Sunday, October 5, 2008

Let’s Find the Humane Way


There is a bit in Alice Walker’s We are the Ones We have Been Waiting For: Inner Light in a Time of Darkness that keeps running through my head. She talks about a tribe in South Africa, the BaBemba. In this tribe, when someone does something wrong, the whole tribe comes out. They put the offender in the middle of the circle and then everyone has a turn to tell the person in the middle something good that the accused person has done in their life. They tell the person about every good word they’ve uttered or kind act that they have done. Then when they are finished, when everyone in the tribe has had their chance to speak, the person is welcomed back into the tribe.

There is something so lovely about this. The thought that bad is just an accident and it is only to remind a person of their goodness and the bad is washed away and the good takes over control once again. It seems such a humane way for society to act; such an optimistic way to view humanity.

Social customs, at their best, are there to temper our base human nature and this one does that in such a beautiful way. Most of us, me included, rush to punishment when I’m wronged, but that is bare nature without morality applied. Culture and social norms should make us better, not worse.

I watched a TV show late last night about two brothers in Kansas who went on a terrible killing spree. They’ve been given the death sentence and are currently in the middle of the long appeal process that precedes executions in America. In the trial, during mitigation, their lawyer showed a picture of the brothers when they were children; they looked about 5 and 7.They were little boys with eyes still hopeful, not like the men who sat in the court room applying Chapstick while they learned they’d been sentenced to death. Many things happened between that photo and the day of sentencing. Each punishment didn’t push away the thin shell of bad and reveal to the boys their intrinsic goodness. Instead, the punishment strengthened the bad and forced the good under yet another layer looking for protection from the barrage.

I’m not so idealistic to think we could snap our fingers and solve all of our problems of crime in such a way; but I do think we should set a high goal to head toward and perhaps there are answers to be found in the BaBemba’s way. I also know small steps can make a difference. It surprising what recognition of the goodness in the other can do. It echoes in our ears days and weeks after we hear it. We store those cherished words like jewels in hidden places and pull them out to gives us strength when the tide turns. A big store of them helps to make us believe that those words are indeed who we are.

Pointing out the bad can do the same. Those words also have their hidden places. They too are brought out for reinforcement; they give added evidence to what is being said by another. You are bad. You are useless. You are stupid. It must be true since you have so much proof that it’s so.

At the very least, we should try to move through our lives without causing harm, but imagine the change that you can make by pointing out the good in people. Telling them; letting those words settle in the person’s thoughts and take up permanent residence there. You’re not only making their day, you’re giving them the arsenal to prepare for a better future, and a reminder that they are designed, as we all were originally, for goodness.

11 comments:

daoine said...

That's a very inspiring perspective. It's much like the concept of positive reinforcement to help to highlight a child's good behaviour and make them remember it, rather than waiting until bad behaviour shows up and jumping on that.

Similar Simian said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Selma said...

I am inspired by it too. I can see that it would be difficult to enforce with certain people but surely it would be more effective than present methods. Our justice system the world over isn't really working. Jails are not acting as a deterrent to crime. But there have been a few cases where going to the source - the families of the criminals - and trying to change things from that perspective via education and better support systems have worked. Thought-provoking post.

PGinGeneva said...

How intriguing! Is there a "tribe" called the BaBemba in South Africa? Or is this a fictional tribe that Ms Walker invented for the benefit of gullible Americans? I studied African history, am conversant with the names and languages of the peoples of South Africa, but have certainly heard of no BaBemba in South Africa, nor does a simple google search reveal the existence of such a a people. The people that comes closest are the Bemba people of Zambia, but Zambia is not South Africa. Or is it that one African "tribe" from one African country is pretty much like another??:):):):)

Lauri said...

There is a Babemba tribe in RSA. Though I'm not positive, since it is Ba- Bemba I'm thinking is might be among the Setswana speakers. In Botswana we have Batswana who are people who speak Setswana. But then there are subtribes of Batswapong, Bakgalagadi, Bamangwato etc. I'm not sure of the connection between Babemba and the Bemba of Zambia. Likely all related at some point as they are Bantu langauages.

pgingeneva said...

Maybe I should have studied anthropology! I am highly amused (in a slightly cynical way) because the references to this Babemba "tribe" that I have come across on the internet are in connection with this "forgiveness" ritual. Nothing, apparently, is known about where in South Africa they are to be found, what language they speak, and how they are organised etc. And here appears to be confusion: one perso talks about the BaBemba of Northern Rhodesia, Zambia to you and me. Methinks this is one of those situations where the myth has overtaken the reality, much like Hillary Clinton's African proverbs that are not attributed to any language or country, but are just romantically vaguely generally African:):):):)

But hey, I must confess that I am prejudiced because this is Alice Walker, I have a very low tolerance for her wishy washy earth mother stuff, in particular, her romanticising of Africa and its people and its poverty. On a slightly snarky note, instead of turning to the examples of dubious tribes, she and her daughter Rebecca could maybe set us all an example and start by forgiving each other, I am sure you have read about that particular train wreck...!

Lauri said...

I think most of us have a disconnect at some time between what we want to be and who we are. I don't know anything about Alice Walker and her daughter, it sound like maybe it is better it remains that way.

I really hate to admit this but to further this debate and understand a bit why I found this bit in the book ringing true, I must admit that I occassionally watch a retched tv show with the security guard from the Jerry Springer show as the host. I watch it for 15 mins. waiting for something else while I eat my lunch. So anyway, I was watching this show and the man, Steve, was shouting at this Hispanic man who was by all evidence everything that he was being called by Steve. A woman beater, a convict, a dead beat ..... but what got me was the man's face. Here was this security guard/ cum tv show host calling him these terrible things and he didn't speak a word in his own defence. His face was just blank. And I thought how those words were just lining up behind the ones that came before making an infinite queue that will always ensure that this man will never be free to change. It was one of the saddest things I've ever seen. And it just clicked for me how we all do this to others everyday- either bad or good. I want to change that in myself. I don't want to be responsible for increasing another person's mental trap.

pgingeneva said...

Trust me, if you consider Alice Walker to be a fount of earth mother wisdom you do not want to know about her relationship with her daughter. I met Rebecca in Zim, she was an exchange student at the UZ and she was so proud of her mother, but also wanted to be her mother if you know what I mean. I didn't stay in touch with her after she went back to America, but I always wondered how that whole thing would turn out, then, about a year ago,I saw an interview that made me feel desperately sorry for both of them. Alice Walker writes a lot of wiffly waffly stuff about forgiveness, a pity she can't bring herself to forgive her daughter enough to see her first grandchild.

Lauri said...

No Alice Walker is not my fount of Earth Mother Wisdom so I'm okay. It's sad if it has gone all wrong between her and her daughter.

Yeah, I'm not big on a lot of the New Age, Mother Earth stuff I'm a bit too much of a scientist for that. I'm a guarded spiritual person. Or maybe I'm just hedging my bets. I give most spritual thoughts the benefit of the doubt as long as they don't try to start dictating and bossing me around.

But again- don't be so hard on the elder Miss Walker. It's a drag to have the top layer so public, but the public not interested in knowing the underneath nitty gritty of how they got there. I certianly would not like it. But we agree it is very sad.

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Maxine Beneba Clarke said...

This is a poignant reflection Lauri, particularly at this time of year.