Tuesday, June 08, 2010

On the nature of reconciliation (guest essay)

Editor's note: The following is an email sent to me in response to my essay on the nature of reconciliation. It is published here with the permission of the author.

by Rufus Arthur Wilderson

Your post on the views of Africans towards reconciliation struck a chord with me. As much as the diverse views of an entire continent can be generalized, I think yes, Africans do have a greater propensity to live and let live than is seen in Eurasia.

My first anecdote comes from my brief time in college, I want to say 2005-2006 time frame. For some reason Somalia was in the news; maybe the piracy was starting to get bad. At the time I was attending an African Studies course, and the professor was a somewhat world-weary type who had been an ambassador and was able to add a lot of color to the discussion of the Horn of Africa, including all the nuances and shifting alliances during the Cold War and Ogaden conflict (someone should make an opera out of it). His conclusion looking at Somalia? "It is better to have a bad government than no government at all". That was it, verbatim. Of course, this was about the same time that Zimbabwe had been making the news for bulldozing slums, so this struck me as a somewhat odd outlook on matters. Considering the state of life in Somalia though; perhaps it is not entirely unjustified.

The second anecdote comes from the excellent book In Search of Zarathustra, and dates to about the seventies or so when the author was having adventures in Afghanistan and Iran.

He had come to explore the ruins of an old Zoroastrian fire temple and met a community elder just before mid-day prayers. He asked about the temple. The elder said the temple was haunted, and the site of a great battle between Alexander the Great, Genghis Khan and the local tyrant. The lesson from that is that while centuries-long or even millennia-old grudges and events are remembered in much of the world, they are not necessarily remembered accurately! Perhaps there was some ancient battle at that site, but the story had become hopelessly distorted over time as it was told and retold for whatever didactic or political reasons were expedient at the time.

To me, as an American, both views seem strange. I have been taught, ultimately via the Enlightenment tradition, that it is not only justified to fight injustice, but that it is a moral imperative to do so. The American emphasis on the individual leaves me feeling a bit odd with the idea of punishing someone because our ancestors five generations ago were in a battle. Why should that matter to us, now?

It is tempting to think that the American outlook has the best balance of emphasis on social justice tempered with the mercy of easy forgiveness and individual, rather than group accountability. This is probably provincial though, and I suspect such a world view works best and flourishes only in a prosperous and stable environment. In an environment where even basic necessities like clean water or food could be hard to come by and life could be beset by all manner of natural and man made privations, fighting overmuch for social justice would seem like foolish idealism. Better to live and let live and get on to more important basic necessities. In an environment with a greater degree of prosperity and wealth, but with shifting alliances and organized national militaries all around like Eurasia has had for most of the past three thousand years, too much forgiveness and too much forbearance with tyrants might be the complacency that gets one's entire tribe destroyed in the next war.

Or at least that's what comes to mind for me. I could be making up just-so stories based on vague generalizations about people and places; always a risk in sociology.



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