Friday, December 6, 2013

Nelson Mandela: Terrorist Or Hero?

This blog post examines the larger concept of how we label others.  It does so in both the abstract and in the specific context of remembering the life of Nelson Mandela.   How will history view Mandela?   Was he a hero, was he a terrorist, or is the reality somewhat more complex than this choice would suggest?

Those of us who make our living by walking into the crucible of conflict are well familiar with the human impulse to believe the "other" side is evil. Other words might be used, but that is the gist of it.  We might say they had bad intentions. We might say they're not trustworthy. We might worry they'll double cross us. We tend not to want to give them the benefit of the doubt. We lawyer up and choose sides. Sometimes the labeling of the "other side" as evil is so extreme that it's hard to imagine that the two distrustful, angry people in the room were formerly lovers who pledged to spend their lives together, love and cherish one another. Or partners in business.  Or siblings who played with Christmas toys together.  One might find one's self asking, "How did they get this way?"

I answer, in return, with another question: How do we distinguish ourself (me, the insider) from the other (you, the outsider)? How do we go from a feeling of unity to a feeling of alienation?  The answer lies in how and where we raise boundaries and barriers. When parties are in tune with one another, they are able to relax those boundaries. They redefine tribe as including the partner or group. In marriage, that boundary is exemplified in the marriage vow to "forsake all others." In matters of ethnicity, this demarcation of boundary  enables our racial and cultural identity.

Boundaries and barriers take many forms. In a marriage, they are emotional and physical. In families, at some point they often involve leaving, such as when a child leaves home to forge their own identity. In communities, we sometimes speak of someone being on this or that side of "the railroad track," as if one person is on one side of this barrier and another is on that side of it. We define what is "in," in part, by the exclusion of that which is "out."

On a larger scale, we may also define ourselves as much by what we are "not" as by what we "are."  Boundaries help us make those distinctions.  We may define ourselves not only by the church or mosque we attend or by our political party, but by the ones we also do not attend and by the political party we are not a member of.  (Are we Catholic or Protestant? Sunni or Shiite? Republican or Democrat?)  Ethnically, each of us probably has some sense of the tribe we belong to. (Are we Black or White?  Even if intellectually we understand that such categories are artificial, we probably still know what designated category we fall into.) Internationally, we create borders, often artificial, and define ourselves according to national and international interests and boundaries.

In this human setting of boundaries, there is a paradox. To the extent we define any person as an "Other," as someone who is not like me, we create a zone inside of which we have more, and outside of which we have less, compassion. The slippery slope of reduced compassion, is that the objectification of the Other then enables us to treat them as less: Less human. Less gifted. Less made in the image of God. Less valuable.  At its root, this dehumanization, lack of compassion, and exclusion underlies all forms of discrimination and exploitation, does it not?

A few years ago, I attended a lecture by Kenneth Cloke on the topic of mediation in situations involving international terrorism. Having always accepted the idea that terrorists were somehow "other," someone operating outside the norms of acceptable conflict engagement, I found myself intrigued (and challenged) by his ideas. Until I heard Cloke speak, I had never thought about the fact that the label "terrorist" is just that, nothing more than a label.  Underlying the terrorist act, what is it that so powerfully drives the frustration and anger that leads someone to resort to extreme acts of violence?  What imbalance of power is it that makes them so deprived of a voice that they cannot be heard any other way?

The label "terrorist" is very far down the slippery slope.  It not only defines someone as "not like me," but also as being a person not worthy of compassion.  I do not mean to sugar coat terrorism.  Certainly, the World Trade Centers were bombed.  Certainly, there are sociopaths who would seize at an opportunity to harm.  On the other hand, what desperation does it take for someone to feel their only remedy in life is to strap a bomb to themselves?  Could not only this violence, but this desperation, have been prevented if there had been other avenues for voices to be heard or for change to be implemented?  The risk of overlooking peaceful alternatives is what happens when we apply the label "terrorist" too quickly.

