More Reconciliation: Multiplying the Exceptions

Is it impossible to multiply the exceptions so as to make them the rule? Must man always be brute first, and man after, if at all?” – MK Gandhi (1926)

 

I have a soft spot for stories that showcase the better parts of humanity. This isn’t to ignore all of the horrible things that people often do to one another. In fact, I think I’ve done a decent job at describing the ways that humans can alternate between being completely horrible or wonderful to each other (ex., see “Genocidal Altruists”). Overall, I think that focusing exclusively on either the good or the bad cannot accurately do justice to describing our complexity.

With that said, here are three stories of forgiveness or reconciliation that fall on the courageous and hopeful end of human behavior. As amazing as they are, perhaps consolidating them in one place will help make them seem not so unattainable for the rest of us.

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One Day

I know some day it’ll all turn around…

Children Aren’t Poison

 “I once heard this lady say, “I love kids.” That’s nice. It’s a little weird though. It’s like saying “I like people… for a little while.”   — Demetri Martin

 

A story is circulating about Professor Sydney Engelberg of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. When an infant started crying in class, the professor simply picked him up (with the mother’s permission, I assume) and continued to lecture. The fact that the story has generated so much attention is a bit puzzling to me. Perhaps it’s because we’ve artificially separated our worlds into adult and child compartments, and we think that kids aren’t supposed to be in certain places. Of course, the move could backfire, and the baby could react even worse once he was in the arms of someone he didn’t know.

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Sex Really Is Dangerous (and Other Adjectives)

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I maintain that sex is regarded as dangerous by the savage, that it is tabooed and ritualized, surrounded by moral and legal norms – not because of any superstition of primitive man, or emotional view of or instinct about strangeness, but for the simple reason that sex really is dangerous.” – Bronislaw Malinowski, anthropologist (1928)

Young or old, don’t delude yourself. You don’t have sex. Sex has you. Buckle up.” – Dan Savage, author, giver of advice, Twitter friend (2013: 52)

“According to Irish folk belief, there are two ways of achieving certain salvation. The first is through a red martyrdom, or dying for one’s faith in the tradition of the early Christians and the great missionary saints. The second path to sainthood, and the one chosen by most ordinary people, is the white martyrdom (ban-martra), a slow ‘death to self’ through acts of self-denial – fasting, penance – and, above all, a life characterized by sexual purity.” – Nancy Scheper-Hughes, anthropologist (2001: 206)

 “You can’t just let nature run wild.” – Walter Hickel, former Governor of Alaska (1992)

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Quote #1 suggests that sex is potentially dangerous for all people, regardless of cultural background. Note that Malinowski’s use of the word ‘savage’ was acceptable at the time. Today, it obviously isn’t. (#2) However, despite that danger, sex is powerful and has a hold over people. (#3) They can assert control over sexual impulses, but to suppress them entirely is difficult enough to be considered equivalent to martyrdom. (#4) All societies need regulation, including for sexuality. (I took some license with this last quote, one of my favorites. The actual context was that Hickel was defending the state’s controversial aerial wolf control program, apparently said without irony). 

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The young wife, Isakapu, put on her best jewelry and climbed to the top of a coconut tree near her village. From there she shouted down to her husband, Kabwaynaka, and to any other witnesses below that his accusations of adultery against her were false, and that she resented that he had beaten and insulted her out of jealousy a few days earlier. Kabwaynaka climbed up after her to bring her down, but before he could reach the top she jumped, throwing herself to her own death (Malinowski 1929: 120).

In Bronislaw Malinowski’s classic ethnography The Sexual Lives of Savages, suicide in the Trobriand Islands was an acceptable means of escape from the shame of breaking various sexual taboos (even if the accusations were false). This was the case not only for adultery, but also for bestiality, or for having sex within the clan. Consuming the poisonous gallbladder of a pufferfish was one method for taking one’s own life, but the option chosen by Isakapu, jumping from a tree (known as lo’u), was also common at the time. Malinowski wrote that while the sexual lives of Trobrianders might seem “easy and carnal” to an outsider, in reality they were often marked by “strong passions and complex sentiments” and sometimes filled with strife (p. 119-21). 

A Harvest Scene (Malinowski 1929, plate 57).

A Harvest Scene in the Trobriands (Malinowski 1929, plate 57).

A look at the ethnographic record reveals that strong and complex emotions surrounding sex are not unique to the Trobianders, or to any single culture. Some historical narratives of human sexuality have wondered whether non-Western cultures, or perhaps our distant ancestors, have had a less stressful time with this part of life, placing the blame for any modern sexual malaise at the feet of various culprits. These include (1) religion, particularly the monotheistic Abrahamic faiths (Ray 2012); or (2) capitalism and ‘the Protestant ethic,’ with its emphasis on guilt, self-control, and the frustration of delayed marriage before sufficient resources could be accumulated (Albee 1977); or (3) agriculture, with its emphasis on fixed settlements, the accumulation of private property, and a more intense guarding of paternity and property rights (Ryan and Jethá 2010). Continue reading

40 Years After the Second Indochina War

Today does not escape easily from yesterday.

Several media outlets have published stories in the last few days marking the 40th anniversary of the ‘end’ of the Vietnam War (although it is more accurately known as the Second Indochina War because it also involved the neighboring countries of Laos, Cambodia, and Thailand).  

Some of these stories are about families of American veterans still searching for the remains of lost loved ones.  Others are about the lingering divisions between northern and southern Vietnamese, even within the same family.

Perhaps Viet Thanh Nguyen, an associate professor of English and American studies at the University of Southern California, best summarized these accounts with his NYTimes essay “Our Vietnam War Never Ended”. He describes moving to the US as a young boy and then growing up in San Jose, California with a foot in two cultures, as well as the struggles and successes of Vietnamese and other refugee groups in the US. And despite the fact that his family members have achieved a lot, such as producing a professor at a prestigious university, he writes that their story is not a fairy tale: 

“our family story is a story of loss and death, for we are here only because the United States fought a war that killed three million of our countrymen (not counting over two million others who died in neighboring Laos and Cambodia).”

Those two themes, that the war never truly ended, and that even those who survived and succeeded later in life have stories of loss and death, are important reminders of the past’s ability to reach into the present, even after forty years of yesterdays. All wars are unique, but their most consistent feature of war is the creation of suffering, which can last for decades, perhaps even centuries. Continue reading

Courage and the Past

Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.”                                        

                                 ― James Baldwin (As Much Truth As One Can Bear, 1962)

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James Baldwin on the Albert Memorial with statue of Shakespeare. (Wiki commons)

I saw the above quote by James Baldwin over the weekend on social media, and my mind started making connections as to where it might apply. It could apply to personal wrongs and failures, or to wider historical ones, which of course is what Baldwin was referring to. By coincidence, the New York Times had another relevant story a few days ago about the reluctance of the Turkish government (and most of its citizens) to acknowledge the genocide of Armenians that occurred a century ago. It makes me wonder where, exactly, that reluctance originates, and why it can be so stubborn.

Last year, the New York Times (again) ran a collection of short essays on overcoming difficult pasts (“Turning Away From Painful Chapters”). Examples included the brutal murder of a British soldier on the streets of London, domestic violence against women in the UK, the Spanish Civil War, the killings in Rwanda, the Holocaust, and the legacy of American slavery and the brutality of Jim Crow laws in the US.

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One Life

“Ain’t it enough to live by the ways of the world,
To be part of the picture, whatever its worth.
Throw your arms round each other, and love one another.
For it’s only one life that we got, and ain’t it enough?”