Tag Archives: Leadership

Leadership | Of Donkeys and People

“One night it’s a donkey, another night it’s a person!”

So matter-of-factly stated an Afrikaner police officer to a colleague of mine, one 1990’s midnight in a North West Province, South African town.

My colleague had been driving a van full of visitors on a return trip to our hotel from a day outing to the luxury resort and casino, Sun City, aka Sin City, when he struck and killed a pedestrian.

Upon arrival at the nearest police station to report the incident, the on-duty officer in all probability simply tried to lessen my colleague’s anguished state of mind by making the “donkey/people comment,” yet in so doing unwittingly voiced his acquired perception of non-white people’s worth and significance:

1 Black Person ≤ 1 Donkey

donkey_blob

Sometimes it’s easiest and more effective to describe the essence of something by depicting its opposite, which is my intention with the donkey story in this thought piece on leadership.

Leadership (at its best) is an inner state of being that feels, perceives, and interacts with all persons as individuals of equal value and dignity to oneself.

Every imaginable leadership book title exists, including 7 Habits, 5 Levels, 6 Steps, 10 Steps, Leadership 101 and 21 Irrefutable Laws, to name but a very few, yet all of them, from my perspective, primarily focus on the external—style or method of leadership, and not leadership’s core essence.

Acquiring leadership expertise by means of habits or steps is enticing because it promises quick results and zero to minimal risk or vulnerability. For instance, seldom will a reader or conference attendee be challenged to say to a child, spouse, subordinate or superior, “I’m sorry,” or “I was wrong,” or to ask, “Will you forgive me?”

Nor will most “instant leadership” books or conferences ask you to contemplate what the other person must be feeling, or what their life circumstances must be like on a day-to-day basis. Rather, focus is on compliance.

Fortunately for those who aspire to a deeper level of leadership significance, whether work, family, or community, this is exactly the type “out of the box” transformational leadership style The Arbinger Institute advocates for in its two bestsellers—Leadership and Self-Deception and The Anatomy of Peace.

We are frequently blind to, self-deceived, when it comes to daily patterns of personal thought, speech or behavior, which hurts people and poisons relationships.

In-the-box leadership operates from an unconscious, yet constant need to feel justified or always right. Feeling justified always requires that someone else be wrong, blameworthy, or a problem.  Only when someone else is at fault or a problem can one’s own life feel good or justified in thought, speech or act.

As Leadership and Self-Deception expresses it, “There’s a peculiar irony to being in the box.  However bitterly I complain about someone’s poor behavior toward me and about the trouble it causes me, I also find it strangely delicious. It’s my proof that others are as blameworthy as I’ve claimed them to be—and that I’m as innocent as I claim myself to be. The behavior I complain about is the very behavior that justifies me.”

How does one get “out of the box” of insecurity and self-justification toward others, and thereby demonstrate Leadership outside-the-box?

By developing a point of feeling for the humanity of all “others” who occupy your concentric circles of shared space, concern or influence. Because at that point of affection or emotion, you’re seeing him or her as a person with needs, struggles, hopes and worries, just like yourself, versus an obstacle, problem or inconvenience.

As nineteenth century Anglican bishop to southeast Africa, John William Colenso, similarly stated, “It is not the outward form alone that makes the immeasurable difference between man and other animals. Wherever we find human affections, there we know we have got a human being.”

Habits, levels, laws, steps, or principles of leadership, therefore, are little help in resolving recurrent or deep-seated interpersonal conflict because they simply “provide people with more sophisticated ways to blame.”

People, whether our children, spouses, enemies or colleagues respond more to how they feel we view and regard them than they do to our particular words or actions toward them.

“Most problems at home, at work, and in the world are not failures of strategy, but failures of ways of being. . . . If we have deep problems, it’s because we are failing at the deepest part of the solution.”

In the spirit of The Arbinger Institute, then—Let’s get busy with the deep things!

 

 

 

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Filed under Africa, Culture and Africa, Death and Dying, Diversity, Family, Leadership, Life, Loss, Memories, Mentor, Pedagogy, Perspective, Prejudice, Race, Relationships, Religion and Faith, Success

Speak the Silent Cries of the Innocent & of the Perpetrators

An unsettling consciousness of the contrast of my life in Austin with both the victims and perpetrators of violence at Nairobi’s Westgate Mall induced a restless sleep last night. I went to sleep wondering what emotions and fears the 30-plus hostages, the scores of wounded, plus families of the deceased were experiencing after the trauma of the day’s violence.

