I recently read an article that among other things, questioned whether or not Winston Churchill was racist. Not being much of a historian, I had no idea; and to be honest I’d never given it even a moment’s thought.
But apparently, there’s strong evidence that yes, he was; he’s on record as openly saying that he hated Indians!
At the same time, however, he’s also regarded as a wartime hero and inspirational leader. There are, no doubt, millions of people (including many Jews) who’re incredibly grateful he defeated Hitler; who was, undeniably, even more racist.
So, does Churchill’s apparent failing negate his other qualities or strengths; does his prejudice taint his other successes?
As it so happens, in recent weeks I’ve actually asked myself similar questions, many times.
Does someone’s objection to vaccination, or their questioning of the validity of Covid-19 make them an entirely bad person? If a friend has markedly different political or religious views, can I still be friends with them?
On the one hand, I’ve given much consideration to the importance of living a values-based life; and of holding and standing up for those things in which I believe strongly. On the other hand, I’ve also always valued tolerance and the acceptance of differences. If I can’t accept views and beliefs that are different to mine, am I not as bad as the racists and bigots and conspiracy theorists?
To be perfectly honest, I’ve found these questions seriously hard to answer; I’ve struggled to find a balance between believing what I believe and also accepting that others have fundamentally different beliefs which might also be valid and justifiable.
The reason this is important is that without something resembling an answer to these challenging dilemmas, the conflict has the very real potential to cause me very real distress. If or when I allow other people’s opinions to upset me then there’s no doubt, I’ll be upset … a lot of the time (because there are, not surprisingly, many people who hold many different views to me).
What, then, is the answer?
Well, like most things in life there are no simple answers. But I have found much solace in the work of Professor Jonathan Haidt (and I can highly recommend his book, “The Righteous Mind”). Haidt is a social and moral psychologist and is probably best known for his contributions to “moral foundations theory”.
In short, moral foundations theory attempts to explain the origins of and variation in human moral reasoning on the basis of innate, modular foundations. The theory proposes six foundations: Care/Harm, Fairness/Cheating, Loyalty/Betrayal, Authority/Subversion, Sanctity/Degradation, and Liberty/Oppression. And the theory also proposes that some people value some of those foundations more than others.
Now this isn’t the place and there isn’t space to explore this theory in detail, but the main point I want to make, that’s relevant to the questions I’ve posed above, is that each and every belief or opinion is reasonable if one understands the foundations from which it comes. And this is how we can better understand the beliefs of others; by understanding where they’re coming from.
In doing so, we can still disagree, but we can disagree respectfully; and politely; and reasonably.
And by disagreeing in such a way we can have discussions without aggression and hatred. Which means, less distress for each of us individually; and more happiness via greater understanding and tolerance for us all collectively.
Given that we all live in families and friendship groups, in communities and workplaces, we’re bound to interact with those who’s different and who hold different beliefs. This can, indubitably, be a source of distress; but it need not be. If we accept those differences and strive to understand, it may well prove to be a much greater source of happiness and wellbeing for all via more and better relationships with others.