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Thinking of Others Complexly

Culture Philosophy Rantish Security

I saw a tweet this morning which, I think, did a remarkably good job at distilling an incredibly important principle into a chewable morsel.

12764402_10103881850457395_7495512146377854503_oIt’s not super unusual in advancing the idea that it isn’t simply religious zealotry that drives movements like the Islamic State, but it’s one of the first calls I’ve seen pleading for empathy.  This isn’t sympathy – there have been countless calls for us to be sympathetic with the plight of those fleeing the Syrian Civil War.  We are treated daily to stories of horrors in IS-controlled territory and the desperate attempts of people in refugee camps from the Turkish border to Calais to find a better life.

Amry isn’t even the first person to suggest sympathy, but her point is the one I saw and the one I’ve seized on.  Here’s the text of a chain of tweets:

“If you’re an American confusedly watching the darkest forces of ur nation rally behind a demagogue-maybe u can understand the Mid East now. now imagine if you KNOW it’s because of political frustration, economic stagnation, & social decay but everyone kept calling it jihad…. Trump got everyone wanting to make every Muslim walk the plank and you haven’t even had a single Muslim nation drone you.
God forbid.
Now imagine if the US gov’t outlawed Christian evangelism. How radicalized would segments of the nation become.And militant. Bundy on crack. That’s the Mid East today.Years of pol oppression & religious manipulation by dictators offered seats at the UN. Something had to give.” (@LibyaLiberty)

We often fall into the trap of thinking about Middle Eastern conflicts as far removed not just from our states, but from us as people.  Relatively few Westerners travel to the Middle East and the language barrier ensures that it’s far easier for us to share news from around the rest of the Anglosphere than news from a different civilization.  What Amry’s posts drive home so succintly is the importance of thinking complexly about others.

In a sense, we have to turn other people into abstracts.  The only person that we can really know is ourselves (debatable, but debatable elsewhere).  We just aren’t capable of processing the full entirety of everything, so we cut corners.  A benefit of this is that we don’t go stark raving mad.  What we lose, however, is a detailed understanding of other people.  Philosopher Peter Singer argues in The Expanding Circle that we have “circles” around us encompassing those we care about and know intimately (and thus feel ethical obligations to) and excluding those we don’t (with some measure of gradation).

One of the goals of the study of ethics, then, is to expand this circle to be evermore inclusive.  For babies, their circle is them and maybe their parents.  As we mature, it extends to our family, our friends, and our community.  The nature of human life means that we don’t naturally extend it to our civilization or to the societies of others.  As a result (in part), we think about them as fundamentally different from ourselves.  This is a mistake.

By drawing a direct parallel between the people of the Middle East and the West, Amry asks us to walk a mile in their shoes and recognize that they are, in fact, people with dreams and goals and very human anger.  We’re not some different species that reacts to everything in a peaceful and orderly fashion, we are blessed to live in societies which our forefathers built on the rule of law and liberal democracy, and which have been largely free of intervention and puppeteering.*  Chaos and success aren’t forged in the moment, but are path-dependent.  There but for the grace of hundreds of years of stable political development and the emergence of liberal capitalism go we.

I wrote an opinion piece for Carleton’s student newspaper back in my third year of undergrad, following the attacks on the US Embassy to Tunisia and my old school the American Cooperative School of Tunis.  Excuse the horrible horrible title (it’s kind of their thing).  This was following the release of The Innocence of Muslims, a purportedly terrible film that was supposed to have turned the inhabitants of the Muslim world into raving madmen:

“These atrocities are the result of purposeful actions.  They aren’t mistakes.  A Muslim is not some kind of child reduced to Pavlovian impulses (which is, unfortunately, how they are often treated by Western media).  The depiction of Muhammad doesn’t summon a crowd of angry extremists in the same way that breaching a dam causes a flood.  They — and no one else — are responsible for these attacks.”
We now know that Innocence of Muslims was simply a convenient scapegoat.  In any case, it was always ridiculous to think that a poorly-made Youtube movie in isolation could turn countless rational people into a mob.  Things are always more complex, and people are too.  It’s not like an Egyptian, or a Syrian, or an Iranian is somehow less rational than you or I.  We react to a different set of stimuli.  We might have ideologies that put our circumstances in a certain context and they have theirs, but too often we dismiss the actions of those far away as if they were background characters in a novel.  The plight of people around the world are not context for our lives, but real people with real experiences, with their own families and desires.  As humans we can’t internalize the lives of each and every other person, but we need to remember that other people are complex beings who are doing what they think is best to achieve their goals, to make their lives just a little bit better.  When we understand this and understand how to approach the problems plaguing the Middle East from their perspective, perhaps we’ll make some progress.

 

*Even when the West did contain puppet states, like the formative years of West Germany, it was very much in the interests of the German people rather than those of exploiting foreigners and stands a testament to the potential of state-building.  It’s very much different from the subsidy many dictators receive from the United States.

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