How to be multicultural?

It is very easy to say that you are pro-multicultural. Politicians, religious leaders, journalists, all declare that they are in favour of diversity. And yet, they all, each and every one, have their own personal faith, that is almost always at odds with everyone else’s. How can we respect and tolerate someone, if our own beliefs are contradictory to theirs? If this question is not answered, then all talk of cultural diversity is meaningless.

Imagine three guys sitting around a table during freshers’ week (that’s shouldn’t be too hard). During their opening chit-chats, it becomes apparent that they have different faiths. One is Christian, another is a Jew… the third declares he is an atheist. During their discussions, the following beliefs emerge:

The Christian believes that Jesus Christ was the Son of God; The Jew believes that God exists, but Jesus was not His son; and the atheist believes that there are no gods.

These are three mutually exclusive viewpoints. They cannot be held simultaneously. No one knows who of the three is right, but we can be certain that at least two of them are wrong. Two of the eager students are embarking on a university career, their entire belief system based on falsehood. Is it not doublethink to respect faiths and religions, when we know that the great majority of them (including, probably, our own) must be completely wrong?

The problem with this stance, trivially correct though it may be, is that it focuses on the central tenets of a particular belief. This does not advance our understanding, nor does it help us when we realise we have to live next door to these people. We must recognise that everyone has to put blind, illogical faith in something. Even the atheist has to bridge a gap of logic if he is to believe that no gods exist. These beliefs have the same status in logical argument as the parents who shout, “Because I said so!” at their children.

What is open to discussion, however, is how those tenets effect the way people lead their lives. For example, to Christians, the most important thing about Jesus Christ is that he died and was resurrected for the sins of humanity. For non-Christians, i.e. most people, the love and forgiveness Jesus is said to have preached, and that their Christian neighbours try and do the same.

There is a challenge therefore, which extends to any group of people and not just the religions used in the example above. The challenge is to show the rest of the world how they approach life, how they treat fellow humans, based upon whatever traditions and tenets they subscribe to. (This is a particular challenge for atheists, who have to explain how they live without recourse to an ancient text). Explaining your moral system to others is interesting, rational, and most importantly it allows us to form a consensus with other cultures, on what exactly those morals shall be. Mutual respect all around the table.

Simon Schama suggests how we should conduct our political discourse:

Put another way, the fight is between power based on revelation (and thus not open to argument), and power based on persuasion, and thus conditional on argument; militant theocracy against the tolerant Enlightenment.

Competing groups may follow their own traditions and code as they interact with others, but at no point must they use their own articles of faith as a reason for political action. “We have the right to do this, because God says so” is an irrational argument and will not wash in polite debate. Sadly, many politicians on the international scene use this sort of rhetoric, over and over again. We know who they are and we should ask them to stop, because then we might be able to have a proper conversation.

How to forgive?

The South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission was so improbable, I needed Desmond Tutu’s No Future Without Forgiveness to remind me that it was not some figment of my imagination, and did in fact exist. It was so unlikely, in fact, that I feel a quick summary of Commission’s activities is required, so its astounding nature can be fully comprehended.

Let me get this right: After apartheid ended and a fully democratic government was elected, a Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) was established. This body was created to facilitate a national catharsis, where people were given a platform to narrate their stories of the era. In the case of the victims of the apartheid regime, those who has been abused and tortured by the government security forces, the Commission had the power to grant them a symbolic compensation. “So far so good,” you might say—nothing too radical there. However (and you might have to read sentence twice) the Commission also had the power to grant an amnesty from prosecution, to those who confessed to crimes against humanity, committed during the apartheid era! People could come to the TRC, tell everyone that they had abducted, tortured, maimed and killed, say sorry, and then go home.

It’s all so improbable. South Africa was for half a century the epitome of animosity. The apartheid system took an entire race of people and stomped them into the ground. There was regular violence. There were massacres, notably at Sharpville in 1960 and in Soweto in 1976. There were bombings. The history of South Africa from 1948 points inexorably towards a chaotic civil war, similar to the many other conflicts that have crippled the African continent.

And it just did not happen. Not only did it just not happen, but also out of the negotiations of the early 1990s, there emerged the TRC, which began granting drive-by amnesty and gung-ho forgiveness left, right and centre.

