Tavis Smiley Takes Me To Task, Part II

Yesterday Kenito asked for specifics that support my position on the “responsible citizen” remaining critical of his own propensity for criticism, and I woke up thinking about when I first got exposed to the value of digging deeper and not just pointing the finger.

I went to a New England boarding school for high school where we had students from all over the world. The school tried to be as socially progressive and responsible as it could, and fairly extensive sensitivity training was built in to our orientation upon arrival. The school’s motto was “Non Sibi,” not for one’s self, and they made an effort to drive that point home through almost every aspect of the curriculum. As a result, we were some fairly socially conscious teenagers.

I was in high school in the years right before the fall of apartheid, and en masse, we naive little progressive intellectuals were simply outraged that a socio-economic system like apartheid could still exist. We wanted to blame someone and we wanted to make a difference, so we started accusing our school administrators of being hypocrites for not having divested in South Africa. We had a list of 30-40 products being imported from South Africa, and we wanted to know exactly where were our granny smith apples coming from! (To this day I get a little sick to my stomach when I see diamonds, even though they’re my birthstone.)

So we urged our school to divest and we urged our families to divest. When we went home, we took our lists to the grocery stores with our parents and were quite effective product police. When we got back to school, we were incensed enough to hold a demonstration on the steps of our library. We’re talking kids from every socio-economic background. Everybody seemed to care, and we thought the only way to make a difference was to keep pointing fingers until someone felt compelled to own up to their hypocrisy.

Then one day, one of the South African exchange students asked me why we were making such a big deal about divesting. Did we not understand that world-wide divesting was squeezing their economy dry and the poor were bearing the brunt of the burden? Our hearts were in the right place, but perhaps our tactics were misguided.

That was 1990, the year Nelson Mandela was released from prison, and apartheid finally ended as the functioning socio-economic structure in South Africa in 1993. The struggle to end apartheid was by no means simple, nor was the effort to begin the work of rebuilding the nation. And even though the evil nature of apartheid was an obvious no brainer, (I swear I had dreams that Pieter Botha was the devil himself), that obvious reality didn’t make ending it or rebuilding in the context of a new paradigm any simpler.

One of the first things done under Mandela’s presidency was the assembly of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission – TRUTH *and* RECONCILIATION – both were required and all sides were held accountable for their actions, but not without the option of amnesty if requested. I remember thinking this was the most revolutionary act I’d ever witnessed, an oppressed body expressing the difference between “blame” and “accountability,” meeting pain, despair and injustice with humanity – WHAT?!! Moreover, the TRC ended up being the first of nineteen public hearings for Truth and Reconciliation held internationally. I think it quite possible that apartheid would not have ended when it did, nor would this important work have occurred, if Nelson Mandela had come out of prison spitting hate and pointing fingers.

According to Hunter S. Thompson, “at the top of the mountain, we are all snow leopards.” Human beings have so much more power than we sometimes realize. No matter what our intentions, we all have the ability to feed the flames of our crazy world or to help something else emerge. Even when we, the responsible citizens who still give a damn think we know what is “right,” we can’t always know the right thing to do. I’m not saying we shouldn’t act, just that we should continue to do our best, but remain curious about the results of our actions, and do what we can to try to grow into more effective forces for productive change.

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