...reflections from a Compassionate Listener

Friday, August 20, 2010

Rethinking Our Idea of the 'Perpetrator'


by guest blogger, Catherine Keene

Catherine Keene
When I first begin to talk to people about Compassionate Listening, I explain that our work requires us to listen to all sides of a conflict – both victims and perpetrators – in order to get a better understanding of the whole situation and find the humanity in all parties involved. Although most of the people I speak to believe compassion to be an important virtue, many of them have a difficult time understanding why we would want to listen to those whom we believe to be perpetrators. At best, they believe this is a misuse of our time, as we should be listening more to the ones who are suffering than to the ones who are causing the suffering. At worst, they worry that our work will cause us inadvertently to validate the actions of the perpetrators and thereby encourage them to continue doing harm. So although they admire our compassion for others and our good intentions, they think we are somewhat misled.

I've spent a lot of time thinking about this concern, and I've come to realize that it arises from a disagreement over what it is that causes someone to become a "perpetrator." If you believe a perpetrator has no conscience and is fundamentally destined toward committing evil actions, there might be no incentive to listen to this person, as there would be no hope for change. Or if you believe the perpetrator is completely illogical or even insane, you might see listening to this person as a waste of time because their perspective is outside reality and there is no point at which you can connect with them. In both instances, you might easily feel justified in listening only to the victims, rather than to all sides of a conflict.

But what if the party we think of as a perpetrator is neither sociopathic nor insane, but simply confused or acting out of fear? Will we help them see why they are wrong if we isolate ourselves from them or physically or emotionally attack them? Can we, as listeners, help to resolve a conflict by taking sides and labeling people? Based on my own personal experience – as well as the listening I have done overseas – I would argue that taking sides only causes all involved parties to cling more tightly to their own views and actions, regardless of which label they are given. Those who are called "perpetrators" often feel that they are being attacked by the outside party that labels them (and thus believe they are the victims), so in order to defend and justify themselves, they act out in retaliation and cause more pain. Similarly, those who are used to being called "victims" often believe themselves to be morally superior to the opposing party and look forward to a time when they can get their revenge. In this way, they become the next perpetrators. This polarization causes both parties to remain stuck in conflict, and the pain continues on.

I am reminded of Einstein's claim that "we can't solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them." So what new type of thinking can we use to break out of this cycle? I believe the answer comes in listening to both sides and admitting to ourselves and to others that we are all to blame for these conflicts. Every one of us has said and done things that hurt others – sometimes daily – and the more we attempt to justify ourselves and protect our egos, the more conflict we create. We are all victims and perpetrators in a multitude of ways. Even when we know that we are extremely fallible ourselves, it is so difficult for us to stop judging others and attempting to make them wrong, in order to assert our own identities. But we must keep in mind that when we label someone and judge them, we are internally distancing ourselves from this person. This eliminates the possibility for us to feel compassion towards them, as there can be no "suffering with" when we are caught up in making them wrong.

Just today I found myself becoming trapped in this polarization when I was reading the morning news. I read about a Christian Republican groupin Florida that is planning to commemorate September 11 this year by burning copies of the Quran. I will confess that my first reaction was outrage at the people planning this event, as I disagree that we will be able to make up for the trauma and loss of life in 2001 by insulting almost one quarter of the world's population and causing them to feel unsafe. At that moment, I most wanted to call these organizers and yell at them and tell them that their actions will only spread more hatred. But the more I thought about this response, the more I realized it would not be any more helpful for me to yell at them than it is for them to blame all Muslims for the 9/11 attacks. If I were to call them in anger, they would feel as though I were attacking them and not recognizing their right to observe the anniversary as they wish. They would then see themselves as the victims in this situation and try to convince others to stand up for their cause. I would get angrier, and they would feel more justified in planning their event. Nothing would be solved, and the tension would grow deeper.

So let's see if Compassionate Listening can free us from this trap. Instead of verbally attacking them and trying to make them wrong, I would like to do something truly courageous and attempt to listen to them. I will still call them, but instead of going in with the intent to "hit people with my peace sign," as Pema Chodron would say, I want to remain compassionate towards them and find out why they are so frightened of Muslims that they feel the need to launch an assault against them. If given the opportunity, I will explain that my fiancé is Muslim and I'm reading the Quran this month for Ramadan and that it is actually a book of peace that is full of wisdom, if we take the time to read it. Maybe I'll even ask them if one person there would be willing to read it, before they decide to burn it. (Of course this is based on the assumption that they have not yet read the Quran, but I find that most people who rant about how evil it is have never opened it.) But mostly I want to take the time to listen to them – not by pretending that I agree with what they are doing, but by explaining that it's important for me to understand why they feel the need to do this. It's important for me to remain connected to everyone, especially those with whom I most disagree.

In conclusion, I hope one day we will realize that the peace so many of us desire can never come from anger and hatred – it can only come when we are in harmony with all beings. So long as we insist on labeling some people "perpetrators," we must continue to label others "victims." But if we have the desire and courage, we can eventually get beyond these judgments and begin to practice real compassion.


Cathy Keene is the Managing Director of the Compassionate Listening Project
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1 comment:

Beloved said...

Thanks. I think this is an important topic. I also think that personal experience - both listening to another and sharing our own - is one of the best ways to connect and communicate. In a way it is the storytelling way - our stories.

So my story includes a long one of being a victim and an almost equal one of being a perpetrator. It seems easier to accept myself and feel righteous as a victim than as a perpetrator. Being a perpetrator, though, especially by hurting those I truly love, is extremely painful, most shameful, hard for me to forgive and most regretful - I/m aware of the long-lasting nature of hurts I give others, since I feel them myself as a victim. Shame in both positions. So, loving and forgiving and understanding a perpetrator - helping one to break denial and accept that indeed I/they did hurt someone badly (not minimize, deny, etc as we perpetrators want to squirm out of admitting our shameful acts), is important. Never condoning the acts, rather helping the perpetrator to mourn and admit, apologize and make whatever amends are possible, rebuild self-respect, forgive self and recognize self as a child of the Creator able to change, heal from the hurts that were expressed by hurting innocent others - all this healing and apology and forgiveness is important, from my personal experience.

Perhaps from our own experiences we can contribute to creating a peaceful world.