Righteous Vengeance or Empathetic Pragmatism?

When we are attacked, it feels good to respond in kind. It defends us; it signals that we won't take such abuse passively; and it satisfies our desire for retribution. This is possibly, maybe a reasonable strategy when the attack is purely spontaneous—spontaneous in our attacker's eyes as well as our own—and no innocents are drawn into the conflict. An example would be a very young kid hitting a peer to see whether they can do something mischievous like stealing a toy.

But many of the attacks we suffer, and which we think are unprovoked, actually have a long backstory and hence justification in the attacker's eyes. Examples range from marital spats to family feuds to political animus to international conflicts to terrorism. Many times what we perceive as an unjustified attack is a bubbling over of long-standing tensions and grievances.

How, then, to respond to these attacks that seem justified to our aggressor?

It depends on our ultimate goal. If we want to lash out because we're hurt, if we want vengeance, then responding in kind will do it: we'll get the immediate pleasure of retribution, and the satisfaction that we're giving nothing good to our attacker. But the long-term consequence of that is just more attacks and pain in the future—and it will likely draw collateral damage on uninvolved people, who may then choose sides against whomever they decide hurt them. The attacker, for their part, will see our lashing out as yet another grievance against us, which will justify another attack, and the cycle will continue. We are guaranteeing more pain to come for ourselves and for them. Let's not delude ourselves that we are in any way fixing the problem.

If our goal is to stop the attack cycle and the pain and the hurt, then we clearly have to do something different. This is a hard question on two counts: first, we reflexively yearn to respond in kind when victimized; and second, it's not clear how to respond constructively in a way that also stands up for ourselves, for our dignity, and for our values.

The first step to resolving both of these aspects is to be clear on our long-term goals. Do we really want to stop the attacks and the suffering? Or do we actually want to feel sanctimonious in our retaliation? If we really want to stop the aggression, then we need to accept that it will be hard work on our part. It will be hard work on our aggressor's part too, but we can't directly control what they do—we can only do our part and encourage their cooperation.

Next, we need to gain a perspective greater than just our own as the aggrieved party. Specifically, we need to do some research and then empathize: what drove them to do this? If we were them, what would we be listing as our grievances against us? What are we sensitive about? Being honest in this step is crucial, but hard: we need to pause our usual first-person perspective and understand what it means to be the Other.

With this understanding, we need to evaluate both our and their claims to righteousness. To do this, we switch back and forth between our usual first-person perspective and our empathetic framing of the situation in their eyes. We need to be brutally honest: it will be easier to point out where they're wrong, but we need to be very strict with ourselves to see where we, too, have fallen short of our (and their) moral standards. And for some issues, it may well happen that both claims are valid from their own perspectives; that, too, is an important insight.

Then what? We certainly need to stand up for ourselves and communicate to the other side that their actions were hurtful and unacceptable. But we also need to convey to them that we understand their motivations for their actions. This will be hard for us to do, because it seems like we're ceding the moral high ground, like we're admitting fault when we're in fact the injured party. But if we are really serious about solving the problem for good, then this is part of the hard work involved: treating the Other as human beings, with their own hurt and anger and desires; and treating ourselves as imperfect, with our own aspirations and flaws and hurt.

This acknowledgment of the Other's position is of great importance, because it means we see them and acknowledge their grievances, even if we don't agree with them. It is how we start cooperating toward a solution that causes the least harm.

This is all work that is under our control. If we don't this, then we should stop lying to ourselves that we want to solve the conflict: what we really want is to be right over and over as the attacks and counter-attacks continue. But if we do this hard work, we are at least doing our part for long-term peace. And this work is hard, no doubt: at times we may feel like we are rewarding their aggression. That is extremely repulsive, of course, which is why we need to keep the big picture in mind: do we want to be righteous or do we want to end the problem once and for all?

All this said, there will of course be situations when the other side's goal is our destruction. Sometimes this goal is incidental, and if we can honestly show that we are willing to work together to resolve the conflict in a way that benefits us both, this goal may be dropped. But in extreme situations, this may be the aggressor's fundamental goal, as may happen when they have fallen prey to absolutist ideologies. What recourse do we have then?

We need to start with the approach above regardless, to show that we are willing to solve those claims that are valid. And we need to get witnesses along the way. Showing family, communities, nations (depending on the nature of the conflict) that we are willing to work for a mutual solution and they're not may undermine their support and exert pressure on them to moderate. At best, we isolate them as raving angry parties. At worst, we at least know that we did what we could and have shown that to bystanders not involved in the conflict.

This general framework may be overly naïve, especially for something as momentous as international relations, but the fundamental ideas are not novel: various philosophical traditions advocate moving beyond our first-person perspective in order to enable harmony. Applying this to the conflicts that come our way provides hope for resolving issues while preserving dignity, which is a way of investing in the future. Our usual violent methods of resolving conflict have not worked particularly well, so why not try something different?


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