Getting over our fear and distrust of 'the other'. From How To Train Your Dragon - wonderful (Dreamworks)

I just watched How to Train Your Dragon with my son and some friends … it’s a magnificent, heart-warming movie, which incidentally addresses one of the perennial themes of — recognising our fear of ‘the other’ or ‘the out-group’ (in this case, dragons) and that fear’s role in conflict.

Embedded in the storyline is this wonderful expression of realisation by the hero Hiccup:

Everything we know about you guys is completely wrong!

We spend much of our waking hours classifying and categorizing — judging — others. We judge and reject people on all sorts of grounds, major and minor, but, I wonder, how often do we question the basis of our conclusions?

I admit I can be a harsh and judgmental SOB at times. Yes, I am openly critical, and sometimes scathing of actions and statements that seem (to me) to be motivated by malfeasance or ‘crookedness’.

As I need to remind myself now and then (and thanks to those readers who do so for me, too) the path of EMPATHY and compassion runs right alongside the winding path of what we sometimes vaingloriously think of as “the truth”… 

  • No doubt there are people whose actions and lies deserve condemnation. (If I act as a crook, same here. Gulp.)
  • There are those whose self-preserving cowardice and duplicity — as striking as they may be — is driven by pressures and circumstances we do not fully understand. Perhaps if we did, we might see their actions in a different light. Or not. It’s possible, admit it — the ‘walk a mile in their moccasins’ factor.
  • Then there are people who, from a misplaced or vague sense of loyalty, excuse moral compromise and wrongdoing by those whom they love. Which is a pity. Such enablers are not ‘blind’, they’re just placing a higher value on fealty than truth. Or in some cases, they feel powerless to effect a change. I can understand that. Our courage is tested in all sorts of environments — it’s not just charity that begins at home.

For my own part, I acknowledge my own tendency to look at people I agree with differently to those with whom I disagree (a la Jon Stewart’s ‘amnesty’ comment).

You can choose your friends but not your family, so the saying goes. As I have said before: Choose your enemies carefully because they define you.

But (and this is the point from the movie I started out to make): It’s definitely worth questioning what you think you ‘know’ about another group — your own (my own) ‘other’.

Wherever possible I try to speak from personal experience or knowledge … not always necessary when the hyperbole is sooo obvious, as in the case of some of the exaggerating-to-the-point-of-deceit spruikers I discuss here from time to time.

Unlike some who seem to be trolls, I try to make an effort to criticise people openly (not anonymously), often laying out my justifications or ‘case’, and doing so in terms that I would use face-to-face. Indeed, I make an effort to meet some, not all, of my ‘subjects’ face-to-face — and try to focus my criticisms on actions and statements more than character assessments. (Although there is a tipping point.)

I am, as always, NOT laying claim to sainthood when I explain these things.

I admire and appreciate the work of Jason Jones The Salty Droid and his consumer watchdog activities (emphasis on the ‘dog’). Jason’s language is often blue and foul and he is insulting to a degree that just isn’t my style, but by golly, his approach works for him, and, I acknowledge, it may be just what’s needed.

I may very well look back and see my own pussy-footing around, concern for niceties, empathy and efforts to be ‘fair’ to the predators in our neck of the woods as a monumental waste of time.

But even so, I will continue to be willing to QUESTION the basis for my judgements and try to always move beyond reflexive damnation of ‘the other’.

After all, I would hate to misunderstand somebody.

– P