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Why Peace is Almost Always a Better Policy

July 26, 2006

The New York Times has an eye-opening article caled “He Who Cast the First Stone Probably Didn’t” by Daniel Gilbert that says basically humans naturally misintepret other people’s statements and actions, causing them to retaliate, and retaliate harder.

In virtually every human society, “He hit me first” provides an acceptable rationale for doing that which is otherwise forbidden. Both civil and religious law provide long lists of behaviors that are illegal or immoral — unless they are responses in kind, in which case they are perfectly fine.

Legitimate retribution is meant to restore balance, and thus an eye for an eye is fair, but an eye for an eyelash is not. When the European Union condemned Israel for bombing Lebanon in retaliation for the kidnapping of two Israeli soldiers, it did not question Israel’s right to respond, but rather, its “disproportionate use of force.” It is O.K. to hit back, just not too hard.

He goes on to describe an an experiment where two people are paired up and push each other lightly. The goal is to return the other’s push with equal force, again and again.  However, it will spiral absurdly out of control until everyone is shoving each other while claiming they are just trying to push with equal force.  Gilbert tells us why.

Research teaches us that our reasons and our pains are more palpable, more obvious and real, than are the reasons and pains of others. This leads to the escalation of mutual harm, to the illusion that others are solely responsible for it and to the belief that our actions are justifiable responses to theirs.

None of this is to deny the roles that hatred, intolerance, avarice and deceit play in human conflict. It is simply to say that basic principles of human psychology are important ingredients in this miserable stew. Until we learn to stop trusting everything our brains tell us about others — and to start trusting others themselves — there will continue to be tears and recriminations in the wayback.

This reminds me of my high school graduation speech where I said roughly – “What is the point of getting back at your enemies? They are still people too, with their own hopes and fears.”  What I’m saying here is that in every encounter, peacefulness is a better position.

I also read a short story by an aikido master when he was younger. He tells us how he wanted to prove his aikido skills and he thought he would finally have the chance to do so with a drunk he sees on the train.  But right before they tussle, an older man calls out to the drunk, starts talking to him gently about sake, his family, and let the drunk man lament over his dead wife and lost job.  This older man reached out with love and peace and subuded the drunk without a fight.

The Takeaway : Peace and love is greatly preferable to violence because violence escalates.  We can only hope to hear about an escalation of peace. 

PS: Gilbert’s last comment on trusting others is something seen throughout his research.  In his book Stumbling on Happiness he explains how people would make more accurate predictions about how they would feel after an unknown activity if they just had someone else who had done it tell them about it compared to someone who knew all about the activity and had no opinion. I might make a future post about this.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. unsospiro permalink
    July 31, 2006 10:50 am

    I enjoyed the link to the Terry Dobson story. Thank you for sharing it and your unwavering optimism.

  2. July 31, 2006 10:54 am

    you are definitely welcome unsopiro! I like the story because it shows how even people dedicated to avoiding confrontation need reminders. Imagine how much the rest of us need them!

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