I have jokingly called myself Pacifist-in-chief of the Federal Republic of pacifists. I want peace, I mean, why shouldn’t I? But I’m afraid that perhaps I want it too much. I am even willing to accept that my desire for peace is idealistic and I’m beginning to think unrealistic, especially in a world as ours.
How can there be peace in a human race that is basically selfish? How can there be peace when injustices go unnoticed, ignored or are actively concealed from generation to generation? How can there be peace when there are so many wounds that are reopened and salted on a daily basis? If so many are hurt, how can we expect them not to be bitter? And if there is so much bitterness, how can there be peace?
Often enough, I come across the adjective “bitter” being used to address or describe members of populations who have suffered abuse or discrimination in one form or another. So we hear descriptions like “bitter black people” or “bitter feminists” or even “bitter LGBT people”.
The word “bitter” in this context does not just describe a passive subjective emotional state. It includes overt behavioural tendencies that characterize chronically oppressed populations. “Bitter” could also mean harsh, sensitive, vitriolic, abusive, extreme, aggressive, spiteful or vengeful.
So the question we want to answer is this: Is the “bitterness” of the oppressed justified?
First of all, we should be honest enough to accept that institutionalized oppression and discrimination against human subpopulations on account of peculiar characteristic(s) is a fact of human history. Hurting one another, whether done collectively or in one-on-one relationships, is something we all excel at. Of this, you and I are guilty. But there will be, of course, those who upon hearing this will immediately play ostrich. And it makes sense when one considers their immediate objective, which is the defence of an insecure, already fragile sense of self (whether personal or collective) from the potentially disastrous burden of blame and guilt.
If we accept the existence of injury, then we should remember that it is typically characterized by inflammation and sensitivity. Why then should the injured not be sensitive and bitter? And should we not be wary of a “peace” that sits like a slab of marble on the grave of a man buried alive?
I am not saying every oppressed person is sensitive or “bitter” (but I cannot wonder enough why they should not all be). Not every black person responds with extreme sensitivity to racist remarks, whether real or imagined. But the likelihood that you are going to get a fast and furious clap back, even when no harm was intended, is high. Not every feminist is “bitter” and neither is every LGBT person. But a good number from these groups are, and this seems to bother some people.
We may declare fervently that two wrongs don’t make a right, but we obviously do not believe it. Our criminal justice system is based loosely on the principle of revenge. Take the death penalty for example. It is wrong to kill another human being but right if it is an act of institutionalized revenge. The principle of our legal system therefore reveals our true belief about compensation for injustices. “Wrongs” can justifiably be righted by further “wrongs”.
I am all for a peaceful approach to conflict resolution and speak about it to anyone who cares to listen. For those who immediately feel threatened by this statement, I do not claim to be better than others who favour the “bitterness” approach. It even seems to be the case that the “moderate method” is largely ineffective and rarely wins any kind of human wars. Gentleman no dey win fight. I know this from experience. Is not the better person therefore she who risks her life and rushes into battle with an unsheathed sword against the oppressor?
You cannot hurt a person and also dictate their response to infliction. Cry, you say, but don’t cry too much. You cannot demand that the oppressed take a high road that you are equally or more unlikely to take if discriminated against or oppressed for any reason. If the oppressor inflicts injury without restraint, why should the oppressed stifle their screams? Why should the oppressed show any restraint in revolt or revenge?
Maybe extreme reactions (this includes resorting to both physical and verbal aggression) preclude the possibility of rational discussion and resolution of disagreement, but the burden of restraint should not be placed on the oppressed. If a case must be made, it is more logical to place full responsibility for righting of wrongs on the oppressor. If restraint and tolerance constitute necessary context for conflict resolution, the party who created the problem in the first place should bear the burden of ensuring that these are in place, by demanding it from themselves and/or appealing to the oppressed to do same. Appeal, I said, and beg if need be. It remains the total prerogative of the oppressed to either accept or reject that request.
And come to think of it, how many times in human history have the oppressed ever won their freedom by playing nice? Without waging wars that were birthed and nourished by anger and bitterness?
As long as a person does not suffer the direct effect of any oppressive system, they are less likely to care. And if a person benefits in any way from an oppressive system, they are more likely to not only excuse it but also preserve it.
This is why a man is less likely to be a feminist than a woman; a heterosexual is more likely to be a homophobe; a black man would feel more strongly and therefore fight more against racism. It is the reason why a gay man can be misogynistic and a feminist can be a homophobe. As long as your own freedom as regards the issue at hand is intact, it does not matter.
This is also why the corrupt politicians want Nigeria to remain exactly the way it is. The only other thing that can make us bothered is when our emotional or physical well-being is threatened as a consequence of our actions. Response to the cries of the oppressed at such a point is therefore not motivated by selflessness but self-preservation.
This is why the bitterness and aggression of the oppressed is not only understandable but justified. I think that the existence of overly sensitive and “bitter” people (as well as acts inspired by bitterness) among groups who have been chronically oppressed is perhaps a symptom of a dynamic system that seeks to correct a skew and right itself. On account of our modus operandi, we have made “bitterness” and aggression the only logical alternative. In the absence of empathy, revenge becomes the only alternative to make the oppressor stand in the shoes of the oppressed. In light of human nature, it is therefore stupid and self-jeopardizing not to be aggressive when faced with oppression. Now you understand the apparent insanity in turning the other cheek.
Maybe there is another way that would allow socio-cultural transformation in human society to be less painful, especially as concerns oppressed populations. In an ideal world where stepping into another’s shoes in a gesture of empathy is routine or common place; a world where people actually listened to each other as opposed to screaming at each other from opposite sides of the fence; a world where understanding was given priority over judgment; a world where people actually sat down to think dispassionately and critically about issues, where conversations were actual conversations and not egotistical exchanges that are largely fruitless because of the constant overshadowing need to “be right”; a world not populated like ours with insecure beings who lash out and hurt others when they perceive that their littleness, a product of their impotent imagination, is being threatened. Maybe such a world exists but one thing is for sure. We are not it. Therefore, we deserve our “bitterness” and the clashes that result. But who knows, when sated by a sufficient number of conflicts, we could finally be motivated to choose differently. So let us fight.
For now, being selfish and inflexible, we respond better to force, aggression, revenge and war. It could be argued that we do not necessarily change in response to force but are only restrained by it. I’m inclined to agree with this, because in my opinion, true change cannot be forced upon another. Like Marilyn Ferguson said, the gates of change can only be opened from within. If this is true, then humanity at its current stage could be compared to a wild animal that can only be restrained and not domesticated. And this is just an observation, not a sub. Since this is what we are at the moment, let us embrace it. Who knows, the future may be different. The child is the father of the man.
I wrote this only to offer perspectives and not to exhort as regards any particular course of action. I only attempted to logically scrutinize human conflict and the methods we adopt to navigate it. Resist the all-too-human urge to conveniently play the victim upon reading this, because while you may be the oppressed in one scenario, in another you are the oppressor, or would become him without hesitation if given the opportunity.
There remains a burden that each of us bears, irrespective of the side of the fence where we sit. We all are responsible for the state of this world. We can blame no one but ourselves for the mess we have created. If we change our minds today and decide to more empathic in our dealings with one other, while taking responsibility for our errors and perhaps provide for ourselves reasons to justify and reach for forgiveness, especially when people who have erred try to make a U-turn, maybe life’s drama would be less painful.
But you will read this and go back to being the person you have always been, won’t you? This precisely is the justification for “bitterness” and revenge.
Written by Manny