On Friday, President Barack Obama was applauded for this statement in his eulogy for The Honourable Elijah E. Cummings:
It has been remarked that Elijah was a kind man. I tell my daughters—and I have to say, listening to Elijah’s daughters speak, that got me choked up. I am sure those of you who have sons feel the same way, but there is something about daughters and their fathers. And I was thinking, I would want my daughters to know how much I love them, but I would also want them to know that being a strong man includes being kind. That there is nothing weak about kindness and compassion. There is nothing weak about looking out for others. There is nothing weak about being honourable. You are not a sucker to have integrity and to treat others with respect. (from theatlantic.com)
Shining his personal, political, historic kleg light on the features of kindness, compassion, looking out for others, and respect for others, in celebration of the life of the passionate, courageous, dramatic congressman from Baltimore, Obama, on one hand, (for critics) promulgated what some consider the obvious; for others, he reminded the world of a trait of masculinity that has been closeted for decades if not centuries. That we all needed his reminder is a testament to the depravity of our contemporary culture. That the congregation responded in applause signified their concurrence with the heroic contribution of the Congressman to the life of his people, city and country.
Conflict in pursuit of justice, as opposed to conflict for personal ambition, is, in the public “mind” a fine distinction, apparently lost on many men and women. Bullying abounds, inflicted on the weak and the “different” among school students on both side of the 49th parallel. In the corporate and political world, competition, even to the degree of debasing one’s opponents, seems to reign. Children see and are compelled to emulate a theory and psychology that runs something like this:
“Don’t take any shit from that ________!” (fill in the blank, from your own experience) Parents, coaches, want their “children” to develop a muscle that serves to protect them from future dangers and threats. And if and when a conflict emerges, a reflex response is to seek revenge as a matter of honour, respect, reputation and dignity. Instant, impulsive responses in anger, seeking vengeance blurts out of many hockey games, as players who have suffered an “unfair” blow turn on their opponent if they are able, or look to their team-mates for surrogate revenge. Young men and young women both have a vindictive instinct, if they exercise that instinct differently. Young men and women are both engaged in defaming and even destroying peers with whom they have a dispute. A billboard on Interstate 81 in upstate New York reminds against the savagery of bullying and the shared need to counteract its vengeance. CBC The National, in Canada, has dedicated a full week to exploring the bullying issue in Canadian schools, bringing the attention of their audience to what they call a “kind” school, as an alternative approach to the epidemic.
Let’s pause and consider the source of the vast majority of human conflicts: pride at an insult, pain at a defamation of character, a background of abuse that generated anger, resentment, bitterness and the proverbial “chip on the shoulder,”…and each of these can be clustered under the umbrella of fear, weakness, insecurity and even neurosis. However, such word magnets are often, if not always, accompanied by the perception/belief/reality that violent revenge is the only option. And here is the place at which young men demonstrate a difference between young women. Physical size, strength of young men, compared to young women, predicate different starting points at the emergence of conflict; young men are not in the habit of “talking” whereas young women, more familiar and comfortable with speaking, perhaps given their conscious awareness that a physical fight, especially with a young man, is at a distinct disadvantage. The cultural norm of young women “circling” in support of their peers differs from the “fight your own fights” epithet among young men, except when a “team” concept is involved.
In a public policy debate, however, the organized protest of large numbers of individuals who, both individually and collectively, believe they have suffered injustice, band together to seek what they deem to be justice. Now, the ‘victims’ have legitimacy, some degree of protection, a common cause, and usually a common purpose and method. Whether their actions veer into the violent, as the research indicates, bears directly on the prospect of their success: if violent, they have a reduced likelihood of achieving their goals. And as individuals form larger groups, or even organizations, like labour unions, churches, social-justice non-profits, pursue their stated goals, the public ranges from spectator to activist and all of the intermediate stages in between.
It is in the interface between the ideal of justice and the instinct to seek revenge that a significant personal, as well as cultural dilemma emerges. Each personal “drama” of such a conflict does two distinct things: it mirrors its incubating culture and foreshadows the future of that culture as mirror and lamp. However, in the middle of the drama, few of us are capable or perhaps willing of acknowledging the need for “support” in our dilemma. We could well be ashamed that the conflict exists, at least in part because of our “failure” either of commission or omission, and therefore dig an emotional hole in which to hide. We could believe firmly that only through our personal engagement, physically and/or verbally, to confront our enemy will our legitimate pursuit of justice be satisfied. We may also live in a universe which has already demonstrated its unwillingness and/or inability to provide support, counsel and advocacy, thereby leaving us “to sleep in the bed we have made” as the phrase of “tough love” goes.
