Tag Archives: Apartheid

Whiteness and Good Will

One of the most satisfying types of compliments I have received over the course of my life have been when people from very different backgrounds from mine either mistake me for or claim me for one of their own. This has phenomenon taken a few different forms over the years, ranging from a drunk boss saying of me at a party during my teenage teetotaling years, “David’s the sort of guy that when you’re talking to him stone drunk it’s easy to forget that he’s sober,” to Muslim friends who have told me, “You’re really a Muslim; you just haven’t realized it yet.”

When it comes to my actual ethnic identity though, people rarely guess it. Those who do not know me by name can usually (though not always) guess that I come from somewhere in the US, but that I am somehow not a “typical American.” That’s usually about as far as it goes. Rarely do they come anywhere close to guessing that I am a Michigander from entirely Dutch ancestry, or that my grandparents were all staunch Calvinists. At best, if this comes up after some hours of conversation, those who casually hear of my background and who are familiar with this sort of sub-cultural heritage might say, “OK, I can see that.” But to most my background remains somewhat of an enigma, and I am generally happy to have it that way.

There are, however, three aspects of my identity which are obvious to everyone at first glance these days, and which appear to be rather inescapable for me: I am a white, middle-aged man. It would be rather difficult to keep someone from noticing any of the three: no one with functional eyes could possibly mistake me for being young, feminine or of non-European ancestry. Of course this leads to a certain number of stereotypes, both positive and negative.

jackMost of these stereotypes, I admit, work to my advantage. It’s been a long time since any security guard, policeman or customs official has randomly followed me around, searched me or questioned me about anything suspicious. I also receive a certain amount of preferential service at shops, libraries, swimming halls, etc. just because I happen to look like a white, middle aged man. But these stereotypes often feed into a certain resentment of my perceived advantages as well. Frequently it is assumed that, as someone with social liberal sympathies, I should be using my advantages better to help those without such advantages. At times I feel like Robin Williams’ character in the movie Jack, or Tom Hanks’ character in Big: having the appearance of a middle aged man entitles me to certain things that my peers may be jealous of at times, intimidated by at times, and anxious to take some advantage of at times. All the while this world of appearance-based privilege feels more than a little unnatural to me. Yet even so I have to admit that, relatively speaking, it does work to my advantage.

rs_634x1024-141231114734-634-gilmore-girl-Edward-Herrmann.ls.123114Among the tributes to Edward Herrmann, the actor who played Richard on The Gilmore Girls, who died rather unexpectedly on New Year’s Eve, there have been collections of his best quotes in that role floating around on line over the past few days. One that is both poignant and disturbing at this point in history is where he says to a pair of bothersome policemen, “Look, it’s getting late, so either shoot us or go away.” Feeling like I might be able to get away with saying something like that to an unfamiliar police officer myself is as close as I come to a sense of white privilege: Whereas I could probably get away with such wise-assery with little more than a rebuke, recent history has shown that that sort of comment could easily get some of my darker skinned friends killed. I get that. I’m not entirely comfortable with the sort of injustice this implies. I’m not entirely comfortable with the paradoxically conflicted position this puts me in.

Economically I am in a rather awkward position as well. If you take the gross global production per year and divide it by the number of people in the world, my income comes quite close to the resulting global average. That means that while I am functionally as poor as they let people here in the Nordic countries get, in a world where the median income is just under 100 € per month, compared to most I am, admittedly, obscenely rich.

This is something that I’ve been thinking about lately, especially over the turn of the year. In recent weeks I’ve faced some attacks from people politically to my left (for a change), accusing me of not being appropriately embarrassed about my whiteness and my masculinity in particular. I also happen to be quite committed to the heterosexual and Protestant Christian aspects of my identity, which for some just makes matters worse. I’m not quite sure what, if anything, I should do about that. I make a point of not acting “entitled” to any advantages which my unearned status gives me. I always try take a stand against those who unjustly abuse others because they happen to be different than I am in any of these regards, whether this be in person on social media. But in spite of acknowledging many prejudices and resulting injustices as “real things”, I am not ashamed of what I am in terms of my masculinity, my age, my heterosexuality, my Christianity or my whiteness; and I find it rather tasteless and absurd when some people imply that I should be.

The particular paradox that I am faced with in practice, however, is not dealing with the hatred of those who can’t resist the urge to hate (and there are plenty of such people on both sides of all “difference” questions), but rather the challenge of how, from where I sit, to go about trying to make the world better in these regards. As I see it there are three primary approaches possible to righting historical wrongs of these sorts. All of these approaches can be necessary under given circumstances, but none of them is without its own inherent risks and fundamental flaws. These approaches would be: 1) revolutionary reversal of dominance patterns, 2) voluntary aid programs and 3) educational assistance initiatives.

There are certainly times when revolutions of various sorts are the only way to overcome particular patterns of abuse. If one group of people is using their accrued power to systematically deprived another group of basic human value, essentially treating them as inferior animals, sometimes the only solution to the problem is to forcibly remove the dominant group from power. The most obvious positive example of this within my lifetime has been the overthrowing of Apartheid governance in South Africa. Yet how far the post-Apartheid governments of South Africa should have gone in stripping that country’s white elite of their traditional power and privilege compared to what they actually did about the matter is a balance question where they could be fairly critiqued in either direction: On the one hand control of the mining sector of the economy remains firmly in the hands of white managers, leading to the deaths of miners protesting for more humane living and working conditions still in this generation. There is some justification possible for indigenous people going farther in stealing back the natural resources that those representing colonial powers stole from their ancestors a couple centuries ago. On the other hand there are many aspects of everyday administration where playing on resentments of what has gone before has been used as a means of distracting from problems of corruption and flat out incompetence in the current administration.

For all of its problems, the vast majority of the people of South Africa, of all races, see things as far better now than they were a generation ago. Elsewhere on the African continent, however, many of the “new bosses” who theoretically represent the formerly oppressed majority, seem to be making things at least as bad for their people as the colonial “old bosses” did. Sadly, Idi Amin and Robert Mugabe seem to be far closer to the post-colonial norm for African leaders than Nelson Mandela.

The same dilemma faces all revolutionary initiatives hoping to improve the lot of oppressed people. It is not good enough to say, “Those [whites, men, Christians, heteros, whatever] have been making life horrible for us [blacks, women, non-believers, LGBT folk, etc.] for centuries; so now it’s time for us to show them…” Bitterness over previous abuses is not a functional basis for improving people’s lives. Yes, radical power transitions may be necessary, but assuming that will be sufficient is a highly flawed theory. As painful as it may be, each revolution needs to look not only at what the old guard did wrong, but what they did right, both morally and logistically. Revolutionaries who have the cool-headed composure to “win the peace” after the battle are a rare commodity indeed. To do so, more often than not they need to turn to those they’ve vanquished for help in the practical running of things, which can indeed lead to deep questions of what the point of their struggle was if so little changes. To say that it’s complicated is a bit of an understatement.

The opposite end of the spectrum from revolution is simply for those in power to give as much assistance to those under their de facto dominion as they feel inclined to give. There is much to be said for voluntary charity, especially when it is based on a sincere desire to build personal contact with those on the receiving end, and when it is intended to bring about lasting good in their lives. The problem, of course, is that charity is frequently used as a means of protecting and reinforcing the systems which put the disadvantaged people at a disadvantage to begin with. Nicolas Wolterstorff tells of how seeing “generosity” used as a means of justifying gross injustices in pre-Apartheid South Africa fundamentally changed his perspective in such matters.

Even when the donors and volunteers are not trying to maintain some repulsive status quo, there is still the risk that they may be assuming, and/or reinforcing an assumption, that those whom they are trying to help are fundamentally incapable of getting by without their help. Too often in a post-colonial charitable context the hidden message given by charitable organizations and charity organizers is one of, “Yes, our conquest of these people may have been morally questionable, but we were able to do so because they were fundamentally weak to begin with. Their culture was fundamentally dysfunctional before we got here, which is precisely what enabled us to colonize them all those centuries ago. For that matter, once we took over the technical improvements we brought into their lives rather balance out the damage we may have done with what we stole from them. And now, even if we were to stop exploiting them in any way –– or even if we were to restore a significant part of what we took out of their land –– they would still be an inherently weak people in need of our help.” Offering assistance without this sort of hidden message attached is often far easier said than done; doing less harm than good with our charitable efforts can turn out to be a rather complicated matter.

In between the extremes of revolution and voluntary charity then we have the alternative of a structural enabling approach, especially focused on education. The premise here is that one of the main things keeping certain groups at a disadvantage is that they have not had the chance to investigate and develop the sort of systems and methods which have brought relative stability and prosperity to others, particularly those who have the greatest power advantages in the world today. This basically assumes that those in the disadvantaged group are not inherently weak in terms of learning abilities and problem solving skills; just that historical systems of oppression have prevented them from realizing their capabilities in these regards. By teaching them the understandings, approaches and techniques which have enabled people elsewhere to properly thrive, we can help disadvantaged people to help themselves overcome their current disadvantages.

