Conflict always involves choices
Student Reflection Column: Westfield Student Gazette
“The dilemmas we face show us who we are”. Jim Swanson from Westfield University writes this week’s student reflection focussing on what war means to him as a young student growing up in Melbourne (honours in politics)
In his autobiography, “Timebends”, Arthur Miller writes: “a character is defined by the kinds of challenges he cannot walk away from. And by those he had walked away from that cause him remorse.”
As a young adult interested in war games, I have been following the feats of our soldiers in war-torn countries overseas. Faced with life and death situations, the choices many of these soldiers make indeed reveal their true mettle.
Consider these two contrasting examples. In 2009, Trooper Mark Donaldson was the first Australian soldier for 40 years to receive the Victoria Cross medal – for his fearless actions in Afghanistan. Braving an onslaught of enemy firepower, he dangerously exposed himself to enemy fire, enabling back up forces to recover the wounded soldiers. Such heroic acts show us what it is to be a true Australian. In this case, his actions show us that he could not walk away from danger; in particular the danger that threatened his mates.
Compare this to another story. In 2012, an American army staff sergeant civilians entered three Afghan family’s homes at 3am and began a vicious killing spree. He killed 9 children and 3 women. Relatives said he poured chemicals over their dead bodies and burned them. One wonders whether this soldier, who evidently reached his breaking point, as Ivan Pavlov (ground-breaking psychologist) would say, suffers from remorse.
Indeed, as Arthur Miller reminds us, the choices we make under pressure reflect our personality, our views and our values. Sometimes, the nature of some conflicts force people to compromise their principles due to self-interest or fear. Some, however, are able to retain dignity and honesty no matter how hefty the price.
During times of conflict or stress people are forced to make choices. Sometimes the choices may involve defending their principles and integrity or compromising their views and values.
In Arthur Miller’s Crucible, many people, like the soldiers fighting for their lives, are based with the most fundamental choice of all when faced with conflict – to survive or not to survive. Many characters in Salem risk their lives because they adhere to their fundamental moral beliefs and refuse to confess to the pact with the devil. When Giles Corey faces the test of life or death, he clings to his faith and sense of honesty. He asks for “more weight”. Similarly, just before he is hanged, Proctor affirms his moral commitment: “now I do think i see some shred of goodness in John Proctor”. Finally, he meets his death with pride and dignity. Specifically, John Proctor must decide whether or not to sign the confession to being a witch. Also he needs to decide the best way of protecting his wife’s honour which he knows will involve the exposure of his infidelity in a very public forum. This will lead to a loss of honour and his good name in the community. However, his conscience dictates to him the need to clear any suspicion surrounding his wife’s integrity.
Similarly, many Chinese human rights activitists endanger their lives by publishing articles online that are critical of the Chinese government. Environmental activist and freelance journalist Chen Daojun published an article in an expatriate Chinese website, China E-Weekly, which raised concerns about chemical plants in Pengzhou in the Sichuan province, the site of the massive earthquake in 2008. Typically such activists are arrested and charged with “inciting subversion” and are sentenced to jail. In 2010, millions of Chinese parents were horrified to find that their children were drinking milk that had become mixed with toxic chemicals at fresh milk collection points. Two years later, one of the two men who exposed the practice, farmer Jiang Weisuo, was murdered in suspicious circumstances.
People may also be driven by greed or self-interest and deal with conflict in a brutal and negative ways. Although conflict involves choices, people are likely to choose the side which is expedient for them, usually because of self-interest.
Sadly, many people make poor choices or choices they regret during conflict, often because they lack the power of life skills to deal with the situation. In 2007, Brodie Panlock committed suicide because of relentless workplace bullying. She suffered “unbearable levels of humiliation” because she did not know how to cope with the workplace discrimination.
Likewise, Mary Warren’s dilemma is typical of those who are caught up in a conflict which demands life skills that they simply do not possess. She has to choose between following court orders and supporting the hysterical claims of the girls, or upholding her values and telling the truth. She is typical of those who are forced to compromise their views and honesty due to anxiety and pressure from court. Initially she is determined to reveal to the court how the girls are lying, and is buoyed by John Proctor’s advice about the angel Raphael, “do that which is good and no harm shall come to thee.” However, she becomes so intimidated by the Governor, Danforth, that she falls in line with his threats. He tells her so authoritatively, “You will confess or you will hang!” This emotional stress leaves her an emotional wreck. Under Danforth’s stern questioning, she is not able to stand firm by her beliefs and chooses to confess.
Ultimately, whatever happens, we must have the courage to be honest and to admit our shortcomings. Reverend Hale knows that his enthusiastic and evangelical response fuelled the witchhunt and validated Reverend Parris’s and Governor Danforth’s claims. He forever regrets, as Miller would say, the fact that he turned his back on the truth.
One only hopes that during conflict one can forgive and move on, because often it is the best way to deal with the pain. And a final note.
Whether we do or don’t get involved, we should all remember the famous poem by Martin Niemoller, the prominent Protestant pastor, who emerged as an outspoken public enemy of Adolf Hitler.
First they came for the (Communists) Socialists, and I did not speak out–
Because I was not a Socialist. …. Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out–
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out–
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me–and there was no one left to speak for me.