I was prompted to write about these themes by a programme I was listening to on Radio Four called the Moral Maze. The subject of the programme was the conflict in Gaza and the participants were attempting to construct a moral platform for understanding and resolving the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. From my perspective the programme was a very dispiriting affair. There were a lot of personal insults flung between the participants and little tolerance or genuine enquiry into morals. At one point, one of the panel suggested that the historical context should be left out of the debate and that the only question was whether it was morally acceptable for Hamas to be launching rockets at Israeli citizens. The host of the programme Michael Buerk also quite rudely silenced one of the participants saying that they did not have time to listen to a theory of morality from them – this rudeness and lack of desire to take time to understand seemed to me the antithesis of morality. There was talk about who started the recent conflict and also questions about proportionality – is the Israeli response proportional to the provocation from Hamas? There was also talk about the right to defend oneself. The programme ended inconclusively and unsatisfactorily from everyone’s perspective. So I would like to conduct my own exploration of this moral maze.
At this point I would like to pursue what I hope is a relevant tangent. Much of my work involves coaching would-be partners for large law firms ( not on the surface an immediately promising line of enquiry I grant you!). Key to this is their performance at an assessment centre. As you would expect, much of the candidates’ focus is on trying to work out the right answers to the questions they might be posed by the panel. However, much of my work is to help them see that, no matter how hard they work on finding out the “right” answers to give, this will not guarantee their success, indeed it is likely to make them unsuccessful (as experience has demonstrated to me over the years). Why should this be the case? The reason for this, is that in making the process like an exam where they have to find the right answer, the individuals aim to avoid the personal dimension which could be risky – what if they say something people don’t like? – and stay on the safe ground of the impersonal. To do this, the individuals construct a careful and safe persona which they hope will provide all the “right” (socially acceptable) answers. The result is that the panel get frustrated because selecting whether you want someone to be a fellow partner is an intensely personal affair. They want to know whether this is someone they can relate to and, above all, trust and they quite rightly want to know what the candidate really thinks and believes. There is also the danger that in attempting to espouse impersonal views, what people really feel and think always leaks through unconsciously, no matter how careful they are. So the real preparation for the candidates becomes one of understanding what they really think and feel. Yet further than this, they also want to know that the candidates have an accurate understanding of how others think and feel. This requires the candidates to be able to stand outside themselves and their own context and describe it from others’ perspective. As I point out, the partners assessing them would have to conclude that if they cannot see their own and their own offices difficulties and weaknesses they will part of perpetuating them rather than resolving them. Yet, again, simply being able to describe this perspective impersonally is not convincing because it does not engage the listeners personally. If they can describe themselves and their own office in a way which details the emotional reality for others then the partners trust them – because they feel that the individuals are genuinely objective and also they trust them because what they describe reflects what the partners really feel and believe.
So why is the work I am doing with candidates at law firms relevant to Palestine, Israel and morality? The reason it is relevant for me is that, for the partner candidates I am concerned with, the key issue is trust and the question of morality strikes me as being bound up with the issue of trust. Certainly what exists between the Israelis and Palestinians is a situation of profound mistrust. What I see is that the more we subscribe to the game of rationality and impersonality the more people distrust us. What makes a profound impact on us is when people take the risk to be open and reveal who they really are and what they really believe. Yet, this is only part of the equation, the second is the depth of our understanding of our personal views and what causes us to hold them. If we are unaware of these real views and what sits behind them then taking a risk to share them is dangerous. Would we trust someone who has not thought deeply about the real views and beliefs they hold and why they hold them? So, while the first part of my work is to get candidates to think more deeply about the real feelings and beliefs they hold, the second part is to encourage them to reflect more deeply on these beliefs and to share them with others so that they can test their own thinking and understanding. The effect of these two is that the individual’s awareness increases – of themselves and others and also their personal perspectives deepen. In terms of the assessment centre, they are less defensive and more able to have an objective discussion about the reality of their situation and their own views. Yet how can it be that by being more concerned with theirs and others subjective reality they become more objective? It is definitely a paradox. Yet I watch time and again how this becomes the case. They also draw more on their own personal experience and are able to relate it to the questions and concerns existing in the wider firm rather than talking theoretically and impersonally. I know that the panels at the Law firms are not necessarily aware of the basis on which they make their judgements and what causes them to trust candidates, but it does not stop these being the criteria even if they are unconscious. At the same time the panels at law firms are not necessarily concerned with morality or wisdom, yet they are still affected by those who show it and particularly by those who show a high level of self-awareness and awareness of others.
