In Pursuit of Unity

The Reconciliatory Ideals of Desmond Tutu at The University of Virginia

On the morning of Wednesday, November 9th, 2016, there was a near tangible sense of disconnection that hovered over Grounds. I had never seen or felt a more divided pulse within the institution. How did we arrive at this point? Can this perceived lack of connection within the University community be mended? I believe so, but the restoration of a unified community begins with an honest look in the mirror.

While lacking an adequate English equivalent, the term “Ubuntu,” rooted in Southern African philosophy, encapsulates a deepened sense of interpersonal connection based on the shared intrinsic worth of another. Archbishop Desmond Tutu, a South African Nobel Laureate recipient, writes on Ubuntu: “It speaks of the fact that my humanity is caught up and is inextricably bound up in yours…. They know that they are diminished when others are humiliated, diminished when others are oppressed, diminished when others are treated as if they were less than who they are”. At the core of Ubuntu is the statement: “I am because you are.” In other words, I feel pain when you feel pain, and I rejoice when you rejoice. Ubuntu paints a picture of connection that would be nearly unrecognizable between liberals and conservatives around Grounds following the night of November’s Presidential election.

Labels saturate the University of Virginia, and are unfortunately unavoidable. Involvement in any organization, sports team, religious group, council, club, political party, or declared major stamps a label on a student, regardless of his or her intent to avoid it. We crave these labels because they provide a sense of identity, belonging, and comfort within an overwhelming and diverse population. Unfortunately, stereotypes often accompany each label, gluing an inaccurate caricature of an organization or political ideology on each person. In turn, these stereotypes amplify the difference between appearance and truth. They portray who someone appears to be while simultaneously burying who they actually are.

Naturally, I use my pre-conceived stereotypes of others to gravitate towards those with similar labels, affirming my own pre-disposed beliefs with relatively little conflict or debate in response. As a result, I drift away from those whose beliefs, interests, and behaviors contradict my own, usually out of fear of their disapproval. This detachment rarely fades. While labels provide me a perceived sense of worth and connection at U.Va., they unintentionally rob me of a diverse set of relationships. The assignment of labels simultaneously creates a peripheral disunity.

“Ubuntu” looks beyond labels, transcending outward appearances and looking inward at the humanity of those with whom we disagree, allowing one to mourn with those who mourn and laugh with those who laugh. An “Ubuntu” mentality does not invoke passive relational action, but rather an intentional pursuit of understanding, especially of those whose opinions differ from our own. However, the labels and societal identifiers we slowly accumulate stand in the way of such a mentality. While these labels are neither good nor bad in essence, their presence serves as a translucent window to our humanity, a blurred image of our intrinsic worth.

To a certain degree “Ubuntu” is ignorant of the cultural definitions that inevitably cling to our identities, and many would argue that to look past the societal labels of an individual to the humanity of an individual is impossible. This begs the question: is an “Ubuntu” mentality naïve? Is it worth striving for? While arguably an overly ambitious and optimistic ideal, grasping for “Ubuntu” in spite of its difficult attainment has lead to tangible reconciliation.

In Desmond Tutu’s homeland of South Africa, a white nationalist government ruled from 1948–1991, enforcing strict segregation laws through apartheid: forcing non-white South Africans to live in designated areas, banning inter-racial marriages and sexual relations between black and white South Africans. Apartheid legislation not only divided whites from non-whites, but also aimed to decrease non-white political power by separating non-whites along tribal lines. Upon a transfer of power in 1994 to an anti-apartheid political system, South Africans stood divided from fifty years of segregation, but through reconciliatory efforts they sought healing, unity, and forgiveness instead of justified vengeance.

The Truth and Reconciliation Committee (TRC), chaired by Tutu, examined human rights violations from the apartheid era including abductions, killings, and tortures, often carried out with racially charged motivation. The TRC aimed to unify the nation again, granting amnesty in 849 cases, formulating programs to restore financial and communal stability, and reforming South Africa’s political system to include “faith communities, businesses, the judiciary, prisons, the armed forces, health sector, media and educational institutions in a reconciliation process”. Desmond Tutu’s primary weapon against disunity was forgiveness, a counter-intuitive, often controversial ideal forged in Tutu’s belief that both the perpetrator and the victim benefit from the humanization of forgiveness. Such forgiveness, however, is not possible when societal labels are the primary identifier of an individual. Within the framework of Ubuntu, there are no labels attached to people, except that of ‘human.’ This, according to Desmond Tutu, frees us to connect, forgive, and reconcile around our shared intrinsic value. South Africa maintains flaws, but the reconciliatory efforts of the past two decades are a necessary step to unite a divided country.

While the post-election climate around Grounds is a completely different backdrop from apartheid South Africa, our community can benefit from modeling the reconciliatory efforts enacted in response to apartheid. For the University of Virginia, reconciliation must come on a personal level. Understanding another individual takes courage and vulnerability, but can foster understanding, a small step towards the reconciliation of a greater community. If we humanize instead of label the person across the table or across the aisle, we can begin to value each individual over their individual opinions.

We face a somber reality every day: upon first observation of a friend, acquaintance, or classmate, our immediate impulse is to identify a label, rather than a unique story. Upon observation of a stranger, we subconsciously compose our own story about them, interjecting pre-disposed biases that will inevitably fail to depict this person’s true inner worth. For a split second, we consider engaging them, but fear of disapproval and shame quickly choke out the dawning thought. Admittedly, I have stood at the doorstep of vulnerability countless times and failed to knock, retreating towards the shallow comfort of being around people who think, act, and believe as I do. In doing this, I miss out on cultivating an insight into others, many friendships, and most importantly, a step towards unifying the University of Virginia.