I understand how soothing it is for us, as human beings, to believe that there must be because it is easy, isn’t it? It is cosy to rest securely into our ingrained notions of who has wronged us without seeing gradation, without noticing how things influenced other things and how those things toppled over other things and how big messes could have been made without a collective bad intention.
But resting in the comfortable hammock that is the myth of ‘the Bad Guy’ isn’t salving our wounds. It is a little Band-Aid over a cut so deep you can see right to the bone.
History is a silk carpet, spun together from millions of strands of silk from millions of cocoons, in turn, spun by millions of silkworms living every kind of life in every kind of weather on every kind of day. It isn’t an overly designed or controlled thing; it isn’t, say, a mathematical theorem. It is the colourful amalgamation of every kind of person doing, for the most part, the best they could. How pointless of us, how base, to have taught ourselves how to do almost every other thing except listen to one another and look at our shared history with the kindness any one of us should show a crying baby; a quiet kindness, a forgiving kindness, a kindness that heals skinned knees and broken hearts.
We walk around with broken hearts, we South Africans, we citizens of the world. We are dogs with thorns in our paws, growling and biting at the hands that want to soothe us. Our broken heartedness manifests as rage for much of the time, and our rage manifests in a thousand different ways. The striking of a match to light a library on fire. The hand over the pleading girl’s mouth as her jogging shorts are pulled aside. The dehumanization of the crippled man at the traffic light.
I have thought, ever since I was too young to understand much, that if a person stands hungry and shivering right in the middle of two lanes of BMWs and other shiny vehicles without being looked in the eyes for days that melt into years, that person will no longer think of white-teethed take-away coffee drinking car owners as people. That person will have been taught that it is possible to make, in a mind, an object out of a living breathing person. And that person will be a product of what a broken society succeeds in producing best: a broken, angry, hateful thing.
I used to think right and wrong were easy to understand, but now I think that there are few questions more difficult to answer than “who is the bad guy?” because I have stopped believing in bad guys. I am an exhausted teacher, kneeling by my grief-stricken compatriots, asking:
What brought you here? What are the things that went wrong to make you cry? How could you have been complicit? How was I? Would you mind me saying sorry once I’ve understood what for?
How can I make it better?