The Problem With Turning The Other Cheek

Photo: Anamorphic Mike

In a previous post, The Three Realms Of Confidence, I told a story from my childhood (how I was bullied in seventh grade because I was Jewish) to introduce the concept that confidence exists in three separate realms.  In response to that post, a reader commented (on the Psychology Today blog where my posts also appear):  “I was periodically beaten up, but I ran away or didn’t fight back because I operated under the assumption that you should always ‘turn the other cheek’ and never fight back, regardless of the circumstances.  The moral directive was to allow yourself to get beaten up…”

Because I worry that the kind of thinking this comment represents has implications for social interactions that are less obviously abusive, I wanted to make the argument here that turning the other cheek is, in fact, entirely immoral.

I argued in a previous post, What Makes A Hero, that committing an act of self-sacrifice or of simply risking self-sacrifice for the good of others qualifies one as heroic.  That post didn’t discuss, however, whether or not heroism is moral.  As I mentioned in another previous post, Become A Force For Good (picking up a theme in my writing, anyone?), it may or may not be depending on the circumstances.

Being privy to our own failings and weaknesses often promotes the view that we are in some way less worthwhile than others around us.  Yet this view is illusory:  all of us are, in fact, equal in value due to the same potential for good that exists in all of us.  So, in choosing to sacrifice ourselves or to risk sacrificing ourselves to help or save someone else, we are choosing to harm or risk harm to a human being endowed with worth equal to that of the person we’re trying to help or save.  Therefore, sacrificing a life (ours) for a life (someone else’s), while noble and heroic, must ultimately be considered morally neutral.  If we increase the number of people positively impacted by our sacrifice, we may find our action edging into the morally positive.  But the complexity of the calculation doesn’t end with our action’s immediate impact only.  Consider the presence of all the people who benefit from our hero’s continued existence and would suffer greatly from his or her loss—the spouse; the children; the students; the good friends.  Don’t these people also belong somewhere in our calculation?

From this wholly inadequate discussion of the complexities of making moral decisions we can at least say this:  though how we ought to behave when confronted with a choice to risk or sacrifice ourselves is often hard to know, we must presume some benefit will accrue to someone else as a result of our sacrifice in order to consider it moral.

FAILING TO DEFEND A PERSON’S LIFE IS IMMORAL

When someone attacks us, abuses us, or even disrespects us, no one benefits by our turning the other cheek (“turning the other cheek” meaning, in the biblical sense, that upon being struck we should offer our attacker our “other cheek” to strike as well, a way of representing our commitment to an extreme form of pacifism in which we willingly allow ourselves to come to harm rather than taking measures to protect ourselves that require us to harm someone else).  For the following reasons, I consider this behavior neither compassionate nor moral:

  1. Just because it’s our life we may be defending doesn’t make it a life any less valuable or deserving of being defended.
  2. In refusing to defend ourselves against bullying, abuse, or disrespect, we fail to correct our abuser’s behavior, to communicate the important idea that mistreatment of others is wrong.  In failing in this way, we actually lack compassion for our abuser, who will likely suffer in the future in some way for not having learned this important lesson.  Not only that, we lack compassion for our bully’s future victims, whom we might have helped spare similar abuse by demonstrating with our lives that abusive behavior is wrong and won’t be tolerated (that such a lesson isn’t guaranteed to stick as a result of our standing up for ourselves in no way frees us from the obligation to try to teach it).
  3. In allowing ourselves to be abused, we role model victimization for others who watch and learn from us.
  4. In allowing ourselves to be abused, we harm those who love us.  What parent doesn’t suffer because his or her child is victimized by a bully?

Note that in making this argument I’m not at all addressing the means by which we should defend ourselves against bullying or abuse, or all the challenges involved in doing so, especially for children.  I’m simply saying that standing up for ourselves when we’re attacked is as moral as standing up for someone else.

Next weekTransitioning To Illness

21 comments to The Problem With Turning The Other Cheek

  • George

    “Note that in making this argument I’m not at all addressing the means by which we should defend ourselves against bullying or abuse, or all the challenges involved in doing so, especially for children.”

    I think we need to have this conversation because the means by which we should defend ourselves is how we put this into action.

