In my initial posts, I argued that attempts to help can be called instances of “altruism” just as people are happy to call attempts to harm instances of “aggression”. In this post, I consider altruism and aggression in the context of a particular real-world event.
The picture above shows the Grand Hotel in Brighton the day after it was bombed by the Irish Republican Army (IRA). Among the dead was the Conservative Member of Parliament Sir Antony Berry.
A week ago, Sir Antony’s daughter Jo visited the University of Sussex (US).
Jo is known to the public mainly because of her relationship with Patrick Magee, the man convicted for planting the bomb that killed Jo’s father.
At Jo’s first session with US she told the story of how the bombing had affected her life. During her second session, Jo took questions from me in an interview format. Both sessions ended with Jo answering questions from members of the audience.
Although key aspects of Jo’s story can be pieced together from various places, it was fascinating to hear her tell it herself. Thoughts cascaded. Parallels and contrasts abounded. Ironies arose. Impulses clashed.
Jo thinks that dialogue promotes peace and harmony and that an absence of dialogue with enemies makes bad situations worse.
Jo thinks that dialogue promotes peace and harmony because dialogue increases empathy (understanding of others’ experiences and of their reactions to them); empathy facilitates recognition of others’ humanity; recognition of others’ humanity facilitates altruistic concern (caring about the others’ positive welfare); and altruistic concern promotes intolerance of things that systematically harm those cared about.
Jo thinks that an absence of dialogue with enemies has detrimental effects on both sides. Those refusing to speak or listen come to demonise the other and lose sight of the other's humanity. They then become obsessed with and haunted by the others’ apparent barbarity and evil. They react with further defensive entrenchment and assault, fuelling mutual enmity and conflict. Each of these consequences of refusing to talk and listen are accompanied and exacerbated by increasingly losing sight of one’s own humanity.
Those who feel their grievances are not heard feel increasingly victimised, morally outraged, and constrained by the limited means at their disposal to put things right. They demonise the enemy, become obsessed with and haunted by the others’ apparent barbarity and evil, react with further defensive entrenchment and assault, lose sight of others’ and their own humanity, and increasingly contribute to a spiral of aggression and violence.
Jo’s beliefs have led to, or at least are accompanied by, commitments to pacifism and to dialogue with those who harm others. In reaching out to her father’s killer, Jo sought peace.
My thoughts on Jo’s beliefs and stance will become clear to anyone who continues to read this blog. For now, I would like to record just one personal observation about Jo’s visit - I really enjoyed chatting with her over coffee. There was a relaxation of roles: mine as concerned host and academic seeker of truths, hers as humble bringer of insights earned through pain. I felt that that was when each of us was most in touch with our own and each other’s humanity, when we were chatting.
The rest of this post is in sections. In the section immediately below I summarise some of the key points of Jo’s story, as derived from a limited selection of sources given towards the end of this post. (To maximise readability, I do not give specific citations for each quote. Students – don’t adopt this practice in essays!)
In the second section below I include a few students’ recollections of Jo’s visit. (Thanks for sharing these, folks.)
The third section below is at present a rough transcript from near the beginning of my interview with Jo. Hopefully, this will provide a flavour of the interview as a whole, an audio recording of which I will also include when I can work out how!
Some key points from the story of Jo Berry and Patrick Magee
On October 12, 1984, an IRA bomb killed 5 people, including Jo’s father. Two days later, Jo “made a personal decision … to bring something positive out of this emotionally shattering trauma and to try and understand those who had killed him.” She “chose to give up blame and revenge, instead taking responsibility for [her] pain and feelings, transforming them into passion for peace.”
Two or three months later, Jo met a man whose brother had been killed by a British soldier. The conversation persuaded Jo that she could “build a bridge across the divide”.
During several subsequent visits to Northern Ireland, Jo met people involved in and affected by ‘The Troubles’. It was the first time she felt that her “pain was being heard”. She also “began to understand the reasons why someone may choose to join a paramilitary organization”.
Jo found this process “too emotionally challenging as [she] had yet to deal with [her] trauma”. On top of this, she received negative reactions – including death threats – for saying on air in 1986 that she might one day be willing to meet those responsible for her father’s death.
Jo withdrew to home-educate her daughters.
In 1999, Jo was shocked to see Patrick Magee released from prison after he had been given 8 life sentences in 1986 for planting the bomb that killed her father.
In 2000, Jo and Magee met for the first time. Jo wanted “to put a face to the enemy and see him as a real human being”. She was initially told that Magee “didn’t want to meet her: he wasn’t interested in being understood by the middle-class daughter of a Tory toff.” When they met, Jo says that Magee denied having said this.