Westgate

A prior, 24-hour span, Friday to Saturday, had been as near to idyllic as one could hope for.

-My wife and I witnessed our middle daughter being honored as one of ten high school homecoming court nominees, a first for any IB (International Baccalaureate) student from her high school.

-We experienced a welcome summer-to-fall seasonal change, with an overnight temperature drop of 10 to 15°F, thereby coaxing our family outdoors for an evening sit in our lawn chairs, while nursing a hot, sweet mug of cardamom tea.

-We watched a documentary movie (Searching for Sugar Man) so excellent and tragic, that even our 9- and 12-year-old daughters were captivated by its feel-good story. It chronicles a blue-collar, Deer Park Michigan, Latino-American musician, Sixto Rodriguez, shunned and relegated to near poverty status in his native North America, yet who gained near cult status in South Africa during the apartheid era, for music that facilitated freedom of anti-apartheid expression. His self-composed lyrics resonated with people, particularly anti-establishment minded, white South Africans, whose lives were being constrained and compelled by an unjust and immoral political institution.

Rodriguez1

-The final day’s cherry on top was sharing intimate moments with my wife, whose Friday night portrait I had been “forced” to repeatedly look at since posting it on my FB wall.

A last act before sleep was viewing picture galleries of the al-Shabab attack: lifeless bodies lying crumpled and bloodied at the base of stairs and escalators; a twisted and contorted woman’s arm/elbow obviously disfigured by shrapnel; and panicked children being evacuated by security personnel or cowering in confined mall spaces, sheltered by the protective, yet useless-against-bullets arms and bodies of family members.

What had begun as a fun-filled day of shopping for thousands of Kenya citizens, residents and visitors, became in an instant a nightmarish rhythmic of grenade explosions, AK-47 gunfire, tear gas, and I’m sure the high pitch shrill of emergency sirens and human wailing and screams.

The numbers dead changed from a midnight 39 to a Saturday morning 59, with three to four-times that number of wounded.

Obscured and sidelined by Kenya’s tragedy were equally tragic same-day events elsewhere, including a suicide attack on a church in northwest Pakistan, killing more than 75 people and wounding 150. Another 60-plus Iraqis died at a funeral, with more than 120 wounded.

It is purported that some of the al-Shabab militants not only intentionally spared Muslims, while targeting Westerners, but also shouted out “Allahu Akbar” – God is great – as they fired indiscriminately in the mall.

Dignity of Diff

Jonathan Sacks remarks in his 2002 book The Dignity of Difference –

“Time and again in recent years we have been reminded that religion is not what the European Enlightenment thought it would become: mute, marginal and mild. It is fire – and like fire, it warms but it also burns. And we are the guardians of the flame. . . .

Two conversations are now necessary. One is between religious leaders on the one hand, and politicians and business leaders on the other, as to the direction globalization must take. This has brought benefits to many, but distress, disruption and poverty to many others whose voice we must also hear. . . .

We must speak the silent cry of those who today suffer from want, hunger, disease, powerlessness and lack of freedom.” (italics added)

An anti-abortion film, The Silent Scream, was produced in 1984. It allegedly showed via ultrasound the silent screams of a fetus in pain during an abortion procedure.

I thought to myself, “What silent screams born from perceived injustices or personal and prolonged experiences of suffering provoke and motivate acts of violence?”

Simply and quickly branding them as politicians and the media often do as “terrorist” conveniently legitimates retaliatory acts of punitive violence, yet it overlooks the formative life events and context that birthed the “terrorist.”

Certainly, there is no conscionable excuse for acts of violence against innocent people, such as the al-Shabab attack. Yet reactive political statements resolve little except to assuage initial public anger and outcry, such as Kenya President Uhuru Kenyatta’s — and any number of similar global presidential statements — in which promises are made to “hunt down the perpetrators wherever they run to.”

We as nations are naive and ignorant at best, arrogant and stupid at worst to think, let alone voice false assurances to the public that the likes of al-Qaeda will eventually be defeated and decimated — no matter how many singular and significant “victories” we might have along the way, such as the assassination of Osama Bin Laden.