This approach is also far from trouble-free. It tends to assume that there are certain “right understandings” of all elements in the curriculum, regarding which those in the disadvantaged position must be ready to submit themselves to the “expertise” of their (former) oppressors. This can perhaps best be illustrated in terms of gender relation conflicts in the West: Ideally both sexes should be allowed to venture into the other’s traditional territory without having to completely conform to the other’s norms for how things “have to be done”, but in practice it tends not to work that way. Men have clear cultural advantages over women in terms of their positions in business and political power structures. While women now increasingly have opportunities to learn these skills and compete in these fields, many women are justifiably resentful of the idea that in order to be respected in business or in politics they have to learn to do things in a typically masculine way or according to masculine expectations. On the other hand, women have significant cultural advantages in terms of respect for their nurturing abilities, and while opportunities for men to participate in care-taking professions and in the active raising of their own children are progressively increasing, many men are justifiably resentful of the way in which respect for their contributions in these fields depends on their compliance to stereotypical feminine standards.

The same principle of respect for the other’s perspective on things needs to be applied to the teaching of social sciences and other “western” academic disciplines in post-colonial contexts. This too is far easier said than done. The problems of “Orientalism” and respect for cultural autonomy in relation to the formulation and application of basic human rights is a long debate unto itself.

Yet even with these risks and underlying tensions taken into account, I still believe that the educational empowerment approach might provide the best chance to overcome problems stemming from historical abuses of power, to build mutual respect between those on opposite sides of the old power struggles, and to initiate a constructive orientation towards the future. It is not safe to assume that peace and justice can be brought about merely by removing a particular group of abusers of power, nor by trusting the good will of those who have historically abused power. The best hope is to be found in respectfully enabling those who have been traditionally disempowered to work together constructively with those who have traditionally held exclusive rights to power, and to do so in a manner that respectfully considers the contributions offered by those who have previously been excluded from the processes in question.

This is how I, as a white, middle-aged man, still hope to improve the world I find myself in. Accuse me of patriarchy or ethno-centrism if you must, but I still believe that some of the knowledge and skills I have acquired over the years are potentially useful for people around me, and not only in a European context. I realize that in sharing what I have to offer I have to be ready to carefully listen to others’ perspectives, but that does not mean that what I have to offer is without value.

To the limited extent to which I am able, I will also try to keep offering direct material aid to those in greater need than I am, and I still offer what moral support I can to revolutionaries with hopeful, constructive orientations in their revolutions; but for myself I don’t see those as primary means of reducing injustices, helping those in need or making the world a better place.

My personal concrete starting point in this regard for 2015 is to do what I can to help empower some of the poorest people in Kenya, beginning with the personal contacts I was able to make there last June. Anyone who would like to join in this particular project is more than welcome to get in touch with me regarding details. Meanwhile I wish all my readers and fellow idealists a blessed and productive new year. May all your dreams of this year finding ways to leave the world a better place than you found it come true.


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Filed under Education, Empathy, Ethics, Holidays, Racism

Facing my Fears

I’ve been writing this over the weekend between Halloween and the American presidential election, following a major hurricane essentially closing down the northeastern United States for two days, once again drawing attention to the question of human caused global climate change; when both news and entertainment media have reached some sort of crescendo in giving people things to be afraid of.  Meanwhile I’m sitting here in a state of low-grade stress over the state of paperwork that actually makes relatively little difference in the big picture of things, wondering what, if anything I should really be afraid of in life.

Stereotypical horror movies and thrillers have to do with people facing the threat of something important being taken away from them: their lives, their families, their homes, their basic freedoms, their social respectability, their chances of being loved, etc. Other’s play off of deep-seated fight or flight reflexes when faced with certain stimuli: blood, corpses, snakes, spiders, storms… whatever. Rationally or irrationally, people get the impression that they stand to lose their life or something else very important to them, and they freak out with a massive adrenalin rush.

I have to confess a certain ambivalence towards all of these. At this age I’m largely numb to such artificial stimulations of fear reflexes, and to one extent or another, at various points along the way, I’ve already lost most of the things (other than my life and health) that thrillers and politicians try to play off of threats to. The thing I’d be most unquestionably willing to stand up and fight for, at the expense of my own life if necessary, would be the safety and well-being of my sons; but they are adults already, more capable of protecting and taking care of themselves than I am of taking care of either of them. As a divorced father and a foreigner in Finland every part of my closeness to them as children that could be stolen from me was stolen from me. Threats to what I have left in terms of home, respectability and opportunities for love are not particularly worth worrying about at this point.

Over the past year and some, with my African experiences and all, I’ve faced the possibility of my own death many times: I clobbered myself in the head with an axe, I locked myself into a confined space with an alpha-male baboon, I was involved in a traffic incident where a pickup slammed into me as I was riding a bicycle, I got lost by bicycle in one of South Africa’s most dangerous slums, I faced a cobra in the wild at a distance of less than two meters, and then last month I had a car burst into flames while I was driving it. All of these are true stories which, in retrospect, were matters of my own carelessness and probably weren’t that big a deal. Yes, in theory any one of those incidents could have got me killed, but they are now stories I just tell for laughs. When I die it is likely to be from something predictable and boring, probably related to long-term effects of diet and lifestyle. I’m trying to make adjustments so as to not rush that process, but fear for my life is not a major part of my everyday existence.

I also had encounters with large cockroaches, large spiders and once with a scorpion in my apartment in Africa last year. The scorpion would have objectively been the most dangerous of these, but those who know tell me that its sting wouldn’t have killed me; it would have just made me wish I was dead. Yes, I must admit, the idea of extreme pain of many sorts makes me very uncomfortable. I’m not at all sure that I would hold up well to waterboarding, fingernail removal or dentistry without Novocain, to say nothing of kidney stones or scorpion stings. On that level there are plenty of things capable of frightening me in terms of the threat of physical pain, but in the cinema or the media these things are actually rather unlikely to have much of an effect on my adrenalin levels.

As I age I’ve noticed that my luxuriant hair and unusually sharp eyes have been getting noticeably thinner and weaker in recent years. Nor can I run as fast as I used to or work as hard as I once could without getting tired. So far that too is more of a joke than a serious threat for me, but I wonder sometimes of the aging process is something I should be more afraid of. I actually don’t see the point though; it’s happening to me at the same rate as to pretty much anyone else of my generation. The real question is, have I got enough done with my various physical capacities before progressively losing them? I hope there is still time to deal with my various forms of laziness in that regard before I lose my faculties entirely though.

What about the world at large? Should I be afraid of what will be happening to the environment, the economy, personal freedoms, etc.? On one level I hope to do my part in enabling my own sons and those young people in whose lives I’ve personally invested as a teacher to be able to grow up, have children of their own, and raise them in a safe, secure and enjoyable environment –– not in a continuous state of war or the leftover destruction therefrom –– but I’m not going to waste too much energy getting paranoid about such things. It is extremely unlikely that any of these in whom I have this sort of personal investment will ever have life as difficult or dangerous in physical terms as does my black friend George in Cape Town; to say nothing of their security and well-being ever dropping to the level of that of residents of Gugulethu –– the slum I got lost in that time –– or of the refugees moving back and forth between Syria and Iraq these days.

My ancestors 150 years ago in the Netherlands actually lived through a rather brutal struggle for existence on the heath land outside of the small villages there, comparable in many ways to what I witnessed in Africa. Food, shelter and medical care could never be taken for granted.  They lost as many children on average as they saw through to adulthood. I want to work to insure that the risk of returning to that state of affairs is as small as possible for those close to me. I also want to help get as many people as possible who are still in such a state of affairs out of it. But this is less a matter of fear for me than it is a matter of sorrow at current ongoing suffering and hope for improvements in the future.

When it comes to politics, on one level I am afraid that those who have no concept of human suffering and the difficulties of the world’s poor will make matters worse for them. This has been going on for most of human history already, so I don’t see it as a new and horrible threat. I just hope that we can limit the callous disregard for the poor of our own generation slightly better than our ancestors did. Alas, worldwide since the 1980s, with the exception of the ending of Apartheid, things seem to have been going in the wrong direction in this regard pretty much across the board. Things are not hopeless, but things are not getting better as they should be.

