Sunday, August 26, 2012

Why Us vs Them is perfectly Natural

Words: Nick van der Leek

The problem with that Nando’s Diversity ad isn’t our inability to deal with foreigners as much as it’s our shame, embarrassment or awkwardness at reaching par with one another. What do I mean? Have you ever found yourself bumping into a primary school teacher, one that perhaps painted your fingernails because they were too long (when you were a small boy) or caught you smoking in your bra and panties outside the classroom so your clothes didn’t smell (if you were a girl)?

As a child at school we go through a phase where we’re in awe of our teachers, for they are giants, with a gigantic intellect, and a power that seems godlike. When we encounter these mere mortals a few decades later (if they’re still alive), we find the tables have turned. They’ve grown wrinkly and frail (and forgetful), and now it’s our turn to play gods. It’s hard to be reverential towards someone who can’t even remember your name. The ruse is gone, there’s no longer a clear role of teacher and student. The same Awkwardness manifests whenever the apprentice accedes to the role of master. But then, what becomes of the master?


In South Africa, as some parity is achieved between the races, awkwardness arises on both sides.  And when we get frustrated, it's easy to want to jump ship, or wish our competitors (who are different to us) would do the same.

The thing we need to acknowledge is that none of us like being equal, and in world where life is seldom fair, it’s a rat race to the pound seats. Once you’ve arrived, the clock starts counting down to your departure. It’s the way of the world. Whenever there is a play for parity, there’s tension, whether it’s teenagers trying to grow up at the expense of their parents, atheist scientists claiming to know more than God, computers or robots beating us at chess, or beautiful princesses arriving to dethrone the older, slightly less beautiful queen. It’s the reason the rich elites instituted taxes – to enslave and profit from a class of people and thus prevent a power struggle – and why wicked witches (aka mother in laws) take to bathing in milk, poisoning apples and plastic surgery. It’s all like the super series everyone is talking about: Game of Thrones.  Why?  That game still isn't over.

From the Cradle to the Stromatolyte

Yes, the idea behind the Nando's ad resonates becomes, in the race for parity, we sometimes wish that our rivals would just go back to where they came from. But if you took that psychology to its logical conclusion, the results would be pretty funny, especially in South Africa.  Think about it.  If everyone here went back to where we came from, that would mean all of us South Africans would eventually end up back where we started, at the Cradle of Mankind just down the road in Maropeng.If you stopped at some point along the way and said, okay you're now out of South Africa in a different country, exactly the same tensions would exist, because the claims to every other territory differ (in terms of time, might and right).

If we went back even further from Maropeng, way back in time, all of us would end up either as mushrooms, or adding another billion year leap, squatting in ankle deep seawater.  That was the lot for all life for three billion years: building turd shaped rocks called stromatolites. All living things were  in the rocky turd building business. Go back to where you came from?  Oh you mean this saltwater puddle right here that's an exact duplicate of this one? 


On the other hand, putting a forward spin on these sentiments takes us into the realm of science fiction.When HAL from 2001: A Space Odyssey, a highly capable computer beats one of the crew members in chess (whilst orbiting Jupiter), the machine begins to feel a sense of reaching par with (and thus contempt for) its human colleagues. This upsets the applecart, and leads to a deathmatch in space, between man and machine. It’s Us vs Them all over again.
Now imagine if we came face to face with God? We could ask Him why He tried to drown us all in the flood (why let us live after all that?) And where He’s been for the past two millennia. And will shares in Facebook eventually go up?

This, incidentally, forms the central premise in the Ridley Scott film Prometheus. Imagine if South Africa’s foreigners did indeed make a pilgrimage to Sterkfontein Caves and one of us chanced upon an invitation engraved on its dolomitic limestone innards. If it was a summons, it bore the signature of godlike beings that apparently taught us everything we know. Imagine if we built a spaceship, flew a trillion miles and roused one of them in a chamber. The very tall, very smart, very white (and oddly alien) God turns out to resent our presence. He’s sorry he made us. But why? Parity.

And we’re about to be sorry we made our robot (with its Pinocchio-wanting-to-be-a-real-boy syndrome). Built by us, in our own image, “David” has also come to realise bugger trying to be human: David is smarter and better than we are. And so, David introduces us to God as follows: “Hi, these bozos reckon you’re God, and they’ve come to say nice to meet you and want some answers, and whatever else you can give them. And urgently please.” Of course no one takes kindly to being roused from a peaceful sleep, even less so by a bunch of precocious ingrates. So what does God do? He bashes everyone back to kingdom come.

Why would God choose to destroy his creation? It’s the reason marriages are full of conflict, the reason superheroes are always fighting, why bosses bully their drones. No one wants to be equal. No wants to share if they don’t have to. Everyone wants to be on top, and once we are, preserve the status quo at all costs. Being a stromatolite for three billion years taught us that, and we’ve never forgotten.

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