Why can't we be civil?

Posted: Tuesday, June 02, 2009

Whenever I read that another human being has been killed by someone who disagreed with them, or represented something that the killer could not accept, I wonder why it is that so many of us humans revert to violence to prove our point or make our case, while others are content to remain in civil discourse. It matters little whether the killing makes the headlines and involves a public issue (the killing of an "abortion doctor") or is almost buried in the news and represents a more personal conflict (local couple dead - apparent murder-suicide). The questions are the same. Why this extreme? Why was it necessary? How can we stop it?

Those of us who grew up in the Western Judeo-Christian culture were taught to love our enemies as we love ourselves, to turn the other cheek, and to help one another. Almost every culture has some form of the Golden Rule in its religious or moral code. But we were also told to smite our enemies, to seek an eye for an eye or otherwise seek revenge on those who harm us. In short, we grow up hearing two inconsistent forms of interacting with our neighbors. Certainly some are exposed more to one form or the other, as there are as many variations in the way our historical values are interpreted as there are religious denominations and sects within denominations in the world.

I suspect that we each carry within us the capacity to live by either dominant code. When I was growing up during World War II, I was eager to smite our nasty enemies and by the time I was old enough to serve, not long after the Korean War, I saw military service as something I needed to do and enlisted quickly when I ran into academic difficulties. But after three years of learning how to kill my fellow man and being prepared to do so, I realized the futility of violence as a way to solve problems other than in clear, extreme cases of self-defense, where it was kill or be killed. Even though my prevailing code for 50 years has been to seek peace with all, friend and foe, it is impossible to completely repress the urge to violence that lurks within.

A recent issue of the Unitarian Universalist quarterly magazine, UU World, had a series of articles related to the 200th anniversary of Charles Darwin's birth. One author noted the research being done in the new fields of evolutionary biology and evolutionary psychology and how some of the findings suggested an explanation of why humans respond in such different ways. For decades, the prevailing view of those studying primate behavior was influenced by the inner "killer ape" description of the human tendency to react with violence. Because chimpanzees, for example, are very territorial and can become menacingly violent very suddenly, it was believed that we carried some genetic predisposition to violence. But more recent research has found fascinating examples of chimpanzees and gorillas showing extreme empathy and compassion toward others. The researchers conclude that we all carry genetic dispositions to both violence and nonviolence, to angry confrontation and to compassionate understanding of differences. Further, they are finding genetic evidence that each of us carries our unique proportion of each code, making it easier or harder for each of us to be more or less violent when confronted with the same stimuli.

Does this mean that it is futile for a church, like mine, that teaches the value of peaceful interaction between diverse people and mutual respect for those with whom we differ, to hope for a peaceful community or peaceful world? I can offer my only example - I learned that violence does not solve problems. I learned that mutual respect and communication can solve problems. That doesn't mean that we can go quickly from a violent world to a peaceful world, but it does mean that those of us who believe in peace must always practice a civil dialogue. In the example of the recent killing of Dr. Tiller, it means that those who would end all abortions should denounce the violence preached by some and acted out by a few and sit down with those of us who would protect a woman's choice, but who also would prefer to see fewer abortions. We should work together to end unwanted pregnancies, to see that our children receive sensible and responsible sex education, to ensure easy access to condoms to prevent pregnancies and reduce STDs. There are areas where we can agree. We need to remain civil and work together. Violence will never end unwanted pregnancies, nor will it stop those who are pregnant from seeking to end the pregnancy one way or another.

Let's talk.

• Dave Dierdorff is a member of the Juneau Unitarian Universalist Fellowship.

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