I watched news reel of fighting in Asia when I was young, even had nightmares once or twice that the soldiers were coming for me. I have seen the iconic photographs of the Vietnam war. But still, visiting the Vietnam museum for the war of “American Aggression” shocked me to my core. It was of course a biased display, but still, seeing the pictures not only of burn victims, but especially those that suffered the most grotesque deformities made me wonder how one human could do this to another. Did U.S. , Australian, and other leaders know what this chemical warfare was doing and still keep doing it? And why were they involved in it in the first place? Fear of a competing ideology? To be clear, my time in ASEAN countries has done nothing to improve my view of communism, responsible for the cruel death of tens of millions and the long term thwarting of development and growth. But is it worth a war to stop it? Tough questions for better philosophers than me.
The amount of ordinance dropped on Vietnam, some of which actually exploded, is mind boggling, and is at one extreme of the pain inflicted by one group of humans on another. Culture wars today are focused on the violence caused by words. The free speech movement argues that the violence of words is nothing compared to physical violence, and understandably so, in the pursuit of free speech. For my part, I am sure that words hurt, and that psychological pain is every bit as painful as physical pain, perhaps even more. So I would separate myself from the free speech movement in this regard. However, whether a speaker should be held accountable for someone else’s psychological pain is a different issue, with justice lying somewhere between true bullying and a simple discomfort with competing ideas.
Perhaps the bigger issue is our awareness of how our words create a toxic environment. Calling someone a snowflake because they are sensitive to some sentiment might miss the point and might be hurtful in and of itself. Same goes for racial and sexual epitaphs. Likewise, calling someone a misogynist or a racist for superficial reasons creates the same problem, in part responsible for the current incumbent of the Whitehouse. It appears both the left and the right of politics are at times blissfully unaware and/or unconcerned about which words hurt each other and perpetuate an environment of toxicity. Even those who are in favor of kindness, can sometimes appear selective about who receives it, with demonstrably unkind people certainly not deemed worthy. I suspect bar maybe even lower.
To be clear, I am no saint here either. Like anyone who occasionally experiences self-righteous anger, the wrong words can sometimes be chosen.
Some people aim to cause no harm to any other living thing, yet they are also resigned to the reality that the simple act of standing up and walking threatens some life. Which brings about the important questions of intent and necessary / unnecessary pain, both to others and ourselves.
The more we get lost in the rage of the passions for our causes, the more we run the risk of inflicting unnecessary pain, which is hard to avoid in today’s world of instant feedback and siloed Internet.
Our inability to see or care about the pain we inflict on others, and ourselves, is surely one of the reasons for the extreme intensity with which we attack others who disagree with us or are part of a different tribe. How to break this cycle might be an existential question. Many of us are all too human, so leadership is easy in theory and hard in practice.
The only compelling issue in all of this is how can we get to the point of discussing the most important issues, in the optimal problem solving ways. Yes, we can always wait until our tribe gets into power and ram it down the throat of the other tribe, but it is not clear recent majorities allow much more than incrementalism, so we may have to wait a long time before our tribe gets what it wants. The pain we inflict exacerbates this. This dynamic may also discourage the most creative problem solving.
Is painful conflict necessary and to be embraced, or can we get to a kinder and gentler world while still frankly and authentically incorporating and debating different points of view, to achieve survival of the best ideas? An important question for the divisive times we live in.