    George: I agree the means is critical. Just a large topic—too large to scrunch into this post.

    Alex

  • Oh, boy, Alex, this is a complicated subject.

    First, I would say that the possibility of “turning the other cheek” must come from a position of strength (and not weakness). Note that this may well be moral strength, not necessarily physical strength. As such, we are not really talking (only) about potentially abusive relationships—although that may have been the thrust of your commentary.

    I think using your transactional logic, one could always justify self-defense. But I also think that misses the point (at least in some cases). When I think of turning the other cheek, my mind immediately turns to Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, pillars of their community leading the charge on social and political justice but adhering firmly to non-violent means (even when their followers were brutally beaten).

    To me, this gave them such moral fortitude, and in the end made all the difference in the power of their movement. Indeed, had they resorted to force, they would have been easily conquered. Instead, they really did change the shape of the world. Not long ago an Internet thread brought me to “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” and was very much inspired by it. (For those that haven’t read it, I’d recommend googling it when you have some quiet time.)

    To me the power of “turning the other cheek” comes precisely because it is such a revolutionary concept. And also because it is one that can “scale.” That is, if embraced and adopted by others, it would surely make the world a better place. Whereas eye-for-and-eye or barricading against ones enemies will only lead to increased violence and maintain the balance of fear as status quo.

    And speaking of the concern of “sacrifice” which both Gandhi and King ultimately paid, what can be said? Surely it was a tragic loss to their communities, and to the world. But at the same time it was also one of the most inspiring gifts that the world could ever see. That the power of non-violence and moral principle should win the day over bullying, thuggery, and attempted domination. Can you think of a more inspiring and empowering symbol?

    Frequently I reflect on their sacrifice, and their wisdom, and their moral fortitude, and am thankful that we were able to see the power of their message. And I hope their message continues to inspire others who can help “we masses” see a better way.

    Just my late night reaction to your very thought-provoking post.

    Thanks for sharing all of your ideas and thoughts,

    S-

    Steven: Thanks for your thoughtful comment. I agree that a non-violent response to violence can certainly be appropriate, and even, ultimately, effective, as the two examples you gave demonstrate. Each situation in life, of course, offers different solutions of varying quality. I do think we need to make an important distinction, however, between a morally strong person who chooses a non-violent reaction that represents extreme resistance to and rejection of the violence done to them, as Gandhi’s did, and a person who feels permitting violence to go unanswered and unchallenged is morally correct.

    Alex

  • Kate

    Good subject.

    I would particularly like to hear your thoughts on how we prevent people from disrespecting us. This is not something I thought I would ever have to address, of course, until the day I suddenly faced the problem from an unexpected source. Being stunned, I did nothing.

    No matter how much I think about it I can never think of what I could have done.

    Thanks for a good subject.

    Kate: I don’t know how well these posts will apply to your particular situation, but in general I’ve found when people disrespect us, we must show them—not tell them—we will not tolerate it.: The Three Realms Of Confidence, How To Communicate With Your Life, and When You Don’t Like Yourself.

    Alex

  • kei

    I used to debate in mind what would be the appropriate rule/action to take for anything like this. Need not be just bullying.

    After reading Osho http://www.messagefrommasters.com/Stories/Conditioning/Buddha_explaining_existence_of_God.htm, and listening to Barry Schwartz http://www.ted.com/talks/barry_schwartz_on_our_loss_of_wisdom.html I begin to see a common pattern.

    If an individual finds it easier to submit to his anger/temper and consistently hits back, then turning the other cheek would be the right thing for him to learn.

    If an individual finds it easier to submit to his bullies, then standing up for himself would the right thing for him to learn.

    It is really that simple. Perhaps the turning the other cheek was preached at the time to someone who needed to hear it.

    The brilliant thing about the phrase “turning the other cheek” is that it does not actually tell you in exact detail what to do. It does not actually say submit to your bullies.

    It conveys a way of being.

    It is actually not a rule. As Barry Schwartz explains, there will never be a good enough rule. We need to have moral skill.

    If we learn piecemeal teachings like “turning the other cheek,” apply them like rules, and not pick up the being/spirit behind the teachings, then it is all for naught.

