The great conciliator

The warm words from around the world following the death of Nelson Mandela seem to me to offer some powerful messages about effective integration. Frederik_de_Klerk_with_Nelson_Mandela_-_World_Economic_Forum_Annual_Meeting_Davos_1992I must admit to sharing a lot of the general admiration, and it was no accident that I put this picture of him shaking hands with F.W. De Klerk on the cover of my book ‘Middle Way Philosophy 2: The Integration of Desire’. What is so striking about Mandela is the way that his personal integration in prison was so decisive in the political integration of his country. In the complexity of politics, there are few such clear examples of the link between the two levels of integration, the microcosm and the macrocosm (Aung San Suu Kyi is perhaps another, but her mission to bring Burma to democracy still has a long way to go).

One needs to give priority to the big picture to admire Mandela in this way. One needs to compare what actually happened in South Africa with the bloodbath that might have happened, and emphasise his obvious importance in making the difference. Part of the basis for admiration also includes Mandela’s awareness of his own limitations, indicated in his decision to step down after one term as president, together with the stories of his personal kindness, including to people whom he had every reason to hate, such as Betsy Verwoerd, the widow of a previous hardline Apartheid Prime Minister.

However, if you look in more detail at some of the many obituaries that are featuring in the media today, Mandela’s many weaknesses also become clear. His two divorces, his apparent naivete in dealing with the wealthy and enjoying wealth himself, his apparent climbdown from former left-wing ideals when in office, and his lack of attention to the details of government, are all mentioned. Despite the fact that his conversion to violence was evidently reluctant, he could also at one time be labelled a terrorist (and indeed was). If you simply project a heroic archetype onto Mandela and expect him to fulfil every detail of that archetype, you will be disappointed.

What seems more important is to separate our projection of the hero from the complexity of the man, and appreciate both for what they were. The man was flawed, but, if you look at the big picture, still a real example of how integration can actually happen, both in personal and political terms, even if it seems against the odds. As an archetype we can put his image alongside that of other flawed human beings – Gandhi, Jesus, and the Buddha, for instance, as able to more generally reflect a way forward for us. I would not put his image on a shrine and burn a candle before it, because that to me seems to create too much confusion of the archetype and the person. Nevertheless, if we can maintain that awareness of the difference, and of the real complexity of the issues that the hero works with, there is no need to set any limits to our depth of admiration for the archetype. We can admire the hero, yes, but we can particularly admire the flawed hero who engages with the full difficulty of the conditions around him.

About Robert M Ellis

Robert M Ellis is the founder and chair of the Middle Way Society, and author of a number of books on Middle Way Philosophy, including the introductory 'Migglism' and the more in-depth 'Middle Way Philosophy' series. He has a Christian background, and about 20 years' past experience of practising Buddhism, but it was his Ph.D. studies in Philosophy that set him on the track of developing a systematic account of the Middle Way beyond any specific tradition. He has earned his living mainly by teaching, and more recently by online tutoring.

5 thoughts on “The great conciliator

  1. Bob Herbert on Nelson Mandela:

    “Mandela was a revolutionary committed to the wholesale transformation of his society

    Even though it had been expected, I was jolted when I got the phone call with the news that after many long decades the defiant fire of resistance had gone out and Nelson Mandela had died. He was the only truly great public figure I’d ever covered, an authentic revolutionary who refused to cower in the face of the most malignant of evils.

    I knew that the tributes would be pouring in immediately from around the world, and I also knew that most of them would try to do to Mandela what has been done to the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.: turn him into a lovable, platitudinous cardboard character whose commitment to peace and willingness to embrace enemies could make everybody feel good. This practice is a deliberate misreading of history guaranteed to miss the point of the man.

    The primary significance of Mandela and King was not their willingness to lock arms or hold hands with their enemies. It was their unshakable resolve to do whatever was necessary to bring those enemies to their knees. Their goal was nothing short of freeing their people from the murderous yoke of racial oppression. They were not the sweet, empty, inoffensive personalities of ad agencies or greeting cards or public service messages. Mandela and King were firebrands, liberators, truth-tellers – above all they were warriors. That they weren’t haters doesn’t for a moment minimize the fierceness of their militancy.

    Unlike King, Mandela accepted violence as an essential tool in the struggle. He led the armed wing of the African National Congress, explaining: “Our mandate was to wage acts of violence against the state… Our intention was to begin with what was least violent to individuals but most damaging to the state.” Ronald Reagan denounced him as a terrorist and Dick Cheney opposed his release from prison.

    King was hounded by the FBI, repeatedly jailed, vilified by any number of establishment figures who despised his direct action tactics, and finally murdered. He was only 39 when he died. When King spoke out against the Vietnam war, characterizing the American government as “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today,” the New York Times took him to task in an editorial headlined, “Dr. King’s Error.”

