Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Do you Understand Your Enemy?

An American sailor, entering a Naval port on the Pacific front line during WWII, would pass directly by a billboard that read (quoting Admiral Halsey):

“Kill Japs. Kill Japs. Kill more Japs. You will help kill those yellow Bastards if you do your job well!”

Pretty startling to read, isn’t it? Even shocking. Yet in times of war, a very basic characteristic is to dehumanize the enemy. If they are not a human, but the equivalent of a cockroach, then it becomes more palatable to kill them.

So the Americans would depict the Japanese as buck-toothed little monkeys, and the Japanese would depict the Americans as poisonous snakes—all with the intent to avoid the thought that we were killing spouses, and parents, and children. No—what we were killing was not human.

However, one of the symptoms of this dehumanization, and a very serious problem was the inability to understand the other.

The Japanese considered the Americans a decadent lot, whose wives would never let their husbands go to war, leaving them at home. It was felt that American would crumble in the face of the united Japanese spirit. It was an honor to die in battle, and a disgrace (to the point of committing suicide) to lose. Officers carried ropes to tie themselves to the railings of their ship, to prevent any last-minute loss of resolution to “go down with the ship.”

The Americans considered the Japanese as “funny little people” without the intelligence or capability to carry out an attack such as Pearl Harbor. The newspapers depicted the Japanese as monkeys swinging through trees.

Due to the misunderstandings of the two cultures, and the lack of appreciation of humanity of the other—mistakes were made.

In the Battle of Leyte Gulf, Admiral Halsey was so obsessed with attacking Japanese Aircraft Carriers, he fell for a classic diversion which drew him away from the real threat. Admiral Kurita was surprised at the fearlessness of the American sailors, which resulted in a complete break-down of the tactical positioning of the Japanese ships.

I see much of the same misunderstanding in the battle between theists and non-theists. While we have not [quite] reached the point of dehumanizing each other, we each make classic blunders and misstatements about the other person’s belief and positions. Is that what we want to do? We look back in 20-20 hindsight as the errors of the Americans and Japanese failing to appreciate the other’s beliefs, motivations and positions, yet in a doomed fashion, repeat the very history we have just studied!

I see complaints of how popular non-theist authors fail to understand theistic belief. How a Dawkins is hopeless incompetent in depicting Christian theology. Or that Harris is creating a straw person when describing a God belief. Yet the very same person will then say that Dawkins dismisses miracles because he is philosophically attached to naturalism (not the more potent point that miracles are based upon testimonial statements that are less than convincing.) Or the same person will say, “You really believe there is a god, you are just angry at him.”

How is it that the enemy is completely incompetent in describing your position, whereas you are a proficient expert in being able to describe theirs? And why is it that protests against what you say I believe, only solidify in your mind that you must be right? “Methinks you protest too much” is NOT always true.

And non-theists are equally bad at this. I empathize with the common sentiment that the only brand of Christianity ever debunked is that of the literalist, young-earth, KJV Only crowd. Or non-theists that immediately argue for contradictions, without at least talking a look at possible resolutions.

As I have constantly stated (or complained, depending on one’s perspective *grin*) “Let’s do better.” If we are going to state the other side’s position—put it in the best possible light. Frame the arguments, not “as well” as the other side does—but better! Point out inconsistencies in your own theory (yep—we already know they are there.) To indicate that a fact exists which supports the opponent’s position is NOT a weakness, folks! There is no clear-cut winner here—we all already know it. Time to start acting like it.

For the last week or so I have been forum-debating on TWeb. (Yes. For those who want to inform me—I know already.) Luckily, I have landed on a thread where, even though we do not agree, we have respected each other’s opinion. On occasion, I wander to other threads in the forums and cringe…


  1. Wow. Very well-said.

    I get frustrated as I read frequent comments over at ExChristian.Net that seem to imply that theists and/or Christians are willingly and intentionally selfish, brutish in their thoughts, completely incapable of any real rationality, etc, forgetting completely that they themselves (most of them, anyway) were once on precisely the same path, and honestly and sincerely wished to do good things for the sake of doing good things (and, yes, pleasing their god).

    Did we suddenly become rational beings only at the moment we decided to abandon faith? Or was it more that we had to discover some serious errors in premise?

    Both sides have people capable of rationality; both sides have people whose sight is partially clouded by emotion. To pretend otherwise is arrogance.

  2. I'll second that motion. The way we can discuss says as much or more about our real knowledge and motivations than all our well-laid-out arguments. It's no replacement for a well-thought-out position, but it sure makes one useful.

    One time when I was young and got into a huge hitting and hair-pulling fight with two of my sisters. My father hauled us apart and lined us up against the wall. He looked at each one of us and asked us one by one, "Were you right?"
    One by one we answered, "Yes."
    I'll never forget his next question.
    "Was it worth it?"

    Being right will never be enough.

  3. **How is it that the enemy is completely incompetent in describing your position, whereas you are a proficient expert in being able to describe theirs? **

    I ask myself this on at least a weekly basis.

    For me, I wonder how much of it comes down to an absolute vs. relative viewpoint. I think the method of one's approach would dependly greatly on whether one believed that there can be truth in opposing viewpoints, or "I have the truth, everyone else is a liar."

    The thing for me is that I find those who hold the latter don't tend to listen -- rather than trying to discover why one believes as one does, and thus step into another's shoes, the person is so busy analyzing it from the "I'm right, let me show you how you're wrong" mentality, and so in many ways, the discussion gets nowhere. You're no longer having a discussion, you're almost watching the other person hold their own discussion with themselves because they don't actually "get" what you're saying. If you truly do think that everyone outside of your belief spectrum is deceived/blinded by sin and so forth, I don't see discussion being that fruitful.

    However, there is a middle line in this, and that is that someone can believe that they do have the best access to the absolute/ultimate truth, but that there are pieces of that truth in everybody. In those cases, people seem a lot more willing to step into another's shoes.

    There are some very smart theists out there, and they are theistic precisely because they are intelligent. Same for agnostics/atheists.