Meeting for Worship for the Tortured and Torturers” read the sign Gene Knudsen Hoffman passed as she was walking in London. By Hoffman's own testament, this was breakthrough moment:
“I was astonished. As a Quaker Pacifist, I believed I should have no enemy and should care for the wounded on all sides of every battle—but—put the torturers on the same level as the tortured? I'd never thought of that.
“A whole new chapter of my life opened. I wondered why people tortured others, and thought that if I could know that answer, there might be new possibilities for peacemaking and reconciliation.”
Reflecting on this sign ignited Hoffman's curiosity about the torturers as human beings. This is a courageous step many of us are reluctant, at best, or terrified to take. Remember the reaction of many people to 9/11: I don't care why they did it, I don't want to know. I don't need to know. They are evil. I want revenge and they deserve the harshest punishment. End of conversation.
What does Hoffman mean by putting “the torturers on the same level as the tortured”? She clearly does not suggest ignoring the torturers' crimes or drawing moral equivalencies between the harm they do to their victims and the harm to themselves. Rather, she is calling us to understand people on all sides of conflicts, people identified as oppressors and victims alike, our enemies as well as our allies.
Hoffman's experiences in this realm led her to observe, “An enemy is a person whose story we have not heard.” From her vantage point, it is possible to transform conflicts and create the conditions for reconciliation by refusing to cling to our demonized versions of the enemy. Hoffman encourages us to connect with the humanity of those we might consider enemies—recognizing our shared sense of vulnerability and suffering, and our desire to be safe and content, no matter how awfully we may have behaved.
For Hoffman, reconciliation is the most difficult and important aspect of peacemaking because it involves re-establishing relationships among those in conflict. Through relationship building we come to know the other as being not so different from ourselves at the fundamental level of our shared humanity, even though in asserting the perceived primacy of our own interests and goals we may harm each other. How do we bridge this great divide? One way is with Compassionate Listening, in which all parties are listened to deeply, and their stories understood, even if not necessarily agreed with.
To listen compassionately is to listen without judgment, to seek the truth as understood and experienced by the other person. “Listeners do not defend themselves, but accept what others say as their perceptions,” writes Hoffman. By doing so, listeners “validate the others' right to those perceptions.” Hoffman instructs us to listen with our “spiritual ears” so that we may “see through the masks of hostility and fear to the sacredness of the individual and to discern the wounds suffered by all parties.” Hoffman is quick to admit that such listening is very hard, especially when she senses people are being less than truthful. She persists in listening, supported by two fundamental convictions.
She believes that there is a divine element of goodness that exists in all of us, even those we oppose, and this goodness can be tapped by the experience of being listened to compassionately. Hoffman also believes that no one person or side can claim they have the truth no matter how right and righteous they (we) feel. And, everyone has a partial Truth, a piece of the whole story, diverse experiences and perspectives that taken together allow a larger, inclusive truth to emerge that can form the foundation for reconciliation.
Compassionate listening requires a leap of faith. It is counter-intuitive and counter-instinctual. We really don't want to listen to people we believe have committed wrongs against us, against humanity. It is tough to open ourselves to people who we believe would rather kill us than look at us. Hoffman entices us to take the leap. Inspired by her methods, MidEast Citizens Diplomacy created the Compassionate Listening Project, in which hundreds of Americans have worked to reconcile Israelis and Palestinians (see YES!, Winter 2002).
Hoffman's insights do not come out of nowhere, as the book reveals. The book is part loving biography written by the editor and part revealing autobiography and personal diary. Hoffman's stories stretch from her Quaker roots to witnessing against McCarthyism, to divorce after 25 years of marriage and hospitalization for what was then called a “nervous breakdown.” Through stories of meeting with Nixon, attending a retreat with Thich Nhat Hanh and Viet Nam vets, and listening to angry and despairing Israelis and Palestinians, Hoffman shares her insights and learning every challenging step of the way.
Just as the Quaker meeting sign for the tortured and the torturers sparked a shift in Hoffman's understanding of conflict and reconciliation, this book offers the same for some readers. Everyone can learn something from Hoffman's example. Professionals in conflict and mediation work, dialogue, diversity and multiculturalism and other areas of human interaction will be inspired to reflect on their work and explore new directions. Peace and justice activists will be challenged to stretch themselves to listen compassionately not only to the oppressed but equally to the oppressor. And all of us in the context of our everyday lives will benefit from Hoffman's wisdom and example. She prods us to grow larger in our hearts and minds.
Dr. Deborah Flick is a consultant in dialogue and cultural diversity and the author of From Debate to Dialogue. She was a member of the Compassionate Listening Project delegation to Syria and Lebanon in 2002.