Polarisation Part 2: Growing Up In Between: Strangers, Gods and Monsters

In responding to last week’s blog Simon Duffy President of the Citizens Network Coop, noted:

“@CormacRussell says polarsation is not caused by extremism. Extremism feeds on polarisation which is built into oligarchic rule (‘pick our side or theirs’). Athenian democracy resisted this by putting debate in the Boule before any vote in the Ekklesia.”

This neatly sums up my key point. In Part Two, I want to think about how we relate to the “other” and otherness.

The celebrated poet Seamus Heaney lived and wrote through what was euphemistically called the Troubles in Northern Ireland/North of Ireland. I, too, though younger than he, recall growing up in the Island of Ireland during a period of the Troubles, on the other side of the border to him, in Limerick, the South of Ireland; the Republic of Ireland. But like him and millions of others, I lived part of my life to the background of a dominant story: there will not be peace on the Island of Ireland in my lifetime. And yet in 1998, the Good Friday Agreement was signed, and, more significantly, peace was made manifest in communities and in the daily lives of people throughout Northern Ireland/North of Ireland. Either side had fought and many died for what they respectively believed, a story held tightly in their hearts: sovereignty is indivisible.

The key issue was the constitutional status of Northern Ireland/North of Ireland, a question of sovereignty viewed from different polarities. Unionists, mostly Ulster Protestants, wanted Northern Ireland/North of Ireland to remain within the United Kingdom. Irish nationalists, mostly Irish Roman Catholics, wanted Northern Ireland/North of Ireland to leave the United Kingdom and join a united Ireland.

The Good Friday Agreement was the mountaintop of a long and arduous process towards reimagining the dominant story about sovereignty. Sovereignty is normally understood as one and indivisible; the sovereign is the supreme authority within a territory. In any state, sovereignty is assigned to the person, body, polis or institution that has the ultimate authority over other people, in order to establish a law or change an existing law. By that definition, sovereignty is not something you can divide, split or compromise on. It’s an all or nothing proposition. Or at least, that was the dominant story, on which neither side agreed and for which many lives were lost or otherwise ruined. The peace agreement heralded a new story, which redefined sovereignty as dual; not one and indivisible, but affirmed the reality that multiple sovereignties can co-exist.

Seamus Heaney’s words here, poetically capture this elegant reimagining:

Two buckets were easier carried than one.

I grew up in between.”

Is it possible in every instance, that extremely polarised communities can find ways to “grow up in between”?

The reimagined story of dual sovereignty in Northern Ireland/North of Ireland enabled the scapegoating of the “other” and the incessant daily violence to stop and the healing and recovery to begin.

But trauma remains. And in many other parts of the world, such a reimagined story as this seems dishearteningly far away, if not unimaginable.

In Rwanda, massacres by ethnic Hutu militia and soldiers of some 800,000 minority Tutsis and politically moderate Hutus in 100 days between April and June 1994, shocked the world.

Once the genocide ended and concerns turned towards rebuilding the country, it quickly became apparent that it would take multiple decades to appropriately prosecute all those involved in these crimes against humanity. Faced with the limits of their institutional jurisprudence and the estimated deaths of over 10,000 people awaiting trial for alleged engagement in the genocide, the state turned to the cultural capacities of local villages.

Community courts, known informally as “gacaca”, were set up in villages across Rwanda to speed up the prosecution of hundreds of thousands of genocide suspects awaiting trial. Gacaca means to sit down and restoratively discuss an issue. Culturally they were not created to carry this level of trauma and burden. But for better or worse they did.

Many human rights groups still argue the gacaca courts fell far short of international legal standards.

About 65% of close to two million people tried have been found guilty, according to latest government figures. In ABCD we talk a lot about: a) the things communities can do alone -without outside help; b) with help, and c) those things they need done for them. Was this a bridge too far; too tall an order; too big an ask, of communities? Here is not the place to decide such matters. What is clear is that this is how, in part, Rwanda has sought to restore itself, and despite the controversy, which is grounded in very legitimate concerns, we know also that this process has enabled healing. Why so? In part, I believe it is because communities had to face what happened and talk about it. They have to unmask the “monsters”.

In trying to make sense of genocide, our understanding is stretched beyond all limits. That is why we use terms like “monsters” to describe those who engaged in these genocidal acts. But how is this different as a practice from the practice of those who committed the genocide, when they used terms like “cockroaches” to describe and dehumanise the people they killed?

After the 9/11 attack we heard the term “Axis of Evil” being used over and over by President Bush, to give meaning to the devastation. But has this helped? Is America safer, does it have less terrorism as result?

