Love the person, understand the behaviour

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Many religions, at their best, encourage us to be kind and understanding, even to our enemies.  Photo by Leighann Renee on Unsplash

In current political life, there is a trend to pick on individuals and demonise them.  Maybe it’s always been so.   But I’ve noticed it more in the last few years.  It is as though we love to pick holes in our opposition, and attack the person, not the policy.

In private lives, we can remember it from school.  Certain people are bullied: a gang of peers decide that one or two people are persona non grata.  The normal rules of conduct are suspended, and it is treated as OK to alienate and dismiss them.

MAKING STORIES

At such times, name-calling comes to the fore.  Once the enemy has been chosen, everyone starts to circulate their favourite humorous nickname for the person.  Stories start to circulate, mythical, exaggerated stories about what the person once said or did.

Historically, perhaps humans have learned to do this as a quick way of eliminating individuals who are not to be welcomed in a group.  Maybe once it was a matter of survival, to eject a troublemaker from a tribe, and then spread fairy stories about them in order to make sure everyone keeps watch, to make sure that they cannot return.

In this way, making up stories becomes a way of encouraging hatred for the person.  While useful in evolving societies, it is maybe unhelpful in modern societies, because it depends on lies, and lies aren’t really a good way of developing people.

DELIBERATE MISUNDERSTANDING

Another bullying technique is to make no effort at all to understand a person, and even to deliberately turn what they say to a negative interpretation.  At school, there is a particular look people give their enemies, a sort of ‘what are you talking about?’ sneer, which is designed to make sure that the enemy knows they are not going to be given the benefit of the doubt.

In politics, too, these techniques abound.  People choose the negative interpretation of any of their enemies’ statements.  Once you are a member of one gang, your job is to treat the other side as incomprehensible monsters or idiots, and your own side as enlightened beings.

Again, in primitive societies this may have had its uses.  (Mainly, it stops people wasting their time on non-tribe viewpoints, and consolidates the gang mentality.)  But in a modern society, when we are supposed to be helping each other develop, it is too unsubtle.  It doesn’t teach us empathy and understanding, and therefore it inhibits our development.

LOVE THE PERSON, UNDERSTAND THE BEHAVIOUR

Now, suppose we turn this upside down.

Instead of hating the person, and misunderstanding the behaviour, what if we choose to love the person and understand the behaviour?

Every religion has its way of expressing this.  Much Buddhism, for instance, encourages the following:

  1. BE COMPASSIONATE – Try to view all beings as essentially good and kind, and worthy of kindness
  2. BE WISE – Try to view all suffering as the result of delusions, and therefore to be counteracted by understanding
LOVE IN ACTION

This means that love in action is a matter of:

  • treating all beings as having a right to be there, and to be who they are, with no exceptions
  • understanding the patterns of delusion that lead us to hurt each other
WE CAN STILL STAND UP FOR POINTS OF VIEW

Does this mean that we simply roll over and agree with our political opponents?

Not really.  The difference, perhaps, is in how we conduct ourselves during any disagreement.

If we find ourselves making up simplified stories about the other side, and failing to understand their point of view, then we are probably using old-style, primitive thinking from several thousand years ago.

If, however, we manage to respect all sides, and gain an acute understanding of why and how everyone thinks what they think, then we are giving ourselves a chance to live well.

AN EXERCISE

We tend to spend too little time appreciating and learning, and too much time making up stories and criticising.
Just for today, maybe choose an enemy, and, painful as it might be at first, do two things:

  • recognise that they have as much right as you to be alive
  • try to get inside their head and see the world through their eyes
You don’t have to agree with them, but it means that you have exercised your compassion and increased your wisdom.

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SUMMARY

We tend to demonise our enemies.  In particular, when we decide we don’t like people, we make up negative stories about them, and we make no effort to understand them.  Bullying at school when children.  Political polarisation when adults.

Instead of hating the person, and failing to understand the behaviour, we can love the person and understand the behaviour. We can still stand up for our point of view, but in a more subtle way, not by bullying or alienating.

This increases our compassion and wisdom, which seems like a good idea.

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