We might periodically succeed in eradicating this or that regional or global extremist group like al-Qaeda or al-Shabab, but will prove ineffective in the long-term unless we “target” (let me use a militaristic term) systemic influences like widening economic disparity, which are the birth places of extremism.

On the contrary, should we not individually, or as communities, (faith) congregations, corporations, organizations and nations focus more attention and exert more effort to ascertain, help alleviate where we can, and “speak the silent cry of those who suffer from want, hunger, disease, powerlessness and lack of freedom?” After all, much of the wanton acts of violence and terror are last-ditch efforts to be heard.

Insignificant as my voice may be, that is a primary objective of Life — to speak and give voice to the silent cries of “the Other,” who Edward Said described as those who have been excluded, subordinated, demonized and dehumanized by whichever social, political, or religious group wields overt, subtle and underlying power at any given time.

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6 Habits of Effective & Influential People | Lessons from a South African “Domestic”

A few months after we relocated to Johannesburg in January 2003, the buzzer at our front security gate sounded. I looked out to see an elderly South African man wearing blue coveralls (typical uniform of manual laborers). I walked out and we greeted. He worked as a gardener for neighbors a few houses down, and wondered if we, too, could use outside help. I quickly discovered he was speaking on behalf of a son, Eddie.

This gate-side conversation initiated a relationship with a Northern Sotho young man and his family, which spanned eight years, and would have continued until “death do us part,” if not for my family’s emergency need to relocate back to the United States. As it is, we speak by phone twice a year.

mokoborofamily

This blog is too insufficient a tribute for this young man who gifted mine and my family’s life. A meaningful friendship was improbable, really, because Eddie spoke and understood little English and I/we knew no Pedi (Northern Sotho), his mother tongue. We communicated in either hand gestures, several word sentences, or when something was really important and required detailed instruction I would solicit translation help from a friend.

An example of a typical communication between us is detailed in my blog “Post Office Memories and Cultural Apropos Uses of the ‘F-word,'” part of which I repost below:

One morning I went outside to water the garden and could not find the water hose attachments. I asked Eddie if he knew where they were. His face told me “yes,” but the difficulty was telling me where and what happened to them.  Eddie spoke hesitantly, communicating a short, crystal clear message: “dogs . . . fucked up.”

You see, in South Africa “f#@ked up” is an expression that unambiguously communicates that something or someone is beyond repair. Eddie was telling me that our dogs, who were capable of destroying even a purported to be indestructible dog bed made out of sisal, were the culprits responsible for destroying my hose attachments.

We laugh when we recall how Eddie informed us that his day’s work was done, and that he was leaving for home. Typically my wife might be busy in the kitchen cooking dinner, unaware Eddie was either in the doorway or right outside the kitchen window. He would startle her by loudly, almost shouting, “I GO!”

Unlike many, whose talk exceeds their walk, Eddie, in the absence of a command of English communicated by life example / demonstration. What follows are six habits, or disciplines of Eddie’s that daily communicated a highly effective, highly principled life, which I imagine Stephen Covey would agree with.

First, slightly different from Mayor Bloomberg’s Secrets of Success of “arrive early, stay late, eat lunch at your desk,” Eddie demonstrated a work ethic of “arrive on time, eat lightly – healthily – drinking only water (during work hours), work steadily and persistently, and leave on time so as to prioritize self-care and family care.”

I’ve known no harder work in my life than Eddie. Instead of motivating him to work, I had the opposite problem – getting him to take a break, or take an afternoon or day off.

Eddie2

Second, break down or divide the oft-times near-overwhelming mass or totality of a large job or assignment into smaller, more manageable pieces.

Of the three locations we lived during these eight years, Eddie always established a routine for each task at each place for each week, resulting in a showcase yard and a pristine house.

Third, one’s perspective / attitude is everything!

Depending upon which study or news source you read, upwards of 71-percent of working Americans are dissatisfied with their jobs, and some of us are without jobs.

Despite officially being defined as a “domestic” – defined in South Africa as anyone working 24-hours or more per month for a household – Eddie demonstrated pleasure and pride in each day’s work, irrespective of how menial the task might be. He’s especially been my inspiration these days, since assuming my family’s many daily and so-called menial tasks of home management.

