Why Understanding

October 05, 2019

Saturday of the 26th Week in Ordinary Time

I make a special effort to look for humanity in those who I feel have acted inhumanely. After all, human beings do not commit atrocities because they cease being human—rather they commit atrocities when they devalue or ignore the humanity of others. If I deny a person’s humanity due to his cruelty, I work only to reinforce his inhumanity rather than to challenge it. After all, cruelty in a person is almost always inconsistent, interrupted at least sporadically by meager acts of kindness which should be encouraged multiply. Any person who is absolutely cruel with truly terrifying consistency has either been twisted by dreadful circumstances that we should learn to prevent or she suffers from an innate personality disorder that we should learn to treat. Nowhere do I see any room for condemnation without understanding. Assuming a position of moral superiority over those who do wrong may feel emotionally satisfying, but how much good does it do?

Let me make this a little less abstract.

Bro. Steve Schlitte, principal of Mount Saint Michael Academy in the Bronx, urges teachers to try to understand what goes into a student’s misbehavior. Explanations do not excuse misconduct, and they do not justify it, but they can create productive empathy. Fights are not allowed in school, even if the antagonist is stressed from a sleepless and hungry week of caring for his younger siblings while his only parent languishes in the hospital. Understanding this background though provides a new frame: The student may not need to learn that the behavior is unacceptable—he may already know this. Rather he may need counseling or other services to help him cope with difficult situations. This is different from a persistently belligerent student. The same inexcusable behavioral choice may appropriately be treated differently depending on context. Awareness enables understanding and potentially a more empathetic response.

I detest bigotry of all kinds, but for me bigotry includes intolerance of political difference. For example, I may view many parts of a political party’s platform as detrimental to racial equality—that does not mean however that I feel comfortable assuming that all members of that party are themselves racially bigoted. They may be motivated by a complex of other concerns that are invisible to me and entirely different from anything I might anticipate. The only way for me to find out is to honestly listen to those who hold other perspectives. I can certainly be passionate about my own moral beliefs, but if one of those is a commitment to the dignity of every human being, I must strive to show respect for those who I would despise, just as I do those who I admire. Otherwise, I would be like the Pharisee at the Temple who boasted before God of his own goodness but based his prayer on spite for those he looked down upon.

This week’s reflection originated in a conversation I had very recently, in which I was advocating for the necessity to understand the things, people, and actions that we find most objectionable. My conversation partner stated that in fact some things deserve simple condemnation and are not worthy of the time and effort it would take to understand them. For me, this argument comes down to one question: when you see a problem that bothers you that much, do you hope it can actually be solved or do you just want to comfort yourself by identifying yourself as an opponent of the problem?

In many ways, it is natural and healthy to focus our time and energy on the matters that engage and uplift us. We needn’t always study these things though, as it sometimes suffices to simply enjoy them. On the other hand, it is precisely the ugliest and most repugnant behaviors, opinions, and policies that should demand our study, precisely because one cannot convincingly address a problem that one has not bothered to understand in depth. To pretend otherwise is willful ignorance.


This week, I finally feel justified in offering the classic Sympathy for the Devil as our “ear candy”—I certainly don’t wish to encourage or promote that which is evil in this world but, as I have argued above, trying to combat evil without trying to understand it will actually lead to its triumph. For “brain food”, I present Chapter 3 of The Art of War that focuses on knowledge of the enemy as a crucial component for victory.

Ear Candy: “Sympathy for the Devil” by the Rolling Stones

Brain Food: “Sun Tzu’s Art of War, Chapter 3: Attack by Stratagem

Come back next Saturday for a new post!