Tonight I had news from home that will not let me sleep unless I write. My friend is a student, in a class where she is a one-woman ethnic minority. She loves this college, where she has worked for over a year. She loves the diversity, the dialogue, the honesty, the vibe. She feels like she belongs, even when things get raw. Last week an outside lecturer veered wildly from her assigned topic and launched a racial diatribe. My friend was picked on, wilfully misinterpreted, accused and ultimately attacked – because of the colour of her skin. Her classmates did not defend her. The senior staff she went to for help were sympathetic, but told her (in essence) that her role – the role of all those of her “race” – is to be silent. “Listen, contain, don’t disengage” – but ultimately, keep your mouth shut, and take what comes to you.
If you are South African, you will already have an idea about what colour she is, and probably what colour I am too. You probably have a powerful emotional reaction, in one direction or another – because perhaps our society has never been this polarised, this fraught, and none of us can claim to see straight any more. But for a moment, can you not see how frightening this is? We have thoroughly had done with reconciliation, with a South Africa belonging to all who live in it. We have redefined “racism” as something that can only be done by someone of one skin tone. We have completely legitimised a society where people can again be silenced, bullied and victimised because of their ethnicity – and indeed because of their religious beliefs or sexual orientation. We have simply changed who sits in which seat.
It takes very little knowledge of history to be completely unsurprised by this rapid swing of the pendulum. It takes a kind of wilful blindness to attach evil – the evil of cruelty, violence and systematic oppression – to any one part of humanity. Has it not been repeated time without number in every possible setting and variation of time and participants? When will we see far enough beyond our own pain and pride and fear to recognise that THIS IS US? This is the nature of human beings: not the aberrations of freaks and monsters, but the rule of conduct at every level – given the right circumstances. The efficient (if unethical) psychological research of the mid twentieth century made that clear: it takes little more than social pressure and the exertion of authority to make ordinary people do unthinkable things.
But we are slow to know ourselves. It is too frightening a truth for most of us to see – and therefore we condemn ourselves to the eternal pattern: we simply become what we most hate, we repeat every evil done to us. It’s as small as the family cycles of abused and abuser, it’s as huge as the fact of two Rwandan genocides. The moral high ground crumbles fast unless we choose to build on it in kind.
We can call it “freedom of expression”, “honesty”, “healing” – but time and FaceBook have proven that this is not a health-bringing catharsis. We have rather nurtured, fed and grown something than released it in order to be able to move ourselves forward. Pain and rightful anger entertained turn too naturally to bitterness and hatred. And we are more than ready to justify, deny and rationalise all we become and do in the process – and silence those who dare to argue.
I’m writing this in the sincere hope that almost no-one will read it, because I’m not sure I can deal with the likely responses. I generally keep away from the topic entirely, because I don’t know what to say that will not simply feed the fire. I want desperately to be able to speak and write words that will be heard over the colour of my voice and the furore of this moment in our country. I want so much more than to defend my own: I want to plead for US. It’s not about my friend in her classroom, but about every single student who has ever experienced this – and every one who has taken part, whether as attacker or silent bystander. Because this covers more or less all of us, and we rotate through the roles with frightening speed and predictability. It’s a lie to try to separate ourselves from one another: what we inflict on others we suffer in ourselves. If we go on biting and devouring each other, in very little time we will be destroyed.
The great challenge of our generation – at which most before have failed – is to find another way to respond. I’m so often so near losing hope, not only because of other people but also because of myself. I wrote a while back, only half tongue-in-cheek, about my moral struggles over buying toilet-paper for inconsiderate housemates. The small things only seem small until you try to overcome them.
This is the point at which I’m tempted to end this post – having kicked the hornet’s nests of race and freedom of speech, it would be far easier to leave religion out of it. But I can’t, because having said all this, there is no basis left for hope. What can we expect of human beings today other than what we have always done? There is no reasonable reason to believe that we, South Africa, will do other than repeat our own history, and everyone else’s.
Unless God. Unless the omnipotent Force at the heart of the cosmos bears the character of one Jesus of Nazareth – then, as wild as it may seem, something else is possible. It will take the power of tectonic shifts, the creativity reflected in over 3000 species of nudibranchs (it’s true) to change our course. It will take precisely the peculiar history of a minor wandering people and their God, culminating in one crucified rebel – and the never-ending implications for everyone who ever followed. We have never needed this so much.
It’s after 9pm, which for Mada life is practically midnight. My lectures for tomorrow remain unprepared, but now I can sleep. And get up in the morning and keep going.
God help us. We’re not exactly acing it on our own.