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Nelson Mandela: great, heroic and human

Nelson Mandela QuoteJames Knight considers a balanced response to Nelson Mandela’s death, concluding that the former South African president was one of the greatest people in modern history, walking a path resembling the love, grace and forgiveness Jesus showed.

The light of greatness is always refracted through a prism of flaws, imperfections and weaknesses

In response to the positive tributes associated with Nelson Mandela's passing, quite a few people have retorted with "Ah, but don't forget, Mandela wasn't all great, he was a terrorist responsible for quite a few deaths too". Their complaint seems to be along the lines of:

Don’t just focus on the good that people do, consider the bad too and have a balanced view.

Indeed, having a balanced view of every situation is a wise thing to have. The trouble is, in the above case, what seems like an attempt at balancing is actually a case of toppling over by leaning too far in a direction of misjudgement.

What you're seeing when people heap praise on, and confer generous tributes towards, icons like Nelson Mandela is the human propensity to focus on the most arrestive and legacy-inducing parts of public personalities - the things for which they are most famous or infamous.  What we usually see is that the more prominent the arrestive parts, the less attention we see given to the parts that don't fit in with that picture.

Few people have read DH Lawrence's The White Peacock, or George Eliot's Romola or Charlotte Bronte's Shirley, but almost everyone has read, or at least knows a bit about, Sons and LoversThe Mill on the Floss and Jane Eyre respectively. Some people's arrestive moments are in the beginning of their career, some in the latter part, and some are scattered about from start to finish.

Everyone remembers Orson Welles' Citizen Kane, Touch Of Evil, The Magnificent Ambersons and The Lady From Shanghai, but few people ever mention those awful 1970s movies he made when he was, by his own admission, simply taking any film role to try to earn a living.

In fact, Orson Welles' career illustrates the point of selectiveness very well. Suppose Welles' pre-1970s work was airbrushed out of history - he'd only be thought of as an overweight, ham actor who hangs around in low-budget, second rate films. Everyone who hadn't seen his great works would be left with a skewed impression. Equally those who only remembered his great works might heap praise on him that was too selective.

Most people with a balanced view tend to realise that actors, musicians, writers, historical figures and political leaders are, just like all humans, a varied blend of qualities and faults. Selectiveness is a tool with which to shape the kind of impression we want to have. In the case of major extremes, like Hitler or Pol Pot or Stalin, their bad legacy is so prominent that most people hardly even attempt to find praiseworthy things. Similarly, in the case of Martin Luther King or Nelson Mandela most people (certainly in the last couple of decades) confer only praise and admiration.  

Public figures that are put forward as epoch-making paragons of virtue are a complex consideration, because I don't think pedestals are where men and women belong, and people just can't be expected to live up to being saints or heroes, unless one wishes to be imprudently selective. Look at some of the names aside from King and Mandela that regularly appear on 'Heroes of the 20th Century' lists - Winston Churchill, Mother Teresa, Mahatma Gandhi,  Dalai Lama, Charles De Gaulle, Che Guevara, Franklin D. Roosevelt - one would have to be pretty ahistorical to miss all the flaws in them.

Nelson Mandela cited Gandhi as being a big influence in his changing from violent politics to peaceful politics. But it is sloppy thinking to simply heap praise on Gandhi as a paragon of peace without understanding what's beneath the surface too. Gandhi's outward endorsements of peaceable solution masked an inward Hindi-secular extremism that facilitated the wedge-driving between Indian Hindus and Indian Muslims.  The insanely hurried separation of India and Pakistan and the outrageously bad timing (for which Churchill must take blame too) led to nigh-on one million deaths in the Hindu and Muslim factions1.

This shows two things; firstly, it shows the calamitous effects in trying to attain an increase in order without factoring in the spectre of disorder that bridges one's aims and ultimate fruition of those aims; and secondly, and most crucially in light of Nelson Mandela's passing, it shows that even the so-called brightest lights in history are flawed, imperfect, inconsiderate, parochial, and prone to mistakes.

