Turning the petty things that divide us into damaging witch-hunts
Nicholas Monsarrat’s best selling 1950’s novel, “The Tribe that Lost its head”, has a lasting and universal message. Stripped of its racial overtones, unacceptable and even offensive in our context, it remains a frightening illustration of what can only be called collective madness. It’s an affliction that can strike any nation or group. History has many examples, both ancient and modern; sometimes as nations but mostly as divisive groups within a society.
There are many things that can keep news followers awake at night – the plight of refugees, hunger, poverty, and for those with an economic bent, the enormous financial overhang that has put markets on a trampoline where no-one can be quite sure whether the next descent will crash through the elastic mat. There are many more at home.
One that still gives me bouts of insomnia is the continued presence and expansion of an ominous imperceptible cancer in our society. It is that collective madness or mob mentality which on the surface may appear insignificant and perhaps even benign, but under a microscope reveals its malignant and terminal threat to the whole body.
Such a lump or wart is the perhaps trifling incident of those two Stellenbosch University first year female students, whose body painting frolics brought upon them the wrath of a procedural nightmare, bizarre bureaucratic bullying and a wave of hysteria from the Open Stellenbosch group. The whole incident, including if you must, the clearly feigned and expedient outrage of a trigger happy marginalising collective, should have, and could have, been attributed to raging adolescent hormones that so often drive zealots on campus. Many adults have either witnessed or been part of such things. They do play a significant role in society, are valid reflectors of social ills and ultimately can and should effect social change.
A new and reckless feature, practiced at many levels including leadership, has taken hold in the discourse on race. They are acts and utterances of outrageous provocation simply “to keep the conversation alive”. It is like using an electric cattle prod to wake someone up. What makes this incident deplorable is the cavalier scapegoating of two young innocents, and amplification first through social and then mainstream media into an already highly charged racial atmosphere. Then the Salem witch-hunt comes to mind: recorded in the annals of history but equally ominous as Monsarrat’s fiction, and perhaps even having metaphorical similarities. The events have been well-documented, immortalised in a museum and also made into a movie.
The current obsessive gibbering, insults, accusations and innuendos have clearly mostly become irrational and are detracting from finding tangible and lasting answers to a highly complex problem but one that also holds within it the large and noble promise of peaceful multi-culturism. Very little of what is coming from social and political leadership is helping: indeed the largest part is highly counter-productive, expedient and perilous. In these things, our behaviour can take a valuable lesson from physics.
There is no such thing as cold, only an absence of heat. There is no such thing as darkness, only an absence of light. There is no such thing as evil, only an absence of good. You dispel cold by spreading heat. You dispel darkness by spreading light. Similarly, you dispel evil by spreading good. And you dispel hate by spreading love.
It’s a bit “Hallmarkish” to be sure, and no doubt some budding Einstein will contradict my high school science. It is also counter-intuitive to the lessons of early youth that has cemented the concept of a personified Satan, a living menace that has to be beheaded or at the very least driven behind our backs. The thing about physics is that it teaches us about cause and effect, and those lessons apply equally to tangible forces as they do to behaviour. It is simply a way of reflecting from a different perspective Edmund Burke’s immortal words: “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”
History, including our own, constantly bears testimony to that. One simply cannot eliminate evil and leave a vacuum. For in that vacuum even greater evil will flourish. We need not look further than the tragic headlines reflecting the nightmare in the Middle East. Driven by some self-righteous psychosis, Western powers took down Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, left a country in total chaos and ensured the birth of ISIL. Those events, with the same motives and the same results, were repeated in Libya and the demise of Muammar Gaddafi. Not long after that attention turned to Syria and the specter of Bashar al-Assad.
To be clear, the current Middle East calamity is a multi-facetted mess that simply does not brook over-simplification, but one has to wonder whether much more would not have been achieved by resisting a knee jerk response in the drawing of swords, by simply spreading good where there was evil; aid where there was suffering; knowledge where there was ignorance and food where there was hunger.
Too much of what is happening in South Africa seems to be following the same perilous logic: simply tearing down instead of building up. There is a magic wand. We simply don’t know how to switch it on.
It is called empathy.