Let’s talk for a second about Nelson Mandela. The year he was freed, after twenty-seven years in prison, I had finally decided on my favorite ninja turtle. Not really in a position to appreciate the gravity of the situation. Likewise, in 1994, when he was getting elected the first black president of South Africa, I had just saved up enough allowance money to buy a fast traxx, and couldn’t care less about politics in any country, let alone one thousands of miles away.
In retrospect, though, Mandela did some pretty badass things that helped unite his country and ensure its successful transition away from apartheid.
In 1995, for example, South Africa hosted the Rugby World Cup. Not only did they host—they won, in a thrilling championship game against New Zealand. New Zealand had won the tournament before, and South Africa had never even played in the tournament, and so this was a big deal.
What you have to remember, though, is that for black South Africans, the rugby team was a symbol of apartheid. It was almost entirely white, and historically had not admitted black players. And so many blacks, including Mandela’s ex-wife, Winnie, wanted to boycott the team.
But there’s this famous moment in which Mandela presented the rugby trophy to team captain Francois Pienaar while wearing Pienaar’s own jersey, with a number 6 on the back. Despite protests within his own ranks to the contrary, Mandela chose appeasement over hostility. And in so doing, Mandela “won the heart of millions of white rugby fans” and set a tone that helped move the country away from a bad system.*
Mandela’s a hero, duh. But what we need to keep in mind is that while it’s easy to see now that his actions would help resolve a seemingly intractable problem, at the time that he was doing the right thing was far from clear.
For example, we can say, now, that obviously Mandela's appeasement was the best strategy--the moral high ground that people in Winnie's camp failed to recognize. But wait a sec: haven’t we heard the word “appeasement” before, in a less-than-glowing context? Yep. The word is used in a considerably less sunny tone to describe the choices made by Neville Chamberlain, who kowtowed to Hitler as he crept over the German borders and gradually siphoned off little bits of Austria and Czechoslovakia into his growing empire. It is therefore understandable that Mandela’s move toward reconciliation might have looked like a big mistake, a jerk move, to those like Winnie within his ranks. To them, he was acting like an asshole.
The point is that while it’s easy in hindsight to see why an action was good, oftentimes in the confusion of the present moment it’s hard to see what’s right to do, and genuine heroism looks like plain douchery at the time. Heroes don’t look like heroes until later on.
We’re constantly forgetting this fact—that heroes initially look like assholes. This is partly because in stories and movies—places from which we glean our most powerful moral lessons—we’re in on the joke, we know what’s going to happen in the end, and so heroes look the part, even in the beginning.
Let me give you an example. Let’s consider a recent work of modern genius. A paragon of moral clarity. A film of deep insight into the human condition, of laughter and tears, highs and lows, crisis and resolution.
I’m talking, of course, about Toy Story 3. In the movie, Andy is going off to college, and all the toys end up at Sunnyside Day Care—an apparent paradise where they will all get played with to their hearts’ content. Woody, on the other hand, stubbornly insists they all find their way back to their owner.
So we're left with a moral conundrum. Should the toys leave Toy Heaven and find their back to their owner who doesn’t seem to want them? Or should they stay and move on to the next phase of their lives?
The toys might be wondering what to do, but we, the viewers, are not. We’re thinking: “Don’t they understand that Woody is being played by Tom Hanks, the most likable actor ever? If Tom Hanks is saying it it must be right. Loyalty! Yes! How selfish that that dumb dinosaur wants to stay with the kids at Sunnyside.”
But think about it from the toys’ perspective. Andy put them in a trash bag. He’s going to college; why would he want to keep playing with his silly action figures? As Cowgirl Jessie says to Woody, “Andy’s moving on; it’s time you do the same.”
That actually makes a lot of sense. There’s a lot of wisdom in that philosophical position. There’s a radical acceptance of change; an appreciation for the vicissitudes of life; an ability to focus on the future rather than dwelling on the past. From this perspective, Woody looks insane—clinging desperately to scraps of a past life when he should really be letting go.**
The point here is that, while we, the omniscient audience watching from the comfort of our plush little couches, can see that—obviously—the toys should really listen to Woody and go back to Andy’s house, from any other point of view that idea is clearly ridiculous.
What we need to solve the Israel/Palestine problem is an idea or person that's just as ridiculous. We need someone that, like Woody, like Mandela, people are going to get mad at. We need someone who’s willing to look like a jerk in the moment. We need someone with the kind of moral stamina that can withstand twenty-seven years in prison and emerge with a heart open to forgiveness and reconciliation.
True leadership doesn’t always look like leadership. Being a leader means putting yourself out there in the most strange, most inhospitable, most desolate, most unpopular social positions—where everyone is yelling at you, telling you to be something different, do something different, say something different. And the essence of great leadership is to be like, “Nah, I’m good.” And people will keep trying to punch you in the face and you will just dodge their punches like that incredible Muhammed Ali clip until they collapse from exhaustion and you pick them up and carry them to the other side.
I don’t really have a favorite in the Israeli-Palestinian debate. The whole thing is so fucking complicated and there’s so much justifying evidence on both sides that to come down hard condemning one over the other is too easy, too clear-cut, to be intellectually honest. Spend a week walking in the shoes of someone on either side and that much will be obvious.
What I do know is that to find our way out of this cycle of animosity, and vitriol, and stigma, and violence, we’re going to need someone who is able to sidestep the current rabbit hole and fight for peace in direct opposition to the current crusade. This person could come from Israel or Palestine, but given the zeitgeist of hatred between the two sides, anyone lobbying for peace these days is inevitably going to be unpopular among their fellow citizens. That's why we’re going to need someone who is fine being told he or she is wrong, fine being ostracized, fine going against the grain.
We’re going to need an asshole.
* (It’s all in the movie Invictus, I know. Some people haven’t seen it!)
** (There’s also that little plot twist where Woody actually sees Andy try to put them all up in the attic for storage, but let’s put that aside right now for the sake of argument.)