Magee “felt obliged as a Republican to explain” his actions. This is what he spent the first hour and a half of the first meeting doing. He told Jo that he’d “got involved in the armed struggle at the age of 19, after witnessing how [members of] a small nationalist community were being mistreated by the British. Those people had to respond.”
After this, Jo says, Pat (as she now knows him) took off “his political hat”. “There was a moment of silence. He took off his glasses and rubbed his eyes. ‘I don’t know who I am anymore’, he said. ‘I don’t know what to say. I’ve never met anyone like you, with so much dignity. What can I do to help? I want to hear your anger. I want to hear your pain.’” Magee later said that “he was disarmed by the empathy [Jo] gave him, that he would have found it easier” had she been angry and blaming. Then “the political hat would have remained firmly attached”.
Jo’s eagerness to listen and understand was “cathartic” for Magee. In that moment, the political justification for his actions “didn’t matter… As an individual [he] carried the heavy weight of knowing that [he] had caused profound hurt to this woman … A political obligation henceforth became a personal obligation”.
Jo says it was part of her healing “to hear [Magee’s] story and reach an understanding of why he chose violence”. Magee says meeting Jo helped him “remove blinkers, see the bigger picture and understand that there are human beings on all sides”. He came to believe that he had failed to appreciate the humanity of his enemies just as they had failed to appreciate him and his kind. He also came to believe that his aggression had caused him to lose part of his own humanity (or at least lose touch with it) and damage the humanity of many of the people affected by his actions.
Since that first meeting, Jo and Magee have together and apart promoted peaceful means of conflict resolution and avoidance. Foremost of these means is willingness to engage in dialogue. For Jo, such dialogue prevents demonising of “the other” and allows people to retain or reconnect with their own humanity and that of others. For her, “violence is never justified.” For Magee, dialogue is necessary to prevent oppressed people feeling that they have to turn to armed struggle. “I am not a pacifist”, he says. “I could never say to [those] who felt themselves oppressed, ‘Take it, just lie down and take it’”.
Jo thinks that what Magee did was “evil” but that Magee himself isn’t. She thinks one has to separate the sin from the sinner, “to avoid blame and find a new way of thinking that will break that cycle of violence.”
Jo thinks that she has probably used the word “forgiveness” too freely. She now believes that it can lock people into a “me right and you wrong” attitude that “won’t change anything”. But she feels that she “can experience empathy and in that moment there is no judgment. Sometimes when [she’s] met with Pat [she’s] had such a clear understanding of his life that there’s nothing to forgive”. “Had we all lived each other’s lives”, she says, “we could all have done what the other did.” For her, “the question is always about whether [she] can let go of [her] need to blame and open [her] heart enough to hear Pat’s story and understand his motivations. The truth is", she says, "sometimes I can and sometimes I can’t. It’s a journey and it’s a choice”.
Magee says he is “not seeking forgiveness”. He stands by his actions, although he feels he will always carry the burden that [he] harmed other human beings”. Forgiveness won’t bring back the dead, he says. “The hope lies in the fact we continue to meet in order to further this mutual process towards understanding.”
Berry. J. (Undated). Jo Berry – Founder. Building Bridges [Link]
Berry, J., & Magee, P. (2010). Jo Berry & Pat Magee (Northern Ireland). The Forgiveness Project, March 29. [Link]
Grice, E. (2009). The Brighton bomb: Jo Berry – at peace with the man who murdered my father. Telegraph, October 7. [Link]
Hall, C. (2009). Brighton bombing 25 years on: Making friends with my father's killer. Guardian, October 10. [Link]
Magee. P. (Undated). Dr Patrick Magee. Building Bridges [Link]
Rea, L. (2011). Victim’s daughter meets IRA bomber: An interview with Jo Berry. Restorative Justice Online, May 12. [Link]
Three students’ recollections of Jo’s visit
I was quite moved by Jo flagging up that, even though she acknowledged that her story was a ‘big one’, she believed many, many people had events in their lives that could be addressed in the way she had addressed her loss. It made me think of a big event from my own life... I have really wondered after Jo’s talk how [meeting an abuser] might have affected my recovery.
What struck me about Jo, from the offset, was her calm and placid demeanour. She looked and sounded like she had just finished some deep relaxing meditation, but she was fully awake. The structure of the talk was fantastic for both past and present day... I left feeling like I had been in the presence of someone who, on the surface, seems to have reached a place where her ability to ‘understand’ left me feeling humbled. It was a real pleasure to listen to her story, no matter what internal judgements one makes.
