Throughout my adult life I have studied one particular subject, both in school and on my own. I took as many courses in undergraduate school as my change of majors allowed me; I filled my program with it in divinity school; I have read books and articles on it until they're coming out my ears; and I have decided it is, in some ways, a futile quest. No matter how much psychology I study, there are some things about some human beings that I will never really understand, that will always be impenetrable to me. I know that that is true, that enlightenment will not come no matter how long and hard I try, because I already know the explanations for the behavior and thinking that mystifies me, I accept the explanations as true, but when I think of the behavior, there is none of the feeling of empathy and understanding that I feel in regard to other things that people do.
I'm not talking about insanity. I may not understand the particular crazy things people do when they are insane, although if one knows the person, often one can understand the origin of some insane behavior. Mental illness I can understand to be an illness and pity it. I'm not talking about sociopaths or psychopaths. I've come to terms with the idea that some people are just born with certain terrible flaws that allow them to become Charles Mansons or Jeffrey Dahmers, or simply unable to understand ideas of integrity. Nor am I talking about crime or violence, or the kind of mindless destructiveness that so many people seem to go in for nowadays. I don't condone it - indeed, I'm horrified by it - but I can understand its origins in greed and fear, hopelessness and anger. I have felt those things myself, and have admitted the truth that with sufficient motivation I can also do evil.
No, it is not those genetic flaws that are what seem to make some of us less than human, nor illness, nor even seemingly senseless violence and destruction that bewilder me. Those things that my understanding cannot penetrate are more widespread than those, and, I suppose, less dangerous, though I sometimes have my doubts about that....I have been thinking again recently about the issue of capital punishment. I believe the Supreme Court is again to rule on the question of whether or not it should be considered cruel and unusual punishment. I was reminded of an exchange of letters to the Editor that I read some years ago on the subject. The first one was in opposition to capital punishment. The arguments seemed reasoned and thoughtful, and I agreed with it entirely. The writer spoke of the clear lack of deterrent value of most punishment, including capital punishment, suggested that retribution did not mitigate an irrecoverable loss, and that the danger of executing the innocent was always present. He also mentioned the fact that given the necessary framework for executions including the appeals process, it is not even a savings in money. The writer was unsentimental about criminals, admitting our need to be protected from them, and suggesting that prison without parole could be just as much a deterrent to a murderer's repeating the crime as execution would be. I nodded my head, and threw the paper away. Then came the other letter, the one that bewildered me for two reasons. This writer was irate at the unconcern of the previous writer for the victims of crime. Punishment, and particularly capital punishment, is a victim's right, he said. Anyone who believed in justice, who was opposed to violence, and who pitied the victims of it must necessarily support capital punishment. This was his entire rebuttal to the previous letter.
My first question was, as it so often is, how can people think they have answered something when they haven't dealt with any of the issues raised? It is amazing - and impenetrable - to me, that people think that they are arguing when they are actually talking past one another, dealing with wildly different things, yet believing they are refuting another's argument. The second writer said nothing about deterrence, nothing about the possibility of executing the innocent, nothing even about the efficacy of revenge in establishing a just society, all of which were the points that the previous writer was making and none of which the second refuted. I frequently hear similar so-called arguments. I'm not sure what to call them, really, since to argue, you have to at least agree on the basic question, it seems to me. What bewilders me is that people don't seem to realize that they're talking about different things from an entirely different starting point when they jump into this kind of dialogue. The only thing I really understand about it is that this way of disagreeing will never resolve any difference of opinion.
The other thing that was baffling to me in that exchange, and has always been, is the concept of revenge as a good thing. Immanuel Kant, either in The Critique of Pure or Practical Reason (I'm not sure which and decided not to reread both of them to find out), said that the desire for revenge is (at least one of) the highest moral sense in humankind. It is this emotion, he argues, which leads to a passion for justice. I hated that when I first read it, and I hate it now. When I feel a desire for revenge, I do not feel that to fulfill that desire will forward justice. Rather do I feel that to forgive would be more generous, more moral, and ultimately more just. That doesn't mean I stop feeling vengeful, just that I feel guilty about it. An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth seems reasonable, but to put out my assailant's eye or deprive him or her of a tooth will not replace mine. If to do so will keep the person from harming me further or from harming someone else, I would certainly not think twice about calling for this retribution. If it will not, to exact it will not repay me for my loss. To exact a worthless life for a valuable one repays no one, and does not lesson the sorrow for a lost life. Justice, it seems to me, is something other than revenge. It is providing a society in which each can have a fair share of whatever rewards are available, can live in safety, can work as productively as in us lies, and can enjoy the advantages of freedom and the pleasures of leisure without prejudice, partiality or oppression.
In classical times vengeance was a duty. Both the words vindictive and vindicate come from a root meaning to set free. This freedom was achieved when vengeance was done in response to some evil. The story of Orestes is the tragedy of an inability to reconcile his conflicting obligations: that of honoring his father and avenging his sister and mother who were his father's victims. I had supposed that forgiveness and mercy had taken the place of obligatory vengeance. But worse for me, although I can easily understand the desire for vengeance, it being a natural human emotion as Kant observed, and therefore one that I have felt as often as most people, I cannot begin to understand those who would argue for it as a matter of victim's rights.