    And what I like is the being/spirit conveyed behind a project like this blog. :)

  • You say, “I do think we need to make an important distinction, however, between a morally strong person who chooses a non-violent reaction that represents extreme resistance to and rejection of the violence done to them, as Gandhi’s did, and a person who feels permitting violence to go unanswered and unchallenged is morally correct.”

    I don’t think Jesus meant violence should go unanswered and unchallenged. I think we need to take the command to “turn the other cheek” in its biblical context, or at least in its context in the Gospel according to Matthew (Luke is more radical, but again, I think hyperbole is a way of teaching, and we have to remember this). Jesus was talking really about replacing the “eye for an eye” system of justice, the same system of justice in fact which caused not just Jews but Greeks and the Hatfields and McCoys (if I remember correctly) to find themselves in never-ending loops of vengeance, and which was the cause of many a Greek tragedy. Neither passage talks about groveling in fear, but rather of demonstrating good behavior in the face of bad. One can imagine the proud, righteous man looking straight at his assaulter as he turns his cheek. One can imagine that he could cause his assaulter more shame than if he just struck back, more surprise, more doubt abut his actions. I think at least some Buddhist attitudes are similar: lean into the aggressor, if you will.

    It is good to teach children to stand their ground, but is it really, really good to teach people to resort to violence in response to a barroom brawl, or to have duels in response to insults?

    Finally, police and the law are supposed to make it less necessary for us to respond to violence with violence.

  • Steven:

    Gandhi’s approach could work with the Brits, who had a sense of the humanity of their colonial subjects. But when Gandhi suggested the Jews sacrifice themselves before the Nazis, he was barking up the wrong tree, IMHO. One’s bully must be able to perceive one as essentially equal for that approach to work.

    In the every day run of things vis-a-vis users and abusers, it is most expeditious to take Alex’s approach. Turning the other cheek may work in a world-historical paradigm, but on the personal level, it only guarantees a sucker punch.

  • I do think we need to make an important distinction, however, between a morally strong person who chooses a non-violent reaction that represents extreme resistance to and rejection of the violence done to them, as Gandhi’s did, and a person who feels permitting violence to go unanswered and unchallenged is morally correct.

    There is no doubt in my mind that when Jesus said turn the other cheek he meant the former and not the latter. He said it in contrast to an eye for an eye, which (as MLK Jr. correctly pointed out) makes the whole world blind. The idea is essentially the ideal of non-violent resistance, to make the striker think twice.

    As a Jew I say: Jesus was a freaking *genius*.

  • Janice

    I think most random acts of heroism are performed with the idea in the hero’s mind that they can help or save the victim, that it is NOT without thought for their own safety but a calculated risk they take. Perhaps the same doesn’t apply to war or catastrophic events such as 9/11, where the enormity of the situation has to factor in.

    While I’m with Steve on the passive resistance, finding it a much more powerful and provocative tool for countering repression or abuse, I don’t condone allowing oneself to be victimized. However, like Steve, I feel fighting violence with violence perpetuates fear and even serves to help institutionalize violent behavior. There are other ways to fight back. If we raised children with real values, skills and independent and curious minds and spirits, we’d have less bullying and when it happens, more creative ways of dealing with it.

  • Anne

    In personal relationships, I agree that standing up to abuse (in a *proportionate* manner) is what we owe ourselves as human beings. Hopefully, it will also give the other person a chance to see the error of his/her ways so others down the road do not get hurt the same way. I have benefited from being “told off” before due to what I now consider my “mistakes.”

    A very close friend had hurled insults at me callously when we were teenagers and it hurts badly when I think of it. (Strangely, it didn’t hurt as badly before.) I yearn to tell her the effect on me, though that is sure to stir up more ridicule on her part as it’s been two decades and we’re no longer on speaking terms. I feel a sense of disappointment with myself; a sense that I should have taken care of the child in me but had failed to do so. Dr. Lickerman, I know this isn’t a help forum, but could you offer a short comment? I’m also thinking of seeing a psychologist.

    Anne: Might I suggest you read an earlier post, Breaking Free Of The Past? I hope that helps.

