A “one size fits all” approach can never be sufficient.
The only real way to disarm your enemy is to listen to them. If you hear them out; if you’re brave enough to really listen to their story, you can see that more often than not, you might have made some of the same choices if you’d lived that life instead of yours
These are the moving words of Amaryllis Fox; a former CIA counterterrorism agent of ten years. The Internet has been buzzing this week with a short, thought-provoking video of Amaryllis speaking publicly for the first time with Al Jazeera Plus (AJ+) about her views on the causes of terrorism and how to deal with it.
Amaryllis says: If I learned one lesson from my time with the CIA, it is this: everybody believes they are the good guy […] And while it might be easier to dismiss your enemy as evil, hearing them out on policy concerns is actually an amazing thing.
Her words have divided many people. Some embrace and celebrate her compassionate promotion of empathy. Others can’t see how it makes any sense; in the light of the extreme violence often used by terrorists, and the perceived need to use force—not just words and kindness—to neutralize the force of the other side.
But is it really just a simple, binary choice between listening or fighting? Absolutely not. In fact, neither is an answer in itself, when used in isolation.
There’s a theme running through many martial arts about the interplay of opposites; and the necessity of mastering and integrating both.
Yin / yang
Hard and soft
Strength and love.
As one wise Karate teacher I know says: Strength without love is violence. Love without strength is perfume.
We need both.
In terms of our own day-to-day lives, most of us thankfully have no direct contact with terrorist activity; and have no need or opportunity to work through the pros and cons of talking to terrorists over fighting them. But we can certainly apply these questions to the critical issue of discriminatory attitudes and behaviour, which we encounter every day in one form or another.
One of my friends—a highly experienced martial arts practitioner herself—works in the disability rights field. She understands and skilfully uses a blend of strength and love to fight her own daily battles. In her words:
My job is very Yin and Yang. The Yin side is the soft, friendly awareness raising. When I do this work, I’m kind and smiling. That work includes explaining and encouraging and informing. Very gentle and nice, very “feminine”.
The Yang side is more about fighting prejudice and gaining equal rights for disabled people. When I do this kind of work, I’m usually battling—more “masculine” if you go with the usual definitions/associations.
It often involves standing up against architects, engineers, town planners, councils, public transport providers, and so on, who want to design and organise things in ways which make the world less accessible for people with disabilities, as well as elderly people and children and parents with young children.
I quote the relevant legislation at them, if they won’t listen to polite reasoning (which is quite frequently the case). I am passionate about my work, because I see myself as championing people whose needs—and rights—are not being considered.
I know some people see me as a dragon, but that’s ok. I fight hard for people with disabilities.
It’s about assessing the situation, and the right approach to take with that person or group, at that moment in time. Often I have to blend the approaches anyway—you know how in the yin-yang image, there’s always a little yin in the yang; and a little yang in the yin.
So what does this mean for us in practical terms, as ordinary citizens trying to tackle discrimination as it plays out around us in everyday life?
It means that addressing prejudice is not simple and does not have just one solution. The issues at stake are often complex and ambiguous; and so our response needs to reflect that complexity and ambiguity.
The discussion this week has focused a lot on homophobia, in the wake of the Orlando shootings. If we take homophobia as an example, why do people feel it—and act out their prejudice?
Perhaps they are basically kind people, but lack exposure to and awareness of equality issues—so they end up being clumsy and exclusive without intending to.
Perhaps they have been brought up in a strict religious environment which teaches them that the bevavior of LGBT+ people is sinful. They believe this doctrine and therefore sincerely feel that being a “good” person entails objecting to this lifestyle
Perhaps they are aware of feeling attracted to their own sex, and are scared to acknowledge this; and so they mask their fears with aggression.
Perhaps they are just cruel and unkind, and somehow enjoy hurting others.
This list is of course not exhaustive.
Each of these people would need to be challenged and supported in a completely different way. And this is important.
Remember Amaryllis’s words: If you hear them out; if you’re brave enough to really listen to their story, you can see that more often than not, you might have made some of the same choices if you’d lived that life instead of yours.
Remember: everybody believes they are the good guy.
You as an individual may find it easy and natural to be tolerant and inclusive. But no one ever fully knows another person; and the entirety of factors which have made someone aggressively homophobic or otherwise intolerant over the years might have shaped and ultimately corroded your soul too, had you walked in their shoes.
But at the same time, however much empathy we may feel for a prejudiced individual, if they lash out at someone else in hatred we need to act with appropriate strength to stop them.
It’s all about balancing our love and strength.
If we only focus on chastising people for feeling and showing prejudice, without attempting to understand and empathise with their fears and motivations, that is strength without love—or yang without yin.
If we only focus on gently encouraging people to be kind and inclusive, without challenging injustice, and condemning and punishing acts of hate as appropriate, that is love without strength—or yin without yang—and equally insufficient.
There are no easy answers. But a potential way forward may be to approach the challenge with a nuanced, flexible, responsive yin/yang-inspired approach; seeking as an ideal to protect both victim and perpetrator to the best of our ability.