Personhood and the Escalation of Conflict. Part 1


A few days ago, the “Islamic State” or “ISS” or “ISIL” made a statement (or its leadership made a statement) that it was okay to enslave and have (non-mutual) sex with non-Muslim women and girls. It is hard, as an outsider, to fathom why a group that claims to be acting for a righteous cause, would make a statement so obviously evil. It seems that three things must have happened:

#2.  A legal analysis of the issue was presumably done from the standpoint of their own religious regulations.

#3.  Presumably an ethical analysis was done to see whether the behavior is in line with what a good follower of their god would do. (After all, many things may be legal, but not appropriate for a faithful adherent.)

The big concern however is #1.

#1.  There must have been members of their group that desired to enslave and rape and so sought to be given the “thumbs up.”

Since, I am not a member of their religion, I don’t particularly care about #2 and #3. But I do care about #1. How could people get to the point where such horrible mistreatment seems like a nifty idea?

For me, I have to think that a lot of this goes back to the issue of personhood and of conflict escalation (and, YES, human evil is always in the mix… but that is not my focus today). Generally, when a group of people want to do something horrific to another human, they first make a determination that that other human really isn’t a human. He or she is not a person, but is sub-human. In some cases, the determination is that the individual IS a person, but has lost the rights (or privileges) of being a person. This may include murderers who are placed on death row, or (in some prisons of the recent past) experimented upon or tortured.

But often what is done is not to assume someone has lost their rights as a person, but he never was a person in the first place. History, has had slavery based on race. In arguments over emancipation, economic and political issues may be argued… but commonly underlying these arguments is a foundational issue of personhood. Some believe that people of a different race are sub-human… not a person… and so enslavement is okay. It would be wrong to enslave a relative… a fellow human… but someone who looks different and has a different nationality is something less.

Abortion rights boils down to the same issue. Some try to argue the issue over practical issues. The foundational issue is personhood. Some argue that abortion should be permitted because women should have rights to do as they wish with their bodies. (Of course, no person on earth has unlimited rights to do whatever they want with their bodies.) What is really meant is that the unborn child (or the less “person”al term… fetus) is not a person. If he/she/it is not a person, than he/she/it lacks basic rights of personhood, and so he/she/it may be deemed simply part of the mother’s/woman’s body.

In recent years there has been a move by some animal rights groups to designate certain animals (such as apes or dolphins) as persons. I don’t know why they feel relative intelligence should be a the determining of value as a person. But the move is obvious. If certain animals are designated as persons… certain rights logically become theirs. My personal fear, however, is that such a move may not elevate the animals, but devalue personhood… but who knows?

Okay… back on topic.  ISIS appears to devalue a person for not sharing their religious viewpoint/ideology, and then further devalues them for not sharing the same gender as the leadership. Perhaps the religious test is more important since, presumably, leaders of ISIS would not be quick to acquiesce to female members of their own clan being raped and enslaved.

It seems likely that such logic doesn’t not come out of careful ethical consideration, but out of the emotions of conflict. The torture (and yes, it sure sounds like torture to me) of “the enemy” by the CIA in the first decade of the 21st century was justified based on conflict.

Consider an escalation of conflict. Although described for church conflcts, the list of stages in “The Escalating Stages of Unresolved Church Conflict” by Ken Newberger seems informative.

Stage 1. (Sometimes) an Uncomfortable Feeling. Something is wrong but not sure what.

Stage 2 A Problem to be Resolved. Problem identified. <Issue-focused>

Stage 3. A Person to Differ with. (Other person-focused) Sides are determined. Discussion changes from what is the best solution, to who is right and who is wrong.

Stage 4. A Dispute to Win. <Issue-focused with greater intensity> Collaboration breaks down. Other issues begin to add to the conflict. Feelings get hurt.

Stage 5. A Person to Attack. <Other person-focused. Greater intensity>. Battle lines are drawn. Stereotyping of the other side occurs with the worst thought of adversaries.

Stage 6. My “Face” to Save. <Self-focused. Greater Intensity> Things get personal. Protecting one’s image and character become dominant. Things are seen as black vs white, good versus evil.

Stage 7. A Person to Expel, Withdraw from, or Ruin. <Other person-focused, Greater intensity> All or nothing battle. Someone or a whole group must go.

You will notice as the stages go higher, the problem becomes more personal, but the other side loses personhood. What starts out as a problem to resolve becomes by Stage 7 a time where people who have another opinion must not exist (at least within their church) or must be shamed or shunned. That is personal. Yet by stage 5, stereotyping begins to dominate. That is, the person on the other side no longer really matters… what matters is that he or she is one of THEM. And as one of THEM, he or she has horrible traits and motives, so unlike people who are part of US. With stage 6, nuances are lost. If someone is not with us… he is against us. Not just one of THEM… but the ENEMY. By stage 7, not only are THEY the ENEMY, but their thoughts and views are unworthy of consideration, and even their presence is at best grudgingly tolerated, and at worst, to be ended.

By stage 5, the personhood of those on the other side of an issue is being replaced by group labelling. By level 6, the group has been labelled as BAD. By level 7, the group is rejected… a problem to be gotten rid of. Personhood has been effectively removed (at least on an emotional level).

The 2nd post will look at this from a missional perspective (believe it or not).

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