rights automatically; it does not need a charter.”

Betty Williams’ Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech, Dec 1977

 

 

As a college professor, I have some “radical” opinions. For one, I would like to see war and suffering decrease in my lifetime, if not my kids’ lifetimes. I am confident that while war may sometimes be necessary, it does more harm than good, and I am also confident that those negative effects can last for generations. At the same time, I also value truth very much, and I try to avoid naïve interpretations of human biology and behavior. Instead, I try to take a nuanced view when it comes to things like the roots of war, nature/ nurture, and even human sexuality. With all of that said, I’m going to try to splice together a few recent threads to find some reasons for optimism, despite the way current events seem to be going around the world. 

Things are certainly not great. By the end of 2016, an estimated 65.6 million people had been forcibly displaced by conflict, the highest number ever recorded. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi lamented that “the world seems to have become unable to make peace.” Partly as a result of conflict, 20 million people are at risk for starvation in four countries: Yemen, South Sudan, Somalia and northeast Nigeria.

The Peace Research Institute in Oslo (PRIO) issued a brief report this month, summarizing the state of global conflicts from 1946 to 2016. In all, the number of conflicts declined from 52 in 2015 to 49 last year, while the total number of battle casualties also fell 14%. This is a tiny bit of good news, although one can see in the figure below that there has been an uptick in all conflicts since 2011, and a long-term increase since the early 1960s. [It is debatable why we should start the clock at 1946, just after the deadliest period of human history, but c’est la vie.] 

From PRIO

By comparison, battle casualties per capita have generally decreased since 1946. While the number of conflicts have gone up, they have been primarily intrastate ones, and smaller in scale. A word of caution, however: “battle casualties” is a metric that looks at violent deaths only. It does not include indirect deaths due to things like broken infrastructure, such as lack of electricity, food/water, and health care that accompany war. If those numbers were included, the number of deaths surely would be higher. And, while the number of conflicts is a tally, battle deaths per capita is a rate, so the two aren’t directly comparable. The total number of deaths might present a different perspective, as might the rate per capita of people who were forcibly displaced.

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Primates and the Day of Atonement

“As far as possible without surrender/  be on good terms with all persons.”

– Max Ehrmann, Desiderata

 

Our kids were home on Wednesday last week, as our school district observed Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement in Judaism. I’m not a theologian and can’t claim to have anything beyond a superficial understanding of Yom Kippur, but as we walked past the local synagogue in our neighborhood, surrounded by parked cars, I speculated about how and why such a tradition might have arisen.

From my understanding, Yom Kippur is primarily concerned with seeking forgiveness from God for any transgressions accrued in the last year. However, I was more curious about another related aspect of the holiday, which is that – prior to the day itself – people are also encouraged to seek forgiveness from others they have harmed.

I can see parallels here to my own Roman Catholic childhood and the sacrament of Penance. Of course, as a boy I was just doing what the adults told me to do, going through the motions – perfunctorily confessing to a priest about fighting with my siblings. But I never contemplated why something like Penance might exist, aside from the obvious one of avoiding Hell (that fear seems a lifetime ago).

Most religious traditions and societies probably have concepts like forgiveness, reconciliation, and atonement built into them to some degree. These likely have deep roots, and we can even find some of the basic building blocks of these among other species of primates. Most primate species are highly social, group-living animals, which has a list of pros and cons. The benefits of being social include having more eyes and ears to detect predators, the ‘selfish herd’ idea (less chance for me to be eaten), defense (against conspecifics for territory, against predators), more models of adult behavior (socialization), easier to find mates and food, and (in some species) reaping the benefits of specialized division of labor.  

However, all things in biology have tradeoffs. If you’re going to live in a group, chances are next to nil that there will not be at least some internal conflict. It’s certainly not all-conflict-all-the-time, but the degree of internal conflict depends on circumstances. Two individuals may want similar things most of the time, but they cannot maintain perfectly overlapping interests indefinitely.

Among baboons, social life is rife with conflict as individuals vie for status. In an interview with Robert Sapolsky, he described the impact social stress can have on baboon life, while drawing a comparison to humans:

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Obama in Laos

From Legacies of War

From: Legacies of War

In a few days, Barack Obama will become the first U.S. president to have ever visited Laos. The organization Legacies of War has come up with the catchy title of LAObama to raise awareness of the visit. An NBC News story described Laotian and Hmong Americans as “cautiously optimistic” about the visit, including the possibility of further reconciliation after the war years, or at least bringing the two countries closer together.   