Beyond this there is the question of the impact we are having on our environment(s).  On a smaller scale there is absolutely nothing new about this. Since mankind discovered fire people have been dying of carbon-monoxide poisoning and other effects of pollution caused by each other’s lifestyles. The early residents of the Easter Islands managed to deforest the whole territory, thus making life as they knew it there impossible to continue. It doesn’t seem at all likely that we will drive our entire species extinct with this sort of short-sighted behavior, but we are almost certain to kill millions of people through greedy struggles for resources or accidental carelessness a few more times before the end of human history. The only real question as far as the environment is concerned is how far the radical changes we are causing will effect which parts of the world are inhabitable for humans and which aren’t , and how many billions of poor people will end up dying because of this?  In the case of the Dust Bowl and many other  environmental disasters over the years –– including the various extinctions or near extinctions plants and animals vital to the economies of the times –– people have shown a remarkable ability to ignore warnings and believe that they can continue on with their ultimately self-destructive lifestyles  until long after the problem becomes too obvious to ignore. Do I want to try to prevent such problems? Of course. Do they seriously scare me personally? Not so much.

Other stereotypical aspects of fear or terror to be addressed are those of the supernatural sort: witches, demons, werewolves, ghosts and various sorts of reanimated dead people.  It would be fair to say that even the most superstitious among us would be willing to admit that these fears are more a matter of getting an adrenalin rush out of old wives tales than anything else.  Are there historical precedents for some of these story types? Sure. Is there any reason for me to be afraid of them? I seriously doubt it.

The most plausible threat among these would be demon possession, which, regardless of your supernatural beliefs, in the vast majority of cases at least can be explained quite well as some form of mental illness or another.  That doesn’t make such people any less creepily destructive to themselves and those around them, but it puts the actual powers they have into perspective. Perhaps more frightening to me than the risk of demons taking over people’s bodies though is the fact that more American Republicans believe in this than believe in human caused global warming. The one is supernatural explanation of an extremely limited phenomenon at best, and an overly dramatized old wives’ tale at worst; the other is a scientific hypothesis to explain strong globally observable trends that increasingly effect everyday life. If increased tornados and rising sea levels are explained as unavoidable acts of God, or as signs of God’s wrath on sinful regions, rather than as the effects of ways in which we are screwing up the planet we live on, that could lead to a lot of very bad things both socially and environmentally in the coming generations.

And that actually ties into an entirely different area of fear: evangelical Christians’ fear of the coming of the Antichrist. This is a rather bizarre phenomenon that I discussed in a blog 1½ years ago, but in essence the idea is that inevitably history as we know it will end with a powerful leader coming on the scene and convincing everyone that he will do the sort of things that for the past 2500 years the Jews have been expecting their Messiah to do when he comes: establishing world peace, providing justice for the poor, ushering in a new age of prosperity, etc. According to Bible prophesy though, this presumed hero consequently turns out to be the ultimate villain, eventually using the personal power he amasses to prevent the free worship of God and to establish absolute control over the national and global economy.  This sort of reading of the book of Revelation is the mother of all dystopias. Basically every particularly strong American or world leader since Abraham Lincoln –– anyone presenting viable promises of unity, peace and prosperity without sucking up to the evangelical Christian community in the process –– has been labeled as a potential Antichrist.

There are of course many ways of interpreting such Biblical teachings, ranging from the various “reinterpretations through fresh revelation” that happened in mid-nineteenth century America to the complete dismissal of Revelation as gnostic nonsense that the fourth century church was mistaken to include in the cannon of scripture. My own current take on such matters is rather ambivalent, but there are a few things I know for sure:
– The writers of the Bible were somewhat surprised and disappointed not to see Jesus’ return in glory and the final battle of the apocalypse within their own lifetimes. That in itself should tell us something.
– The theme of power corrupting otherwise good and effective leaders is an eternally relevant theme unto itself, which isn’t necessarily any more relevant to one strong leader than another.
– Persecutions of Christians and other groups for their religious identities have been happening on a more or less regular basis since long before the book of Revelation was written. It’s hard to imagine how any final fulfillment of tale told there could still be unique or especially fear-worthy in that regard.
– In the end of the story in Revelation, after an intense war much shorter than the current Iraq War, “good” wins and remains triumphant for 1000 years (roughly half the amount of time that has passed since its writing), so believers who are actually expecting such things to happen really shouldn’t be all that scared to begin with.

Yet in spite of all that, labeling someone as an Antichrist remains an effective fear-mongering tool among certain Christian groups. Under these circumstances I actually find assertions that some politician or another is the Anti-Christ to be far more embarrassing than frightening.

But taking things from a Biblical perspective, one of the most psychologically profound verses in the Bible, which was actually written by the same fellow who wrote the Revelation, is 1 John 4:18: There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.

As I see it that can be taken in at least two ways:  First of all love implies trust and good will towards each other.  Torturing the loved one and getting into power struggles just to prove who’s in charge are imperfections in love. If we can believe that there’s an all-powerful God out there who loves us too perfectly to allow our lives to randomly become hell, we really have nothing to be afraid of.  Having this sort of confidence can enable us to live in a fearless way that can enable us to be far more productive in life. But then there is the Bible’s book of Job which contemplates the fact that sometimes we do end up going through hell in ways that don’t figure with our understanding of a just and loving God being out there taking care of us. There are many interpretations on this one, but the only thing that is clear is that bad things do happen to good people and we all have our limits. So the blind trust that nothing will ever go wrong with God watching out for us can lead to all sorts of problems and disappointments in life. All things in moderation on that one I say, and on to other aspects of the verse.

Beyond providing a sort of imaginary safety net for other forms of happiness though, I believe that love provides a form of happiness unto itself that trumps all others. This is what I was talking about in terms of happiness by way of connection. The more perfect the love, the less risk there is that it will break down and leave one feeling isolated and abandoned. Beyond that, love gives one a sense that something significant about me that will go on after my physical life is over. Thus love is in many respects more important than life itself. If you know that you are loved –– that you are somehow deeply and personally connected with other people and/or things/principles beyond yourself –– that makes it a lot easier not to be afraid of various forms of crap that life brings your way. Perfect love enables you to know that what is ultimately most important to you in life can never be taken away from you.

Have I ever experienced truly perfect love? Of course not, but I have had some pretty satisfying and lasting personal connections, and I hope to have still more of them and better ones before my life is over. Building such connection, and in this way “looking for love” is in many respects the purpose of my life. Reading, writing, on-line interactions, teaching and trying to promote various forms of humanitarian work are all part of this for me. If these connections are real no one can take them away from me.  The better they are, the less I have to be afraid of in all other aspects of life.

In the worst case scenario of Romney getting elected, or of a new US civil war breaking out because of redneck hatred for Obama, thousands if not millions of people around the world will die unnecessarily because of generalized American stupidity.  There is nothing unprecedented about this though; people have been dying because of the callous greed and stupidity of others since the beginning of time. And among those who are at greater risk of dying because of American political policies clearly for many of them their own stupidity also figures into the question. So we’re not talking about a terror dystopia here; we’re talking about forms of gross injustice that we’ve always had continuing and intensifying. Of course I want to do everything I can to prevent that from happening, but am I afraid of it? Not in the strictest sense of the word.

The apocalyptic visions of those on the religious and economic far right probably serve as far better tools for fear-mongering than what anyone left of center has to offer, and sadly fear is often a far more effective motivational tool than hope when it comes to politics. I would like to believe that most of my countrymen are not so dumb as to fall for that, but there is a reasonably good chance that they might be.

That leaves me with the moral question: if the only way to save lives is to try to artificially scare the crap out of people, does that make fear-mongering the morally right thing to do? Perhaps in some cases it could be, but at this point I’m not inclined to believe that such an end would justify such a means. Increasing people’s sense of fear has a way of getting out of control, not to mention all of the intangible satisfactions in life that living in fear steals from everyone. If I’m going to complain about American Republicans putting their party interest ahead of the good of the country and the world, it would be hypocritical to start harming people’s sense of well-being for the sake of political advantage for the other side.

So even if hope to save millions of lives is not as effective a political tool as an artificial apocalypse or a self-fulfilling prophesy of mass destruction, I’m sticking with the former. If the worst happens because of this, I can face my fears and believe that my life has hope, value and purpose regardless. I hope the rest of you can too.


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Filed under Death, Love, Politics, Religion, Risk taking, Sustainability

Egalitarianism vs. Meritocracy

This weekend was a literary festival, South African style. There were three days worth of discussions among those who are most likely to sell books in this country; which mostly meant political commentators, crime writers, comedians and a few token school administrators and the like. Some were representing minority niche markets, some were looking for big new trends, some were networking with other members of the academic and intellectual elite of the country, some were practicing intellectual self-gratification. It’s sort of hard to say what I was doing there.

The town hall clock of Franschhoek, home of the literary festival. Notice anything slightly odd about this picture?