Fourth, be willing to assist the organization and/or your colleagues when necessary (without complaining or drawing attention to self) by doing or getting involved in tasks that technically either lie outside your own job description or that seem beneath your status or dignity to perform.

Initially I hired Eddie to work outside in the garden. Upon relocating to Pietermaritzburg from Johannesburg, our inside house-helper was unable to relocate with us. I felt it would be disrespectful to Eddie to ask him to assume inside duties, in case he viewed this as “woman’s work.” After moving, my family initially went about doing all household chores. No more than a few days passed before Eddie insisted on assuming both inside and outside responsibilities – insisted by simply doing, before we were able to; never a word being spoken.

He did what needed to be done. He did it without complaint. He worked as if striving for perfection.

Fifth, choose teachable moments to demonstrate or communicate desired change in leadership or organizational process, rather than reacting by engaging in embittered backbiting or lobbying.

I’m quite sure Eddie thought my family and I were wasteful, as in spending needless money on “extras” that we had no real need of. After all, you don’t develop a habit of counting pennies unless you need those pennies.

We had several hunter green, plastic patio chairs. Being plastic and relatively cheap it wasn’t uncommon for them to break. One day I tossed one chair in the trash because the arm of the chair broke in two, length-wise. I took little cognizance one day of what Eddie was painstakingly doing. Later that evening when my wife and I sat outside on our patio (verandah) for a cup of coffee together, as we routinely did, I noticed that Eddie had taken an ice pick, plus copper wire, and had effectively sewn the chair’s rip up. He first poked a series of stitch holes along each seam of the crack, then he took the wire and sewed the two pieces together. The finished result was not only a stronger-than-new chair, but also a lesson to me to be less wasteful and more resourceful.

chair4

Sixth, never be too busy or self-absorbed that you are insensitive to the needs and struggles of others within your circle of concern.

Develop the discipline of sharing time and showing kindness (respect) to the least visible, lowest profile (status) people within an organization – even to their children, or especially to children.

Eddie and his family, will always be to my children and our family the 9th to 12th members of our now blended family, yet who just happen to live in South Africa. All the more so, since Eddie named his second child after me!

We feel such affection toward Eddie and his family because he/they invested time, effort, hospitality, laughter and meals with us, and especially with our children – this, despite having negligible disposable income, plus their total home space being no larger than most moderately affluent Americans’ master bedroom.

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Difficult People and (sometimes) Dangerous Animals | An Unpleasant Commonality

I’m no Jeff Corwin, Nick Baker, or Jack Hanna, but twice in April 2010, I easily could have met as untimely an end as the famous Australian “Crocodile Hunter,” Steve Irwin.  Cause of death would not have been stingray barb, but rather, clawed-paw, teeth, tusk, foot (large), and crushing body weight of either a mature male lion (450+lbs), or an “ele” (pronounced “eli”), of which the Kruger National Park describe the average weight as “two mini-buses full of people (6 tonnes).”

The incidents occurred at Klaserie, a 60,000 hectare, privately owned reserve, appended as it were to Kruger with unrestricted animal migration.

Thursday morning began with a visit from the game warden’s wife and daughter, who drove the few kilometers off the main road to our friends’ camp in order to fetch their daughter.  The two girls were taking horseback riding lessons in Hoedspruit, the nearest town.  Prior to leaving, she informed Jonathan of a sighting of two large male lions feeding on a fresh buffalo kill, just off the Reserve’s main road.

After they departed, Jonathan said to Iain (another long-time friend) and me, “Shall we?”  This is man-talk for “Chaps, are you ready to walkabout and look for those lions?!”

Jonathan and I on one of our many walkabouts.

Jonathan and I on one of our many walkabouts.

Over-enthusiastically we climbed into the Land Cruiser (LC), not pausing to consider any variety of “what if” scenarios.

We had one rifle between us, which Jonathan as resident owner at Klaserie took responsibility of, several pairs of cameras and binoculars, and a few pocket knives, which, I assume we somehow thought might be of use to clean any animal aggressor’s toe nails or teeth while it was busy inflicting bodily harm on us.

As to the lone rifle, I was sure of my own abilities – having successfully shot a 6′ reared up and ready to strike cobra in the head – but in all the years I’ve walked-about with Jonathan at Klaserie, I’ve simply trusted that his previous army experience made him a crack shot at any close in and charging animal.

