Peter Francis recounts a recent conversation with a friend that left them both more tolerant and informed.
“I don’t like [insert crime], it makes me really uncomfortable and I don’t want to watch any films that contain ‘it’.
A decision about a film to watch was the beginning of a conversation between Jess and I; that I wish, somehow, was being secretly recorded. Jess is a hospital administrator. I am a University lecturer. And this our conversation. We have removed the specific crime and type of criminal deliberately so that the reader, as much as is possible, will engage the rational rather the emotional part of their brain, which so often clouds all of our judgement.
Jess: I hate [criminals]. More of them should be punished.
Peter: Yes, [crime] is a tragic event with many consequences. Have you considered that [crime] has many origins including genetic, environmental, biological and societal?
Jess: I don’t really care about that, it’s still wrong.
Peter: Ok. Let me ask you another question. Is everyone treated equally in the eyes of the law?
Jess: Yes, they should be.
Peter: Let’s take the law that says you are not allowed to steal bread from a shop. Do you think that law applies to us in the same way that it does to a man who steals bread?
Jess: Well, maybe if he’s starving, it’s different.
Peter: Exactly, that law doesn’t apply to us because we have the means to pay. Why might he not be able to pay?
Jess: Well, he might have come from a disadvantaged background?
Peter: Yes, exactly, did he choose to come from that background?
Peter: Ok, so we know he hasn’t chosen his background nor has he chosen his DNA. Can he be held truly responsible for actions we deem unacceptable?
Jess: Probably not, but there are lots of people who work really hard to get out of that situation. Other people just coast along and benefit from the system.
Peter: Ok, let’s look at our scenarios. Do you think that I have worked harder than you?
Jess: Yes. I just coast at the moment. I think people who work harder should be rewarded, although I do think some of the doctors at work can be condescending when they speak of needing more pay.
Peter: What if I said everything I have ‘achieved’ was luck.
Jess: I don’t think it can all be luck.
Peter: I didn’t choose to be born in a 1st world country. I didn’t choose to have rational parents or a free education. I didn’t choose to stumble upon a passion at the age of 16. I didn’t even choose the DNA that makes me want to run every day or take on difficult challenges. In many respects, you are no more responsible for coasting than I am for not.
Jess: I still think if you work that hard at something you should be rewarded.
Peter: What if I said I am already disproportionately rewarded by getting to go to work happy every day and do something I find meaningful. Should I be rewarded even further with more money when many others perform important roles like yours and don’t find the same enjoyment or meaning?
Jess: I guess so.
Peter: What if the guy stealing the bread is disproportionately punished. He’s been punished with the misfortune of a disadvantaged background. He’s been punished further by having more laws that impede his survival than we do and he is held up as a deterrent for the rest of us.
Jess: Yes, I agree with that.
Peter: Do you think there might be multiple issues to consider with the [crime] you hate?
Jess: Yes, I still think we need strong punishments for that [crime] but it is probably important to educate young people at the right age about what is acceptable and what is not.
Peter: Exactly. Addressing the complexities of the issues is the first step to designing the solution. If we think too simplistic, punish the offender and reward the worker we never get to a point whereby we can design an intervention to prevent the [crime] from happening.
Jess: Yes, that is really interesting.
Peter: It is really interesting. By using the man stealing bread as an example we were able to think less emotionally about the initial [crime] that offended our values. Then you were able to suggest a preventative strategy rather than a purely a punitive strategy. Ok, I think that’s enough philosophy for one day.
Jess: Why are you stopping now? Normally I would be the one wanting to stop a conversation.
Peter: [laughs] because I am tired.
Jess: Why are you tired? You’re the one asking me all the hard questions.
Peter: You must have more energy than me today. To enter into a conversation with someone whereby you want them confront a situation that is uncomfortable for them, but you suspect they might benefit from the experience requires a huge degree of restraint which can be tiring.
Peter: You must think about the other person, their values and their capacity to receive information on that topic at that moment in time. It is important to avoid satisfying your need to impress your opinion on them and instead communicate in a way whereby they are empowered to understand the concept you talking about.
Jess: I never thought of it that way.
Peter: You have exercised restraint in this conversation. On a topic that you felt strongly about and might have preferred not to discuss further, you have engaged with me. You have also considered my interest in philosophical conversations and exercised restraint to engage in this activity when you might have preferred to do something else.
Peter: [jokingly] Who knows Jess, this could be a friendship that changed the world.
It might not be a friendship that changes the world, but the conversation on a mass scale could.