As I observe the stalemate between the American Republicans and Democrats over the Mexican wall and parliamentarians of all parties over Brexit, I can’t help thinking that all these great elected government officials could learn a thing or two from Orland Bishop and the rival young black gang members he is instructing how to relate to each other.
Bishop is doing this in Watts, southern Los Angeles, which formed the epicenter of America’s crack cocaine business. Such has been the rivalry between the main gangs, the Crips and the Bloods, that the wars between them and their offshoots claimed five times as many lives as did all the years of the troubles in Northern Ireland.
Bishop’s work is all about teaching his young gang members to move beyond “I” and “you” – or, more commonly, “us” and “them.”
In his seminal work I and Thou, Martin Buber claims that, in the main, we relate to other people as “I-It” – as objects utterly separate from — and hence subordinate to — ourselves. That is largely because, in any situation and in any relationship, we consider “I” to be separate and primary.
Our individual relationships have a lot to do with how we see ourselves in relation to rest of the world. When asked to describe themselves, North Americans or Europeans tend to stress their individual personality traits, exaggerate their uniqueness and focus on what they regard as most distinctive about themselves and their possessions, whereas East Asians stress their relationship to all social groups.
From a Western perspective, when we’re walking down a suburban street, the houses are naturally to our left; the cars and the street to our right. Everything is oriented in relationship to us, as though we are the sun and the rest of the universe our planets.
If I were to ask you to describe the first meeting of most of your friends, you would probably recount how you first cast about for points of mutual contact — evidence that you share the same economic level, spiritual beliefs, hobbies, family structure, or personal tastes. Most likely, you have chosen to connect exclusively with people who share something of you in them. We think of this superficial connection as providing us with a sense of shared identity.
We like people who are just like we are —who share our own values, our attitudes, our personalities and even our emotional dispositions — and we tend
to conflict most with people who are not like us. All of the leisure groups we join – from the Rotary club to the Parents and Teachers Association – are based on a shared passion, whether a community, game, God, or children. Our idea of connection is constantly seeking sameness. What this means, of course, is that the ultimate yardstick by which we gauge anyone else is our self.
This tendency to cluster with people who are most like we are only serves to divide us from others by reinforcing our individuality, our sense that our way is the best. We look always to recreate ourselves in another, which has as its basis a desire to reinforce that we are right.
Bishop uses a means of relating embodied in the Zulu greeting, “Sawubona.” Although usually translated as “I see you” (and made famous by the N’avi in the film Avatar), Sawubona literally means “we see you,” and the correct response is “Yabo sawubona” – “Yes, we see you, too.”
“It’s an invitation for us to participate in each other’s life,” he says. “It also obligates one to support the other – to give to each other what is needed for that moment of life to be enhanced.” This sounds something akin to the African concept of ubuntu — which, from its literal meaning “I am because you are,” suggests that, as co-creators of each other — both observer and observed — we have a commitment to provide to the other what is needed at that moment, including the deepest level of support.
Bishop tells his young people to regard each encounter with someone else as a personal challenge: “How do I have to be for that person to be who they are?”
“Through ‘Sawubona,’” says Bishop, “we are capable of experiencing the quality of another without judgment or prejudice. Sawubona is an openness to the highest good in a person.”
Once we view ourselves as a part of a bigger whole, we begin to act differently toward each other.
Bishop invites his young men to engage in indaba, which is loosely translated as “deep talk,” moving past superficiality to the deepest truth of who you are and what you dream for.
When you share this deeply, as he suggests, you find the common ground of the space between you – the place of your common humanity. “Shared meaning,” says Bishop, “allows for different perceptions – or realities – to exist together.”
Bishop coaches the young men in the art of speaking and listening deeply and from the heart — without being critical or judgmental. During this type of deep sharing, the pull of wholeness builds trust and loosens their attachments to entrenched positions.
The very intensity of the experience lends itself to the establishment of new alliances and a larger vision for the future. “They begin to understand that, if they unite in creativity, they expand,” he says.
In Watts, the Crips and the Bloods enjoyed a twelve-year truce. For years, Bishop has worked on helping them craft a future that they both can share.
If gangs in the worst neighborhood in America can come together, then surely Congress and Parliament can do the same.