John G Bell


Winter '03 - Hill

Book Response: “A Human Being Died That Night” by Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela

A. Important things about ...

  1. the power and limitation of dialogue

    On p85 of this book, there's a point made about how language is a limited mechanism for exchanging experience, that “we cannot fully understand what victims went through, in part because the impact of the traumatic experience cannot be adequately captured in words.” This is a criticism that could be extended to any communication at all. If the purpose of dialogue is to develop understanding, then the project may be fatally flawed because the mechanism of understanding is language which is inadequate to the need.

    However, Gobodo-Madikizela goes on to state that dialogue, in the case of the value for victim testimony, isn't about facts but about impact. This is further supported by statements on p119 about dialogue as a process of rehumanizing participants in the face of dehumanizing events. In this sense, the language is not the limiting factor, but rather the ability of the participants to cross thresholds to get beyond the ideas of retribution and move toward forgiveness. This rehumanization is not a simple or painless act in itself. On p120, Gobodo-Madikizela makes the point that dialogue is “both punishment and rehabilitation.” Crossing thresholds to rehumanize the other participants can be an excruciating event in itself.

  1. American or world society

    On p118, the author states that “we have come to rely on retribution as the only legitimate form of justice ...” This is an echo that has been running through many of the discussions, books and videos that I've seen in this class. Starting even from “Dead Man Walking,” the first video of the first quarter, there's been the thread of how this barrier of crossing the threshold is a kind of revenge and an act of retribution for pain. The idea that crossing the threshold is an act of forgiveness is an aspect of the process that I hadn't fully realized until now.

  1. these specific groups

The fact that there's an opportunity for any healing process at all is an astounding and ultimately life affirming event. That the alienation and division was short-circuited before it got to the point of moving to the remorselessness detailed in exchanges with captured Nazis is a sign of at least some kind of progress.

  1. myself

    I don't think I'm built for the kind of detachment from empathic response that the author speaks of having when she was on the Truth Commission. On p94 she says “many of us ... continue to struggle with closure, in part because we had to deny out own emotions in order to contain the pain of the victims who appeared before us.” I want to think that I'm not capable of that kind of detachment. I want to believe about myself that I could not avoid identification with so much pain. I don't want to become desensitized to that kind of pain. How can I take on the pain of another when I'm not so good at letting go of the pain I already have?

B. Talking points

  1. “There's always time to change the road you're on.”

p15 “How can we transcend hate if the goal is to transform human relationships in a society with a past marked by violent conflict between groups?” “... may be irrelevant for people who do not have to live as a society with their former enemies.”

Of course, everyone in this society is surrounded by their enemies, since the faceless enemy isn't real enough to be troublesome except on some level of existential horror. The real enemies of each person surround them every day. These are the people with whom one has conflict and either faces or avoids.

But if forgiveness is available to even “Prime Evil” then what motivation does that perpetrator of evil have to change sooner rather than later on their own schedule? If forgiveness is available whenever it's convenient for their own purposes, then why rush past the benefit of asserting their will to power?

  1. Habituation and Attenuation

p55 “certain individuals are predisposed ... a result of early childhood ... leaving them with unresolved anger ... feelings of aggression ... enacted toward another in what becomes the individual's moment to reclaim the 'honor' lost during the shaming experience.”

p55 “each subsequent act lowers the threshold for committing the next by desensitizing the perpetrator, liberating him even further from society;s taboos against aggression.”

Violence is the outcome of the shame derived from the formation of the Shadow, like in Thandenka as the way that cultural identity is formed. Violence is the battle cry of individuation that results from societal pressures to conform, and is a self-reinforcing, self-perpetuating response to stress. One becomes habituated to the use of violence towards others and also the response becomes attenuated, meaning that it requires more violence to achieve the same effect, like any other addiction.

  1. Dismissing real issues

On p61-62 there's a discussion about how the whites of South Africa were not convinced that the liberation movement was anything more than a front for communism. This is just like how the red scare, or any witch hunt, is dismissive of the opposition. This was seen in the way that Dan Swecker denied that liberals had principles behind what they do while maintaining that what he does is due to the principles that he holds.

In “Eyes on the Prize” I saw how the whites saw the civil rights protesters as outside agitators or the dupes of them instead of being willing to accept that there was a real issue motivating the protest. The whites refused to take the protest at face value and looked for a motivation behind the message which fit their world view and existing lenses of experience. From the book “The Wobblies” by Patrick Renshaw, I remember that reducing the other's statement as inauthentic because it's the result of outside manipulation is also how the protesters during the radical labor movement around the turn of the 20th century were seen by the mill and mine owners also.

Rosenberg says in NVC to look beyond the words to what people mean behind what they say, but I can never know this free from my expectations and my lens of experience. I can never see in the other anything that I don't already know, which is intellectual imperialism, the kind of mechanism that makes me think I understand without ever having had to step outside my own experience and prejudices. Not only can I not assume I know, I must trust that what the Other asks for is authentic until they tell me otherwise. Unless I do, I run the risk of only hearing myself in their story.

This links to my experience at Lower Columbia College in '89. In the disarmament game, I realized that as the negotiator for my team the other negotiator would never be able to know I was speaking the truth because I would have said the same thing whether I was telling the truth or trying to trick him. This meant that in order to have any effective dialogue the negotiators would have to take the other side at face value and assume they were speaking authentically. If, as negotiator, I always attempt to find the real motivation behind the other speech, then I've reduced the other's language to having zero semantic content because the motive was always unknown and impossible to verify. However, the other side of this is the possibility that one may be able to maintain semantic content by ignoring the search for motive, or real issue, and take each actor's position at face value without question.

C. Outrageous statement or claim

There are so many parallels between the description of apartheid's form and function and method in this book to the form and function and method of what I know of Israel's response to Palestine that I had the momentary urge to send a copy of this book to Ariel Sharon. Frankly, I thought about sending a copy to George Bush also since there's so much in the book about forgiveness and the need to get beyond the idea of retribution as an appropriate response to violence.

On p6, this book talks about the mass removals and demolitions like I remember from several of the videos we've watched in this class about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. On p62, there's a comment about how black South Africans were forced to carry passes, like foreigners in their own country, which is like the images from the Middle East of checkpoints and containment.

I've heard people talk about what they see as similarity between the two experiences, and I got a slice of that from this book.