So my conclusion is that people tend to trust each other if there is a correlation between what they hear someone saying and the reality they experience. I think this is what caused the Moral Maze to descend into personal insults and angry exchanges. Everyone was attempting to play the game of “I am being objective and rational” and each distrusted the other because they sensed the gap between what was being said and the emotional reality. This brings us to another paradox, that we trust people more who are honest even if their actions may not be trustworthy. If you say to someone that they are being selfish or feeling jealous and they admit it is true, then you tend to trust them more than someone who says they are trustworthy but you suspect the opposite because there is a correlation between what you are experiencing and what they are saying. To start telling people what our real emotional motives and beliefs are seems intuitively to be dangerous; our usual mode is not to let any of this out of the bag in case it makes us vulnerable. If we admit we are wrong or acting on emotions then we fear others will take advantage or not trust us. Yet my experience in practice has been the opposite. My friend Steve and I are very good friends yet there is always a level of competition between our personalities – we both want to shine and when the other shines our personalities can feel competitive and eclipsed. We are like two silver back gorillas in the same troop when we work together – which is very frequently. Yet, we are deep friends because all this is out in the open between us and we can even manage being two silver back gorillas together and allow for the fact that each of our personalities will not like it at times. While our personalities are bound to be in conflict at times (that seems to be inherent in the nature of personalities), we recognise that we are each others shadow and that we are involved in the same dynamic so we can empathise with each other.
Now I recognise that I am not providing a nice pithy and satisfying principle for morality, instead I am rambling on about personal and subjective experiences. The reason for this is that I became aware, listening to the Moral Maze, that it was not going to find its way through the moral maze of the situation in Gaza because it was searching with the wrong tools, ie. it was trying to find an answer with the rational mind when, as far as I can see, morality is an issue of the heart. I also realised that morality is by its nature inherently personal and subjective; that it is about how we feel, indeed it is about understanding our own heart, since our own heart is like every other heart (the I-Ching says that we are all one in our hearts). Treating situations affecting others like they are personal to us is really the only way we can operate morally, otherwise our judgements and actions are too impersonal and inhuman. “Do as you would be done by” might be one way of expressing this, although, while this is a good approximation, there are even dangers in this since we might not be bothered about certain things which really mattered to others or we give others what we would need and it is not what they need. So we can only come up with approximations for our heart. Yet, at the same time, if our hearts our open to those involved, we can always feel in our hearts when something is inhuman or immoral. Einstein said that the mind makes a lousy master but a good servant. From my perspective the role of the mind in morality is to try to elucidate the heart not to supplant it with impersonal principles or processes or analysis. A mind which seeks modestly to understand and respect the heart, is a very valuable servant.
My experience with the wisest and most moral people I have met and read is that they use a lot of stories and analogies. The reason for this is that analogies and stories are the best way to make morality personal. I was recently running a programme in India for one of my clients. During the programme, which was for the senior leadership team of a large Global Shared Services Centre, I was asked to give a demonstration of coaching. This is not always comfortable or easy to do, especially with an audience I did not know. I asked for volunteers and after a few minutes silence someone volunteered. I began coaching the individual and I had agreed with my colleague Steve that we would break the session at a suitable point, which we did after about 5 minutes. I broke it at that point because we had begun to make a breakthrough, but also so I could use the opportunity to describe the individual’s situation to him without him being aware I was still coaching him. The audience could see the situation and were intrigued so they asked me to continue. With some dread as to whether I would make any further progress I continued. Really I was playing around until I could find some hook to make a further breakthrough. Suddenly I saw how to do it by getting him to look back from the current frustrating impasse he found himself in to the past when he had set up the division he was responsible for some ten years ago. He saw that many of the obstacles that he now faced in terms of the lack of control he felt were mirrors of the situation he had faced in the past and that while he could not change the situation, he could at least see it as a challenge so that there was learning in it for him. I could tell from his reaction that it was a moment of genuine insight on his part and the audience saw it too. In the following break a number of people came up to me to explain that they had been amazed that he had volunteered since he and the people in his team (who were also there) were one of the biggest stumbling blocks in the overall leadership team and that this had been a seminal point for the programme.