There is another sort of exchange that produces bewilderment in me. One time a woman came to see me to talk about a program she wanted to offer to the church I was then serving about ecology and the environment. One of the reasons I seldom talk about environmental issues from the pulpit (unless, of course, I have something shocking to say) is that I have never felt that preaching in favor of an issue to people who are already informed about and committed to that issue is particularly useful. It can even have negative effects such as boredom, which is a feeling that seldom energizes anyone to go out and change the world. However, this woman clearly wanted the opportunity, and even though I have nothing new to say on the subject, I thought it was quite possible that an expert might, so I agreed to discuss it with her.
Well, I have an unattractive characteristic that I think must be part of my autonomic nervous system, as much an unwilled, automatic response as my heart's beating, my blood's circulating, or my lungs expanding and contracting. It happens when anyone makes a sweeping statement unsupported by evidence. I immediately begin to look for evidence against it, to show that the statement is not always true, or maybe isn't true at all. Well, it happened again. She made the statement; I entered the caveat. She said, "The environment is toxic to human beings." I said, "Isn't it strange, then, that we are reproducing more rapidly than we should and our life-spans are increasing?" What shocked and bewildered me was her response. It is another thing I have seen before and have realized I will never understand. She immediately began to prepare to leave, taking back the card she had presented me with and saying, "Well, if you're not interested...." Not interested?! It seemed to me that I was showing the clearest kind of interest by bothering to argue. It was obvious at that point, of course, that she wouldn't be able to deal with the kind of give and take that we glory in in Unitarian Universalist congregations, but what I cannot, do not, and will not ever be able to understand is the kind of person who accepts an idea as true and then is unable or unwilling to defend it, even seeing any hint of disagreement or desire for proof as a personal attack. In the first place, if they can't defend an idea, I'd like to know on what basis they originally accepted it as true, and in the second, it seems to me that even the most negative discussion, if it is based on matters of fact, is useful in clarifying one's ideas. I don't think it is nervousness about the fragility of one's belief system that causes people to react this way - this woman was very sure that she was right - it is the idea somehow that if you disagree at all, in however minor a way, you disagree with everything and you are a declared enemy. I've read about true believers and met a few, and I know that's how they react, but again, it is utterly mystifying to me.
This lack of understanding from which I suffer is very frustrating. I can't think of anything more important that being able to understand the actions, feelings and motivations of our fellow human beings. It is difficult, too, because I find that I make value judgments about these matters even without the complete understanding that is required to do so. However, the judgments are probably also necessary, because they come from my commitment to understanding. We Unitarian Universalists are not totally free, for example, of the first problem I noted. I have heard people in discussion groups talking blandly past each other with no one really being sure what the discussion was about. It occurs to me that, even though I don't quite understand how people can get into that situation, or at least stay in it, it is okay to say that it is not a good situation to be in. We pride ourselves on the diversity of our opinions, but we need to make sure that we know for certain what opinion it is that we're being diverse about.
One of the ways in which we are diverse is in our varying attitudes toward capital punishment. It is unquestionably a moral issue, one on which I feel strongly, to the point that I can almost say that I do not understand the opposing point of view. However, in this case when I say I don't understand it, I don't mean that it is impenetrable to me as the kinds of lack of communication I have been talking about are. I can believe that people of good will, of equally high moral standards, equal standards of justice, can profoundly disagree. I can understand and sympathize with their arguments without agreeing with them or accepting them. It is when the very ground of the argument is foreign to one of the discussants that impenetrability occurs. If you are not a true believer, you cannot discuss anything with one who is, because your grounding is so different, and the response is pure defensiveness. When one side of an argument is emotional response and the other is reasoned discourse; when one is "I believe because I know it's true," and the other is "Show me!" there's an impenetrability problem.
I've said that these are things I'll never understand, and I probably never will, but I suppose I will keep trying, because the problem seems to be, more than anything else, blocks to communication - blocks of defensiveness, blocks between starting points. There are those who believe that they can finally convince anyone if the person will just pay the proper attention, and they keep talking. I don't believe that, because sometimes you understand the argument perfectly and simply disagree. However, when it's the style of argument itself you don't understand, it surely must be possible to open up some channels somewhere for two people of good will to reason together.
The first step is to recognize when you are unable to hear one another, whether because the emotions are too strong, or that you simply come from different starting points. That isn't always easy. Sometimes you think you are hearing very well, understanding precisely, and in fact you are talking past one another. Just as I will keep trying to understand the true believer, so must we all keep trying to understand one another. Half of communication, it is wisely said, is listening. When you cannot understand the other, perhaps better listening is in order. When the other doesn't seem to understand what you are saying, perhaps listening can help there, too, to discover the ground of misunderstanding. Not all differences can be resolved, but they should never be intractable because we cannot or will not hear one another. We Unitarian Universalists talk well. How good are we at listening?