“The visit of the President might help the former refugees from Laos and the government of Laos to speed up their long overdue reconciliation process. The war ended more than 40 years ago,” Asian American studies professor emeritus Kou Yang of California State University, Stanislaus told NBC News. “The U.S. should assist Laos to rebuild itself after the secret war. Bring Laos closer to the U.S. and closer to the more than 560,000 former refugees from Laos in the U.S. These refugees have already contributed much to the people of Laos. Each day, thousands and thousands of dollars are sent to Laos. Many schools and libraries are built by former refugees to the people in Laos.”

Whatever the results of the visit, it is still noteworthy that this is the first time a U.S. President will have set foot there. John F. Kennedy didn’t even know how to pronounce Laos (it doesn’t rhyme with “chaos”).

Apologies Are in the Air

Hopeful news comes in threes (I think that’s how the saying goes). I just happened to come across three stories today related to apology and forgiveness.

1. In Bolivia, Pope Francis apologized for the role of the Catholic Church in the harm done to Native Americans:

“Some may rightly say, ‘When the pope speaks of colonialism, he overlooks certain actions of the church. I say this to you with regret: Many grave sins were committed against the native people of America in the name of God.”

He added: “I humbly ask forgiveness, not only for the offense of the church herself, but also for crimes committed against the native peoples during the so-called conquest of America.”

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More Reconciliation: Multiplying the Exceptions

Is it impossible to multiply the exceptions so as to make them the rule? Must man always be brute first, and man after, if at all?” – MK Gandhi (1926)

 

I have a soft spot for stories that showcase the better parts of humanity. This isn’t to ignore all of the horrible things that people often do to one another. In fact, I think I’ve done a decent job at describing the ways that humans can alternate between being completely horrible or wonderful to each other (ex., see “Genocidal Altruists”). Overall, I think that focusing exclusively on either the good or the bad cannot accurately do justice to describing our complexity.

With that said, here are three stories of forgiveness or reconciliation that fall on the courageous and hopeful end of human behavior. As amazing as they are, perhaps consolidating them in one place will help make them seem not so unattainable for the rest of us.

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40 Years After the Second Indochina War

Today does not escape easily from yesterday.

Several media outlets have published stories in the last few days marking the 40th anniversary of the ‘end’ of the Vietnam War (although it is more accurately known as the Second Indochina War because it also involved the neighboring countries of Laos, Cambodia, and Thailand).  

Some of these stories are about families of American veterans still searching for the remains of lost loved ones.  Others are about the lingering divisions between northern and southern Vietnamese, even within the same family.

Perhaps Viet Thanh Nguyen, an associate professor of English and American studies at the University of Southern California, best summarized these accounts with his NYTimes essay “Our Vietnam War Never Ended”. He describes moving to the US as a young boy and then growing up in San Jose, California with a foot in two cultures, as well as the struggles and successes of Vietnamese and other refugee groups in the US. And despite the fact that his family members have achieved a lot, such as producing a professor at a prestigious university, he writes that their story is not a fairy tale: 

“our family story is a story of loss and death, for we are here only because the United States fought a war that killed three million of our countrymen (not counting over two million others who died in neighboring Laos and Cambodia).”

Those two themes, that the war never truly ended, and that even those who survived and succeeded later in life have stories of loss and death, are important reminders of the past’s ability to reach into the present, even after forty years of yesterdays. All wars are unique, but their most consistent feature of war is the creation of suffering, which can last for decades, perhaps even centuries. Continue reading

Courage and the Past

Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.”                                        

                                 ― James Baldwin (As Much Truth As One Can Bear, 1962)

File:James Baldwin 5 Allan Warren.jpg

James Baldwin on the Albert Memorial with statue of Shakespeare. (Wiki commons)

I saw the above quote by James Baldwin over the weekend on social media, and my mind started making connections as to where it might apply. It could apply to personal wrongs and failures, or to wider historical ones, which of course is what Baldwin was referring to. By coincidence, the New York Times had another relevant story a few days ago about the reluctance of the Turkish government (and most of its citizens) to acknowledge the genocide of Armenians that occurred a century ago. It makes me wonder where, exactly, that reluctance originates, and why it can be so stubborn.

Last year, the New York Times (again) ran a collection of short essays on overcoming difficult pasts (“Turning Away From Painful Chapters”). Examples included the brutal murder of a British soldier on the streets of London, domestic violence against women in the UK, the Spanish Civil War, the killings in Rwanda, the Holocaust, and the legacy of American slavery and the brutality of Jim Crow laws in the US.

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