There is the world as-it-is, and then there is the world that-could-be.
In Iran, this is the world as-it-is: the disputed legitimacy of the recent re-election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad propelled enraged supporters of his opponent, Mir Hossein Mousavi, into the sweltering streets of Teheran. Ahmadinejad (with the blessing of the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei) pushed back with increasing brutality, deploying riot police and the much-feared, violence-prone, Basij paramilitary forces against unarmed citizens.
But what if, in a world that-could-be, Ahmadinejad chose, instead, an ethics of yielding? Yes, an ethics of yielding.
One must be careful how one draws lessons from the past (thanks to their variety and number, historical events lend themselves too easily to an unscrupulous defense of almost any ideologically-driven claim). But we can, for the sake of discussing a world that-could-be, draw on the work of Michel de Montaigne (1533-1592), a French essayist who lived and wrote during a time of bitter wars of religion between Protestants and Catholics, and a time of violent political conflict between rebellious nobles and the crown.
A heterodox Catholic, Montaigne believed that God leaves us free to work out our lives on human terms. And in the process of working out his own life on human terms, Montaigne developed a new ethics of accommodation based on shared trust and on shared humanity. Opposed to the zealotry of the warring parties, Montaigne pleaded for an attitude of yielding both on the part of the victor and of the vanquished. He even argued that his ethics of passivity was the best way to preserve each side’s desire for respect: “You can swallow your pride and have it too, provided you learn how to be a good loser” (this quote comes from David Quint‘s Montaigne and the Quality of Mercy).
To return to the topic at hand–in a world that-could-be, if Ahmadinejad followed Montaigne’s recommendations, what effect, practically-speaking, would this have on Iran? Having defeated the protestors with a massive and intractable show of force, Ahmadinejad could now preserve both his self-respect and that of the protestors by adopting a stance of clemency. Toward those he formerly pursued, he could adopt a stance of flexibility, of softness. And by choosing to identify with those he crushed and reduced to weakness, he would demonstrate courage. Yes, courage–because he would allow his opponents to remain a threat to him and his government. In the Iran that-is, Ahmadinejad has elevated himself to God-like status. In the Iran that-could-be, Ahmadinejad would reclaim his humanity.
Montaigne’s ethics of yielding is not reserved for the victor. The vanquished must also yield. In the Iran that-could-be, the protestors would choose not to resist. Instead, they would demonstrate the highest self-respect by acknowledging the power of Ahmadinejad, and by acknowledging the humanity and weakness they share with him. They would disarm themselves, and trust in their foe. A recent Newsweek image captured the difficult kind of clemency Montaigne had in mind; it showed a small group of protestors using their own bodies to shield a disarmed riot cop from the rage of their fellow protestors. They had the courage to be merciful to their captured enemy even though they knew that he would probably try to harm them again on another day.
But even Montaigne, as much a skeptic in his time as most of us are today, dismissed the efficacy of preaching Christian humility. He resorted, instead, to the ploy of promising the merciful victor an enhanced reputation. After all, he pointed out, mercy aggrandizes the merciful one and the vanquished testify to the greatness of the one who has spared them.
So, President Ahmadinejad, if you’re reading this post, will you show mercy, and yield to your countrymen and women’s longing for greater freedom and opportunity? Or will you maintain the course of the Iran-as-it-has-been and rely on fear and oppression to silence your opponents? You have, after all, been handpicked by Ayatollah Khamenei to implement his dream of creating an Islamic caliphate.
But let’s try one last argument: President Ahmadinejad, you miscalculated when you resorted to fraud to over-represent the election that you most likely won anyway. Thanks to your miscalculation, you unleashed the greatest internal threat to Iran’s government since the Shah was toppled and you discovered the depth of your countrymen and women’s yearning for change. Yield, Mr. Ahmadinejad, or you too might find yourself toppled. If toppled you are, may your people yield and have mercy on you.
HNFFT: Every day, we face situations where we have power-over others, or others have power-over us. What could intentional weakness look like for you in those situations? How could you practice an ethics of yielding?
References: Christopher Dickey, “The Supreme Leader,” 40-45, and Fareed Zakaria, “Theocracy and its Discontents,” 30-39, both in Newsweek, 29 June 2009; David Quaint, Montaigne and the Quality of Mercy (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1998).