In talking with some of the country’s more respected political thinkers though I came away with the following basic realization regarding politics in South Africa and around the world really: they need to be driven by an idealistic vision backed up by competent basic management and accountability to the population being served; and that vision needs to involve a balance of egalitarianism and meritocracy. The fundamental questions then are how to build a more direct system of public accountability into our democratic processes, how to limit the various forms of corruption that keep creeping into politics, how to improve respect for human rights in general, and how to achieve the necessary balance of ideals.

On the left side of the political spectrum we have the social ideal of egalitarianism: the basic concept of justice based on a fundamental equality between humans of all colors, sizes shapes and sexes. White people shouldn’t be allowed to get away with things that black people automatically get punished for. What is wrong for women needs to be recognized as wrong for men as well. No one is to be excluded from (public) education, housing or basic employment on the grounds that they don’t go to the right sort of church, or their grandparents spoke the wrong language, or they don’t show the right sort of attraction to the opposite sex. These ideals are nearly universally held by responsible politicians of all sorts around the world. They are the basis of the US constitution, the ideals of the French Revolution, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and the moderate forms of major monotheistic religions that these are drawn from. Yes, there are radical Muslim clerics and neo-Nazis that deny basic principles of racial and gender equality, but I would not consider them to be “responsible politicians”. Accuse me of the “No True Scotsman” fallacy here if you’d like, but I believe the point stands.

On the right side of the political spectrum you have the ideal of meritocracy: the ideal that everyone should have equal possibilities of becoming unequal. The chance to become a president, a business millionaire, a great artist, a high ranking military commander or a respected intellectual should be open to everyone; and rewards should be given to those that achieve such statuses accordingly. Our societies should encourage excellence from all their members, and they should focus on mobility rather than mediocrity. This has been the functional basis of American society in particular throughout its history; and with the collapse of rigid class systems in Western European societies over the past few generations it has become a matter of ideological consensus there as well. It has been a long time since anyone has made a strong public argument that members of the traditional aristocracies are simply “more evolved” than other members of society, and that the maintenance of their privileges is justified on such a basis. The furthest right responsible thinkers tend to go these days (There I go again!) is to claim that by and large rich people got that way by working harder and smarter than others, and thus they deserve to keep everything that they have earned.

These two ideas are not mutually exclusive. One can believe in both social justice and free markets. The question is more a matter of how to go about balancing these concerns. If a society becomes too focused on the egalitarian concerns it loses track of the pursuit of excellence. Ayn Rand’s style of dystopia might remain an impossibility, but the sort of stagnation seen in the final days of the Soviet Union, and in Cuba still today, is real enough. An assumption that no one should rise up above his brothers and sisters in terms of power and influence can easily lead to a form of anti-intellectualism –– an idea that no one should be too capable of outsmarting everyone else, and that competition is ultimately a bad thing. Thus we need to avoid getting stuck in a belief that we can and should achieve ultimate happiness and social stability by finding ways to completely equalize everyone.

Yet on the other side of the spectrum if we become entirely preoccupied with “letting the cream rise to the top” we can end up accidentally ignoring and even belittling the humanity of the “dregs” or “curds” at the bottom. Meritocracy in some senses becomes a bit of an abstraction when there are millions of people who never get any chance to show what they are capable of because of the circumstances they were born into. Even in a prosperous and largely homogeneous state like Finland it is rather unfair to say that everyone who is poor or socially disadvantaged got that way entirely through their own fault; to make such a charge against the poor of Mexico, the United States or South Africa shows a patently absurd level of bigotry. In the process of encouraging competition then we need to take the human rights of everyone seriously, even (or perhaps especially) the losers.

So the challenge for the political future –– in South Africa and in all functional democracies –– is to find a balance between these ideals, and then to find honest and competent functionaries to carry out the practical side of them. Ideally speaking then there needs to be an education system which creates mutual understanding between all parties involved in the democratic process; which instills an ethic of honesty, trust and cooperation in the population at large; which equips workers at all levels to carry out their tasks dependably and efficiently; and which makes people aware of the potential unintended consequences of their actions. From there we need leaders with enough charisma to inspire the population to reach towards a better future –– where resource holders, innovative thinkers and basic workers to can come together and cooperate in ways that benefit all involved; and where no human beings are treated as disposable commodities. Then we need government officials who carry out their jobs as a matter of honor –– thinking of their work as a sacred trust rather than as a means of extorting personal advantage from the system. Then there needs to be a level of authentic choice available to the voters, where through electoral participation reasonable and well informed individuals can have a say in both keeping their representatives honest and influencing the ideological balance on the basis of which the government operates. Alas, we’re a long ways from things working that way in practice.

In South Africa the political elite is divided into fractions that represent the followers of Apartheid era (white) liberalism, Apartheid era revolutionary African nationalism, and Apartheid era revolutionary socialism. Effectively the ANC party (which has just celebrated its hundredth anniversary as an organization) tries to bring together all of these fractions under its rainbow colored umbrella, enabling it to govern as a strong single party majority in virtually all levels of government, albeit with a smaller and smaller majority in every election cycle. Yet this form of political organization is rather problematic on many levels, not the least of which is that it tends to prioritize the maintenance of party control over any coherent ideological direction for the party and the country.

From the discussions I listened to over the weekend it seems I am not alone in believing that the presence of a loyal opposition party –– or two, or three –– and regular changeovers of power between ruling parties would make the system far healthier and more responsible to the needs of the people. Each party could/would/should represent one particular emphasis within the overall necessary political balancing act: one representing the ideals of meritocracy; another, the ideals of egalitarianism; yet another, concern for the importance of a sustainable relationship with the environment; yet another, the importance of active participation in a global economy, and so on. By voting for competent and inspiring members of particular parties citizens could then influence the overall balance of ideology in terms of which issues the government should be prioritizing. This would enable citizens to have some other means of expressing their will than holding protest marches. This sort of functional representative democracy may be a distant utopian dream, but it is still a dream worth dreaming.

A protest march in Durban recently, though none of the bystanders seemed to know what they were protesting about this time.

Comparing this to the American situation, we can only hope that the two party system is in a bit of a crisis and some stronger, more sensible system will arise in the years to come. The dialectics on which American politics have been based are business (trade, investment banking and industry) vs. agriculture, isolationist vs. internationalist, empire building vs. cohesion building and Cold Warrior vs. peacemaker. Since the “Reagan Revolution” it could be said that the primary party dialectic there as been between a coalition of conservative religious moralizers and promoters of big business interests on the right vs. a coalition of civil rights activists and environmental protection campaigners on the left. Along the way plenty of sleazy tactics and stock insults have been developed, and a great deal of idealism has been lost. At no point has the debate evolved to the point of looking for a balance between egalitarianism and meritocracy as the “founding fathers” might have envisioned. (The problem of idealized visions of the American founding fathers is of course a blog unto itself.)

In theory the two party system there could be developed in the direction of the sort of dialectic I am hoping for –– the Democrats taking the role of the Egalitarians: pushing for the rights of the poor and middle class to have greater dignity and opportunities in life, and for the rich to be taxed to the extent that the country can afford to give all children the sorts of opportunities that they had; and then the Republicans taking the role of the meritocracy promoters: insisting on excellence being encouraged at all levels of education, R&D, production and artistic expression, with the understanding that these programs are not necessarily going to benefit everyone equally, but that they will nevertheless provide opportunities that are open to everyone, at all levels of society. In practice it isn’t going to work that way though. The Republican Party has actually shown little interest in promoting excellence in education or anything else. On the contrary, it wishes to belittle the Ivy League academic elite of the country as “liberals” (enunciated with distain) who “think too much” and are out of touch with “hard working normal people”. Thus the pursuit of excellence is really the last thing on their agenda. Far more important to their identity and strategy is the fear of change, growth, innovation and “otherness” in general. Their party slogan could well be, “Let those who have traditionally been in authority remain in authority, and then everyone will be happy.” The Democratic Party, meanwhile, has built an identity based on a bit of a hodge-podge of those interested in social change in general without a particularly strong sense of core direction or identity.

Hope for both countries –– for all democratic nations really –– I believe lies in education in “the humanities subjects” (and philosophy in particular –– my own bias) going forward, regardless of what US Republicans and other anti-meritocratic interests have to say about the matter. This could, in the long term, lead to the development of a generation of politicians with integrity, competence and ideals worth believing in –– egalitarians willing to fight against abusive greed and meritocrats willing to fight against sloth and mediocrity. That in turn could lead to politics once again becoming the sort of business that decent people (a tip of my hat to Jonathan Jansen [http://www.ufs.ac.za/content.aspx?uid=38] here) can feel comfortable getting involved in.

