“He who fights monsters”, but who or what are the monsters?

Fredrick Nietzche is famous for saying “He who fights monsters should look to it that he himself does not become a monster… when you gaze long into the abyss the abyss also gazes into you.” I believe that this quote can be applied to the way that we frequently dehumanize others when we fight monstrous behaviors. Here is a summary of the relational frames that apply in the circumstances to build on empathetic and compassionate perspectives while also maintaining a firm stance against unethical, immoral, and dehumanizing behaviors.

For those who unfamiliar with it, Relational Frame Theory (RFT) is a languaging or verbal behavior theory that is built off of Skinner’s verbal operants. It explores how humans relate events to each other (called ‘relating’) and the impact this has on our behavior. It’s most well known application is Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT). If you want to learn more about it, I highly recommend the book Understanding and Applying Relational Frame Theory by Siri Mingo, PhD, BCBA-D, Evelyn Gould, PhD, BCBA-D, and Julia H. Fiebig, PhD, BCBA-D.

In the context of Nietzsche’s quote above, several relational frames could be relevant when dealing with unethical, immoral, or dehumanizing behaviors while trying to maintain an empathetic and compassionate perspective:

  1. Deictic Framing: This frame refers to perspectives. In an empathetic context, it allows us to take the perspective of others, to understand their experiences and emotions. This can help to humanize individuals who engage in harmful actions, allowing us to see them as people influenced by their circumstances, rather than simply as “monsters”. However, it’s important not to lose sight of the harmful actions themselves, and to continue to condemn those.
  1. Hierarchical Framing: This frame involves categorizing things as being “above” or “below” other things. In this context, it might mean prioritizing empathy and understanding over condemnation, or vice versa. It’s crucial to find a balance, acknowledging the importance of both.
  1. Coordinate Framing: This frame involves recognizing that two things can be separate but related. Here, it might mean understanding that an individual (who deserves empathy and understanding) and their actions (which may be harmful and deserving of condemnation) are distinct but related entities. It’s possible to empathize with a person while condemning their actions.
  1. Causal Framing: This frame is about understanding cause and effect. It can help us recognize how certain conditions or experiences may lead individuals to behave harmfully, again emphasizing the importance of empathy. However, it also serves as a reminder that understanding the causes of harmful behavior does not excuse it.

In sum, utilizing these relational frames can help us maintain a firm stance against unethical, immoral, and dehumanizing behaviors while also fostering an empathetic and compassionate perspective. It’s about humanizing individuals, understanding their circumstances, and condemning harmful actions, not the individuals themselves. It’s a delicate balance that requires constant mindfulness and adjustment.


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