Lessons from negative events - Atle Hetland - 28th February 2013

Most events that are reported in the news are negative. That is the role and nature of the media. But we should always try to learn from the events, even the most negative and depressing ones. Negative events can lead to change in rules and regulations so that they will happen less often in future. In this article, I shall select some examples from the news and in the public debate, and discuss lessons that can be learnt.
Discrimination, wrongdoing and crimes against women are common. Even in our time, acid throwing cases still happen. Almost all victims are women and the perpetrators are men. The documentary film, “Saving Face”, made by Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy last year, has won prestigious awards. It documented the horrible practice that, although rare, still happens, and many may fear becoming victims if they don’t follow male rules and orders and succumb to violence and abuse. I believe that we have learnt our lessons and have started improving situations after the film was released, although we can never make right the wrong that was done against the victims.
Take also the alleged gang rape of Mukhtar Mai in 2002, which happened due to outdated male power traditions, and not necessarily because the perpetrators and elders were bad people. Mai is a remarkable woman and has managed to contribute tremendously to education and women’s issues after the tragedy. Still, she will always be scared by what happened, and so will everyone be in the village where it happened.
Further, the gruesome gang rape in New Delhi in December last year shocked everyone in the subcontinent and the world although many similar crimes have happened before. The wrongs cannot be corrected against the victims and their families, and the perpetrators and their relatives, who are also caught in outdated webs of gender violence and discrimination. Nevertheless, the discussion that has followed, and is still just in its early stages, is helping reduce and, eventually, make such cases rare. It is only through debate and information that the hidden and open attitudes can change, and new rules and regulations put in place. All of us will become better human beings when that happens. Indeed, such cases are a scar on the whole humanity.
Let me also remind all of us again of the assassination attempt on the 14-year old school girl, Malala Yousafzai, last year that injured her seriously. The cause for it was that she advocated girls’ education, unbelievable as it may sound. Some men with misunderstood concepts about education did not want girls to be educated, and they also questioned the content of education for boys. Yet, Malala’s persistence and the support by her family, and that of local and international organisations and individuals, including politicians, have focused on ‘Education for All’ in a way that we have hardly seen before. In other words, the disaster is being turned into a victory. Indeed, the wrong that was done against Malala and many other boys and girls cannot be made right, but the perpetrators must be helped to change their mind and rid themselves of misunderstood concepts that are against Islam and all other religions. The perpetrators too suffer.
A couple of days ago, for instance, the media reported that a top clergy in the Catholic Church in Scotland was accused of inappropriate sexual behaviour. The alleged perpetrator, Cardinal Keith O’Brien, declines it all. We will, perhaps, never know if the allegations were true or not, although we may think that “there is no smoke without fire.” Yet, what good will come of accusations of abuse that happened 30 years ago? Perhaps, the victims, the media and all of us gossiping about such cases should begin to show caution? The secret culture and outdated celibacy rules of the all-male clergy communities of the Catholic Church must change. Openness and inclusiveness is needed, and are not women as good religious preachers and leaders as men? That is the positive lesson to learn.
On a general note, if the custodians of moral standards fall short of keeping the standards themselves, then why should the rest of us try to meet them? And why should we listen to hypocritical priests? True, we all sin, none is infallible. The more we know about each other, the more we know that.
Besides, there are many ordinary people, who against all odds live more moral lives than many who point fingers at others. We learn that each of us is responsible for our own behaviour. We should also remember that the standards should be the same, even if nobody sees what we do. That is a positive lesson to draw for the lay and learned alike.
In a few days, Kenya will hold its general elections. The tragedies from the 2007 elections, when over a 1,000 people were killed and tens of thousands displaced, are unlikely to happen again. When the tragedies had ended, all Kenyans were shocked and saddened. People from all ethnic and class backgrounds regretted it, irrespective of what side they had been on when the clashes happened. True, there may have been real causes that sparked the clashes, yet, the means to express dissatisfaction with the election results were wrong. Discussions have been held and measures put in place to avoid clashes this year. That means that the tragedies from 2007 have led to positive changes, not making right, of course, the terrible things that happened earlier.
Having lived in Kenya for more than a decade, I was very sad when the post-election violence happened. Also, I believe other countries, like Pakistan, can learn from Kenya, which is modern in many ways, but also backward in other ways – in other words, not entirely different from Pakistan. In the field of education, Pakistan can learn from Kenya, where there is universal and free primary education for all, although it has lower GDP per capita than Pakistan. A central election theme this time is how the free secondary education for about half of the primary school leavers can be expanded further, with fairer access and quality improvement.
Above, I have covered some domestic and international news and other topics, with lessons to be learnt. Let me now choose a sports item, too, notably the doping scandal that affected cyclist Lance Armstrong, who won no less than seven consecutive Tour de France championships from 1999-2005, and many other competitions. It was for long suspected that he used performance-enhancing drugs, and then the US Anti-Doping Agency finally found him guilty. He had been a great sports hero and also carried out humanitarian work, including inspiring others after he had survived cancer treatment. Now, though, Armstrong is disgraced and faces legal prosecution.
Is this how a sports hero should be treated, after the end of his career? No, I don’t think so. We must find simpler and fairer ways of testing drug use by professional sportsmen and women. And if it has not been discovered before the competition, we should leave it. Sports have become more business than sports, and even match-fixing has become quite common. I would be milder on the sportsmen and tougher on their managers and clubs. Sports people are gladiators and entertainers, and sports are games. Perhaps, that is an important lesson to learn: not to take everything so seriously.
Anyway, let me emphasise that we should try to make the best of it all, that we should try to draw positive lessons from negative events. In many ways, we should “forgive and forget”. Perhaps, more often, we should forgive, but not always forget. We should change and improve what led to the negative events.
Often, the only way to improve situations, and to prevent negative events from happening, is through greater debate and openness about issues. If there is secrecy, antisocial ideas and values can develop and remain unchallenged.
If we live by the understanding that all human beings are equal, and we talk about that in our homes, schools, media and so on, and we don’t keep opinions secret, we will be on the right path. But if we develop secret groups and organisations, then many will sooner or later go wrong.
That also goes for how we treat each other in the home, in the church and mosque, in the office and workplace, in the philosophical debate forums, or any other place.
We must always be willing to shed light on issues, learn from others and reconsider own righteousness. That will help us develop a more positive life philosophy,which will lead to further prosperity for us as individuals, groups and societies.