Peter holding the cobra I shot at our home in Musoma, TZ

Peter holding the cobra I shot at our home in Musoma, TZ

Based on the friend’s description, Jonathan knew exactly where to drive and park the LC so as to be downwind of the lions.  We disembarked and began a slow, quiet, single-file walk through the thick bushveld in search of “our lions,” with Jonathan in front (of course), me in the middle and Iain bringing up the rear.  As we painstakingly descended the knoll where the LC remained, we soon came across the buffalo victim’s detached tail – the first sign that we were on the right trail.  A short while later we came on fresh lion scat – poop for you unfamiliar with the term.

What happened next is a jumbled blur of remembrances.  I recall how quiet and still the surrounding bush had become.  At this point we were almost creeping through the thick brush.  I was looking down for telltale sign of lions when Jonathan whisper-shouted, “LION!!!”

A male lion feeding on a wildebeest, in a dense bush similar to the Klaserie lions.

Male lion feeding on a wildebeest in a dense bush similar to the one hiding the two Klaserie lions.

My head whipped up to see a flurry of lion motion beneath a large bush a mere 35 meters in front of us.  Engrossed in their buffalo, we evidently startled them as much as they us.  One lion bolted from the rear of the bush, but the other charged over the buffalo and towards us, his mane fanned back as if he had it sticking out the window of a car going 100 km/h, and I remember the eyes – eerily and menacingly yellow.  After only a few forward strides, the lion fortunately did a sharp 90-degree turn to the right, kicking up early morning dust, disappearing into the bush and leaving us walkabouters with elevated testosterone and heart rate levels.

Charging lion, similar to the one that came toward us.

Charging lion, similar to the one that came toward us.

This lion encounter did little more than provide us with an exciting story to tell our families back at camp over a late breakfast, and then again in the evening while nursing drinks around the campfire.  Little did I know that tomorrow’s (Friday) elephant encounter would put this in the small potatoes category.

Growing up my family always loved vacationing in East African national parks. Getting charged by elephants, rhinos or buffalos was always part of the “fun” – only because they were controlled provocations.  On many occasions we were the hecklers and agitators, who would make respective animal sounds in an effort to get them to come for us. On these occasions we always had a clear and fast getaway, so barring colossal vehicle malfunction, there was little-to-no risk.  Friday’s incident, however, induced restless sleep for weeks after the incident.

It was our last day at Klaserie, with a Saturday departure.  Mid-afternoon my wife Ana, middle daughter Christina and I left camp in the LC.  I drove and they sat on the cushioned benches in the open back.  For more than an hour we inched through Klaserie’s bush only to see the “usual” – giraffe, impala, zebra, kudu, et cetera.  As the afternoon sun reached its golden peak, we crossed the river and were heading back to camp from the backside, along a track where several days previously elephants had knocked several small trees down, forcing the track to detour.

Me clearing a Klaserie track

Me clearing a Klaserie track

Cleaning up after Klaserie elephants.

Cleaning up after Klaserie elephants.

As we came across fresh elephant spoor, including young ones, I recall we were growing hungry and ready for a hot shower.  A few kilometers further on the track skirted a small and densely vegetated hill.  I saw an ele feeding on the right side of the track about 100 meters ahead.  I immediately stopped the LC.  My attention was focused forward, when suddenly my wife leaned into the open driver’s side window, pounded on the roof of the LC with her hand, and shouted, “GO, GO, GO!!!!!”  My head whipped from noon to almost 3-o’clock where she was frantically pointing.  Silently but with great speed an ele was bearing down on us, pushing through brush with ease.

Frequently the LC’s side mirrors were folded in.  For some unknown but grateful reason they had been repositioned that afternoon.  I had a split second to decide what to do. Going forward was not an option due to elephants in the road. I couldn’t veer off left or right due to thick brush, plus many LC-disabling rocks.  Reverse was my only option.  I quickly shifted into reverse and off we shot with the ele in fast and persistent pursuit.

Somehow I managed to keep us and the LC on the narrow and winding bush track while reversing at a speed of near 70 km/h for upwards of 175 meters.  The ele eventually came onto the track in her pursuit of us.  I recall a moment frozen in time, where my head was fanning left to right for rearview mirror guidance, plus fleetingly glancing at center mirror to ensure my family were still in the back, and also glancing forward to our danger, thinking how IMMENSE and NEAR the ele looked as she bore down on us, and wondering HOW LONG and FAR are you going to pursue us?

