Letter from the editors – 1 April 2022: If not now, then when?
[ORIGINALLY PRINTED IN SUIDERNUUS, 1 APRIL 2022]
What is it that makes us think we are better than a bird? A dog? Another human being? What is it that makes one strive to outdo another person? Or to do someone in? To mock someone? To grind someone down?
These questions make one feel a tad uncomfortable, isn’t it? We have on our minds the heartless xenophobia of the past week in Bredasdorp that saw a thousand people chased out of their houses, their belongings stolen, because they are foreigners.
Never will I do such a thing, most people say. But the striving to outdo other people (even morally!), is born in the same place where the hatred of the other is born.
And we all do it. We all harbour inside ourselves feelings of resentment towards others, even hatred, disdain and disgust.
That place, psychologists will tell you, is a place of deep fear of being rejected; a place of yearning to belong. It is therefore the place where we put the most rejected parts of ourself that we would rather die than admit to anyone. We don’t even admit them to ourselves.
We tuck away the rejected parts in ourselves in the believe that we will be more acceptable to others. But because we do not accept the rejected parts of ourselves, they must be acknowledged somewhere so we project them onto someone else, or onto another group.
That means we ‘see’ the rejected parts in the other person or group and therefore we hate them.
Heck, and don’t we know about this in South Africa, because our whole sorry legacy is built on the collective projection onto others of that which we reject in ourselves. And we still do it well: this one is so corrupt, that one is so incompetent, so-and-so is a foreigner who doesn’t belong here …
The social psychologist Erich Fromm says the divide between good and evil cuts through the soul of every man. In other words, within us all we harbour an equal measure of good and bad. But we prefer to think of ourselves as only good and project the bad part onto someone else.
In a manner then, that which was carried out in Bredasdorp this week, was also done on behalf of those who think themselves too good to act in such a way.
And the one who shouts the loudest is the one trying the hardest to shout down some rejected part within. The brighter the sun shines, the darker is the shadow.
If we want to do something for the world, we can square up to the rejected part within ourselves and take ownership of it. Take that part that you most hate in others and realise it is a part of you.
That is the only safeguard against becoming susceptible to mob action of the kind we saw in Bredasdorp this week. Or in Nazi Germany during the Holocaust. Or cross-Atlantic in alt right terrorism against minorities, but also in the kind of mob mentality cancel culture has come to portray.
The West’s Christian doctrine, which over 2 000 years has built up such a sophisticated civilisation, also has a dark side: it created hubris in the form of the ‘higher than thou’ attitude. Ironically, this attitude is especially alive among humanists – people who think themselves governed by reason and thus ‘post-religious’, but who claim to espouse the moral values born out of Christianity.
It is best expressed in that hackneyed phrase used when someone of exemplary moral standing encounters someone wretched and fallen: “There, but for the grace of God, go I.” (Or the humanists: “There, but for my own rational effort, go I.”)
This moral highhandedness is plain wrong. The phrase should be: “There go I” because in the recognition of that which revolts us, we recognise an aspect of ourselves we deny, and therefore we see someone else living it out.
The irony is that sometimes this part we do not want to own up to in ourselves is not even bad. It may be our greatest creative potential or, say, a proneness to lead that we deny because we fear it. But when we deny it, it becomes a destructive force in or lives.
There is a Talmudic saying: If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am only for myself, what am I? If not now – when?
What this enigmatic saying expresses in a kind of a photo negative way, is that once one has taken care of oneself, in other words, taken ownership of the whole of oneself and accepted also those parts previously denied, at that point one is ready to take care of others, as in the biblical doctrine: Love thy neighbour as thyself.
And if not now, then when?