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Filed under Education, Politics, Priorities, Purpose

Camping African Style

The weekend after New Year’s has to be the busiest time of the year for all sorts of outdoor recreational activities in South Africa –– camping in particular. This is the time when the warm weather and longer days reach their most enjoyable, and when families and office workers are stretching out the last glorious moments of their Christmas holidays. It was no small feat then that Z managed to book a place for 14 of us in a popular campground with all of the modern conveniences over that weekend.

But as the group’s official representative it also fell to Z to forward our collective complaints to the camp office. Part of this was requesting a security details to come around and quiet down all the parties going on around us all night over the weekend. Sunday morning, as she sat with tired eyes next to the came fire she gave us a particularly interesting report on her telephone negotiations with the campground administration during the night: In the wee hours of the morning, with drunken parties and ghetto blasters pounding away on all sides of us, she called and woke up the manager. In his groggy frustration over being hauled out of bed to deal with this situation he came out with a rather novel request: “Could you put that in writing for us?” As though at 2:00 in the morning the proper procedure for having peace and quiet enforced would be to find a pen and paper –– or computer and printer –– write a hundred word explanation of the situation, and then get up and deliver it to the office.

To be generous to him, it is possible that he might just have needed a complaint memo in writing after the fact to accompany his security guards’ overtime pay requisition form, but there was something comically Orwellian about the bureaucratic nature of his request. As we joked about this around the breakfast table the group suggested that Z use her credentials as an established journalist to write something with a bit of a bite to it about the experience. She had some reservations about that though, not the least of which was trying to avoid giving herself a reputation as the sort of trouble maker they would prefer not to have back as a guest in the future. So having no reputation to lose here myself, I figured that if something needed to be written about our camping experience I could do it. Not that anyone would take my writing all that seriously, but maybe that would be the point in my writing it.

The campground in question was over on the east side of False Bay, a couple hours drive from Cape Town. Once upon a time, probably during the Apartheid era, it was a very respectable place, with level grassy places for pitching tents, electric outlets at each camp site, a little camp shop, clean and efficient restrooms and showers, and direct access to both a white sandy beach on the Indian Ocean and peaceful little lagoon fed both by the high tide and fresh water from a little river flowing down from the mountains. It still had most of those charms actually; just in rather faded form. The camping sites had no grass left to speak of, and overall the facilities looked as though they had last received basic maintenance about 20 years ago. So it was rather sad to see how they had let the place go in general, as though once it ceased to be a segregated facility they had stopped caring about it.

The crowd there seemed to be predominantly younger folks, lower middle class, of mixed race. Some were there with families but most were just odd assortments of friends. Most were in tents, but a few camper trailers dotted the landscape here and there. In addition to ghetto blasters, our temporary neighbors’ basic camping equipment there included televisions with portable satellite dishes, snorkeling and rafting supplies, (including small outboard motors), gas stoves, large ice chests, acoustic guitars and homemade bongs made out of 2 liter Coke bottles.

The little group I was there with was quite interesting and diverse in itself. Of the 14 of us only 3 were under 40 years old. There was one couple who had been married for over 30 years, a mother and daughter pair, two older singles not in any sort of relationship, two older remarried couples, my girlfriend and I, and a young pair of brothers who were the grandsons of one of the remarried ladies. Most of the group then had some experience of divorce and remarriage. As the majority were practicing Muslims, we had one of the few alcohol-free camp sites in the park, but there were also Christians and agnostics in the group, with no religious tensions arising among us during the course of the weekend. Our group, however, seemed to be in the minority for the campground in terms of our middle-agedness, particular with regard to our party habits, or lack thereof.

The campground’s electric outlets at each campsite were clearly one of its main attractions. At most of the other camp sites these seemed to be used primarily for hooking up entertainment systems; at ours they were used for powering a makeshift communal kitchen, including a refrigerator and microwave oven. What our group lacked in active interest in intoxication we quite made up for in a passion for food.

As I understand it, the group I was with originally took shape as an early morning hiking and fitness club of sorts, but eventually the ritual of after-hike refreshments started to become as important as, or more important than, the hiking itself. Eventually it just evolved into a very fluid community of families and friends with a strong sense of camaraderie and a strong appreciation for food. Thus one of the key elements of this camp experience was taking turns making the communal dinner, and competing with each other both in cooking and complimenting the cooks. A few of the members in better physical shape also did some hiking along the river banks and into the mountains towering above us there to the north, but these were more peripheral concerns than the food and social banter. There was talk of many former members in the group, and the unlikely fame some of them had achieved. Members come and members go, but the likelihood of passing on this group’s traditions to the next generation seems somewhat limited. The second and third generation participants had no particular suggestions as to how to draw in other descendents of active or former members.

Someone joked that my lady friend was taking quite a risk in bringing me along on such an adventure: the group had been known to scare away romantic partners in the past. There is a certain personal intensity involved, joking with each other in ways that push the limits of social acceptability. The sort of trust that this requires does not come easy to some. In all honesty though, I found it quite refreshing.

The highlights of the trip for me were doing sand sculptures at low tide with the youngest members of the group, telling jokes around the campfire at night, and making some comical attempts at fishing along the way. I caught nothing and lost one jig, but had no regrets on that account. One of my more foolish moves was to spend hours walking back and forth through the tidal channel taking photos and letting the salt water wash away my sunscreen from the knees down. The resulting burn was rather painful at times. The group generally looked on me with pity: all of them had had their own experiences of sunburn at one time or another, but most of them were a bit darker than myself, and thus far better naturally equipped to deal with the sun’s rays than I was. The sight of my bright red calves really brought out their compassionate sides.

During this camping time I was also working on my last entry here about communal aspects of religion, and thus I thought it would be worth mentioning both as follow-up and as background for that piece. I wrote there about how I’m not considered to be “a very good Christian” because I fail to conform to the norms of particular congregations –– especially in terms of accepting their dogmas, submitting to their disciplines and practicing their rituals. This leaves me in a bit of an outsider’s position in terms of my group membership. So why not, some have suggested in reply, settle for a more casual and fluid sense of community? In fact that is exactly what I was doing while I was working on the essay in question.

My community membership here in the Cape Town area is still in its early stages, and still very dependent on the contacts I built up on-line before coming here. I’m not really an insider here yet, and it will probably take years before I’m anywhere close, but I really can’t complain about loneliness either. It’s “community lite” for me. I haven’t been figuratively speaking baptized into any group here, but nor am I shunned or placed under interdict by many at least.

The question is, will that level of community connection be enough for the rest of my life, and/or for coming generations? There’s the old proverb that it takes a whole village to raise a child. These days the social definitions of both childhood and of parental roles are in a serious state of flux, and when it comes to child rearing help we’re more and more expecting our fellow villagers to mind their own business. This is how our societies give rise to individualists like me, and many of my former students. Alliances between individualists like us get to be rather unstable at times, and given the speed with which the rest of the variables in our world are changing it’s hard to say whether or not these lighter, freer connections are such a good thing. We think more freely, but we lack an automatic sense of order and unquestioning loyalty to the causes our grandparents held dear. Yet we’re still capable of making friends, albeit on a broader but shallower basis.

Is that the sort of cultural norm I want to spread in Cape Town, and/or wherever else I go? Well, not necessarily, but in some ways, yes. Breaking down tribal prejudices is more important to me than reinforcing emotional certainties. Overcoming destructive hatred is more important than maintaining absolute loyalties. I recognize that those who find it particular useful to instill such hatreds and loyalties in the younger generations as means of maintaining their own cultural norms may feel rather differently than I do about the matter. I realize that some might even find me threatening to their way of life in this regard, but I can live with their suspicions and rejection if necessary.

And this brings me to the question of who we are justified in distancing ourselves from. What reasons do we have to be afraid of particular outsiders? What is it that makes us just plain uncomfortable with particular individuals, and what should we do about it? Who overall doesn’t belong in our social groups? And if we let these outsiders in, do they automatically get a say in the democratic process of setting the rules within the group?

At the campground that weekend if the matter were put to a vote among the campers I’m sure that no curfew rule would have been enacted. We non-partiers were in the minority, but we still insisted on our rights to be allowed to have it quiet enough for children and old farts to be able to sleep. We weren’t about to let that majority set the rules we lived under! If we were aware that party animals would be allowed to set the rules there we wouldn’t have chosen to spend the weekend at that campground to begin with. They weren’t invited into the little social circle that I was being initiated into, so we had to keep them in their place somewhat.

