Why we must learn to see ourselves as others see us-1

(I have been thinking a lot about the violence that is engulfing the Middle East and the horrific loss of life and homes and other property that is taking place. What follows is a long essay that reflects my thoughts and feelings on it. I have serialized it into four parts and will post one part each day for the rest of this week.)

As the ghastly events in the Middle East keep unfolding, it becomes imperative that we need to radically change the way we view ourselves and others if we are to have any hope of saving the world from an endless cycle of death and brutality.

Robert Burns’ poem To a Louse contains a much-quoted passage that is a good starting point for such a transformative approach.

O wad some Pow’r the giftie gie us

To see oursels as others see us

It wad frae monie a blunder free us

An’ foolish notion

(My feeble attempt at a translation into modern English that loses the charm, appeal and rhythm of the Scottish dialect of the original is:

O for a gift that God would give us
To see ourselves as others see us
It would from many a blunder save us
and foolish thoughts.

Truer words were never spoken. The hardest thing for us to do is to put ourselves in another person’s shoes and see how we, and our actions, might look to them. Instead, as has often been pointed out, our tendency is to judge others by their actions and ourselves by our intentions. As a result, the bad actions of others are taken at face value and their protestations of good intentions are often dismissed as excuses and rationalizations, or even bad faith lies. But when others do the same thing to us, we are deeply offended and become aggrieved. Can’t they understand that we meant well? Shouldn’t our intentions count for something? Such unbalanced approaches cannot help but lead to conflict between people.
The tendency to have such a blinkered view becomes worse when the actions of entire groups of people are involved because the tribal instinct also then kicks in and those blinders provide an even narrower perspective. The worst examples occur when groups go to war against each other. When the ‘we,’ ‘us,’ or ‘ourselves’ becomes our clan or tribe (labeled by religion or ethnicity or nationality) and ‘they’ or ‘others’ becomes members of a different tribe with whom we are at war, the blindness to our own tribe’s faults and mistakes, and the harshness of our judgments of the other side’s actions become pronounced to the point of losing touch with reality.

Take as examples the many current conflicts going on in the Middle East region, be it the US forces battling the insurgency in Iraq or the clashes between Israel and Hezbollah in Lebanon or between Israel and Hamas in Gaza.

If you live in the US, there is a dominant storyline that most people, especially elected officials and the media subscribe to for these conflicts. In this narrative, ‘we’ represent either the US or Israel, and ‘they’ are Muslims or Arabs. ‘We’ are intrinsically good people and ‘they’ are not as good as us, and harbor many bad people. ‘

‘We’ use force only when we have no alternative, and when we do so we are very judicious, careful to make sure that only the guilty are targeted. When innocent civilians are hurt or killed by ‘our’ actions, it is purely inadvertent and accidental. We are quick to express regret and expect that ‘they’ will immediately accept those apologies as genuine, because after all, we are good, humane, decent people.

At the very worst, when some massacre or other atrocity of ‘their’ civilians occurs because of some actions by ‘our’ people, and there seems to be no way of explaining it away as an accident, we are quick to say that these were gross aberrations, the work of a ‘few bad apples’ that in no way represent official policy, or our usual behavior. The actions are portrayed as deviations from our normal high ethical and moral standards. We insist that, as a matter of fair play, the accused must be given all the benefits of due process, be viewed as innocent until proven guilty, and strongly urge everyone to withhold judgment until ‘all the fact are in.’ We then hold extended inquiries and trials, find all kinds of mitigating factors for the actions of ‘our’ errant people, and give the culprits relatively minor punishments.

It is easy to find examples of this. The official responses to the My Lai massacres and the Abu Ghraib prison scandal immediately spring to mind.

The Los Angeles Times of August 6, 2006 has an explosive article by reporters Nick Turse and Deborah Nelson, based on recently declassified secret documents, that this kind of condoning of bad behavior by ‘our’ soldiers during the Vietnam war was much more widespread than originally thought. The long article goes into shocking details of the casual brutality perpetrated on the Vietnamese. Here is just a brief excerpt of the article but you have to read the full story with its details to appreciate the immensity of the crimes committed:

The documents detail 320 alleged incidents that were substantiated by Army investigators — not including the most notorious U.S. atrocity, the 1968 My Lai massacre.

Though not a complete accounting of Vietnam war crimes, the archive is the largest such collection to surface to date. About 9,000 pages, it includes investigative files, sworn statements by witnesses and status reports for top military brass.

The records describe recurrent attacks on ordinary Vietnamese — families in their homes, farmers in rice paddies, teenagers out fishing. Hundreds of soldiers, in interviews with investigators and letters to commanders, described a violent minority who murdered, raped and tortured with impunity.

Abuses were not confined to a few rogue units, a Times review of the files found. They were uncovered in every Army division that operated in Vietnam.
. . .
Ultimately, 57 of them were court-martialed and just 23 convicted, the records show.

Fourteen received prison sentences ranging from six months to 20 years, but most won significant reductions on appeal. The stiffest sentence went to a military intelligence interrogator convicted of committing indecent acts on a 13-year-old girl in an interrogation hut in 1967.

He served seven months of a 20-year term, the records show.

Despite the fact that this kind of thing has happened repeatedly in the past and still continues to happen, ‘we’ are still amazed when ‘they’ see our behavior as approving of, if not condoning, the actions of the perpetrators.

But what happens if ‘our’ civilians are killed and hurt by ‘them’? Then our perspective shifts by 180 degrees. The actions by ‘them’, even if by a few individuals, are not treated as aberrations, but instead are taken as official policy by the opposing government or group because, after all, they are not as good as we are, and are thus capable of not only committing the most heinous crimes, but actually desiring to do so. No apologies or expressions of regret are accepted. Judgment is not withheld but the actions are immediately condemned as wrong and the accused are assumed to be guilty. No calls for due process now. Instead, summarily killing the accused is seen as acceptable, if not desirable. Only swift revenge will appease us, either in the form of military action, quick and severe justice for the perpetrators, sanctions against the offending nations, or financial restitution.

Seeing the world and people in such a weirdly dualistic way is only possible if one values one’s tribal allegiance above all other allegiances, and is willing to ignore reality to maintain the belief that ‘we’ must be inherently better then ‘they.’ Many people clearly think like this. So strong are people’s tribal allegiances that they will hold onto the narrative of the essential goodness and purity of their own side, and the essential evil of the other side, even in the face of clear evidence to the contrary. Even the starkest of facts will not shake their faith.

To be continued. . .


  1. says

    I have always had a problem with allegience to tribes and teams. I remember in the 6th grade I started to refuse to give the pledge of allegience (that gets me weird looks at times) and to this day will not do so.

    I wrote a short entry in this vein here and some of the contesting comments were very thoughtful.

  2. says

    I think the general point is right, and it’s astonishing how bitter these us vs them divides can be, and how difficult it can be to make people see the other side. Personally this has driven me away from even discussing matters involving Israel with people who I don’t already know to mostly agree with me, because it just ends up being so painful, but I know this cowardly approach is unhelpful.

  3. says

    I agree that people are extraordinarily sensitive about this topic and it can lead to bitter arguments. I know that I am opening myself up for that kind of argument too by just broaching the topic.

    But I just felt that if we do not discuss these things openly and try to find a way to get beyond the us/them wall, we are doomed to repeat this senseless violence forever.

  4. Ray de Silva says

    Good on yer, mate, for opening up this can of wor^W^W^W Pandora’s b^W^W very explosive topic.

    By the way, the last line of the Burns poem is more accurately rendered as “and foolish misconception”.

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