    Alex

  • aek

    You assume responsibility on the part of the abused to remedy the violence of the abuser. This is a fallacy and simply burdens the victim further.

    The victim is in no way responsible for the intent or actions of abusers.

    You argument about the morality of pacifism is specious. Indeed, but turning the other cheek and refusing to engage in the abuse, the victim models the desired behavior and is, by example, teaching the abuser.

    I find your argument to lack compassion and empathy for victims who pay a horrendous price regardless of their immediate and long term response to abuse and abusers.

    aek: Thank you for the opportunity to practice what I just preached. I did not argue that the victim of abuse bears responsibility to remedy the violence of the abuser. I argued the victim lacks compassion not just for themselves but for their abuser as well if they fail to stand against their abusers abuse. Why do abusers abuse? It’s never from a good place, from a position of health. A victim bears no responsibility to remedy the violence of an abuser, but what a wasted opportunity if they don’t try (victims must, of course, manifest an exceedingly high life-condition to view their being abused in this way, but establishing a high life-condition is the key to happiness in the first place). We’re all in this together, including people who commit evil. Evil-doers are simply far more deluded than the rest of us. We can refuse to tolerate their evil and stand against it, even as we feel compassion for their misdirected lives.

    As I noted in response to a commenter above, if pacifism is the means by which a strong person says “Nay!” to abuse and not the strategy of a person failing to value their own life, I can easily see its value.

    I’d write more, but I have to spend the next several hours working through a bloated hospital bureaucracy in order to arrange a feeding tube to be placed in a patient of mine with ALS.

    Alex

  • Craig

    Worth mentioning is the modern day recognition given to non-violent struggle for human rights…

    “The Nobel Peace Prize for 2010

    The Norwegian Nobel Committee has decided to award the Nobel Peace Prize for 2010 to Liu Xiaobo for his long and non-violent struggle for fundamental human rights in China.”

    http://nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/peace/laureates/2010/press.html

    In some commentary, I have heard it said that Liu Xiaobo was not so well known in China, but it is expected that the awarding of the Nobel Peace prize will bring recognition to him and China’s struggles for human rights throughout that country.

    In terms of what one needs to do: when defending injustice, we might study these greats to determine what actions they took, what words they used, and what goals they accomplished.

    Alex, are these macro-socio-political struggles and response activities really translatable to individual events in everyday life? Or are you suggesting that there may be different responses required of us in our everyday life that present to perpetrators of violence a more immediate, more poignant consequence to their violence than the non-violent responses of Ghandi, MLK, and Liu Xiaobo?

    I would ask the readers of this blog to put their life experiences in color for us… perhaps they can describe those situations where novel thinking brought about change in a violent perpetrator? To me there is a need for perpetrators of violent to “learn” a new response pattern of behavior than the violent pattern they likely have experienced themselves.

    Craig: I see no difference in principle between standing up to violence and abuse committed by a State compared to violence and abuse committed by a person, other than that the most effective means of resistance may differ. How to stand up to violence when your abuser is overwhelmingly stronger than you, as in the case of Liu Xiaobo? Seems what constitutes the best answer might be different when comparing his ordeal to the one I suffered myself, for example, when I was in seventh grade.

    Also, I’m intrigued by your idea that readers provide examples of novel thinking that brought about change in a violent perpetrator. The only challenge for anyone interested in responding is that such change often doesn’t appear immediately, and in fact may take years or decades.

    Alex

  • Kate

    Wow.

    Love this.

    I especially love the math!!!

    …that we are not just sacrificing ourselves but everyone we may create etc!!!

    So true. There is a value gap we cannot always see.

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts! I truly enjoy them.

  • jeann

    I think it is our responsibility to recognize and to know what our boundaries are and when those boundaries are crossed, to stand our ground, and to give voice, whether by words or by action, that it is definitely not ok and that it will not be tolerated. This takes courage and it is necessary for self respect.

  • Carolyn

    Wonderful post.