Nelson Mandela 
In American society, the label "terrorist" likely is applied, too quickly and too often, merely to make someone an outsider, to make it so we don't have to listen to them anymore.  The media quickly did this with the Boston Marathon bomber, calling him a "terrorist" rather than a crime suspect.  We do this so we can hold civilians without basic due process at Guantanamo. Or maybe we want an excuse to subject them to waterboarding, something we would never do to our neighbor. Perhaps I should also broaden this word, terrorist, and make it include, on an emotional level, any "label" we slap on someone with whom we disagree, if we then use that label to avoid hearing them, to avoid taking them seriously, and to perpetuate our own abuse of power against them.  In a recent church conflict, I was told of a group who labeled all of those they disagreed with as blasphemers.  By excluding those with whom they disagreed from the category of folk they needed to be in dialogue with, the participants in the church conflict not only dehumanized and demonized their fellow congregants, but justified their own divisive actions.

As Cloke writes in an online essay entitled "Mediating Evil, War, and Terrorisim: The Politics of Conflict," our own slide down the slippery slope, from self definition to deprecation of Other, is not necessarily deliberate.  Rather, it begins insidiously with that first step in which we withdraw compassion, the first time we fail to recognize the full personhood of an Other.  Then, that lack of empathy grows, baby step by baby step.  Before we know it, we are refusing to acknowledge their personhood at all:

"Evil is not initially a grand thing, but begins innocuously with a constriction of empathy and compassion, leading ultimately to an inability to find the other within the self. It proceeds by replacing empathy with antipathy, love with hate, trust with suspicion, and confidence with fear. Finally, it exalts these negative attitudes as virtues, allows them to emerge from hiding, punishes those who oppose them, and causes others to respond in ways that justify their use. A potential for evil is thus created every time we draw a line that separates self from other within ourselves. This line expands when fear and hatred are directed against others and we remain silent or do nothing to prevent it; when dissenters are described as traitorous or evil and we allow them to be silenced, isolated, discriminated against, or punished; when negative values are exalted and collaboration, dialogue, and conflict resolution are abandoned and we do not object. At a more subtle level, identifying others as evil is simply a justification and catalyst for our own pernicious actions. By defining “them” as bad, we implicitly define ourselves as good and give ourselves permission to act against them in ways that would appear evil to outside observers who were not aware of their prior evil acts. In this way, their evil mirrors our diminished capacity for empathy and compassion, and telegraphs our plans for their eventual punishment. The worse we plan to do to them, the worse we need them to appear, so as to avoid the impression that we are the aggressor. The ultimate purpose of every accusation of evil is thus to create the self-permission, win the approval of outsiders, and establish the moral logic required to justify committing evil oneself."

All of us are guilty. Evidence of this divisive and negative aspect of our human nature is everywhere:  We call each other by dehumanizing labels like "libtards" or "teabaggers." We apply labels like "communist" or "socialist" or "conservative" or "liberal." In doing so, we define ourselves and each other by our differences. One word is positive and the other is negative, and our view of that depends upon which side we prefer. Perhaps we lack concern for those who are "not like" us.  For instance, if we count some people as "Other," it's easier to dismiss their lack of access to fair wages, health care, education, safety regulations in their work place, or due process.

The death of Nelson Mandela, and the resulting news coverage of his life, brings this tendency into sharp focus. Was Mandela a hero or a terrorist? It turns out, it depends upon who one is talking to. Mandela campaigned mightily against apartheid in South Africa. In an article entitled "Don't Sanitize Nelson Mandela," the online journal Daily Beast author Peter Bienart rightfully points out that Mandela's "crime" was that he dared to challenge the powerful status quo. For this, he was labeled as a terrorist, a label that was not lifted by the US government until 1988. A convenient label. When we label him as a terrorist, we can treat him as an "other." Once someone is classified as an "other," we justify ourselves in no longer listening to that person.  If the Other tries to change the status quo in ways that are deemed challenging or unacceptable by the ruling authority, they will be imprisoned, as Mandela was.  Martin Luther King, III, was jailed, as well, although not for 27 years as Mandela was.  For all the lip service now paid to King, in his day  he was equally demonized by the forces of power.

