Why it is that we pick and choose the standards by which we deem one a bigot or not asks Fikile-Ntsikelelo Moya? We are, rightly, prepared to call someone a bigot if they make racist remarks or gestures – as we did with Adam Catsavelos and Vicki Momberg – but we don't easily ascribe the title to those who discriminate in other ways.
A story is told of a question posed to Hindu guru Ramana Maharshi. “How are we to treat others?” The sage responds: “There are no others.”
I am reminded of this gem in the Wisdom tradition chest as I reflect on three seemingly unresolvable questions plaguing South Africa: racism, sexism and homophobia.
Naturally, this is not an exhaustive list of acts of prejudice and bigotry, but they are the ones that keep resurfacing.
South Africa has a long and painful history of institutional racism. It is easy to see how this can be seen as the “worst” form of bigoted and prejudicial behaviour towards a group. After all, it was racism that led the United Nations to characterise what was happening in South Africa as “a crime against humanity”.
Insufficient as it is, I am using bigotry to group together all forms of unfair and irrational discrimination, subjugation and violence committed against those that the perpetrators of these actions have decided are unworthy of the God-given right to human dignity and respect.
It is not at all surprising that once again there are calls to criminalise racism. This time it is after businessman Adam Catzavelos filmed himself boasting about how the absence of what he termed “Kaffirs” at a holiday resort on a Greek island made the place “heaven on earth”.
The video clip has gone viral and businesses associated with Catzavelos are now washing their hands of him and breaking all ties with the man.
While it is always important to avoid the “whataboutism” – the tendency to introduce a new and sometimes related topic as a tactic to avoid dealing with the uncomfortable one already on the table, usually by starting the counterargument with “what about …” – why stop there? Why create the impression that there are other, more tolerable forms of dehumanising others?
There are simply no others, let alone the better or the worse. I am of the firm view that Ramana Maharshi’s wisdom could go a long way towards addressing what is at the core of all bigoted feelings and behaviours. If it does nothing else, it will help some people avoid jail.
The dictionary definition of catholic is “universal” or “all-embracing”. We cannot at once associate ourselves with an all-embracing church and then decide that we have the right to exclude others on the basis that they do not look like us or because we do not approve of who they fall in love with.
This basic point is found in many of the Wisdom traditions, included in these is the much repeated (and abused) African viewpoint of Ubuntu/Botho, which at its core reminds us that our humanity is connected. Jesus Christ makes the same point again and again. “Whatever you do to the least of my brothers and sisters, you do unto me” (Matthew 25:40).
Why then is it that people who see the obvious folly and sinfulness of racism, cannot apply this to the sin of homophobia or sexism? Why is it that it is so easy – and correct – to shut down any attempt to justify racism but we can't tolerate the “othering” of someone who does not fit the dominant phenotype?
Bigotry cannot be fought piecemeal. One cannot think that their bigotry is better or superior to the bigotry of others. The command to love our neighbour does not come with terms and conditions that allow us to opt out if our neighbours turn out to be something we might have decided is not acceptable in the eyes of God.
To tolerate one form of unfair and irrational discrimination against one group is to discriminate against the self because there are no others. It is to arrogate to oneself a special place to the exclusion of the rest of creation. I suspect it is blasphemous too.
Images: FreeImages / Constantin Deaconescu