Several months ago, I wondered what it would be like to see two chameleons battle for territory. I had heard the males put on showy displays to establish dominance and thought it would be cool to see what colors they’d turn. I don’t remember telling this to Mr. Omar, but a few weeks later, when he randomly moved a chameleon from the front yard to the back, I got my wish.
On the way to the compost bin, I noticed a bright lime and peach chameleon climbing up the azalea bush faster than I’d ever seen one move. At the end of the branch was a dark green and brown one, barely visible against the leaves. When Lime got to Green, it wasn’t even a contest. Lime snarled and lunged; Green let go of the branch and fell over a meter to the ground in what felt like slow motion, landing with a horrible thud. A minute or so passed; Green woke and crawled up the nearest tree. Lime snarled from his spot on the azalea branch and looked ready to follow, but he did not get the chance. Little Green got scooped up in a Tupperware and returned to the front.
I thought a lot about the incident afterward. It was far more aggressive than I had expected, like watching the death of Mufasa in The Lion King or seeing two dinosaurs fight (but really small). I felt sorry for the little green one; Lime had transgressed every lesson of hospitality that I’d ever been taught as a child. Yet the situation is not unique; so much of what comes to us in the world is a product of unpleasantness. We kill animals and plants to eat and develop medicines. We fight for land and rights in the most violent of ways. It’s almost as if we need to prove to the universe by the most dramatic means available that “Yes, I really want this.” Clearly Lime wanted the azaleas.
Despite how nice it would be for everyone just to “get along,” I can understand Lime. Green could have been the Hernando Cortés of chameleons, bearing a whole host of diseases and problems that could have spelled the end of Lime’s life and progeny.
And historically, Cortés did not feel “loved and mercifully changed” from his hospitable experience with the Aztecs. Quite the opposite, history generally considers Cortés as being strong or clever for taking advantage.
In other words, it all comes down to the power dynamics of the system. In Lime’s case, there was no protective system looming larger than both of them; no hospitals, family or law enforcement to guarantee he would have been safe had he accepted Green. More importantly, there was no guarantee that Green would have heard the message of a more just and loving world by being accepted. In some cases, it could have affirmed the opposite.
That’s not to say I think we should be hurling chameleons off bushes and forgoing hospitality in favor of self-interest. But ethical realism does require an acceptance that justice is rarely a simple show of flashing colors to watch and critique from a spot near the compost. True peace can only exist in the space between Lime and Green, not outside of it.
Existing in that space in any meaningful way requires one know how to speak, and for that one must first listen and learn how to be heard, in a world as varied and changing as the back of a chameleon.