Perhaps the nicest places for enjoying holiday time should be kept clear of “their sort” of people, so that the grass can grow back and the air quality and noise levels can be kept at levels were “decent folks” can feel at peace. Not terribly long ago there was a system in this country to keep the less desirable people in society from disturbing the “better sort,” quite efficiently I might add –– it was called Apartheid. Of course one of the major failings of that system was that it was based on a premise that breeding and skin color were reliable ways of telling the difference between the decent sort and the less respectable folk. But if we were to eliminate that particular aspect of the evaluation problem, could such a system still have a valid use? Should certain areas be set aside for the use of those with a certain amount of status who don’t care to be subjected to the majority? Would there be a particularly fair way of doing that? Could opposition to “the others” in this sort of way create a sort of deeper loyalty and solidarity among the “in crowd” in such contexts? Could this be the key to bringing back “the good old days” of a tighter sense of community? And then there is the sticky little matter making sure that these regulations serve the purpose of keeping “them” out without restricting freedoms for “us.” If such exclusionary systems are enacted, which of us could still be allowed to go all the places we want to go and do all the things we want to do?

As you have probably gathered, I don’t have a final solution to such problems. My strongest suggestions are to have a system where a certain amount of private space is allowed, where public spaces are regulated according to democratic principles as a rule of thumb, but where certain exceptional public spaces are recognized as deserving to be preserved and protected for future generations regardless of shifts in public opinion about the matter, and where above all we avoid dehumanizing those we aren’t comfortable with for whatever reason.

On a less systematic and more personal level, I want to try to look into myself and recognize what it is I’m afraid that those I’m uncomfortable with might actually take away from me, and why that is so important to me in each case. Is it just that they are damaging my health with the way they keep me awake at night? Am I afraid that they might reduce the value of some symbol of my personal success, making me look like less of a winner in life? Am I afraid that they will undo something else that I have worked very hard on? This might require a long discussion unto itself.

Meanwhile, as I mentioned above, one of the greatest highlights of the trip for me was doing sand sculpture with the youngest members of our group. With a bit of help from my friends at low tide I designed and built out of the moist beach sand a scale model of an F-1 race car, just large enough for an 8-year-old to sit in and pretend to drive. We all knew it wouldn’t last, and it wasn’t going to win any art awards anyway, but it was good enough to earn the young ones’ respect for my skill and to form a bond with them based on a shared sense of fun. They went to bed that night and woke up the next morning raring to go back down to the beach to continue our creative efforts together. That positive energy in turn filtered through the rest of the group and further strengthened a positive atmosphere among the older campers as well. If the rest of my life were to be defined by a series of moments like that, I wouldn’t really need any more than that to consider myself to be a happy and successful man. If my creations and communities aren’t as permanent as I would hope, I can live with that.



Filed under Empathy, Individualism, Social identity, Tolerance, Travel


Where does time go? I’ve known for a while that being out of working routines leads to a lot of this dimension passing unnoticed at times, but it still surprises me that the Christmas season has snuck up so quickly.

At the moment I’m further from everything that I have associated with Christmas than I have been at any other time in my life: snow, darkening days, carols everywhere, Laplandic culture spin-offs, orgies of commercialism and young children. So it is small wonder that it doesn’t quite feel like Christmas season here at the moment. Then I notice a friend posting a Facebook status of “Hosanna has now been sung” and I realize just how close the holiday is getting.

I went to church last week, acting like something of an ecumenical tourist in the Anglican chapel closest to my apartment. It was mentioned there that it was the last Sunday of the liturgical year, and that all of the Christmas things were coming, but that was sort of overshadowed by other aspects of the service. In particular there was a veteran organist and choir director whose 80th birthday was being commemorated with all sorts of official recognition for his 62 years of service to the denomination in various capacities as a church musician. The officiating priest spoke of having pulled out all of the stops (an appropriate analogy) at getting every possible high church element included.

Besides all of the “smells and bells” then, part of the celebration was to borrow a batch of choir boys from the darker skinned Anglican congregation on the other side of the mountain. And the retired priest who delivered the main sermon –– an old classmate of the honoree for the day –– made a minor key mention of the fact that it was by rights their church where this celebration was being held. It was in the mid sixties that the Apartheid government had declared the area around the harbor of Simon’s Town to be “whites only,” forcibly moving those too dark to deserve respect over to an inland slum ironically named “Ocean View.” As the old priest pointed out, this chapel where the octogenarian musician was being honored was the same place where these young people’s parents had been confirmed and where their grandparents had been married. The implication was that they were quite welcome there as full participants these days, not just as liturgical guest minstrels. Even so, there was sort of an understanding that the status quo of the white retirees there remaining in control would not be disturbed. From a tourist perspective I found all of this fascinating, but I’m still not quite sure how to relate to it.

So what should Christmas mean in this land of slowly healing wounds, where the solar significance of the holiday is entirely reversed in any case? Last year I wrote a piece about the significance of candles in my life as a means of surviving darkness this season. Now I’m living in a land where the darkest times are in June, and even then candles aren’t so critically important. But regardless of the seasonal reversal, there is a strong need here to maintain hope that the light –– in the more figurative sense –– will return soon. But what light might that be?

The concept of Jesus as the light of the world is as relevant here as it is in every other part of the world, but there is probably more fresh and raw scar tissue from nasty things done in Jesus’ name by his professing followers here than in just about any other part of the world. Then again, there has also been much good done by Christians here in terms of encouraging forgiveness rather than vengeance as power has changed hands. But some still ask, has that simply led to the villains going unpunished through their ingenious move of religiously neutralizing their victims’ will to fight back? Under these circumstances what form should the light of the Gospel message take so as to provide genuine hope for the weary and down-trodden?

Part of the question fundamentally becomes, is there some way that we can learn to respect –– even love –– each other without using that as a means or excuse for manipulating each other? History has given us ample reason to be pessimistic about this. Nor do I have a solution worthy of a peace prize for my contributions, but here’s the best I can suggest: The opposite of manipulation is trust, and so the greatest hope that we have is that these people –– who have been conditioned to hate each other while at the same time looking for ways to take advantage of each other –– will some day find a way of learning to trust each other. Of course that’s infinitely easier said than done, but trust does provide us with something of a star to look to in our moral navigation process.

In some senses the easiest way to build trust in another person is by showing them that you are willing to trust them first. Loyalty is a basic instinctive tendency for most psychologically healthy people. OK, people are never as loyal as dogs, but most people are at least somewhat capable of the trait. So if you can show a person that you care about them personally and you mean to do them good, and if you are sincere about it, in the vast majority of cases that person will do good by you as well. Among other displays of this in pop culture we have the transformation in the character played by Eddie Murphy in the film “Trading Places” –– a wild fictional exaggeration, but demonstrating a completely valid point.

When trust building with other people doesn’t work I would attribute it to one of four basic reasons: The first would be that the person you are trying to win over still (perhaps justifiably) sees you as still taking more than you’re offering. This could mean that they suspect you of playing a con game in your attempts to win their trust, but it could also be a matter of simple calculation: If I have been working for you and you have been paying me 30% less than what I’m rightfully entitled to, a 10% Christmas bonus is unlikely to make me start completely trusting your good will towards me.

In the second case though, even if you really are being more than fair with the person you’re trying to win over and you have no ulterior motives for them to suspect, you might fail to win them over because they have been thoroughly conditioned to believe that you cannot be trusted because you are… X. Some believe that they can never trust someone from outside of their own religion, or their own gender, or their own social class, or their own political persuasion, or their generation, or any number of other standards by which the difference between “us” and “them” is operationally defined for them. Some such people are more closed-minded than others. Sometimes this can be overcome with patient personal investment in friendship across such borders, but not always. For some the most important part of their personal identity might be what they see as their strength in standing strong against what “someone like you” represents.

With others the issue might not be a consciously held prejudice against something you represent, but a subconscious wound that they can’t help but associate with you. If a girl has been brutally raped by a man who, for reasons I can do nothing about, I strongly remind her of, it should come as no surprise that she will be highly unlikely to trust me. The same principle applies to any who have been exposed to traumatic violence or dehumanizing humiliation of any sort: If they are personally afraid of me for reasons that are entirely not my fault, I am probably the wrong person to help them through their trust issues.

And then finally there are those who are bona fide sociopaths –– incapable of human caring or loyalty on any level. How large a group this is is a difficult matter to determine, but they are certainly out there. When you find someone in this condition, no amount of kindness will ever earn their trust or make them a trustworthy friend to you in return.

All that being said then, I do recognize that there are at least two groups of people with whom I shouldn’t even try to build trust; with whom the best I can do is to interact cautiously and honorably, but giving them plenty of space. With others though –– and I believe that this includes the vast majority of those in our world with trust issues –– there is a very good chance that through a persistent enough display of kindness and fairness trust can be established. This trust in turn can be contagious, and the more it spreads, the greater our chances are of realizing the Advent message of “peace on Earth, good will towards mankind”.

The best way for me to find the strength to pursue a goal of becoming an instrument of peace is to feel secure in who I am and what I’ve been given. The less I worry about people taking the things I treasure most from me, the more I can allow myself to open up to them and care about them rather than just worrying about myself. I admit that this too is easier said than done, but in all honesty I find the Advent message really helpful here: God is reaching out to me where I am at, making it possible for me to be part of his kingdom in spite of myself, giving my life more significance than I could ever earn for myself by my own merits, and not leaving any of this at up to the whim of whatever religious authorities there are who would want to use this as a means of manipulating me.