One of the main things that I took from the talk was the blurred distinction between whether I was experiencing empathy or sympathy or neither. At several points I felt like I was empathising with Jo... and could understand the emotional turmoil she must have experienced. I felt strongly internally conflicted however as she got into the later stages of her talk and her forgiveness of Pat Magee. This highly traumatic and complex experience is unlike anything I (and probably most audience members) have had to face in life, and so I was not fully able to relate/empathise. But I also struggled to understand/sympathise with Jo. To be honest I was kind of frustrated, angry even... I resented her ability to forgive and even befriend a man who to her knowledge has never said he regretted killing her father... However, what most annoyed me was that I wholeheartedly agree with her core message, that forgiveness and reconciliation between conflicting parties is quite obviously a superior pathway... I know that in her situation I would not have been able to make that leap and would not have reacted well to anyone who suggested I try... It was a truly fascinating talk that has left me unsuccessfully attempting to solidify my own opinion re: forgiveness and justice.
Tom interviews Jo: An excerpt
Jo: I spent the first five years of my life mainly with nannies and hardly seeing my parents... And then my mum separated from my dad when I was six and our lives completely changed... My mum... became friends with people like Roald Dahl. So he was a big part of my childhood. And artists. And, she had like a bohemian house... We were discussing all sorts of interesting ideas. And my father was actually very strict. I remember we used to have to have special clothes when we saw him... So, quite a lot of contrasts that I had to manage.
My father married soon after and had two more children. So we had two homes: very different values, very different disciplines. My over-riding thing as a child was that I could never make my parents happy. When I was with my dad, my mum was upset; when I was with my mum, my dad was upset. So I grew up just always feeling like I wanted to be in two places at the same time, which I think is quite often true of children with divorced parents.
In those days there was no one to talk to about things like that. You just didn’t [laughs]. So I got on with it.
I always seemed to be the one who got in trouble in my family. I don’t know why. Still don’t know why [laughs]...
But over the years my father softened... My mother carried on being quite, adventurous. She’d take us on unusual holidays. Different experiences. So I grew up with a whole lot of people around in my life. I used to go to Buckingham Palace. That was part of my life. Go to 10 Downing Street, because of [laughs] my father. At the same time, I’d meet people from different parts of the world. So quite a variety of experiences.
I remember being really, really unhappy at boarding school. It was a very strict, girls-only boarding school... How much like a prison. These teachers were just like sadists [laughs] and just delighted in punishment. It was the most ridiculous thing. Feelings were not allowed.
I have to say, feelings were not allowed in any part of my childhood.
My mum used to say, just before she became a person-centred counsellor, she’d say, “You can either be tired or joyful” and that was it! So, you know, not a great kind of place to learn about feelings.
And I was a very feeling child. So, I was often called a cry-baby. I used to cry a lot. And I carried on crying right through my boarding school. Eventually they asked me to leave. [Laughs.] Because I was, too difficult.
And that was fantastic. So at 14, I left this prison and came back to London. And, my mum was very involved with her own life. She didn’t really notice me too much. And I discovered, in a whole street, was a squat. And I went there after school, and eventually during school. And there were like all these people there who’d just come back from India, Afghanistan, everywhere like that. And they had bells and incense and played Ravi Shankar music and smoked dope. And I was just like, “Wow!” So that opened my eyes to life quite a lot. And I started reading Jung and Herman Hesse. I just loved the young people I was meeting. I just loved. There was a freedom they had that I really wanted. They weren’t constrained by who they were, where they came from. No one asked them who their father did. You know? They were just living their lives.
... It gave me a thirst, I wanted to go to India, overland to India... So school seemed completely irrelevant. How I got ‘A’ levels I don’t know. I didn’t work very hard. [Laughs.] ...
Tom: [I ask about her father’s and her own commitment to peace.]
Jo: I did eventually start meditating. I did get to India and I lived there for a couple of years. And during that time, just in my early 20s, I wrote letters to mum and dad apologising for being so difficult and, appreciating them, and appreciating how difficult I had been. So I’m making peace with them. I came back in June ’84 and my dad was going through a really hard time. He had financial problems and he was also arrested by the police... I think that was very shameful, to be arrested by the police. I remember I wrote him a note after it happened and I said, “I can see this is really difficult for you and you need to know that your friends stand by you and will understand you and will love you for it. And those who criticise you were never your friends... And I love you whatever you do.” He never wrote back. He still found it hard to communicate his emotions. But I found out, after he was killed, that he had the letter under his pillow.
Zaki, J. (2013). Empathy as a choice. The Moral Universe: Dialogues on the psychology of right and wrong (July 29). http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/moral-universe/2013/07/29/empathy-as-a-choice/
How to cite this blog post using APA Style
T. Farsides. (2013, October 30). No such thing as altruism? Retrieved from http://tomfarsides.blogspot.com/2013/10/empathy-for-the-devil-jo-berry-visits-US.html
Bombed Grand link
Jo Berry link
Jo Berry and Patrick Magee link