We already know how this came to pass. It was made possible by that unique man Nelson Mandela, and also by people like Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who took the helm of the TRC when it was established 1995. These South Africans were able to steer their nation away from seemingly certain civil war and onto the path of resolution and development. Such a thing was possible entirely because of the good character of those involved. The source of their morality, sketched in Tutu’s memoir, is something that should be studied by everyone.

The core message of No Future Without Forgiveness is encapsulated bluntly in the title. Before we examine its credibility and implications in detail, there are other nuggets worthy of inspection. What I find most interesting is Desmond Tutu’s account of ubuntu. I will describe it in a moment, but first a few observations on multiculturalism, and my own dabbling with it.

Whenever people talk about cultural exchange as a valuable thing, the reason cited is that we may “learn things from other cultures”. However, what it is we actually learn is never really explained. We can appreciate unfamiliar traditions, but they are always trumped by western liberal values if the push really comes to the shove.

Furthermore, culture as a concept is difficult to define at the best of times. Despite this, my personal experiences have convinced me that we do have valuable lessons to learn from non-Western cultures, and as such I am always delighted when a solid example of non-Western culture surfaces, and proves itself to be superior. Ubuntu is one such example, and one I have experienced before.

In Tutu’s words, which I shall quote at length with no qualms or apologies:

Ubuntu is very difficult to render into a Western language. It speaks of the very essence of being human. When we want to give high praise to someone we say, ‘Yu, u nobuntu’ … this means they are generous, hospitable, friendly, caring and compassionate. They share what they have. It also means my humanity is caught up, is inextricably bound up, in theirs. We belong in a bundle of life. We say, ‘a person is a person through other people … I am human because I belong.’ I participate, I share. A person with ubuntu is open and available to others, affirming of others, does not feel threatened that others are able and good; for he or she has a proper self-assurance that comes from knowing that he or she belongs in a greater whole and is diminished when others are humiliated or diminished, when others are tortured or oppressed, or treated as if they were less than who they are.

This is one of the best articulations of ubuntu I have read, and it makes me smile. When I read it in No Future Without Forgiveness I instantly recognised it that distinctly African way of treating other people that I experienced when I lived on the other side of the Limpopo, in Zimbabwe. It is the thing that says, “you will always feed a visitor to your house”, that says, “you will give a ride to those you see standing beside the road.” It is that attitude that says, “Respect your family,” that says “you will be better off working together.” Ubuntu is a way of saying “we are all part of the same team, the same human race.” It is a very communal attitude to take, one that is not evident in Britain, mid-2002.

But, crucially, it is present in the white communities of Southern Africa, and that is what is fascinating about the concept of ubuntu and more generally, the hybridisation of cultures in general. At the moment, these white communities do not identify with their black neighbours, and yet the tell-tale signs of ubuntu are visible—The white South Africans will befriend you in a way that Europeans would never do. A distrust of the blacks still remains, and this communal spirit is certainly not applied indiscriminately throughout the country… but the seeds of ubuntu are there and they grow larger in the soul of the white tribe every day. That is another thing the TRC proved, as many of the former overlords stood up to apologise for their misdeeds.

Desmond Tutu’s brand of Christianity is worthy of note. Living in the United Kingdom, it would be fair to say that Christianity is suffering something of a PR crisis. The Anglican Church argues over doctrine; whether women should be ordained, whether homosexuals or divorcees should marry. In doing so, the key teachings of Jesus Christ, that we should love and forgive our fellow man, are ignored by the wider population. The underlying message of being generally nice to your neighbours, the essential unity of the human race, is something that remains unheeded as a result.

This is where people like Desmond Tutu and Nelson Mandela have a story to tell. Shorn of divinity, Jesus of Nazareth is still there in the history books saying “Forgive” and “Love” as he withered away on a cross. In 1990, Nelson Mandela heeded those words, and walked out of prison without bitterness. Archbishop Tutu sat in front of killers and said, “I forgive”. The success of their actions in diverting a crisis is a justification for the politics of the Nazarene, one that agnostics and atheists may accept. It is delightful to see that two millennia later, the political ideas have not died, even if we think God Himself has. Those of us who are not waiting around for another messiah, should begin searching for a mortal with enough character to forgive without demanding payback… and then vote for them.

