The hypocrisy of grief

Nelson_MandelaOne of the greatest visionaries and leaders of our time has passed away. Judging by all of the outpouring of sadness I’m hearing and seeing, pretty much everyone is sad. And they should be.

My personal feeling is that most people have shown genuine respect and admiration for everything that Nelson Mandela accomplished and represented, even if they wasted no time in hopping on to their social media accounts to log their grief. The reactions seem to suggest that we’re all staunch supporters of freedom and justice.

It’s easy to love Nelson Mandela. It’s easy to appreciate the ideals of love, integrity, peace and justice. Most people do on principle. But not everyone. And because they know that they would be vilified and shunned if they admitted who they really are, every politician – whether a true devotee of Mandela or not – is tripping over themselves to make sure that we know that they’re sad he’s gone.

Primer Minister Stephen Harper:

“He showed how people can shape better tomorrows and do so in their own time. Nelson Mandela’s long march to freedom, his grace and humility throughout that walk, and the bridge to the future he built for his people as he proceeded along it ensures that his remarkable example will inform others for generations.”

This, from a man who has categorically denied Canada’s colonial history and completely ignores sweeping protests for human rights by First Nations. What did he have to say about the group of brave young people who trekked over 1,600 km through the harsh North earlier this year in the name of freedom and solidarity? Not a word. I guess that wasn’t worth the brownie points.  (I wrote about this at length here).

Toronto Mayor Rob Ford:

“We join the people of South Africa in mourning the loss of Nelson Mandela, a true leader and advocate for freedom and democracy. Mandela dedicated his life to social justice in South Africa and around the world. As President of South Africa, he introduced a new constitution and launched numerous reforms and policies for the benefit of all South African people.”

This, just a few days after this wealthy self-described defender of the poor and marginalized said, “I don’t believe in all this public-funded health care, we can’t afford it. If you want health care, you pay for it.” When responding to a proposal that councillors hold public meetings to consider establishing new homeless shelters, he asked, “Why don’t we have a public lynching?” (video link)

Oh, the hypocrisy.

As for the rest of us who so readily grieve the passing of this great man, can we say that our own values and actions truly align with his message? Or do we come up short when our attention returns to our own interests? In so-called Western democracies, although we hail figures like Mandela as beacons of courage and hope, we do so only to the extent that our own comfort – both physical and ideological – will allow. Let’s face it: while Nelson Mandela was always respectful and kind, he was an unapologetic radical who never compromised when it came to condemning systems, practices and regimes that place profit or self-interest above justice, peace, and equality. Hoarding huge amounts of wealth while millions starve? Unacceptable. Denying people healthcare and critical support because they can’t afford it? Unacceptable. Austerity programs that gut public education while subsidising billion-dollar corporations? Unacceptable. Military occupations, indefinite detention and secretive surveillance programs? Unacceptable! If we connect with the essence of Mandela’s goals, we can’t possibly allow these types of policies to continue.

To hear some people lament the passing of Mandela, one would think that all is lost. “They don’t make people like him anymore,” they say. And why exactly do they think they are so not “like him”? He deserves all of the praise he gets, and all of the mourning too. But we’re wrong if we think we can distance ourselves from our responsibilities by placing him on a pedestal. No one appointed Mandela the saviour of South Africa. He was not a privileged man, or a prodigy with special talents beyond the capabilities of each and every one of us.

Now is not the time to pay lip service to ideals. Let’s think of Mandela the next time we read the newspaper, see a protest or cast our vote, and not remain silent and complacent. Instead, let’s remember how just one person can transform the world when they transcend their own self-interest and identity to channel the spirit of the people. Let’s carry on his work – our work – with dignity, clarity, openness, honesty, and love. If nothing else, what Mandela proved was that it can be done. In his own words:

“I had no epiphany, no singular revelation, no moment of truth, but a steady accumulation of a thousand slights, a thousand indignities and a thousand unremembered moments produced in me an anger, a rebelliousness, a desire to fight the system that imprisoned my people. There was no particular day on which I said, Henceforth I will devote myself to the liberation of my people; instead, I simply found myself doing so, and could not do otherwise.”

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Empathy: without it, we are blind

In Canada today, new Liberal leader Justin Trudeau suggested that when a tragedy like the Boston Marathon bombings occurs, society should examine the root causes of these events. His rationale was as follows:

“There is no question that this happened because there is someone who feels completely excluded. Completely at war with innocents. At war with a society. And our approach has to be, okay, where do those tensions come from?”

Prime Minister Stephen Harper, on the other hand, believes that the idea of thinking analytically about the origin of violence is somehow frivolous, prescribing this approach instead:

“You condemn it categorically, and to the extent you can deal with the perpetrators, you deal with them as harshly as possible.”

For conservatives like Harper, justice is synonymous only with punishment. People who subscribe to this mindset fail to grasp that attempting to understand something and condoning it are two very different things. One approach seeks to form a holistic view of how something has come about, whereas the other only takes into account the end result, ignoring critical elements such as motivation and process.

The key here is the distinction between empathy and sympathy, two concepts that many people seem to confuse. The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines them respectively as such:

Empathy: the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience

Sympathy: an affinity, association, or relationship between persons or things wherein whatever affects one similarly affects the other

Empathy involves imagining yourself in a situation so that you can understand how someone is feeling and thinking. Sympathy implies some level of agreement or sameness of mind. Empathizing, therefore, is not equivalent to supporting, justifying or rationalizing. Rather than simply imposing one’s own judgment on a situation, one steps back and recognizes the broader reality as it relates to all those involved. MP Stella Ambler is one of those conservatives who completely misses the point when she says, “There is no root cause and no tension that justifies the killing and maiming of innocent civilians.” No one is saying there is.

No person or decision exists in isolation. Every decision we make is the result of any number of factors, some of which are influenced by others directly or indirectly. In any given situation, even one factor involved in a decision could influence how we choose to act. If we don’t acknowledge certain factors as a society (for example, the statistical relationship between poverty and crime), we can’t identify opportunities to prevent the negative conditions that may lead to harmful actions.

Having empathy means acknowledging that what happened at the Boston Marathon on Monday was horrible and shocking. It’s tragically unfair that people, including children, lost their lives and were injured. For some people the torment will never end. Emotional responses are perfectly understandable. I can imagine why a person would respond with rage and hysteria, but that doesn’t mean I will encourage those behaviours. I certainly won’t make the situation any better if I act as though what a person is feeling or has experienced – no matter how irrational or contrary to my own views – doesn’t matter. The fact is, it matters to them, and because it matters to them, depending on what they choose to do about it, it could matter to others as well.

Understanding and empathy have nothing to do with being a ‘bleeding heart’ or a coward. Quite the opposite; it takes courage to address serious problems fundamentally and directly. It involves moving beyond passion and arbitrary judgment and coming to terms with reality, no matter how complicated and scary it may be. This is how a just, conscious society deals with difficult issues.

Without empathy, we experience but do not understand action and reaction, cause and effect. If the only response we know is to become increasingly tenacious and ruthless, we will feed a vicious cycle that brings no benefit and only creates more misery. Without empathy, we are blind.

Source: Stephen Harper and Justin Trudeau exchange barbs over Boston bombing, Toronto Star