This close encounter ele photo taken in Pilanesberg gives you some perspective to our BIG & threatening the charging ele was.

Close encounter ele photo taken in Pilanesberg gives you some perspective to how BIG & threatening the charging ele was.

As I was reversing I remembered the downed trees and how impossible it would be to quickly maneuver them.  Fortunately, just as we were approaching them, the ele pulled up and violently shook her head repeatedly as a sendoff.  We did a quick about-turn and returned to camp the long way.

One of two Reserve vehicles destroyed by the ele.  Note the tusk insertion on the driver's side door.

One of two Reserve vehicles destroyed by the ele. Note the tusk insertion on the driver’s side door.

We three got the prize for “first encounter” with this rogue ele.  As Jonathan later told me, she went on to attack and destroy two camp vehicles, plus pinned a game garden to the ground during a morning walkabout with a group of tourists.  She was subsequently destroyed. Christina remembers Ana telling her in that moment of initial charge, “Get down, get down!” And then while they were both huddling under the rear seat, Ana telling her, “I just want you to know that I love you!”  That initial night and several subsequent ones I woke up perspiring, having relived through dreams our close call.

A commonality of dangerous animals and difficult people?  

In 2011 a former colleague shared a Robert Sutton book with me, which at the time we both personally could commiserate with victims of the book’s main character type – the asshole (The No Asshole Rule: Building A Civilized Workplace and Surviving One That Isn’t).  Sutton is a professor at Sanford University, and “The No A**hole Rule” originally appeared in the Harvard Business Review.  The book’s essence is that bullying and destructive characters damage fellow human beings and undermine organizational performance, and how to either restrict, reform, repel (or avoid) such individuals from organizations.

Unless we’re dishonest or blind to our own idiosyncrasies, each of us have at one time or another acted in a donkey-hole-kind-of-a-way toward another person(s). Regrettably too many people – mostly those with at least a modicum of positional or special skills power – have perfected this destructive “art” form.  Such individuals are adept at creating an organizational culture of fear and of negatively affecting the motivation, energy, productivity and retention of employees.

Like our elephant, some individuals develop a propensity for bullying behavior, and this for no evident reason.  They are “set-off” by the most random and insignificant of reasons.  Yet once agitated they possess the requisite power to make life insufferable for you, your family, and/or colleagues.  The individual likely has some invisible and precipitating pain source, but in the case of rogue animals, this isn’t discovered until after the animal is destroyed.

With “human aggressors,” males particularly, the precipitating pain could be something as “trivial” and personal as a struggling relationship, coupled with long periods of no sex (There’s nothing like protracted periods of no sex to make men irritable!).  Or, donkey-hole behavior could be symptomatic of far greater, deep-seated traumas or psychosis.

When confronted by aggressive human behavior, the safest first response is retreat.  This allows you to live and respond another day.  From the relative safety of distance you then have the freedom of choice.  You can choose to accept and live with the however-frequent blow-ups, or reframe hostile encounters with the truth that you’re not the problem or its cause – it’s him.  Alternatively you might avoid all future encounters, waiting patiently instead until his destructive social behavior unseats him from power.  Finally, you can simply pack your office and leave in search of a corporate climate like Google that has a hardwired philosophy of “Do no evil!”  

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The Positive Power of Difference | Us + Them

I remember the wall that encased my third grade home in Kenya.  It was quarried rock, thinly plastered with cement, and as a security measure, injected along the top with jagged, multi-colored shards of glass.  I was sitting atop that wall one day (at a point void of glass!) when my family’s first of two pet Vervet monkeys, Penny, decided to join me, and then out of sheer pleasure at the prospect of terrorizing a young boy, bit my arm.  I screamed more in fear than pain, and shoved her off the 6 to 8 foot wall.

Glass as Crime Deterent

Glass as a crime deterrent

Aware that neighborhood, community and nation are rapidly changing toward a kaleidoscope of racial, ethnic, cultural and linguistic hues – and interspersed with varied degrees of crime – it’s easy and enticing to buy into the myth, marketing and politicking, which advocates that people and nations are predetermined to be in perpetual conflict and hostility with each other.

