John G Bell


Winter '03 - Hill

Book Response: “No Future Without Forgiveness” by Desmond Tutu

A. Important things about ...

  1. the power and limitation of dialogue

    On p40, there's a comment about how the “participatory way of operating” can be “debilitating to initiative.” This is an important point. Having just seen a production of Lysistrata last night, I'm brought to mind of how the Greek democracy would elect a dictator in times of crisis because they recognized the necessity for short-circuiting the process of discussion in order to make decisions quicker then. In frustrating, even if eventually constructive, discussions it's easy to feel like one is being drained of all energy, feeling like the process of having to wrangle over everything is actually shortening one's life span quicker than just living.

    There's a serious issue here. People dread the idea of decisions made by committee or having to participate in that kind of decision process. They've arrived at that feeling because of their experiences with the process and the outcome. The process of dialogue can inhibit initiative and short-circuit engagement and shutdown excitement. The process of dialogue can create tension and alienation among participants too.

    If we lack excitement and engagement in our lives, as suggested by the cultural need for war and other violence, then more prevalent time and space for dialogue could merely exacerbate the problem.

    I'm encouraged by the way dialogue is modeled in countries with parliamentary governments like Britain and Canada. These governments offer a model of open, lively dialogue and debate in public space. This kind of dialogue is not without opposition, rather it's designed to allow for opposition. It models a healthy and constructive process of political decision making. Of course, I'm not saying it's without flaws, but it's an example.

  1. American or world society

    The consistent parallels between South Africa and other times and places in the world suggest there's some huge systemic problems and cycles that people are getting caught in consistently. There's recent clear parallels to Nazi Germany, Israel-Palestine, and even in America. These parallels are not just racial, but also class, caste and cultural parallels of repression and control. The concentration of power and the struggles around maintaining that power seem to result in very similar experiences worldwide.

  1. these specific groups

The way the people in South Africa were able to create the TRC to implement the two goals of amnesty and reparations to address their societal and national needs is amazing. Of course, there were problems and it wasn't easy, but that it happened in a world so tied to retribution and punishment is impressive.

  1. myself

    I'm tired of reading books that make me cry. I struggle between the need to know and the way these books and movies affect me. I don't want to desensitize myself to pain or suffering in order to “get through” these kinds of stories. To just “get through” them is a kind of disrespect for both the impact of the story and of myself that I don't really want to have. It's frustrating that as I've developed more sensitivity, I've been confronted more by these kinds of issues. I know I have to stay grounded and not let sensitivity become a liability to being engaged in the world, but it's still important to me to maintain my boundary of wanting to be sensitive.

B. Talking points

  1. Time and Place

p7 “those long hours helped us South Africans find one another”

The time and place created within the span of people's daily lives by the voting queues allowed for the kind of dialogue beyond normal boundaries that develops connections between people. The voting polls in the US don't offer that. There's no real opportunity for political debate or dialogue with others form the same community. We make our decisions, and then make a private selection behind curtains, as if the process were either a trip to the bathroom or to the bedroom. In the end our private tryst with politics ends up as a public embarrassment either way. I suppose it's rather obvious that it serves a purpose that people aren't engaged in the process with people other than those with whom they already agree. If the voting places were an opportunity for real dialogue, then people would feel threatened at having to have justification and rationale behind their choices. That would be personally threatening to some, or perhaps most. The benefit and danger of representative government is that we end up with people making the decisions so that we don't have to make each one. That's a systems that was set up to cushion the government from public opinion in the same way that the electoral college was. The struggle of whether the people have a real voice has been around since the beginning of this country and continues. The lack of engagement by the people just abdicates that chance for dialogue to those that would prefer to have the people be silently led. So, it's a win-win for everyone. The powerful get to be in power and the rest don't have to be bothered.

  1. Public education is part of command and control

p16 Verwoerd “education must train and teach people in accordance with their opportunities in life.”

This links to stuff I've kept in mind about compulsory education as part of the system of caste in this country. For example, I remember distinctly the experiences I had at my high school, which was designated as a vocational high school. They got a lot of money for vocational programs, programs to get people into the job market, but they didn't get money for college preparatory courses. Just 30 miles north, there was a high school with advanced placement courses, which offered college credit, and even had a full 4 year program in Latin. The difference was the school to the north was in a district that had lots of timber industry money.

The system of education is being further reinforced in this way by the use of standardized testing and the linking of funding to performance, meaning that the schools that perform get the money. Of course, that's probably exactly the opposite of a functional strategy where the trouble schools are the ones that actually need the funding more.

Of course, the reliance on standardized testing is not all that good either. When I was in a school in southern California all the white kids held the statewide test as a joke, since they always scored in the 90th percentile. Growing up, I was always comfortable with standardized tests even if I wasn't with the material. For the most part, I knew how the tests worked and could play the system. In fact, I recall once that I was having a bad day while taking such a test in Virginia. Where another kid with a different skin colour was stuck with their score, I was not only given another chance at the test but I was coached on how to best play the test's game by the instructor. Of course, there's not just the structure of the test, but the cultural bias in the questions which has been a big problem for the SAT, for example.

But it's bigger than that. My high school didn't offer calculus. I transferred into the school district, not really that good at math, a year ahead in the honours track. My senior year, there was no math class for me to take. I remember having a discussion about this with others and how the person in charge of the curriculum in the district wouldn't offer calculus because the kids in the district couldn't handle it. Well, the reason they couldn't is because the system, from the elementary level on up, did what it could to enforce the perception that they couldn't and to make the material level match that expectation of failure.

On the obverse, education also enforces caste roles on the “elite” by offering them only that education that is deemed to be worthy of their time. Courses in auto mechanics or other activities like that aren't standard fare in the schools of the power elite. That tools them into being dependent on the servitude of others in specific ways and enculturates their position in society.

C. Outrageous statement or claim

p92 “... not plead ignorance since they were not benighted pagans.”

p92 “... and what is more, they were Christians.”

p92 They were christians and thus “could have no excuse ...”

At this point, I have to say I'm disgusted. Here's a wonderful book that purports to be about people coming together across their differences, which had been used to divide them, and then here's several paragraphs of pure prejudice based on religion.

What about the Hindu and athiest members of the TRC? Were they somehow less moral that Tutu? Or is that because he doesn't think of the TRC colleagues as pagans because he's familiar with them or like the older Italian brother's response to Spike Lee's character in “Do The Right Thing” where he didn't think of the african-americans he liked as being african-american, the stereotype.

Why makes Tutu think that non-christians lack moral codes or morality? His prejudices against them. Apparently, Aristotle isn't the only one that makes that kind of mistake.