June 15, 2007

Where We Build Monsters

Posted in animal advocacy, real life, recovery at 10:59 pm by nevavegan

In 1938 Neville Chamberlain conceded Czechoslovakia to Hitler in a policy that has since been called “appeasement.” This went down in history as a one of those great mistakes. War was not avoided, only postponed until the enemy was stronger.

Since then many leaders have made use of this example to justify a policy or deride another country’s choices. What we sometimes lose sight of is how we use appeasement in our daily lives.

It’s certainly not wrong to compromise and seek ways to get along with others. In fact it is our ability to do this that allows us, as social animals, to live in such large groups, share resources, and hopefully find non-violent solutions to our disputes.

The trouble arises when, as was the case with Chamberlain and Hitler, we find ourselves trying to appease someone who is on a fundamental level un-appeasable. When you’re dealing with someone who cannot be made whole, who cannot be satisfied, and wants to inflict harm, there is no solution through compromise to be made. Yet, people still cling to this idea that if only we understood a little better, if only we tried a little harder to talk it out, everything would be fine.

Now imagine sitting down to have a little chat with a serial killer about how he really needs to stop killing the neighborhood children. “I understand your desire to kill children; and I’ll just look the other way as you kill the ones you’ve already got locked up in your basement. But after that you really need to stop. We all want a nice neighborhood and nobody likes seeing all those bodies lying around. Think how the parents feel.”

Ludicrous right? Not one of us can see anything worthwhile coming from that discussion. If we’re picturing this in our minds we’re imagining hitting that serial killer in the head with anything at hand, dialing 911, and then leading those trapped children to safety. Of course. We all recognize that there are situations in our own lives where we just can’t negotiate. Not because we don’t believe in negotiation, not because we want to prove how tough we are, but because we know negotiation and compromise must be a two-way street, must be based in integrity, and require some level of sanity. Minus those things we aren’t even negotiating.

We can recognize this in lesser situations too, this thought process doesn’t need to take place in a horror movie. I knew a woman who was kicked out of her church because she kept spreading malicious rumors about other people in the congregation. The minister spoke to her about it, he counseled her about gossip, and as time went on he came to the slow realization that she simply liked spreading rumors and all her promises to stop were worthless. She didn’t care that she was hurting people, she didn’t care that she was hurting the church. She had become so divisive in the congregation, driving her victims out of the church and creating fights between those who believed her and those who didn’t, that the minister simply couldn’t allow her to participate in church any longer. At some point you just wake up and realize it’s never going to work.

In fact by negotiating we make things worse in those situations. We teach manipulative, malicious people how to act like they want to solve problems. They learn the right words to say, but never absorb the ideas behind them. We give them power and time to do bad things, so that when we finally wake up, it’s a lot harder to try to fix the wrongs we’ve allowed to continue. We in essence build monsters by letting people go on doing terrible things.

The reason why I bring this up is because like with the prior entry “You are an Object” I’m building a base to explain other things. This understanding of when we need to negotiate and when we can’t is so important, but also very treacherous. The last thing we want to do is “declare war” in situations that would benefit from mediation, negotiation, or plain old-fashioned listening. We also don’t want to try to negotiate when we aren’t talking to someone who can’t be negotiated with.

I try to think about these tricky balancing acts in my life and also in animal work. Right now we’re thinking about this in our neighborhood with the cat poisonings. On the one hand we want to get tough and go over to our suspect’s house and threaten him. That would mean that we would believe he’s beyond any hope, that we believe the only way to address this situation is through force. On the other hand we want to distribute information to tell people that a) poisoning cats is cruel, b) it’s illegal and c) there are humane ways to reduce that cat population and get some of the more bothersome behaviors under control. Maybe there’s some way to combine the two approaches, but I’m not so sure.

It took me a really long time to learn that there are things I can’t fix, people I can’t reach. What I do with that lesson is hard to determine.

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