Of course, Mandela was South African. He was not imprisoned in North America.  Does this make a difference, in terms of describing human nature?  In an article in today's online version of Atlantic, entitled "Apartheid's Useful Idiots," the similarity of the struggle for justice by African and  North American persons of color is clearly linked, and involves systems of power and perpetuation of racial divide: "the overall failure of American conservatives to forthrightly deal with South Africa's white-supremacist regime, coming so soon after their failure to deal with the white-supremacist regime in their own country, is part of their heritage, and thus part of our heritage."  And so today, in the news concerning his life and death, Mandela is being either demonized as a terrorist or glorified as an activist for nonviolence.  Each "side" in the power struggle for racial justice, and for elimination of apartheid and segregation, seeks to assert its own view of Mandela.

Mandela was neither God nor Demon. He was a man who rose to the occasion and led his people through the confrontational and messy process of abolition of apartheid. Yes, Mandela rose above oppression and anger.  He chose not to dehumanize his oppressors, as he had been dehumanized by them.  He chose not to engage in violence or retaliation. However, to view Mandela only in idealized terms as a peacemaker -- to fail to acknowledge that for decades he was labeled as a terrorist -- is to deny the whole, bigger, and deeper story.  Only when we acknowledge the extent of the wrong against Mandela and his people can we see the true extent of the injustice that was done.  Only when we acknowledge him as "terrorist" can we also, correspondingly, gauge the moral failure of the ruling elite and even, perhaps, confront within ourselves our own moral myopia.

Those who label others as terrorists, thus depriving them of the benefit of compassion and humanity, engage in an act of dehumanization which then enables those who created the label, those in power, to avoid addressing the righteous grievances of the person so labeled.  In the case of Mandela, creation of that label was a subterfuge which enabled the rulers to avoid changing systems of injustice.  By setting up a boundary of "either" and "or" through application of the label "terrorist," and in applying that boundary to a man who advocated freedom and justice which had been denied to an entire people based on their perceived "otherness," the powers that be clenched their fists upon power and pandered to the evil side of their human nature.

Indeed, the labeling of Mandela as a terrorist says more about those who defined that term than it says about Mandela himself.  When Mandela was put on one side of a defining boundary, the powers that be put themselves on the other side of that line, like a mirror image.   Looking back on Mandela's life through the lens of history, if you and I were one of those who labeled Mandela as a terrorist, then by way of that label we stepped on the other side of  the line that separated the powerful from the powerless.  We either fell prey to or participated in the artificial divide that was used to dehumanize Mandela and treat him as "Other."

The mirror image created in this way, separated out and created by the act of defining the "other," made terrorists out of us, as well, because we were among those who created and lived by the label in the first place. For when we labeled Mandela as a terrorist, we revealed ourselves as being willing to dehumanize an Other, by way of our very act of creating that label.   If Mandela is or was a terrorist, he is the no more or less a terrorist than the terrorist we look at each morning when we look at ourselves at the mirror.

Photo of Nelson Mandela with Fidel Castro

The irony of Mandela's situation is that it was people like Muammar Qaddafi and Fidel Castro who refused to adopt that label and, instead, helped Mandela in the fight for justice.  The United States, which likes to see itself as the force for "good," in fact became a participant in furtherance of injustice.  In  the article "Don't Sanitize Nelson Mandela," Peter Beinart writes,

"American elites, especially on the right, have a bad habit of using 'freedom' as a euphemism for whatever serves American power. ... Mandela's message to America's leaders, born from firsthand experience, was clear:  Don't pretent you are pure.  As with King, it is this subversive aspect of Mandela's legacy that is most in danger of being erased as he enters America's pantheon of sanitized moral icons.  American power and human freedom are two very different things."

The good news for those who were on the wrong side of history is that Mandela, in fact, did adopt nonviolence.  Transitions were made which made the world more just, and with less violence and bloodshed than otherwise would have happened.  As Gandhi said, "An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind."  Thank goodness Mandela did not follow the "eye for an eye" mentality.  Indeed, going back to my work as a mediator, I notice that in every successfully mediated conflict, at least one party is willing to make the first step, to see beyond labels and to treat the Other with compassion.  Once that barrier to compassion has been broken, the possibilities for redemption abound.  Thank God Mandela was willing to lead his people into the path of compassion rather than hate.  For this, he was a hero and a shining light for justice, in the largest sense of the word.  

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