Humanizing Self and Other

Personal Health

By Cheryl Whitelaw

Kind Power consultant

She attacked me.  I defended myself.  I attacked first, so they couldn’t hurt me.

We do all kinds of behaviors to create safety, protect ourselves, to feel safe when we are or believe we are threatened. Verbal, physical, what we think – all of these can be used to create a feeling of safety when we feel threatened.

I feel dismay, even despair at the eruption of acts in the last year taken to dominate others, behaviors leaning on a kind of selective societal permission to act out against someone I decide is different – the “other”.  Someone who is less human than me.

Taking the stance of the persecutor for a moment, stepping into an attacker’s shoes – I act out of the ground of justification.  I am justified in defending my values, rights, way of life against someone who by being different than me, poses a threat to everything I am and everything I value.   I am not talking about acts taken to defend yourself against someone who is doing something threatening to you – that is a whole other context.  I am talking about the threat posed by how someone is – their beingness as justification to target them with my violence, unleashing acts of domination, brutality. Everything I hold dear is under attack when you are the way you are.  This is the stakes of divisive diversity.  When I can’t even tolerate you being you and me being me in the same time and space.

I have pondered over the last year – in the moment of this confrontation – when I become “the other” – the object of attack, when the person becomes “the persecutor” in the moment of their attack.  This is the moment when we both lose the breadth and depth of our humanity, when we are reduced to objects: attacker and victim.   How can we get it back – the humanity that allows for connection, wholeness, choice?

Christian Vanhenten in his book, “In Search of Martial Kindness” writes about mutual respect as a tool for re-humanizing each person in a conflict.   He describes our desire in conflict, to want to change the other person, to transform him or her to adopt my view of the world, to modify their behavior in the way I expect them to act.   My expectations and focus on control transforms the other person into an object.   In conflict, I want to master my environment, to be safe, to put anything or anyone in my environment in service of my needs, my desires.   His bottom line insight: “It is far easier for me to accept that an object can resist my desire than to see a person oppose it deliberately.”

A man threatens another man with a knife.  In a recent security video, a police officer keeps his distance, sits down and talks the man into giving up his knife.   In another video, the victim freezes and is stabbed repeatedly by the knife-wielding man.  Why the different outcomes?   What resources did the police officer bring that kept him and his attacker safe?  What did the unlucky stabbing victim not bring to the moment of conflict?

In the first video, I saw the police officer accepted the knife-wielding man as a person who he could connect with.  No doubt, he also had trained capacity to disarm the man, a capacity he trusted in enough to open up a conversation with his attacker. In the second video, I saw the victim accept the new condition – I am a victim, without other resources to maintain his personhood.  I am the object of this attack.  A freeze and a fixation with tragic results.

What is the originating moment of this reactivity – the alchemy of changing from a person, a subject to an object?  In the extreme examples I presented, it is easy to blame the knife-wielding person as unbalanced, a threat that needs to be controlled.  What is harder, for me, is to hold open my curiosity and empathy to what is happening for this person, this attacker, such that threatening another person with a knife is the thing to do.

Robert Augustus Master and Ken Wilber talk about the signs of reactivity, when we go from a state of caring for others to treating them as an “it”.  In the state of reactivity, our heart closes, we experience a disproportionate reaction to the situation in front of us.  We lost our connection to the other person and to ourselves.  We have no empathy to give to the other – they become an “it” to control.   In the fixation on this judgment, we adhere to being right, to justify acts from the ground of how I am right.  The kind power we could extend to ourselves is to accept the feeling of vulnerability, to remain open to the threat and to the options presented by the other person, as a person.  I am not talking about blind empathy, a kind of idiot compassion that feels for all of the events that have happened to a person, leading him or her to offer violence.   Many people have tragic histories, painful and traumatic lives that surely deserve recognition and a compassionate look at the real events of their lives.  The kind power practice I am talking about here is continuing to extend an offer of seeing you as a person, even as a person launching a verbal or other kind of attack.  Even as I respond with actions and boundaries necessary to deal with the situation.  The kind power challenge to stay human, to remain compassionate to the real deal of the situation, and to act to retain, even restore the humanity we both have.  Not easy, maybe not simple but necessary.