What more could I ask for? Well… plenty, but what more could I justifiably demand? Absolutely nothing. And what I have beyond that is a rich life on entirely different terms than I ever would have imagined and a fascinating new adventure taking shape in what remains of my time here on Earth.

So here’s wishing all of my friends in the frozen north and in other still darkening parts of the world a joyous Advent season, and here’s asking that you keep working for peace and keep praying for me as I try to do the same.


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Filed under Ethics, Holidays, Purpose, Religion, Time

On Baboons, Empathy, Prejudices and Human Value

Thinking about questions of people’s capacity for empathy, respect for life and the meaning of life as a whole lately, I’ve been sort of struck by the way people relate to the baboon population here on the southeast side of Cape Town. I wonder how much of the way people relate to these animals reflects the way they relate to other people.

The foundational premise of monotheistic ethics –– and of humanistic ethics that intentionally or unintentionally borrow there-from –– is that humans owe each other a certain amount of solidarity as the beings closest to God of all of his creations (known in Latin as the “Imagio Dei” principle). In ethical terms there is something close to a consensus that relative to the value of human life everything else is instrumental, or of secondary importance at best. Assuming that some human beings are of lesser moral value than the rest of us, and that we can use them as we like and then throw them away when we’re done with them, is considered fundamentally immoral these days by anyone who has spent even the briefest time contemplating morality. Since the fall of South Africa’s Apartheid system no mainstream public figure has dared to directly belittle the general concept of human rights for all people, regardless of color, gender or religion. The American broadcaster Fox News has been coming closer and closer to directly advocating treating certain people as a menace and others as disposable, but even they don’t dare to state this too directly. Many people –– Americans in particular –– are painfully ignorant about human rights, even while supporting the invasion of oil producing countries in the name of defending them; but no one will publicly deny that they are important, even while acting in blatant disregard for them.

But it seems that some people can more freely express the emotional reactions they have towards other people by projecting them towards other animals; and the more human-like the animals in question, the more useful they become as means of expressing attitudes towards other people. These attitudes can run from brutal hostility to careless disregard to fascination with the exotic to using them as a means of self-justification by way of excessive identification. And frankly I’m not sure which of these projections is most noble or which is most harmful.

For those of you who don’t follow my Facebook statuses on a regular basis, I had a pretty good thrill some weeks ago when I nearly locked myself into a confined space with an alpha-male baboon. I’d seen the baboon troop through the windows of the car and the house a few times, and I’d heard that they’d even been inside on a couple of occasions. But on the afternoon in question I happened to come down the hallway and see the front door open, and a relatively young baboon staring me straight in the face. My immediate reaction was to rush down the hall and lock the security gate across the doorway. As I was doing so I gave a quick shout, “The baboon troop is in the neighborhood!”

“Are any of them in the house?” came the reply from the other room. I hadn’t thought to check, and just then I heard a rustle in the kitchen. I quickly unlocked the gate again and came down the hall just in time to get out of the way of the troop’s big boss, ambling along on three legs as he cupped a large bag of marshmallows under his left arm. He turned to look at me to see if I was going to challenge him on the matter, and then nonchalantly walked out the door and perched himself with his prize on the front steps. I re-locked the gate and stood there and watched and took a few pictures as he calmly stuffed about 300 grams of marshmallows into his face before deciding to go looking for something to drink. At that point a few of the younger ones tried to sneak in for a few marshmallows themselves, only to get a very forceful rebuke from the boss.

There are information signs around the neighborhood warning against feeding these baboons, saying that these baboons are actually stronger than the average human, even though they weigh less than half as much as someone like me. The fact that the large males have teeth longer than a lion’s and that they have experience in violently eliminating competition is more than a little bit intimidating. But above all I realized that I really don’t know what I’m supposed to do in such a situation, what I’m actually allowed to do, and what tips might actually reduce my risk of coming to serious harm. So when I saw signs on the street light poles announcing that there would be a community information and feedback evening regarding the baboon situation of course I felt like we just had to go.

The event was very enlightening on a number of levels. Sitting on the stage at the front of the room was a political representative of the area, trying to show how in touch he was with his constituency. Standing in front of him below the stage was a lady hired to be a professional “facilitator”: a theoretically neutral master of ceremonies who was supposed to be keeping the whole meeting in order. Sitting in the front row were the semi-official representatives of the company that is getting literally millions in tax payer money to keep these apes under control in the region. It would be fair to say than none of the above were doing their job in a completely satisfactory manner. The rest of the room was filled with an audience of predominantly angry white men, with a few darker skinned folk who had also experienced some baboon vandalism of their homes.

Virtually the only agreement reached was over the matter that ideally humans and baboons should live separated from each other for the benefit of both. That in itself had a certain ugly echo of Apartheid to it, but since we are talking about separate species in this case it shouldn’t raise a moral problem. Even so I found the echo rather disturbing when one red faced white man yelled out, “I don’t care if they were here first. This is OUR land now and I refuse to live like a prisoner in my own home!”

On the other end of the spectrum, not present at the meeting but spoken of with distain by many present, were the volunteer ecological rangers –– one aggressive older lady in particular –– whose mission in life is to speak on behalf of the baboons and enforce their rights by keeping threatening to sue people who chase them away with sticks and stones, and by keeping people from getting back into their homes when baboons had broken in and were having a party there while the humans were out. That too has an uncomfortable echo of the past politics of this country, with certain white people assuming that they were qualified to speak on behalf of the indigenous population, as though they could perfectly identify with their experience…

Part of the basic information given by the officials at this gathering was to say what solutions were not in the cards. Those included killing off the troop of baboons in question, since the Chacma baboon is important to the overall ecosystem of the area and they have already been thinned out considerably. Nor is the idea of relocating them to a game reserve in another part of the country feasible, since the local troops are carriers of too many human diseases to be safe companions for others of their species. Thus if we want to live in what has historically been their territory we have to do so in a way that allows for a certain amount of live and let live.

Part of the question then is whether we have left enough space for them to live a dignified life after the fashion of their ancestors. This was a question that the white colonials here and the Apartheid government fundamentally ignored when it came to the indigenous human population. But in the case of the baboons, yes, they do have plenty of space to live naturally and flourish. The main problem seems to be that their fascination with the human element within their environment seems to have corrupted their traditional lifestyle. They like to pick through trash bins. They like the various human foods that are not found in nature. Sometimes they find young humans cute and interesting. (Kidnapping of young in both directions between our species is not unheard of.) They like climbing in the sort of non-indigenous trees that humans have planted around their homes. They like the types of fruits and vegetables that humans grow on their farms and in their gardens and vineyards. So the challenge is to discourage this interest on their part, because unlike Africa’s indigenous human population, there is no way for the baboons to become safely integrated into human environments on equal, respectful terms.

But then there is the problem of some humans actively trying to draw the baboons in for the novelty of interacting with them. There was talk of one photographer/film maker in particular using various treats to lure baboons into human habitats. That is in some ways the moral equivalent of white colonists intentionally getting indigenous peoples drunk as a means of taking advantage of them. It is a matter of using their attraction to experiences they haven’t naturally been exposed to in order to get what he wanted from them without any consideration for the dangers being caused for the ones being so indulged.

So making efforts not to attract the baboons into human areas by keeping them from gaining access to our food is a clear starting point. That includes taking better security precautions than we had to keep them out of houses and garden patches, and keeping garbage bins locked properly. That last matter also has its logistical challenges though, one of which is human garbage pickers. Here again, attitudes towards the baboons and attitudes towards indigenous peoples who have been kept in poverty start to get dangerously mixed together. In the name of keeping baboons away there was the largely unspoken intention of keeping undesirable people away.

There were a number of other interesting political undercurrents to the gathering. All of the various sorts of political posturing and animosities between interest groups were fascinating to watch, even though I knew most of it was going straight over my head. I don’t have any moral conclusions to draw from all of this, other than that people are strange, and they don’t always honestly consider their own attitudes carefully enough.

Knowing what we have to agree on with each other in order to have some chance of living at peace is quite a different matter from confronting our prejudices and anxieties concerning other creatures and other people. Distinguishing between those we consider to be above us and worthy of extra respect, those we take to be our equals, those we take to be our “pets” or “servants”, and those we take to be dangerous and inferior others is always going to be a complicated process; especially when our rational dispositions, our social contracts and our emotional reactions all contradict each other in making such distinctions. My hope, however, is that in relation to both animals and other humans we can encourage both empathy and rational, pragmatic thinking. We should genuinely care about others, and do so intelligently in terms of sometimes doing the sensible thing rather than whatever gives us warm and fuzzy feelings.