Options, and the need for time, prior to impulsive acts of vengeance, is one of the variables that often appear to be missing from our consciousness, especially when we feel we are “under fire”. Especially if we have been raised in a climate and culture of crisis, we are most familiar with that the “crisis” of conflict and its implications. We even have “skills” and experience in knowing “how” we need to move, transferring our experience from our family to a totally new and different situation, without taking reconnaissance of those differences, and the options that might be available. Immediacy, in terms of immediate gratification of our deep and profound feelings of injustice, whether directly dependent on the specific situation of the moment, or equally likely dependent on our history of being unfairly treated in previous situations or more likely dependent on both (if unconsciously) nevertheless very often takes over.
In literally millions of instances of perceived injustice, individuals and organizations will adopt a “silence” and a waiting period, until a “convenient” time in the future in which to seek and wreak the revenge against their offender, without, in the meantime, “wasting” time and energy reflecting on their own contribution to the conflict. Immediate gratification, on most superficial perceived needs, contributes significantly to a mind-set, especially in young men and women, that “the moment” is paramount in satisfying a perceived need, as well as in inflicting the most immediate and proportionate “punishment” on the enemy. “Waiting for my revenge will only exacerbate my emotional upset and contribute to my own unease, or even illness,” sounds like a reasonable, contemporary rationalization for many young men and young women. “Justice delayed is justice denied” is a phrase deeply embedded in the culture of North America of the twenty-first century. Instant gratification has become a demand regardless of whether the “justice” evinced instantly is either appropriate or satisfactory, to either the enemy or the justice-seeker.
This instant gratification is linked deeply to a wider cultural meme: a literalism, devoid of context, background, investigation, and the most critical component for ensuring justice, objectivity, detachment and a degree of maturity. If everyone, including law enforcement, has a public “chip” on the shoulder, feeling “under assault” or believing in the absence of public trust, or feeling under-appreciated and under-valued seeks instant vengeful justice, including the state, as an over-riding model of how “institutions” preserve their own safety and security, then a culture will be hoisted on its own petard. Is the current North American culture is that position? I leave it to readers to reflect on the question!
Now, back to the question of invoking “kindness,” and “compassion” and “respect” for one’s enemies, as an equally important, relevant and operative principle of ethics and morality in the lives of individuals and organizations, not to mention cultures, including schools, colleges, universities and churches. We all desire a reduction in the incidence of vindictive justice, if indeed that phrase, “vindictive justice,” is not an oxymoron, on which much of our pursuit of justice is impaled. We want to transform our enemies into our friends, at least as an ideal to which we give lip service. And yet, what if that ideal were more important than warranting mere lip service?
For the state, we have elected and appointed “professional experts” who are charged with adjudicating the prosecution of justice. And we have to hope and trust (“while verifying,” tipping our hat to President Reagan) that those professionals will serve our better angels, not or most base instincts. White police officers shooting young unarmed black men in the back, is not indicative of a justice system in which we can or will entrust our loyalty and confidence, regardless of our race. A dominant white majority that shamefully, or worse carelessly and blindly, imprisons a vast majority of indigenous and racially profiled young men, as happens in Canada, is also not a justice system in which Canadians can or do have trust and confidence.
And so, while we can and do dispute how our justice system operates to carry out the law, we have a residual question about how justice, and especially faux justice through revenge, floats through the atmosphere/ethos of our shared culture. And that means how each of us confront our own experiences of injustice, oppression, racial profiling, alienation, and potentially injury and death. Only recently, a fourteen-year-old was murdered outside his school in Hamilton, after a social and educational system failed him according to his mother. Other teens have taken their lives following repeated bullying on social media. These incidents are not results based exclusively on the new digital technology. They are the work of human beings, themselves over-wrought, suffering and perhaps even lost long before they inflicted their violence. Our North American culture, however, is loath to pay more than lip-service to the problems of those who inflict vengeance and violence. In part, we are all enmeshed in a culture of ‘instant gratification’ and a kind of literalism that, while insatiably devouring the gory details of each and every violent act, turns a blind eye, a deaf ear, and an denying mind and concentration to the plight of the obviously guilty offender.
