by Michael F. Mascolo, Ph.D.
A friend recently wrote to me with this question:
Is there ever a legitimate alienation of people with opposing ideas at significant core values of life, sexuality and general transcendent ethics?
This particular individual was concerned about the fact that he had strong views of abortion, but had to work closely with people who did not share his view. He was struggling with the impetus of “cancel culture”, which calls on us to “alienate” people who violate core moral values. He said:
I find this verbal call to “alienation” disturbing but understand the “idea” or general rationale behind it from a core value perspective.
A key term here, it seems, is alienation. What does it mean to alienate the other?
Alienate means, of course, to make alien – to make the other person into some foreign Other – that is, into a “not me”. At the extremes, this involves making the other person into a non-person – denying their humanity. Or when we say you have done something so bad that we will kill you “in order to balance the moral scales”. You do not deserve to be alive.
So, the question becomes: is there ever a reason to make another person alien?
In your question, there seems to be a tension between “having to work with the other person” and “working with someone who holds evil beliefs (or who may have done an evil thing, e.g., had an abortion). What shall we do here?
Here are several possibilities.
1. Separating the “Sinner” from the “Sin”. Yes, it’s an oldy, but it’s a goodie. Well, the simple and obvious answer is to love the sinner and hate the sin. And one does not have to be religious to appreciate the import of this sentiment. In our interactions with others who espouse values we hate, it is indeed helpful to separate the person from the belief – to separate the person from the act.
On the one hand, you have a person there – someone who is a fallible being who deserves our compassion. On the other hand, we have the reprehensible belief or act. Can we hold these two things at the same time?
Yes. Why? It is simple to state, but difficult to actually do: because having compassion for the person does not mean endorsing or embracing the person’s beliefs. I believe, quite strongly in fact, that each person is always doing the “best” he or she can with the internal and external resources that he or she has available. Such a person is deserving of our compassion and care.
How can I do this when I disagree with their core beliefs? Well, people are complex. I can make contact with what is human in the other even if I disagree with them. I don’t have to agree with them to have compassion, care or even love. I might even be able to find good in them.
In short, the trick here is to connect with the humanity (and goodness) of the person in front of me, even while disagreeing with their beliefs. I can even argue against the other’s beliefs – try to defeat those beliefs – even do the things I feel I must be done in order to stop the other from acting on those beliefs. I can do this while still having compassion, care and even love for the other.
This may not be easy, but there is no contradiction here.
(There may be a contradiction if one believes that a person = their beliefs and actions. There are many problems with this view. But one: the other can only be irredeemable only if there is no humanity or chance of humanity in the other – if they are, if you will, “all bad”. If they are truly alien. Emotionally, we may feel this; but it is unlikely to be true – even in the worst cases.)
There is a TV series on Netflix called Inside Man. The details don’t matter. What matters is that the Stanley Tucci character – who murdered and mangled his wife – said, “We are all murderers – you must have to find the right person and circumstances”. This statement is perhaps a bit too strong. It might be better to say, “We can all become murderers – you just have to find the right person and circumstances”. And indeed, paradoxically, this is what it means to seek the humanity in the other. I can see myself in the other and perhaps the other in me. Including the bad stuff. I can see that there but for the grace of God, nature, chance or whatever-you-believe-or-do-not-believe-in go I.
Further, in approaching the person whose beliefs we hate, we must not only act with compassion toward the other, but also with a sense of credulity for the other: the awareness that, “Even though what you are doing doesn’t make sense to me, I acknowledge that it makes sense to you. I must seek to understand this. Understanding this will give me compassion toward you – although it does so without condoning your actions.
And so, I don’t alienate the person; I “alienate” the belief or the act. Actually, I don’t even alienate the act. I repudiate it while engaging with it. See more on that below.
2. Don’t Confuse Protecting the Self with Cancelling the Other. Just as we often confuse, I think, the “sinner” and the “sin”, we also confuse protecting the self with cancelling the other. We think that to protect myself I have to cancel the other, or that “protecting myself” and “cancelling the other” acts are one and the same; they aren’t.
If someone attacks me (or attacks someone else), it is proper, I suggest, to defend oneself. We get to say, “no, you cannot do this to me”. This may take the form of running away, blocking the other person’s actions, or even using force against the other person. When we get a restraining order on the other person threatens us, because we are saying: I will not allow you to hurt me.
But this is not the same as cancelling the other. While always protecting our boundaries, we can also say: “It is possible for you to be invited back into our good graces. There are things you can do to repent, to redeem yourself. When you do this, it is possible that I might be able to forgive you (see Maimonides, for example).” In other words, I can always hold out the possibility of the re-entry of the other who has the morally reprehensible belief or who committed the morally reprehensible act.