From there I would hope and believe that if we let those principles guide our behavior, and such behavior becomes a social norm, our contradictory emotional reactions will eventually fall in line. That won’t be a particularly immediate process, but we can still hope that it will work eventually.

And as always, other perspectives and clearer conclusions are most welcome here.


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Filed under Empathy, Ethics, Human Rights, Politics, Risk taking, Sustainability, Tolerance

Hope, Confidence & Cultural Self-Belief

One of my major questions regarding my possible future connections with this country (South Africa) has to do with the whole matter of what I can teach, write, say or innovate here without raising the sensitive question of “why couldn’t a local person do that?” Or more pointedly and specifically, “what’s wrong with our own knowledge and abilities that we have to have another white foreigner come in and teach us stuff?”

One of my surprises here has been the political and social sensitivity of this issue. In particular this seems to stem from a history of the oppression of those with darker skin taking the form of not only physical and political violence, but psychological violence as well. The powers of the former status quo essentially claimed that there are genetic reasons for assuming that a person’s intellectual capacity would be inversely proportionate to the melanin content in their skin. Darker skinned people are not meant to think, just to perform the basic tasks for which greater physical strength and lesser intelligence are required. As self-evident as the fallacy of this claim would seem, for some there is still an ongoing struggle to displace such a myth, which in turn creates its own collection of Catch 22 situations.

I don’t know if addressing the myth itself is even worth our time here. Anyone who believes that some resemblance of the scientific method –– involving forming a hypothesis and then conducting experiments and/or observations to see if such a hypothesis might be proven wrong –– can be used in relation to general principles of human behavior should already know that racial profiling of intelligence or even types of intelligence has been repeatedly demonstrated to be false. Such theories of racial difference in mental capacity go a long way towards making phrenology and astrology look like respectable sciences. If someone needs actual confirmation on this, write to me and I’ll provide the references.

The question really isn’t demonstrating that black people are capable of deeper intellectual thought then; that is self-evident. The question is how to break through the remnants of racist thinking on the subject in the minds of both blacks and whites (and those of colors in between) in Africa in particular, and in different post-colonial countries around the world. In this regard I’ve stopped to take a serious look at the writings and biographies of Steve Biko (from the collection I Write what I Like, 2004 edition, published by Picador Africa).

Biko was one of the black leaders of the 1960s who was able to combine personal charisma with deep analytical intelligence. He was a uniquely capable leader, but as long as projects he was committed to were going forward he didn’t seem to mind being out of the spotlight. Many church figures, Desmond Tutu included, have endorsed Biko posthumously. It is unclear whether he would have returned the favor if he were with us still today. He was unapologetically Marxist but in many ways ambivalent towards the form of revolution necessary in his country, the role of non-blacks in his vision for a truly post-colonial world, and the role of Christianity in particular in the lives of his people. Overall Biko seems to have been most concerned with restoring his people’s sense of self-confidence and capability of fending for themselves, not only through his political and rhetorical initiatives, but through practical endeavors such as community health clinics and social service organizations as well.

Would he have lived it seems self-evident that Biko would have eventually become president of South Africa. Biko continues to enjoy far more public support and respect than any of the living politicians of the post-Mandela generation. It is also clear that he has been extremely useful as a martyr for the cause of black dignity and the will to be free from oppression. Whether or not he would have been able to do as much good as a leader as he has done as a martyr is one of those hypothetical historical questions about which we will never know for sure.

More relevant though is the question of which way Steve would see as “forward” in the current situation. From what I have read, Biko was not a conservative in the sense of wishing to return to the certainties of a particular mythical version of the past –– in his case a pre-colonized Africa. His interest was merely in pointing out that the myth of black inferiority needed to be thoroughly buried, that the communal ethic aspect of African traditional religion needed to be revived and the absurdly unjust means of protecting the privileges of the colonizers’ descendents (Apartheid) needed to be brought to an end. As things now stand, officially all of those goals have been realized, at least for the most part. This is not to say that things have been fully corrected. There are many attitudes and dysfunctional behaviors on all sides that perpetuate injustices and inequalities here. But whatever else can be said about South Africa’s post-Apartheid adjustment processes, the black population now has the lion’s share of political power, and Mandela’s legacy is that no one is saying that a return to the injustices of the past is pragmatically justifiable. The rich whites have realized (very grudgingly in places) that to maintain any resemblance of life as they knew it they must now work together with the black majority. So would Biko be satisfied enough to move on to the next phase which he spoke about?

As we proceed further towards the achievement of our goals let us talk more about ourselves and our struggle and less about whites. (p. 108)

It seems that the jury is still out on that one. Perhaps Biko’s “reconstructive” perspective is best summed up in the following sentence:

We knew he [the generalized white man] had no right to be there; we wanted to remove him from our table, strip the table of all trappings put on it by him, decorate it in true African style, settle down and then ask him to join us on our terms if he liked (p. 75).

Yet in practice the process of “redecorating the table” was never going to happen along the lines that whites would be physically removed from the environs, nor that the new “African style” would be four centuries retro so as to be free of all European influences. The point was to establish that black Africans are fully capable of thinking and acting for themselves, without needing white advice or approval in order for their lives to have value. Once that issue would be perfectly clear to everyone –– once riding in the bed of the white man’s pickup (or “bakkie” as it is known locally) is no longer taken for granted as the black man’s natural place –– then cooperation based on mutual respect for each other’s competence and humanity was self-evident path forward. So in many regards the current question for black South Africans is, are we still trying to win the war, or is it time to start winning the peace?

In the event that this latter phase is to be acknowledged, as I believe Biko would now be doing, the key to moving forward would be education. Those of all skin colors need to be taught that the others as well are worthy of full human respect. They need to be provided with the skills necessary to provide services of value to the lives of others so as to play a positive role in the local, national and global economy. And perhaps most importantly, they need to be encouraged to consider what constitutes “quality of life” for each of them individually, for their families and for their communities. They need to have enough information and confidence be free to choose whether or not they will buy into the culture promoted by multinational fast food, fashion and entertainment industries. They need to be able to make informed decisions as to which treats and toys will actually make them happier and more fulfilled as human beings.

The big question from here though is, who can you trust to provide such an education for young people? And as a key sub-question here, must young people be trained by educators as much like themselves and their parents as possible so as to enable them to maintain respect for their own cultural identities? Both of these matters are extremely complicated questions of balance and judgment. Parents, ancestors and cultural identities need to be respected without being uncritically revered. Teachers need to be able to pass on some form of recognized expertise and they need to be held accountable for the level of competence they are able to instill in children without being enforcement agents for some form of cultural imperialism or neo-colonial control. But the above two sentences are just my personal perspectives on what is right and wrong and desirable for education systems in transition, and no one has died and left me boss here. On what basis can I, as a white American representing predominantly northern European values, claim that my perspectives are the ones Africa needs to follow?

Essentially this comes back to the fundamental question of postmodernism: What knowledge, if any, has a greater validity as objective truth than merely as a means of exercising control over the “less knowledgeable”? Is there any truly objective and unchanging truth out there, and if so how broadly can it be discovered and applied to the messy business of human life as we know it?

Rather than trying to answer these questions, perhaps I should just leave them open for the time being. These days I identify myself more as a philosopher than as a scientist or a theologian, and one of the big differences is that whereas theologians and scientists are not comfortable leaving any question unanswered, philosophers are not comfortable leaving any answer unquestioned. That doesn’t mean I don’t believe in the value of answers; it means that I believe even more strongly in the value of questions, particularly in challenging learners to look for their own answers rather than accepting the standardized ones at face value.

Again, that isn’t to say that all answers are of equal truth value. For example scientifically informed sex education, condoms and anti-retroviral drugs are of far more value as answers to the AIDS crisis than moralistic preaching, hygienic practices and diet treatments for the disease; and it is rather disturbing that the Vatican, for instance, still refuses to recognize this. But rather than solving this problem with more dogmatic defenses of given beliefs, I believe this matter is best solved by allowing learners of all ages the chance to ask the basic question, “How do you know?” and from there providing them with the most honest and complete answers possible. Not everyone will be smart enough to get it, but there is more to be gained by trusting the learners’ intellectual capacity and honesty than there is in forcing them to believe standardized answers for the sake of maintaining standardized answers.

So the next open question for me here is, will there be any faction of the education system here which will be interested in having me involved in teaching their children to ask more difficult questions of their other teachers? And if so, will that be because of or in spite of my cultural background? I’ll leave you to guess what my hopes are and what the eventual answers might turn out to be.




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Filed under Change, Education, Epistemology, Ethics, Philosophy, Politics, Respectability, Tolerance