At some risk, I put candles on the altar for Harris and Klebold, immediately following the massacre at Columbine, in Denver in 1999, for a service of remembrance, reflection and prayer at the horror of the bloodshed and death. They were the perpetrators of that heinous killing. Evidence of their anger, resentment, alienation, ostracism only trickled out long after the massacre. Of course, the victims and their families were under extreme distress and trauma and were
inconsolable. And so were the parents of those young men. All of those families will never be the same as they were when the morning of that day broke on the horizon.
However, similar massacres, mass killings, have only been increasing in both number and severity since that horrific day. Guns, as the literal means of such killings, have become the focus of the public debate, since public policy seems loath to face the conundrum of the underlying root causes of such vengeance, resentment, anger and poverty of the spirit, if not the body and the mind of the perpetrators. There are some, however few in number and modest in voice, who consider the deeper issues of our individual and our shared search and pursuit of things like meaning, purpose and ultimate destiny.
If it is true, as a compendium of personal anecdotes would suggest, that in our darkest moments, one finds a kind of insight, a glimmer of a light in that tunnel of darkness, perhaps a gift of insight of meaning, purpose embedded in what can only be considered unexpected “compassion” that escapes understanding, cognition and even sensate perception, then could such a moment not also be available to a culture willing and vulnerable enough to be receptive to such a gift.
Viktor E. Frankl, in his work, The Unconscious God, writes about “a religious sense deeply rooted in each and every man’s unconscious depths” (Frankl, op. cit, p.10) While discerning the difference between conscious and unconscious religion, Frankl also asserts:
I have learned and taught, that the difference between them is no more nor less than a difference between various dimensions..that these dimensions are by no means mutually exclusive. A higher dimension, by definition, is a more inclusive one. The lower dimension is included in the higher one: it is subsumed in it and encompassed by it. Thus biology is overarched by psychology, psychology by noology,* and noology by theology. (Frankl, op.cit, p.12-13)
Referencing Albert Einstein, Frankl notes it was the great man…
“who once contended that to be religious is to have found an answer to the question, What is the meaning of life? If we subscribe to this statement we may then define belief and faith as trust in ultimate meaning….The concept of religion in its widest possible sense, as it is here espouses, certainly goes far beyond the narrow concepts o God promulgated by many representatives of denominational and institutional religion. They often depict, not to say denigrate, God as a being who is primarily concerned with being believed in by the greatest possible number of believers… ‘Just believe’ we are told, ‘and everything will be okay. But alas, not only is this order based on a distortion of any sound concept of deity, but even more important, it is doomed to failure: obviously there are certain activities that simply cannot be commanded, demanded or ordered and as it happens, the triad “faith, hope and love” belongs to this class of activities that elude an approach with, so to speak, “command characteristics.” Faith hope and love cannot be established by command simply because they cannot be established at will. I cannot “will” to believe, I: cannot “will” to hope, I cannot “will” to love---and least of all can I “will” to will….To the extent that one makes intentional acts into objects, he loses sight of their objects. Nowhere, to my knowledge, is this brought home to us more strikingly than with the uniquely human phenomenon laughter: you cannot order anyone to laugh, if you want him to laugh, you must tell him a joke…If you want people to have faith and belief in God, you cannot rely on preaching along the lines of a particular church but must, in the first place, portray your God believably—and you must act credibly yourself. I:n other words you have to do the very opposite of what so often is done by the representatives of organized religion, when they build up an image of God as someone who is primarily interested in being believe in, and who rigorously insists that those who believe in him be affiliated with a particular church. (Frankl, op. cit. p.12-15)
In a culture dependent to a dangerous degree on instant gratification, literalism, vengeance and will, (ultimately individual will, as the agent for all thoughts actions, beliefs and attitudes), and especially are men dependent on the dangers of these reductionisms, give our complicity in conforming, and in “going along to get along” even if those tendencies are unconscious, we men might begin to reflect on how we might rely less on our will for order, for compliance, for simple justice and for the imposition of our ideology as THE way out of our shared circumstances.
*Noology: a systematic study and organization of thought, knowledge and the mind.