I can hold my hand up to say, “Stop – you can’t do this to me” while at the same time holding my hand out to say, “If you do, and are open to dialogue, I can connect with you.”
3. The Difficult One: Moral Humility. This is difficult. How do I continue to engage those with whom I disagree? I bracket my rectitude and entertain the idea that I might actually be wrong in one way or another. Of course, this becomes very difficult for our deeply held convictions.
Entertaining the idea that “I might actually be wrong” creates enough doubt to make space for the other person’s beliefs. People often experience moral humility as a threat to the self: if I doubt my most deeply held moral beliefs, I become confused and unsure of how to act. I may even act immorally, which may make me evil. Or even more important, I run the risk of not seeing myself as “a moral person”.
To be sure, moral humility opens us up to the possibility that we may be wrong. But this act can only make us stronger. It prompts us to be reflexive about our core beliefs and their justification. If I believe that abortion is morally reprehensible, why do I feel this way? To have moral humility is to actively seek to find the “kernel of truth” – even if one has to squint more than just a little – in the other person’s moral belief system. (If there is a kernel of truth in the other person’s system, well, it shouldn’t be a threat to believe it, because, well, I regard it as true.)
Now, if that “kernel of truth” is in some way inconsistent with or in conflict with other moral beliefs that I have, I now have an opportunity to cultivate and develop my beliefs. This may feel scary, but it can only make me stronger. I must ask myself, “How can I believe these two inconsistent things at the same time?” As I work to resolve the contradiction, I may find that I can easily assimilate the other’s belief into my own thinking – and that there really is no problem. Or, I find a “flaw” in my belief, and as I work through that flaw, I make my own belief stronger. I may even change my moral belief in a fundamental way. But still, doing this makes my own beliefs stronger.
Either way, I have nothing to fear – because as I engage authentically with the other, as I reflect openly on my own assumptions and commitments, if I am open to the possibility of change, and if I find a way to resolve the contradiction between my beliefs and yours, then I make my beliefs stronger.
Either way, I have nothing to fear. I need the other – even the other who I regard as morally repugnant — to foster my own development.
A Risky Example: Abortion
|Citizen Right: Abortion is the unjust killing of a human life.|
|Citizen Left: Prohibitions on abortion tell women what they can do with their bodies.|
|Moderator: Citizen Left: Is there any “kernel of truth” in the views of Citizen Right?|
|Citizen Right: No.|
|Moderator: Squint. Ignore what you disagree with. Please try to find something.|
|Citizen Left: Okay, when we abort a fetus, we are indeed killing something that is living. It may even be a human something that is living. But that doesn’t mean that it is a baby. It only means…|
|Moderator: Okay good — but stop. You’ve found a “kernel of truth” in Citizen Right’s beliefs. Let’s just stop there… you’ll have a chance to express your other views later on. Let’s just savor our tiny success here.|
|Moderator: Now, Citizen Right: Is there any “kernel of truth” ‘in the views of Citizen Left?|
|Citizen Right: No.|
|Moderator: Okay, just as I asked Citizen Left to do: Please squint really hard.|
|Citizen Right: Yes, it is true that the woman is being required to carry the baby to term. But that is justified because…|
|Moderator: Okay good. Well done – you found something. You may think it’s trivial, but it’s not. Let’s just stop there. You’ll have your chance to elaborate further later on. But let’s resist that temptation right now.|
|Moderator: So, we now have some initial agreement here. It’s small, to be sure, but it is there: both of you agree that abortion involves the taking of “living something” – even a living something that is in some sense of a “human” kind; and both of you agree that if she is not to have an abortion, a woman must carry a child to term, which involves the use of her body. Is this correct?|
|Citizen Left: Yes, but….|
|Citizen Right: Yes, but…|
|Moderator: We’ll get to the buts…but let’s focus first on this small point. Let’s see where this agreement can take us.|
Ultimately, in such a dialogue, the goal will become: “How can we simultaneously meet the needs of people who want to protect unborn ‘human life’ and those who want to give women the freedom to control their reproductive life?” Now, to be sure, there is much to be done to answer this question in a constructive way. But in the above, we would at least have a start. Yes: I know you believe it is not possible – that there are too many obstacles on both sides. And maybe you are right. But also, maybe you are not right.
4. Have Compassion for Our Enemies. The Dali Lama says that anger can be a catalyst for the cultivation of compassion. He says that with our friends, it is relatively easy to turn anger into compassion – they are our friends and loved ones. The real trick is to turn anger toward our enemies into compassion. When we do that, we know we are really developing as persons. When we do that as a collective, we will be developing as a society.