Richard Kearney, in his book Strangers, Gods and Monsters, entreats us to face what or whom we consider to be “the monster” and to recognise that the beast is not that different from ourselves. He asks that we come into some kind of relationship, even if it’s to disagree profoundly, while still trying to understand the “other” and remaining civic. Do not seek to complain or rejoice, simply to understand with the one we most fear or by whom we are most disgusted. To do so is not to collude or condone what they have done, but in doing so we may come to see, that we could, under differing circumstances, do the same. When you look at the “monster” in this way, you stop being afraid, and they stop being solely monstrous in your eyes. We must unmask the monster and see that part of us lurks behind. Anything less is a form of dissociation.

Kearney acknowledges that this unmasking is rare and that the more common way to deal with those who have engaged in such “unforgivable” and “unimaginable” acts, is to keep the “monsters” in the shadows, elusive, and non-human.

In a zoo at Lusaka, Zambia, there is a cage where the notice reads, ‘the world’s most dangerous animal’. Inside the cage, there is no animal but a mirror where one sees one’s own reflection. Restorative practices at their most radical are a summons to look at the “other’s monstrous acts” and see our own potential to be such a human.  While also knowing that they (the so-called monsters) have tender moments too; they love deeply; they caress their lovers; are moved by certain experiences; and they like us, fear the shadows and the traumas of their past.

Hannah Arendt, in commenting on the trial of Nazi lieutenant-Adolf Eichmann , while acknowledging that Eichmann played a central and active role in the Holocaust, noted that he was driven neither by anti-Semitism nor pure malice. Arendt expected to see a monster in Jerusalem; what she encountered was a career hungry man, who placed an extremely high value on loyalty and compliance, but who was largely devoid of strong ideologies. She summed up these observations as “the banality of evil”.

As long as our stories remain stuck in the realm of Strangers, Gods and Monsters we will be forever imprisoned; doomed never to grow up on either side or in between the poles of differing opinions.

In moving towards a preferred future, we need to draw a line between imagination and reality. One side is fundamentalism – the inability to distinguish between reality and imagination, hence taking art literally e.g. The Satanic Verses controversy or the malaise of post-modernism -where all reality can become a simulation; a spectacle.

Edith Eger, author of The ChoiceEven in Hell Hope Can Flower observes that a critical choice for anyone, having been laid low by extremism and oppression, is to forgive ourselves for being victimised; refusing to allow our minds to become our internal Nazi prison guards. Not to suggest that what they did was not monstrous – because it was. Simply that we too can become monsters. Just as they also, were on occasion tender fathers, attentive gardeners, and devoted to good causes. Human nature is not good or bad, it merely “is”, and in its “isness” is the capacity for great cruelty and profound compassion. What tips the scales towards extremism is loneliness and disconnection, alienation and a diminished sense of agency. It is in the eroding social topsoil that the seeds of polarisation flourish and in that sparse and divided garden that extremism feeds. The challenge, therefore, is to build the carrying capacity of our communities of affinity and place.

As I dream into a preferred future, I can at least imagine seeing the human in the monster, but can I see myself as the monster, without losing my identity as a human? Pushed to the extreme would I engage in monstrous acts? Yes, it could happen. And this is why we must have civic forums that prevent us from going out of our minds, hearts and communities, and descending into or falling prey to extremism.

The real and present danger, given the times we are living through, is that what are otherwise very legitimate divisions between justice and injustice become literalised into fundamentalist positions. Where on the side of “justice” are the divinely elected people of God; and on the opposing side are the demonically possessed damned and evil ones. When such beliefs are combined with imperial power, the results can be catastrophic.

Instead, we must build agency up from within our communities outwards. Next week I will look at practical ways I believe that has been and can be done, as we learn to grow up in between real people, not Strangers, Gods and Monsters.

Cormac Russell

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  • Ben Gilchrist

    Brilliant stuff. So much to explore together. Thank you Cormac

    January 30, 2021 at 10:56 am
  • Rose Vincent

    So true. Looking forward to reading next weeks addition. Thanks!

    January 30, 2021 at 9:30 pm
  • Thank you – reminds me of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s statement that “The line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either – but right through every human heart…even within hearts overwhelmed by evil, one small bridgehead of good is retained. And even in the best of all hearts, there remains…an uprooted small corner of evil.”

    February 3, 2021 at 10:49 am
  • Thank you for these very inspiring thoughts. They have made me think of Tzvetan Todorov’s book, The Fear of Barbarians: Beyond the Clash of Civilizations. It exposes how “the fear of barbarians is what risks making us barbarian”.

    January 22, 2022 at 11:49 am

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