Such thought and argument utilizes fear of the unknown and different to persuade us that the best defense and antidote against inevitable change and conflict is an impenetrable barrier – or, as former Republican presidential candidates Herman Cain and Michele Bachman suggested – either an electrified fence or one that stretches the entire length of the Mexico/U.S. border.

A not uncommon residential security - Durban

A not uncommon residential security – Durban

It’s a modern-day circling the wagons scenario.  Confronted by a perceived or real threat, we erect barriers  to protect self, family and assets.  Sadly, we disregard the inevitable and historical fact that we are building nothing more lasting than structures of sand, which will not last beyond a spring tide of social discontent. Look no further for evidence than the Berlin Wall or France and the storming of the Bastille.

1989 - Fall of Berlin Wall

Fall of Berlin Wall, 1989

Walls are physical structures, yes, but they are also symbolic.  China’s Great Wall was built as a northern barrier against the threatening barbarian Huns.  Andrew Sinclair, however, noted that walls suggest “a mentality which still persists—the view of a world in which the limits between the civilized and the barbarian are exact and impassable.”  Today we might revise this “wall mentality” to express our longing for an impenetrable divide that guarantees personal protection.

Great Wall of China

Great Wall of China

What precipitated my thinking about walls and barriers, you ask?

Two things.

First, midpoint on my daily run are two separately owned houses for sale.  A distinctive of these two residences has been a shared, unpartitioned backyard.  What is now distinctive is that prior to sale, a high, dividing fence is being constructed that will effectively restrict one new homeowner’s access to the formerly shared swimming pool, as well as minimize social interaction.

The second precipitating factor? My own long-held thoughts on difference, well enunciated by Todd Pittinsky and his book Us + Them: Tapping the Positive Power of Difference.

I frequently voice – particularly post-senseless acts of mass violence – that despite their unconscionable and numbing reality, given a burgeoning global population and people’s access to firearms, as well as the pervasiveness of mental illness and socio-economic disparities, it’s a miracle many times more random acts of violence don’t occur.

It seems we individually, as societies, and “the media” conveniently overlook and under-report the positive dimensions of stories (the many examples of how people positively and daily relate to one another), focusing instead on telling and showing the macabre because that is what sells and excites social consciousness.

As Pittinsky observes, “We are letting the worst of the news become our underlying picture of us-and-them relations.  We know the negative power of difference very well, but we are barely acquainted with the positive power of difference.”

South African educators (+me) working together to improve kids lives.

South African educators (+me) working together to improve kids lives.

This is exactly Pittinsky’s point.  Since the Holocaust and extending into the Civil Rights era, social science research has singularly focused on the negative – on hate and negative prejudice type studies.  Positive research and reporting on “liking of the other” (which he calls allophilia) is largely excluded.

Social sciences’ singular and myopic research on causes of and ways to eliminate or minimize the negative (hate/prejudice) has over the decades thoroughly and negatively saturated and shaped society at large (via education), especially government, military, business, education and civic leaders’ perceptions, attitudes, and responses to difference and “them.”

This overwhelming negative outlook has adversely affected societies at large because leaders and groups views of and approaches to difference and “the other” reflect an “us versus them” or an “us against them,” and seldom, if ever, a positive science of “us and them” or an “us plus them.”

Us + Them

Us + Them

There’s something wrong, Pittinsky notes, when all focus, effort, and expenditure is on tracking “hate back through generations while overlooking positive attitudes and actions that happen today, never mind seeking their distant roots or long-term effects.”

Take Africa for example.  Western coverage of the continent is dominated by news of genocide, dictatorial atrocities, and ethnic massacres.  Yet, Africa has an “estimated 2,035 linguistic groups and more than 3,000 ethnic groups.  It is not uncommon to find more than 20 ethnic groups in one country.  And yet, at any given moment, most Africans are not hating or fighting.  Why not?  We really don’t know.  It’s mostly the hate we study.”

In researching his book, Pittinsky found more than 200 published measures of hate and negative prejudice toward “the other” group, yet not a single measuring tool for constructing positive attitudes toward “the other.”

The Core of the Problem

The Core of the Problem

North Americans have at least two significant challenges ahead of us.  First, as Harvard’s Diana Eck states, “Simply open our eyes.  Discover America anew, and explore the many ways in which the new immigration has changed the religious (and cultural) landscape of our cities and towns, our neighborhoods and schools.