    King’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech is remembered mostly for its stirring evocation of a friction-less world in which blacks and whites get along wonderfully well and people are judged solely by “the content of their character.” What typically gets left out of mainstream reminiscences about the speech was King’s indictment of the real-world treatment of blacks in America. “America has given the Negro people a bad check,” said King, “a check which has come back marked ‘insufficient funds.’” He warned the crowd of a quarter of a million people outside the Lincoln Memorial:

    It would be fatal for the nation to overlook the urgency of the moment. This sweltering summer of the Negro’s legitimate discontent will not pass until there is an invigorating autumn of freedom and equality… And those who hope that the Negro needed to blow off steam and will now be content will have a rude awakening if the nation returns to business as usual. There will be neither rest nor tranquility in America until the Negro is granted his citizenship rights.

    These were not warm and fuzzy individuals, fantasy figures for the personal edification of the clueless and the cynical. They were hard-core revolutionaries committed with every ounce of their being to the wholesale transformation of their societies. When giants like Mandela and King are stripped of their revolutionary essence and remade as sentimental stick figures to be gushed over by all and sundry, the atrocities that sparked their fury and led to their commitment can be overlooked, left safely behind, even imagined never to have occurred.

    It’s a way for people to sidestep the everlasting shame of past atrocities and their own collusion in the widespread horrors of racism that are still with us.”

  2. Thank you for your threads Robert and Peter.
    Successful fighters against injustice need a steely determination and an unshakable conviction. I think of the Fight for Women’s Rights and the anti- slavery movements here in Britain and the many campaigners working now around the world, against exploitation of people and land to animal rights.

  3. Peter, I found your text very interesting, though perhaps I disagree with some of it. I feel Bob Herbert reveals a bit of dichotic thinking there, in seperating “warm, fuzzy” reconciliation as useless fantasy that makes people comfortable colluders on one hand, and angry, dare to be painful, rebellious power-over activists as growing real change on the other.

    I feel that both are valid forms of growth and change. Some people feel more comfortable in one mode than another as our baseline temperament dictates, and then we certainly go from one to the other (and back again) many times in he course of a healthy and engaged life.

    Without one, the other would not be sustainable.

    Anger without the promise of reconciliation and forgiveness breeds resistance and entrenchment, and to me it seems to be dividing our world ever more deeply in our times. Greens and technocrats, progressives and conservatives, atheists and people of faith, men and women, classes pitted against each other…

    Acceptance of the other, or, the enemy without the forcefulness of anger to motivate change could, like Herbert point out, just preserve the status quo or even regress.

    But I feel that it is a truly transformative experience to embrace your enemy, far from being a passive, defeatist action it is a positive, affirmative one, and in my experience it is a way out of vicious cycles of violence and domination, rather than collusion or staying comfortable. It does need to be tempered with a strong commitment to action and an understanding that forgiving is not condoning, and it is not forgetting. It is not comfortable at all to embrace one’s enemy. The thing is, no one else can do it for you. There is nothing good to be got from trying to embrace someone else’s enemy for them, that is collusion.

    I recently started subscribing to the newsletter of Tom Atlee, and in the latest one he wrote about what he called “The dance of vulnerability and strength”. (Here is the link if anyone is interested, there is an interested map of our reactions and how they relate to each other: )

    Don’t we need and ought to celebrate both?

    1. Hi Emilie,
      Firstly, I would like to say how much I enjoyed the conversation I had with you and Robert yesterday. I look forward to taking part in more Skype discussions next year.
      I read the Tom Atlee blog, thank you, I have shared it on my Face Book page, because I think it would be of interest to those on my short list of family and friends.
      The hand of friendship has an emotional context, I agree, showing loving kindness, while not condoning the wrongs inflicted.

  4. I agree to some extent with Emilie’s criticisms of the Bob Herbert piece. You could read him as mainly complaining about the idealising of Mandela (a complaint I’d be sympathetic to), or you could read him as standing up for left-wing militancy against what he sees as right-wing appropriation of Mandela – that just strikes me as a fruitless political dualism. I don’t think we need to be suspicious of right-wing politicians who profess love of Mandela, or assume that they’re not genuine: they may well be, and I think it’s a good place for the application of the principle of charity (i.e. assuming the best when there’s an ambiguity).

    I’d also make a distinction between being politically committed and ideologically committed. Political commitment is part of the practical requirement involved in seeing through an action or a policy, but ideological commitment is a failure to respond to conditions through dogmatism. When Herbert talks about King and Mandela as ‘hardcore revolutionaries’ I have a suspicion that he’s talking mainly about ideological commitment. Revolutions normally fail because they’re based on metaphysical commitments that prevent the revolutionaries addressing the conditions. The only exception to that I can think of is the American Revolution, which set up a constitution that has endured for more than 200 years precisely because it wasn’t based on a narrow ideological imposition. Mandela’s achievement was precisely that he avoided violent revolution, or if you choose to call his peaceful achievements ‘revolutionary’, that they were not narrowly ideological. He was politically committed, but ‘hardcore’ is not the term that springs to mind.

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