I imagine that when you first heard about the brutal killing of Drummer Lee Rigby in Woolwich, your reaction was initially one of shock and disbelief, and then of questioning how anyone in their right mind could have done this.  Perhaps when you then learned that the attack was apparently motivated by religion, you may then have had feelings of anger, disgust and distrust towards other adherents of that religion, or to adherents of religion in general.

Deeper questions

The appalling news also generates deeper questions.  How can someone motivated by religion carry out such wickedness?  The Reverend Dr Giles Fraser contemplated this in his article “Wickedness, allied to the ‘truth’ of religious belief, can lead us to truly heinous acts” (1).  His thoughtful article considers how being persuaded of the ‘truth’ of one’s belief system, or the ‘rightness’ of one’s moral conviction, can lead people to do terrible things to others; and in the article he uses religion as an example, although the principle also applies to the way we hold other belief systems or moral attitudes. 

“I’m right and you’re wrong”

When fully persuaded of the truth of our view, this can affect the way that we behave towards others, even to the point where our behaviour is antithetical to the belief system itself.  One only has to hear the pained voices of the Muslim majority to know how such extremism is viewed within their communities.

In my experience, the principle behind this observation operates in different areas of human behaviour as well.  As a workplace investigator I frequently interview people who have made complaints of bullying.  The complainant is often highly emotional in interview about what has happened to them, and demonstrates genuine distress as they recall events from their perspective.  They are fully persuaded of the truth of what they believe has happened to them, and it is clear they have been hurt or become ‘damaged’ psychologically. 

Dishonest? Or just flawed?

And yet my experience has often been that despite the sincerity of the complainant in giving their evidence, when other evidence has been collected and it is all assessed together, it becomes clear that the perspective of events given by the complainant is flawed, incomplete, inaccurate, or sometimes just plain wrong.  Not always, of course, but reasonably often.  That is not to suggest that the complainant has been dishonest, but rather that the way they have experienced or interpreted events has become distorted for one reason or another.  Frequently the reason for that distortion appears to lie in the complainant’s prior history and experience, in the ‘messages’ they have received from previous experiences, consciously or, more usually, subconsciously, about themselves, which has affected how they view themselves and others, which in turn affects their attitudes and beliefs, and consequently their behaviour. 

Different views of the same person

I will give a hypothetical example, drawn from elements of different cases in order fully to maintain confidentiality.  So for example, a complainant might allege that their line manager has bullied them by speaking ‘down’ to them sharply in front of their peers for unjust or unwarranted reasons, and that the line manager singles them out in this way and treats them differently from their peers.  The line manager’s account is different, so everything hinges on what the complainant’s colleagues and peers say in their evidence.  In my hypothetical example the peers’ evidence is that the interactions did not happen in the way alleged by the complainant, and that in fact the line manager has acted entirely properly and reasonably, not only in general but also on the specific occasions alleged by the complainant.  This might lead one to question how the complainant could have arrived at such a different and inconsistent view of the line manager’s behaviour. 

Judging ourselves differently from others

To take my hypothetical example further, the peers might go on to give evidence that in fact it is the complainant’s behaviour that is questionable; that the complainant acts in a ‘passive-aggressive’ manner, both towards the line manager and towards them.  One peer describes the complainant as a ‘passive bully’, and the line manager feels that he or she is the one who has been bullied through the undermining and hostile behaviour of the complainant.  There was no indication of this when the complainant gave evidence in interview, but there is sufficient corroboration from other sources of specific incidents to confirm that that has been an established pattern of behaviour from the complainant.  Although this is a hypothetical example, it is all drawn from cases I have investigated.

How is one to understand why a complainant should have such a different perspective, both about the line manager’s behaviour and about their own?  It appears to me that this is where the link to the principle in Giles Fraser’s article lies. 

We all tend to interpret and understand, and on occasion excuse and justify, our behaviour through the interplay of our core inner beliefs and values, and the extent to which our core needs have been satisfied or compromised by others’ behaviour towards us.  In another article ‘How does conflict start?’, I consider this in greater detail. 

Complainant’s own bullying behaviour

At its core what happens is that I justify my own negative behaviour towards someone else by means of a belief of the ‘rightness’ of my position.  In my work I see this in the cases that crop up on occasion where it is the person bringing the complaint of bullying who in fact turns out to be the one who has used bullying behaviours.  In such cases, frequently there has been some previous negative experience that has shaped their expectations of how others relate to them.  This can lead them to understand or interpret others’ behaviour towards them in a distorted way, and to experience that behaviour negatively; and this fuels their negative behaviour in response.

Where the source of the self-justifying belief over ‘rightness’ is a powerful and deeply-held internal belief system such as a religion, then as Giles Fraser points out, the result can sometimes be frightening. 

Wickedness is a crime against peace, not truth

Giles Fraser ends his article by posing a question and quoting Edmund Burke:  ‘There is a problem here. Some actions inspired by belief are, rightly, described as evil.  If we give up any confidence in our access to truth, what basis can we have for making any moral claim?  Edmund Burke had an interesting suggestion: “Perhaps truth may be better than peace.  But as we have scarcely ever the same certainty in the one that we have in the other, I would, unless the truth were evident indeed, hold fast to peace, which has in her company charity, the highest of virtues.”  Wickedness is a crime against peace not a crime against truth.’ 

I agree with that sentiment, although I might express it slightly differently.  My answer to this human problem lies in a central aspect of faith: the need to assess my actions against the principle of seeking another person’s highest good.  This expresses the concept behind one of the three very different Greek words all of which are now translated inadequately by our single modern English word ‘love’; here the word is ‘αγαπη’ or ‘agape’.  In previous times this same word was translated as ‘charity’.  In his concept of Peace and Charity held in company, and holding Charity as the highest of virtues, Burke is referring to the well-known passage often used at weddings in the old language of the King James Version of the Bible: “And now abideth faith, hope, charity, these three; but the greatest of these is charity” (2).  It seems to me that if we hold those two virtues, Peace and Charity as guiding lights, they will bring us to a truer understanding of our own behaviours and motivations.

(1) The Guardian, Friday 31 May 2012  http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/belief/2013/may/31/wickedness-allied-truth-religious-belief-heinous

(2) 1 Corinthians 13 verse 13, King James Version