Monday, September 08, 2008

Feeling It

In the comments to this Southern Appeal post, we had yet another discussion about the meaning of Jeremiah Wright's "chickens coming home to roost" sermon, and whether it was morally condemnable. I argued that Wright was making a positive, not normative, claim: We supported terrorism in, among other places, Latin America; now we're experiencing it here at home. And it turns out, being victimized by terrorism really sucks. There is no explicit normative component to this argument, which makes it difficult to condemn. Had Wright taken the normative step of saying: "because we engaged in terrorism abroad, we deserved to experience it here at home", that would be unjust. But he didn't say that. Indeed, I argued, if anything the implied normative dimension of his statement was that -- having experienced terrorism for ourselves -- hopefully it would expand our empathy so that we do not ever again support such terrorist atrocities enacted upon other human beings.

Today, The Washington Post reports on a study that demonstrates that people become desensitized to injustices perpetuated by their group upon others when they are reminded of injustices they themselves experienced. Americans, for example, are far less concerned about innocent Iraqi suffering brought on by the Iraq war when primed by 9/11 or Pearl Harbor, than we are if primed by the Nazis invading Poland. Jews are less likely to express sympathy for Palestinian suffering when primed by the Holocaust than when primed by the Cambodian genocide.

The study's authors concluded that people who experience injustice and victimization are prone to "lash out" in an effort to make sure they do not experience it again. But this tendency does not necessarily restrict itself at the actual perpetrators of the crime -- creating new classes of victims and new circles of pain and retribution.

In this light, the role of ministers, rabbis, pastors, imams, and other spiritual leaders, in the role as moral guides, have a particular obligation to counter this instinct. The authors also say that the instinct for revenge can be, with effort, turned -- from "never let this happen to me again" to "never let me be the type person who causes this to happen again". That is the message that mass atrocity should create in is. The easiest thing to do, when one is victimized, is to promote more pain. The hard thing, but the right thing, is to try and build a world where that pain no longer is created.

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