As usual, Steve and I had had no idea about what was going on except for realising that, against our wishes, we were going to have to go with the flow and see where it took us. However, despite this success, it was not the end of the situation. At the end of the programme, when we were completely exhausted, the managing partner came to talk to us. He spent some time explaining that he did not think that the individual I had coached would make any change and that coaching was a waste of time for him. Steve and I, exhausted as we were, did our best just to be polite. Yet, as the time ran on and on and everyone left, we realised we were going to have to engage with him more seriously and deeply especially as he made it abundantly clear he was not going to let us leave! We tried all sorts of rational advice but he was adamant that we did not understand just how awful this man was and how appallingly he was behaving. So I listened carefully and it became clear that the reality was that he had taken this other man’s division (“his baby”) that he had spent ten years building into a division of a thousand people, and he had outmaneuvered him so he was completely uninvolved in the decision process and then annexed his whole team. I was stunned. So I thought carefully about how to help the managing partner see this – I was aware that I needed to use “cunning wisdom” because any other approach was going to continue his defensive rationalisations so I told him that I thought he should poison this man because that way he could get rid of him and no-one would ever know he had done it. He could not help grinning. I then said that perhaps he could have a series of rings on his fingers (I took this from an old Asterix book – Asterix in Switzerland) full of different poisons and every time anyone behaved in a way he didn’t want he could poison them. He half-heartedly attempted to continue to engage us in a rational discussion of how awful the other man was but I just took it a stage further and told him to blow him up or perhaps (having watched a historical Indian film the night before where the young victorious new king cruelly beheaded his rival) I said he could have him ritually beheaded like kings of old because he and this man were rival kings and he had won but his rival king (very unreasonably, I added) wasn’t taking defeat very nicely and needed to be got rid of. Once he knew what his real motives were I knew that he could no longer pretend to himself that he was acting rationally in trying to manipulate everyone into getting rid of this man, even if he continued to do it.
My reason for telling this story is because of the parallels with the situation in Israel and the Gaza strip. Having taken over someone’s land and won and now blockading them into a tiny strip it is easy to play the game of rationality – look how awful the Palestinians are, firing rockets at us, they are not civilized people. Yes, we are all being rational and they are behaving so badly, like terrorists – we are just defending ouselves. This without any acknowledgement of how it might feel to have had one’s country annexed or the provocations that had led to them behaving in such an extreme way. How might we feel if the Germans had won the second world war and annexed Great Britain and asked us all to live in Slough while the Germans ran all our former country? I think there is every likelihood we might behave very badly. My son has Mars in Cancer and my daughter is Sun-Mars in Gemini in the seventh house opposing Pluto on the Ascendant. My son did not want a second child around, thank you very much, so his tactic was to provoke my daughter who was very volatile and, being five years younger, could not verbally compete until she had no option but to explode. “Look”, my son would say, “she is so awful and badly behaved, you are too lenient you can’t let her behave like that, she needs to be punished”.
Now, as long as the situation is seen in rational terms as a question of what to do, it is unlikely that anything much will shift and the actions taken are unlikely to resolve the situation. Instead, it needs a different type of intelligence which sees the connectedness in the situation. There were two recent examples of this, a jewish woman who is questioning the interpretation of the Torah https://www.facebook.com/naomi.wolf.author/posts/10152548360004476?fref=nf and a wonderful holocaust survivor who is appalled that the Palestinians are being treated like he was https://www.facebook.com/vivapalestinamalaysia/photos/a.349924189517.153411.193531139517/10152078455759518/?type=1&theater. Both of these are wonderful examples of using the situation to see the common links and connections and bring us back together again. What do I mean by “back together again” – I mean back to the fact that we are all one in our hearts. Morality seems to me to be about those things which bring us back to the awareness that we are all one. Israel has an inconvenient people making a fuss, claiming their right to exist in what they now see as their land. This sounds a familiar story; which people would understand being an inconvenient people making a fuss in other people’s lands and claiming a right to exist? When you appreciate the symmetry and connectedness of the situation it belongs to all of us and Israel and Palestine simply have a role in helping us all to understand and learn from this painful black hole.
I think that we all have a role in this black hole because whenever we fail to honour and consider the hearts of all those involved we end up splitting apart and then acting immorally (justifying killing each other). I was in Prague again last week and being asked by the friend who prompted my blog on Ukraine what I now thought about Putin and the Crimea. His aim was to suggest that I couldn’t possibly have any sympathy or compassion for Putin now and must see that he should be put in his place. Yet, far from this, the impact it actually had was to help me see the dangers when we forget morality (that we are all one in our heart and that we treat all parties with equal heart and compassion as if they were us) – that it leads to splitting apart. Thus we have split Ukraine apart (literally) by our insensitivity to Russia and by Russia’s fear and insensitivity to Ukraine – both sides have forgotten to consider each others hearts. I wonder if places like Jerusalem (and Israel as a whole), Northern Ireland and the Crimea are astrological hotspots where we learn about the dangers of splitting apart and losing our sense of being one in our hearts. If we come from the place that we are all one in our hearts then we are coming from a moral place. Once Israelis and Palestinians realise they are one in their hearts then almost any solution could work, as long as they don’t, almost none will. I know there are many wonderful Palestinians and Israelis who already know this, let’s hope more and more can see it.
2 responses to “Israel, Palestine and morality”
You have a gift for philosophical thinking according to Brian
You got it … there is hope for the world yet. Thanks Nick