Each page of No Future Without Forgiveness is an ode to the spirit of reconciliation, and in this sense it reminds me very much of Terry Waite’s Taken On Trust. In both books the authors remember the phrase “There, but for the grace of God, go I”. They recognise that the perpetrators are very much a product of their times, and thus deserving of forgiveness. That is not to suggest that the forgiveness is easy—but as both Terry Waite and Desmond Tutu say, it does help one’s own healing, if one can forgive.

Nowhere are these sentiments more forcefully preached, than in those passages that describe the best and worst of humankind, on neighbouring pages. These narratives lend weight and credibility to the Archbishop’s message of love. He offers transcriptions of some of the TRC confessions, the most harrowing of which describes the murder of the Pebco Three, a group of black anti-apartheid activists. One of them, Champion Galela, had his testicles crushed by a police officer. The account of an eyewitness, the very man who betrayed these victims, is powerful enough to provoke a physical reflex-action. I read the passage on a tube train, and as I did so my body pumped a surge of adrenaline through my veins, a futile attempt to protect me from the hurt I read in those passages. I had to put down the book, cover my face from my fellow passengers who were reading their magazines, and took a few deep breaths to keep me from crying. The candid nature of the TRC testimonies is like the removal of bandages to reveal a disfigurement—what we had hitherto imagined is shown in full detail, and the truth that we dared not contemplate, we are forced to confront. It is probably the most uncomfortable thing I have ever read.

Tutu contrasts this horror with the forgiveness of the victims. We read of Neville Clarence, who inexplicably bears no ill will to the men who caused his blindness by planting car bomb. We read of Beth Savage, who despite having campaigned against apartheid, found herself crippled by a random grenade attack in King William’s Town:

I would really like to forgive the man who threw the grenade in an attitude of forgiveness and hope that he could forgive me too for whatever reason. But I would very much like to meet him.

Tutu describes an army officer, who received a thunderous applause from his victims after he apologised for ordering his men to fire upon them a decade before. Adrenaline returns when I read these stories over and over again, excitement as I discovered what human beings are capable of.

Ask yourself: Is there hope for humanity? Never mind development models and economic analysis. Your reaction to that basic question will determine how you treat the world, and the people who you bump into as you walk around it. Do you feel, deep down in your gut, that humanity will ultimately succeed? Or do you think that probably we will end up destroying ourselves, in the end? Alternatively, do you suppose mankind will never learn from its mistakes and we shall instead ride a sine wave of success and failure, prosperity and war?

No Future Without Forgiveness is optimism in a book. As I finished the epilogue, I felt sure that homo sapiens will succeed. Desmond Tutu explains that this species is capable of wonderful things in the face of evil, and it is this capacity that inspires a sort of confidence in mankind. Somehow, things will work themselves out in the end, because we are able to rise above revenge and simply forgive. Maybe we do have the capacity to overcome our differences, those differences that daily cause bloodstains all over the world.

Only on sober reflection can we begin to understand how much is asked of us. Peace and stability is possible, but it entails hard sacrifices from all concerned. There will be no ‘negotiated settlement’, no treaty, no ‘sustainable development’ scheme that will provide a short cut for us. These are the tools of the men who can see only as far as their next term of office. Instead, true peace asks for massive compromise and humility, and to take this step requires nothing less than a leap of faith. This is the true, practical lesson of the South African TRC, and I am eternally grateful that I am not one of those who will have to forgive injustice, racism, murder and genocide, in order for world peace to prevail. I am very lucky.

Turn your thoughts to the millions of unborn children, from Ireland to Israel, who will eventually be required to do the actual forgiving. They will need to understand ubuntu before they can do so. Also, it will take a politician of high calibre, greater than any leader in power at the moment, to actually ask them. Such titanic forgiveness must require an example from our leaders. Desmond Tutu takes this crucial factor for granted, because he is lucky enough to have been governed by Mandela, and his book is the product of Nelson’s exemplary example. Whether enough people follow that example, is what will make or break this crazy project we call humanity.