Psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl said, “There are two races of men in the world, but only these two – the ‘race’ of decent men and the ‘race’ of indecent men. Both are found everywhere; they penetrate into all groups of society.”
This is a powerful conclusion from a man who witnessed the very best and the very worst of humanity. He gives us a valuable lens to look at the world as we try to make sense of what’s going on around us.
Yet we easily forget Frankl’s wisdom and jump to conclusions without seeing the entire picture. This is particularly true in the modern world of sound bites and fake news.
This tendency is illustrated in one of the most controversial issues today: the situation involving white farmers in South Africa. I’ll admit I’ve tried to avoid this topic both in the classroom and in my writing. It’s ripe fodder for extremists who wish to prove that white people are victims of genocide and that they therefore need to stand with them against those who threaten their way of life.
Fortunately, there are credible human rights groups that aren’t intimidated by controversy. Genocide Watch, for example, alerts us to the very real polarization in South Africa. There are armed extremists who threaten and have even killed white farmers. It’s a horrible situation fuelled by hatred and racism, but to call it genocide is far from appropriate.
South Africa is struggling and has a relatively high murder rate. Its legal system is trying to deal with the situation. In fact, in 2011, a South African court ruled that hate speech directed at white South Africans was illegal and needed to stop.
The bottom line is that people who are suffering aren’t served by sensationalism, nor are they served by ignorance. If we’re going to help, we must seek truth and speak truth, and then follow our words with appropriate action. This requires that we step out of our comfort zone and see all people simply as people and not stereotypes.
Even in this age of relative enlightenment, we still have prejudices that can result in intolerance and lead to racism and sexism.
It’s important to prosecute perpetrators. And we need support victims of harassment and abuse – directed at women and men, since they too can be victims of abuse. The numbers of reported cases of abuse committed by men far outnumber those committed by women, but experts speculate that men are less likely to report abuse.
Several social experiments have been posted on YouTube in recent years that demonstrate how people will rightly intervene immediately if they see a man physically abusing a woman in public but will ignore a woman doing the same to a man. While these aren’t scientific studies, the videos are nonetheless disturbing.
The message is clear: we need to step beyond social stereotypes. In every group, there are individuals who do good things and those who do bad things. And the same battle goes on inside each of us.
The key is to focus on acceptable and unacceptable actions, not the ethnicity or gender of the actor.
As we raise our level of awareness, as we put in the effort to seek truth, the truth becomes more obvious.
When we hold ourselves to higher standards of personal behaviour, society improves and the world becomes a better place for everyone.
Gerry Chidiac is an award-winning high school teacher specializing in languages, genocide studies and work with at-risk students.
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