Secondly, strive to maintain our nation’s e pluribus unum (out of the many, one), given the twin facts that we’re the most religiously diverse nation in the world, yet also the most religiously (and culturally) illiterate.

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Our economic prosperity, global dominance and geographical size has in the past minimized our “need” to initiate relationships or understanding of difference with the “other.”

Like South Africa, the United States is a rainbow nation of diversity and multiple cultures.  We need to discard/unlearn any and all notions that suggest people and nations are predestined and hard-wired for conflict and hostility, as Samuel Huntington’s popular book title suggests, The Clash of Civilizations.  For the passionately religious minded, this will require, in part, a cessation of bearing false witness against those different from oneself.

All it takes to begin reversing the centuries’-long cultural and religious ingrained notion that hostility and conflict are immutable aspects of our created differences, is to risk sharing in what Eck describes as “the common tasks of our civil society.”

If that is too risky or demanding a task, then share a cup of hot tea/coffee and a conversation with “the other” about shared memories of life and loss, perhaps during what Elizabeth Lesser calls, “Take ‘the other’ to lunch.” It would help communicate across cultural, political, economic and social divides, if you took along a few personal photographs to share, too.

We all, yet leaders, in particular, “Have the responsibility to understand and increase what we want (peaceful and productive multicultural societies), not just to understand and decrease what we don’t want (prejudice and hate).”

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On Being a Problem

I’m currently reading How Does It Feel To Be a Problem: Being Young and Arab in America by Moustafa Bayoumi.

Have you ever given thought to what daily life must be like for individual “problems” of society?  That is, have you ever personally, first-hand, or vicariously via imagination shared life with them for a day or more?

If you haven’t, I encourage you to do so.  But do so apart from a “group experience,” where vulnerability of shared experiences are diffused too broadly and minimal transformation occurs in your life.

It seems “problem people” in the USA could apply in varying measures to any or all of the following people:  Muslims, Arabs, the poor or anyone benefiting from a government subsidy, gay, illegal immigrants, the unemployed, someone with AIDS, single-headed households (especially women on welfare), anyone who doesn’t speak “American,” etc.   In the not-too-distant past, of course, “problem people” included Native Americans, Catholics, Irish, Japanese, etc.

During their colonizing administration of South Africa, British officials frequently referred to blacks by the phrase “the native problem” (I do not deny the existence of far more racially derogatory terms used as well).  Although more academic and finessed descriptions could be given as to what exactly was implied by “the native problem,” in effect, it boiled down to this:

There were too many of “them” – specifically, “uncivilized” and “un-Christianized” blacks living in near proximity to whites.  What to do about it since the advancement of civilization depended upon native labor, as well as upon making consumers of them?

Fear, then, became the persistent and pervasive “white burden.”  For example, in 1838 Pietermaritzburg, South Africa, white fear of imminent Zulu attack prompted the usual practice of firing a gun upon arrival of the mail to be discontinued, and in its place was substituted the ringing of a bell.

Explorer Richard Burton wrote in 1861, “I unhesitatingly assert—and all unprejudiced travelers will agree with me—that the world still wants the black hand.  Enormous tropical regions yet await the clearing and draining operations by the lower races, which will fit them to become the dwelling-places of civilized man.”  Scottish evangelist, Henry Drummond, expressed in Tropical Africa that the fertility of Central Africa was a liability for civilization’s advance, because in such a climate it was difficult “to create new wants” among Africans.

My life, personally, and that of my family have been exceedingly gifted, blessed, from knowing many “problem people” over the years.  Miriam is one such person.  Initially she was a South African “problem,” given that she was a refugee from a not-too-distant neighboring country.  Destitute and desperate, with small children of her own, she was given a lifeline through the kindness of a few Catholic sisters.  After regaining her footing, Miriam identified an unfortunate niche in South African society – destitute mothers, unable to adequately care for their small children for economic or health reasons, who do not want to give up their children for adoption or for a government mandated two-year foster care, but merely find a temporary and loving caretaker until which time they manage to reclaim life – and determined to make a difference in the lives of mothers and their children, despite her lack of resources.  This former “problem person” isn’t famous or successful by celebrity definition, yet for those of us who know her, she’s a Mother Teresa of South Africa. Thank you Miriam for mentoring me and my family on how best to be a “problem!”

KH

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