My personal view - which is built upon a personal interpretation - is that Nelson Mandela is one of the greatest people in modern history - and I say that in spite of the fact that he was part of one of the more extreme factions of the ANC, and even in spite of the fact that he became embroiled in terrorist activities that brought about the deaths of innocent civilians.

I think for our own good, terms like 'greatness' should be conferred sparingly, and it is clear that humans have a tendency to over-inflate people. By that measure, all heroic figures are going to be overrated. But equally, if conferred greatness comes with the expectation that the person has no stains or blemishes then it is pure moonshine.

Greatness to me is having the courage to wrestle yourself out of the often tragic clutches of being human and rise above your circumstances to see the world through a new pair of eyes. In choosing to combat the National Party's oppressive and ultra-violent racial segregation with quid pro quo violence, Nelson Mandela was, I suspect, doing what most of us would do if we'd been brought up with his background and found ourselves under that kind of dehumanising oppression.

In finding the courage to forgive his enemies, not seeking revenge, responding to hate with love and grace, and using his post-incarceration Presidential power as a vehicle for good (even that journey was a work in progress), Nelson Mandela took a path that, in my experience, few people have the courage to take - a path that closely resembles the love, grace and forgiveness Jesus showed towards His own persecutors.

As the quote on the above photo shows, Nelson Mandela came from a background in which he was taught to hate. It is easy to hate when you've been taught only to hate. It is much harder to love when you've been taught only to hate. Many people who've been taught to love can't even love. To learn to love when you've been taught mostly hate is something I fancy that most of us would (and do) fail at repeatedly.

If anything is the defining factor in 'heroism' or 'greatness', it is, for me, the fact that those who find the courage to forgive enemies, and employ love and grace and kindness, are notable by their scarcity. Nelson Mandela was one of those people - he was flawed, irresponsible, misjudged and reactionary, just like every one of us - but in having the courage and wisdom to supplant one kind of life-ethos for a much better one, and offer that better alternative up as a light for the world to see, he showed that he is a good candidate for being called a 'great' person - a greatness that comes about because of Christ's gifts bestowed upon us.

That's why I think those who have responded to the reverence, approbation and encomiums with "Ah, but don't forget, Mandela wasn't all great, he was a terrorist" have misjudged why many of us hold him in such high esteem. I consider him great for his tenacity in wrestling himself out of the often tragic clutches of being human and having the courage to learn from his mistakes and pursue goodness - not due to any human propensity towards faux-lionisation, because we know that really great people are the ones that know they are not worthy of the pedestals onto which overly-tendentious people try to place them.

That's also why those often overly-inflated celebrity figures who've lined up to eulogise with references to their own memories of Mandela, their joining his cause, and the pride they had in calling him their friend, are a mixed bag really. That's not what greatness means to me; it is not a flame from which we can also be made great by its glow - it is more like a mirror into which we cast our gaze and see a repertoire of goodness and badness, and see that the goodness reflects back more prominently because of the mirror's courageous attempt to exhibit it.

1 Many of Gandhi's intentions seemed noble, but at the same time he did seem to think of Indian Muslims as second class citizens, and he was hugely irresponsible to the tune of mass slaughter, because it was obvious what cantonisation would bring about, given how the populations were spread, and the extant violence between communal groups (many provoked by Jinnah).  Gandhi was very committed to the course of non-violence in overturning British Rule, and that rubbed off on Nelson Mandela, as were many of the British Cabinet (for self-serving reasons), but the Indian Independence Act of 1947 led to the carving up of a nation that was so manifestly going to lead to bloodshed, because since at least the end of the 19th century there had been extreme, far-right and sectarian Hindu and Muslim political groups that were hell bent on destroying the opposing groups.

Photo: Courtesy of quotespick.com

James Knight is a long term contributor to the Network Norwich & Norfolk website and a local government officer based in Norwich.  

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