    It’s worth considering, too, precisely the manner in which one answers violence, whether it is physical, emotional, or takes some other form. Defending oneself does not mean responding in kind. Rather, formulating a nonviolent response to adverse treatment presents a chance to stretch one’s ingenuity. It’s quite difficult, but a worthy goal. And I’m sure that there are cases where there is no choice but to respond precisely in kind. It’s helpful to have a chance to reflect on this: another opportunity to be prepared.

    Thank you for sharing these ideas.

  • rdp

    It is hard not just to be silent and think about the ALS patient, his life, his thoughts, his fear, his family, etc. (or her). Sometimes I think the greatest challenge is to proceed as if everything matters when some things seem to matter so much more.

    I’m not sure how I feel about the subject of this post, Alex. If one defends as a first response to attack or disrespect, one loses the time and space required to consider the larger picture. As psychologists have demonstrated over and over again, once action is taken, a belief system grows up to support the action taken. At the same time, when one responds with the kind of defense the attacker respects, one risks abandoning one’s own values and allowing oneself to be dragged onto the turf of the powerful others (are you picking up a theme in MY writing? ;^}). I think we are treading in very complicated territory here, as previous posters have already pointed out.

    Let me try to give just one example of what I mean. What if you were a young person, the child of more fearful parents, and you sensed that fighting back only ended up reinforcing the same useless way of dealing with difference and anger. The young person might feel and believe that fighting back is the wrong thing to do, but also might have received no support or guidance in how to do this. The young person—on his own—might realize that fighting back would make his parents happier, because they would be less likely to be marked as outsiders, but also would not be, in his eyes, the right thing to do. Which behavior, in this case, is the sacrifice? If the system we label “normal” requires such young people to accept behavior they themselves believe is wrong, how do we avoid perpetuating a system based on violence (of one sort or another). As a feminist, this is not an abstract question for me.

    That being said, there are all kinds of other “abuse” or disrespect situations where it is difficult to see whether the unhappiness is a result of what some other entity is doing or of one’s own failure to regard it appropriately. This situation, on a lighthearted level, corresponds to Chesterton’s remark to the effect that an inconvenience is nothing but an adventure, wrongly considered. Some “abuse” or disrespect may be inharmonious conduct wrongly considered (as when the disrespect is incidental, as a result of not understanding the context in which the action is experienced).

    Be well, Alex.

  • Anne

    Thank you, I’ll be doing that.

  • Julia

    Hiya Meshpucha,

    Well, that introduction brought back some *nice* memories.

    This is such a wonderful and thoughtful thread…

    Though I have a problem with trying to apply mathematics to ethics. It seems to me that morality is, unfortunately, very relative. If only it could be reduced to formulas, life would be much more simple.

    Love the blog post, and also the follow-up comments as well.

    I started studying Vipassana meditation last year and have been learning a lot from it. Do you still participate in Judaism? …is that a blog post I missed?

    Thanks, Alex.

    Julia: I have to confess I never really did participate in Judaism. I was always drawn to Buddhism, as far back as my early teens, but didn’t start practicing until my first year of medical school. But I do enjoy Yiddish… :)
    Alex

  • David R.

    In my youth I found that aggressively turning the other cheek usually put them off or at least the few times I had to do it. I just stood up to them and got in close, turned the other cheek and dared them to do it again and they backed off. Maybe they thought I was nuts but it solved the problem (whatever it was) at the time, and when some one threatened me I usually just puffed and the problem disappeared. Of course no one was armed in those days.

  • Craig

    When I was a young teenager, maybe 15, I pushed my own mom to such a point of frustration that she slapped me hard across my cheek. Without thinking, I immediately offered her my other cheek. I still remember how her eyes widened in embarrassment at her actions; being a religious person, I’m sure she instantly knew the position I had put her in—an attacker who was offered another cheek. It was the last time she slapped me. This response was equally as aggressive as her actions, given the person my mother is.

    However, I too was equally embarrassed that I had pushed my mom to such frustration through my pubescent verbal abuse and vowed not to push buttons on my mom moving forward.

    We both learned important lessons that day, in part through the proverbial “turn the other cheek” approach.

  • [...] which suggested that turning the other cheek is actually immoral. Here's a couple excerpts from the article: "In response to that post, a reader commented…: 'I was periodically beaten up, but I ran [...]

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