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‘We’ because of ‘they’: what Ubuntu spells

An African-language word that makes you think of the growing dichotomy between ‘us’ and ‘them’

In a moment of weariness, I chose to watch a TED talk. It was by Boyd Varty on ‘What I learned from Nelson Mandela’. He speaks of ‘Ubuntu’, an African-language word that denotes all the positive qualities attributed to humanity. It is all about the collective identity and shared solidarity of humanity. Boyd Varty succinctly defines Ubuntu thus: “I am; because of you or people are not people without other people.” I got so fixated on the idea of Ubuntu that I could not anything but think of Ubuntu.

What does the African word have to offer to today’s leadership in a world that tries to gain more by division and exclusion than unity and inclusiveness? It may be either Donald Trump’s United States or Narendra Modi’s India. A few of the problems of humanity’s contemporary existence might be traced to the loss of certain quintessential points of connectedness in humanity that was existent but was lost in the race and craze for our material avarice and unilateral dominance. It is essential that we rediscover what we are losing and restore them to humanity.

As the borders of countries become stronger, the heart of humanity gets more rigidified and the minds of humanity more regimented. Today, there is a visible dichotomy between ‘us’ and ‘them’. We have forgotten that there existed in our collective humanity, ‘us’ in ‘them’ and ‘them’ in ‘us’. Today we see the absence of ‘us’ in ‘them’ and the absence of ‘them’ in ‘us’. This is the major issue of the modern, developing, techno-driven, e-connected, lonesome societies.

Take the cases of Hindu vs Muslim, minority vs majority, immigrants vs citizens, ecology vs humanity, rich vs poor, capital vs labour, robust economy vs equity… the list is endless. We are giving overwhelming importance to what does not exist in us. We differentiate, isolate, disconnect and distance ourselves from them based on what is absent in them. We intentionally refuse to see what is commonly present in ‘us and them’. A few Hindu fundamentalists (not knowing its plural essence) prefer to see Indians of different faiths as non-Hindus. A few radical Muslims choose to call people of different faiths non-Muslims. Many in the western world turn xenophobic while handling the issue of refugees. They privilege citizens over non-citizens. They don’t see them as part of a distressed humanity in desperate need of help in a breaking world.

We name people by what they are not, to perpetuate the alienation between us and them and thereby to gain political mileage and economic privilege. The ecological crisis we confront today may be because of the absence of a foundational unity that we share with the ecology. We saw everything in nature as non-human and therefore subject to our dominion. We fail to see that we are not non-eco beings. On a Sunday (July 8, 2017) I was reading a review in The Hindu by Tabish Khair of The Retreat of Western Liberalism by Edward Luce. He says, “Capital cannot thrive without labour. If it does, it can also thrive without humanity.” The capital economy finds the advent of robotic technology and artificial intelligence as a great blessing and also dreams of a capital disconnecting human labour and labourers. When it happens, humans will become a redundant species and the day of human extinction will not be far. When we privilege exclusive identities, we risk a world of disconnectedness, that is, a world with terms prefixed with ‘non’.

The world of differences helps us realise how vulnerable, weak, feeble, fragile and sensitive we, humans and the whole of nature are to either ascend to find our connected selves or descend to decay in our disconnected, imagined selves. It is humbling to realise that we are nothing but accidents in the universe. It is serendipitous that the universe accommodated us and helped us make this accident an eventful existence. If we want this existence to continue, we must actualise what Ubuntu stands for. ‘I’ is constituted by ‘You’ and vice versa. If there is no ‘You’ what is the need for ‘I’! Of course ‘I’ and ‘You’ can become ‘We’. But still, ‘We’ is constituted by ‘They’ and vice versa.

Our linguistic inability should not offend our ontological unity. Let our journey be furthered by our collective becoming, not by others’ ‘unbecoming’.

donirajasj@gmail.com

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Printable version | Jul 12, 2020 5:32:46 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/open-page/we-because-of-they-what-ubuntu-spells/article19651234.ece

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