This morning, while watching Morning Live on SABC, I was alerted to a terrible video on YouTube – two South African men beating up a woman in what appears to be an office tea room. And someone was video taping the whole thing – most probably on their phone, and laughing – and they appeared to be more people in the background. The woman was shouting, and asking for help, and trying to protect herself. And no one made a move to help her, or to resolve the situation. I have no idea what the whole thing was about, but I felt sick to the stomach after watching it. It made me think. Where is our sense of humanity? And to what extent is the way we treat other people (or allow others to be treated) a reflection of who we are, who we have become – of what we have let go? Ringing in my ears is that statement made by Bryan Stevenson (in his TED talk – We need to talk about an injustice) where he said
Each of us is more than the worst thing we have ever done. … Because of this there is this basic dignity that must be respected
Granted he was talking about how we treat those who are condemned or incarcerated, but I think his meaning went beyond that. Because life is not black and white – and human beings are more complex than we sometimes seem to think. We all know of people who are really evil, and yet have people who love them to bits. I remember watching a documentary about Idi Amin on Al Jazeera, and his son spoke about him being a really loving father! It made me think: “Are there ways in which we can respond to those who have wronged us in a way that is just and does not erode our own humanity?”
Here was a situation where, it seems, people felt this woman had wronged them – and they felt the need to punish her. I can understand that. So two young men responded by beating her up – she was older than them and really not able to fight them. Was this the only way they could resolve the issue? I do not think so. And the others, who might have responded in a different way decided to respond by standing by AND cheering them on. They are clearly not intimidated by those doing the beating, or the person being beaten. They were just enjoying this – like kids in a playground!!! And someone else responded by filming this – and commenting, and laughing. In fact, one felt as if she was edging them on!!! Then, as if that was not enough, they circulated the video!!!!!! And it ended up on the internet – and all the rest of us watched this thing on YouTube – voyeuristic? concerned? angered? amused? helpless? inspired? enraged? And somehow everyone concerned is tainted by the actions of those beating the woman! There is no one good, or humane in this situation.
It made me think of many other situations where, out of fear, or lack of interest, or something, we stand by, or for some stupid reason get involved in something that dehumanises another, and as such dehumanises us too. I remember when I was in my second or third year of my undergraduate studies at Kenyatta University. There were two men, who came running onto campus (from a settlement behind the campus), being chased by the community. They had allegedly tried to rob a house – and tied up a domestic worker. These two men were surrounded by students who were on their way to lectures, from lectures or to lunch, and who had not been at the site of the crime. The students beat them up, stuck a garden fork in one’s throat, covered their bodies in dry grass and lit them up – and danced around the burning bodies. And when the ambulance driver from the sanatorium tried to intervene, they almost overturned the vehicle, and he just managed to drive away. It was a horrifying sight to behold – the madness of a mob and we ran away filled with a sense of fear and helplessness. And for many days after that, I found it hard to look in the eyes of the young men on campus. I walked about in fear – and looked at people’s trousers to see if I would see blood spattered on them. I kept asking myself, ‘Who are we really? Did it really happen? Can I trust anyone here? Could I have made a difference?’ Many of the girls in my hall started going to the library in groups, afraid… I mean these were our peers, and they had killed two men – whom they did not know, and had not given a chance to tell their side of the story. A cloud hang over the University for a while, and for me, one of the actions that began to open things up was when the Creative Arts Centre acted out a skit that raised many of the issues that the situation had raised, in a way that we could both laugh, and begin to speak about this thing that was so horrific that none of us were speaking about. We came face to face with our humanity and inhumanity!
This mornings YouTube video woke me up to this again – our incredible ability to be good or to be evil. It made me think, “how is it that the negative things seem to be more visible AND somehow acceptable? How do we allow them to happen?” It made me think about our local soapies, Isidingo, and Generations, where the bad people just seem to get away with everything all the time!! Especially in the current season!! The more I think about it, the more I believe that these huge acts of ‘terrorism’, genocide, gangsterism, bullying, mass murder, etc begin with small acts, where we close our eyes, look away, or cheer them on, record the evil and share it. And so they get away with it, and we all wonder why the bad people always seem to win. We become desensitised to what is wrong and start saying no one else cares so why should I? And why shouldn’t you? Because, somewhere deep inside, if you are really honest with yourself YOU DO CARE – AND SOMETIMES YOU WISH YOU HAD THE COURAGE TO DO SOMETHING DIFFERENT! It made me think – What if we each rose to the occasion, in our small way, and challenged the actions of a perpetrator of mean-ness, or inhumane or unjust behaviour? What if we dared to act in love and challenge with tough love – not violence, or ridicule or mean-ness? What if, for just one moment, everyday, we stood up for the underdog? for what we believed in? What if, everyday, in the small things and the big things we stood up for what was right and good and wholesome? What impact would that have – not just on the world around us, but on the way we felt about ourselves?
What if we dared to do a little good every single day? What if we dared, for just 30 days, not only to do good, but to notice, everyday, acts of kindness, courage, goodness, mercy and grace? What if we cheered on people who did good – cheered them loudly and publicly? What if we did not only notice those people who came out to help when there was a bomb, or an earthquake or war – but noticed those people who just touched someone’s life in a simple but profound way – everyday? What if we went further, and thanked them? What if we went even further and celebrated them – on twitter, Facebook, tv, our blogs and Facebook pages – at assemblies or staff meetings or at the dinner table? What if we used our smart-phones to record random acts of kindness and goodness – instead of acts of mean-ness, and senselessness? What if, for just one month, we took back our humanity and refused to be complicit in all these big and small acts of terror? What if, just for a month, we decided to care? DO WE DARE?