by David Shackleton (Contact David at firstname.lastname@example.org)
Last night I watched the movie Avatar. (I am often a couple of years behind in popular culture). I was disappointed in the movie. The plot was so simple and one dimensional, with righteous good guys (the aliens) who heroically triumph over evil bad guys (the humans).
I guess it was innovative for the movie to have us identify with aliens rather than humans, but the aliens were actually human in every way that mattered (a ridiculous notion, but necessary to make it easy for us to identify with them), just with blue skin.
I was saddened that the scriptwriter (Canadian James Cameron) had so little respect for our ability to tolerate moral complexity that he served up such idealized, fairy tale characters.
And yet, he was probably “right’ to do so, if he wanted a successful movie. The majority of popular movies are of this type, with simple, black-and-white characters, for the excellent reason that a great many people are unable to appreciate greater moral complexity than this.
Which brings me to the theme of this column -– the reason that many of us are unable to extend ourselves beyond simplistic, idealized black-and-white morality is because we are stuck in an unbalanced mode of psychological functioning. In this column, I will explore why this is so.
A basic (perhaps the most basic) issue of balance is that between accountability and compassion. If we can get this one working for us, others will likely follow. A psychologically balanced individual will extend both compassion and accountability to both sides in a dispute, but unbalanced individuals are unable to do this.
After all, these qualities are somewhat opposite, contradictory, and it is difficult to hold them both together. And so the majority of people split accountability and compassion between groups or individuals, without ever realizing what an abuse this is.
In the movie, for instance, we were encouraged to extend compassion to the aliens, and accountability to the humans. In gender relations, where I first began to consider this issue of balance, we typically extend accountability to men and compassion to women.
Consider, as an example, what happens when we discover that a woman is abusing her children, or is a violent toward her spouse. We search for ways to understand what could have made her do this -– a compassionate response which stands in stark contrast to our response to male abusers.
We are unaware of the injustice of our unbalance, since in our unconsciousness it feels right to us. We rejoice when the bad guys get what’s coming to them, and feel for the suffering of the good guys, all the while completely unaware of how distorted and one-sided our perceptions are.
This one-sidedness does harm to both groups. Receiving only compassion and no accountability is infantilizing – in refusing to see the ways that individuals or groups are accountable for their situation and their actions, we undermine their psychological wholeness. And so feminism, for instance, argues only and always for compassion towards women, and never accountability. There are always excuses for what women might do.
Similarly, offering only accountability and no compassion is demonizing, it sees people as unreasonably responsible, uniquely blameworthy. Where there are never any excuses or compassion, we do not see human beings but simply evil perpetrators for whom redemption -– and indeed, basic humanity — is impossible.
Consider how ubiquitous, how universal this imbalance is in our world. Think about how conservatives blame liberals and never themselves for the failures of politics and governance –- and vice versa. Think how feminism has held men and never women responsible for all that is bad in history and society. Think about prejudice and bigotry and racism and sexism and all of the “isms”.
They are just particular forms of this particular imbalance, the failure to offer accountability to one group, and compassion to the other. It is time for us to get past this cultural and psychological blindness.
It is time for us to remove these perceptual distortions and to see clearly that all groups and all individuals deserve both compassion and accountability, and it is time for us to learn how to offer them. It has been truly stated that addiction is that condition in which our thoughts and our feelings lie to us about what is true. Addiction is just a particularly compulsive form of imbalance.
Imbalance is a psychological state in which we are constitutionally, psychologically incapable of perceiving individuals or groups in their wholeness -– instead we abbreviate their humanity into a caricature of “good guys” who deserve our favour and our compassion, or “bad guys” who deserve only to pay for what they have done.
We can do better than this, if we are willing to admit our shortcomings and grow ourselves. To do this well, we need to offer ourselves both accountability and compassion, of course. More on this in future columns.
As a final note, I want to mention that I will be offering a workshop on “Building with Salvaged Materials” on the 29th of this month. The workshop will explore some of the themes of imbalance in our current culture’s preoccupation with consumption, and also offer practical approaches to personal change.
For details, see the post about the workshop here.