These Nyusensi Times : The Bizarre Theatre of Malawian Politics
If you ask me today, “Ray what do you think is the one thing a society needs most?”, I’d pause, wonder whether I should be honest, and then answer you this way. More than innovation or ideas or money or might or power, I’ve come to believe that there’s something truer, deeper, and more fundamental that a people needs, if they are to be successful, happy, prosperous, if a society is to continue going on and maturing, growing, developing, healthily. It is little bit of an enigmatic quality, which we aren’t used to discussing, precisely because our contemporary discourse is denuded of simplicity, meaning, and humanity. That quality is mercy.
This answer will probably surprise you a little, because we are used to thinking that things like bruising competition, bitter conquest, cunning, and ruthlessness make societies better places. We don’t often think that such qualities like mercy count for much at all and when we do think about them, outside church, on the playing field, in the lecture room, on the till at shoprite, they are seen mostly as weaknesses, infirmities, to be rubbed out quickly. So let me attempt to share my thinking with you, by way of asking: what happens to a merciless society?
Well, the first thing is that people will stop “taking risks”. That again is modern parlance, so let us put it more precisely and meaningfully. People will grow timid and afraid, anxious and heavy with worry, not bold and light and carefree and adventuresome. If every infraction of overly severe rules , by which I mean that little trivial steps become life-or-death-decisions — whether those rules are norms or laws, morals or codes, is met with maximum punishment, then one’s only course in life is glum obedience— or to chance having one’s ruin at the merest misstep. Hence, one’s energy is put into hypervigilance, self-protection, double-checking one’s every step, armoring one’s self, just like a traumatized person, not into self-expression, creativity, intimacy, connection, knowledge, beauty, truth, and so forth.
So the first effect of a merciless society is that all its human possibility , which you now see requires forgiveness, tolerance, safety, security, to be given, expressed, and realized , will stay inside its little infantile shell, just like an unhatched egg.
But what will grow instead? In every society, something grows , and if it is not human potential, it is often its opposite. But what is that opposite, precisely? Well, let us ask this way: who will rise to the top of a merciless society? Those with precisely the least regard for life. Whether it is yours or mine, the planet’s or the children’s, today’s or tomorrow’s. Those who can enforce overly severe rules with the harshest discipline and the most punitive measures — and care least about its consequences — will soon enough find themselves at the top of a merciless society’s institutions, whether government, business, judiciary, or academia.
In just such a way, a merciless society will push the most cunning and wicked in it to the top — the sociopaths and the misanthropes. Not just those who meet some abstract clinical criterion, but those who genuinely abhor and loathe the ideas of society and humanity — that there is a form of social order in which people depend on one another, instead of protect themselves against one another, just as, say Jonas Salk’s grief for polio victims led him to create and then to give the vaccine away, and for that very reason, a humane form of social order may yet be the most explosively beautiful and prosperous one of all. But we will return to this crucial and delicate and oft overlooked point.
Now, among the sociopaths, the misanthropes, there will be a great and spectacular contest of a kind. How are they to decide among themselves who is the king, the ruler, the most powerful? The question boils down to: among the ruthless, who can be the most cruel, the least humane, go past merely enforcing discipline, into something even more, well, merciless. The only way to prove that you are even more of a sociopath and misanthrope, even more merciless, than the next contestant for the crown, isn’t merely to punish — it is to take. Now the sociopath becomes the predator, in a quest to prove just how far the limits of inhumanity extend.
Sounding familiar yet? Do you the parallel I am drawing? Not yet, perhaps.
So. Whom does the predator prey upon? He doesn’t prey upon his fellow predators. They are strong and will put up a fight. The costs are too high. The predator naturally preys on the vulnerable, the weak, the powerless. Who are they? Well, they are the young, the elderly, the sick, the frail, the poor. They are the people who will bear the visible costs of a merciless society the most — for the most human possibility will be taken from them. They will be used and abused in more and more vicious ways, until, at last, there is little left to take.
Is all this reminding you of some place by now? A place called modern day Malawi maybe?
The vulnerable, being preyed upon by the predator, also serve a double purpose. They signal to the rest of society just how strong the predators are — and how easily they can make meat of their victims. The predator must always put up this show, in more and more spectacular and absurd ways, precisely to prove his might, and thus keep the people afraid, tamped down. Hence, today in Malawi we see the senseless spectacle of electing the greedy into power.
The price of a merciless society isn’t just the rise of predators, the turn from sociopaths into predators, the vulnerable becoming carrion. It is what lies hidden inside all that. It is the people in that society never realize themselves, because they are left broken in spirit by all the above. If the vulnerable are being feasted upon — then who wants to risk becoming one of them? And so predation trickles down. Everyone must become a little predator, feasting on whatever vulnerability they can find, simply to survive. The growth of predation until it has become a banal, everyday affair, instead of the expression and realization of creation, progress, growth, and maturity, is the price of a merciless society.
Would you say that sums up Malawi today? Am I being unfair? Isn’t the price now of eking out a barely tolerable life something like accepting one’s helpless complicity in this vicious cycle — becoming just such an everyday predator? Isn’t that precisely the grim dilemma of modern Malawian life — that it extinguishes human possibility in just this dreadful way, both choices being equally untenable: survive through predation, cut down the next person, but never realize your better self that way, or try to realize your better self, and be cut down the moment you begin to rise, because you are not enough of a predator.
You are welcome to reach your own conclusion. I am merely thinking out loud, and my thoughts, such as they are, lend themselves to dark conclusions. Here is mine.
A society is best when it is a lever for human possibility. A merciless society is not even a broken lever. It is something that was turned into a hammer, or a gun, or a sword, instead. That is given to every child at birth, and they are told, “you must beat the weakest person you can find with this! Cut them down! Then you will be rewarded! You will stand taller the more lives you cut down!” But in just this way, no one’s potential is fully realized. One spends one’s life beating, the other being beaten. One cuts, the other is cut down. But neither is building, creating, thinking, dreaming, daring, rebelling, defying, loving, giving. No one can grow in a society that is always being threshed.
And so. When I asked myself tonight, “what’s the one quality that a healthy society needs most?”, the answer I came to surprised me. I was taught to believe that the answers were things like ideas, money, strength, power, and so on, refined through competition, winnowed through conquest, molded into trophies for the most ambitious and cold-hearted among us. But now I have come to know, deep in my bones, that such answers do not cut to the core of this thing called life. They deny it and denude it of what is most beautiful and true about it, and that is why they have led us precisely nowhere but backwards.
It is our fragilities that hold our possibilities close, just as we can only love if we are ready to grieve, just as we can only dare our little legs to leap when we are ready to fall. We can only ever realize ourselves if we are held by one another, instead of cut down by one another as we cut one another down. That is what it means for society to be a lever, not a hammer, a sword, a gun. Fragility contains possibility other like the winter contains the summer. In the absence of the seasons, there is nothing at all, only the desert, over which the vultures wheel.
But we do not really understand that, you and I. We have been taught, and still teach, in this battered and broken land, that only Zarathustra, the superman, is the one worth being — and those who cannot be him should go to the dogs, be condemned to the inferno, before they are served up to be consumed. And yet the greatest truth of life I have learned is this. Zarathustra is a lonely, broken little man on a mountaintop, reaching up frustrated, trying to snatch the stars, while the rest of us go on, with the difficult, joyful, complicated work of living. Perhaps he is weeping, learning, at last, what the price of mercilessness is. Forever losing one’s possibility. Wouldn’t you?