The Perils of Over-Thinking a Newsbyte

I was listening to BBC World News on NPR on my way to pick up Ricktopher from work, when I heard something about corrupt people in some African country taking food aid and then selling it; with much of it never reaching those in need. (Ok, I was half listening–I think it was about people loyal to Gbagbo.) I thought a vague image of something akin to, “there’s a hot place in Hell for them.”

I immediately kicked into over-analyzing. I started thinking about personal and corporate guilt, sin, and apologies. About just how many others might be culpable in those sordid transactions. It is indeed complex.

I think, too, about my (and our) culpability and responsibility to right action. Granted, it might take a lot of clicks on wikipedia pages to get from Gbagbo to little ol’ MLE, but I’m thinking more in generalities, as in: Which of my actions (and inactions–yes, a misnomer) help perpetuate injustice and suffering in the world? And, how do I rectify these things?

In his Terra Nullius: A Journey Through No One’s Land, Sven Lindqvist recounts his experiences travelling through Australia visiting sites that highlight significant aspects and events in the interactions between Aboriginal and white Australian cultures. He bookends this volume with a discussion of corporate, or communal contrition. He reflects on the experience of a high school teacher beginning each lesson by asking, “‘What constitutes contrition?'” Lindqvist and the other students would then answer:

“I realize I have done wrong.
I regret what I have done.
I promise never to do it again.”

Lindqvist argues that this is far too insular, too easily taken back, and that it offers “precious little comfort to the victim of the wrong I committed.” He suggests this alternative wording:

“I freely admit that I have done wrong.
I ask forgiveness of those I have wronged.
I promise to do my best to make amends to them.”

What really intrigues me are Lindqvist’s ideas on communal contrition. He asks, “Can we feel contrition for other people’s crimes? Can we feel contrition for crimes we have not committed personally, but have subsequently profited from? How can we formulate the criteria for contrition to make them applicable to collective responsibility for historical crimes?”

Lindqvist offers a reworking of the personal contrition statement for communal application:

“We freely admit that our predecessors have done wrong and that we are profiting from it.
We ask forgiveness of those who were wronged and of their descendants.
We promise to do our best to make amends to those who were wronged for the effects that still remain.”

And perhaps as a cautionary note, he adds, “The larger the collective, the more diluted the personal  responsibility. the less intimate the contrition, the greater the risk that it will just be hollow ceremony. A representative steps forward on our behalf, admits the wrong committed, apologizes, pays what it takes and appoints a committee to ‘monitor our practices.'” As an aside, it’s interesting to note what has and hasn’t been done or changed or what have you, in Australia since the government formally said “Sorry” in 2008.

(Maybe I shouldn’t just visualize black Africans in camouflage, but people of other colors, people with money to gain from war, people like me who sip their lattes and don’t consider themselves warmongers, but undeniably benefit from being born rich.) As Lindqvist says, just like there is national debt, so to are there national assets, and I’ve inherited some serious assets.

As I wait for Ricktopher to come out, I think about my initial reaction, it’s understandable, simplistic as it is. We want the bad guys to get their comeuppance, right? But I’m ashamed of how outraged I didn’t feel. It’s like, “Oh, that’s awful…oh, here’s another bit of news.” I’d like to think that if you and yours and me and mine were starving someone would think more than that, feel more than that about our situation.

It reminds me of Peter Singer’s example discussing what we do with our resources and privilege. He sets the situation: “You’re walking along, and you see a child face down in a shallow pond. You’re wearing expensive leather shoes. There’s no chance that you’ll be in any danger if you rescue the child, but it will ruin your shoes.” He then asks, “What would you do?” to which virtually everyone responds, “Save the child, of course.” Ah, so how is it different when we spend that money to buy that expensive pair of shoes that we don’t really need, when that money could literally save people from starving, could give people a better quality of life?

Starving people in a war torn land, and other people have only to pass along those basics of sustenance,  and yet, they sell it to make a profit; knowing that many will suffer because of those actions.
I grow uncomfortable as I read what I had written. Maybe the U.S. isn’t war torn, at least not in the ways we typically use that term, but the rest of that statement could be talking about what happens right here in our backyard.

The choices we make–whether it’s what we buy or don’t buy, whether we find the time to write to that lawmaker or make a priority to watch a rerun of Friends–not only impact the people where we live, but the people we hear about in a newsbyte on NPR.


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