Waiting, wishing for the next inspirational world leader to arrive

Nelson Mandela poster at the African National Congress (ANC) Election Manifesto Launch at Moses...
Nelson Mandela poster at the African National Congress (ANC) Election Manifesto Launch at Moses Mabhida Stadium on February 24, 2024 in Durban, South Africa. The manifesto launch provided a platform for the ANC to outline its plans for the 2024 national and provincial polls. Photo: Getty Images
Do we have time to wait for visionary leaders to appear, Ron Adams asks.

How we all wish for a permanent peaceful solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Gil Barbezat wrote an opinion piece (ODT 16.2.24) which implied that blaming, labelling, and fighting won’t get us anywhere. What will contribute to peaceful progress is meaningful negotiation.

Gil writes that someone has to be the adult in the room. He fleshes out what he means by the kind of visionary leadership that defused the impasses between Mandela and de Klerk in South Africa, and Paisley and Adams in Ireland that made mutual understanding and learning to live together possible: a readiness for dialogue; an appetite to share common goals; acceptance by each party that they are fallible and have perpetrated atrocities; and recognition in such dialogue of the other side’s equal worth as human beings.

That kind of visionary leadership is however usually absent in the ideologically driven, adversarial, political sphere where each party believes in the rightness of its beliefs and actions, thus failing to reckon with truth/reality about the situation.

Political interference and protest activism involves the same ideological problem, albeit their having altruistic aims.

The point is that all who would believe themselves to be right drive a legalistic wedge between themselves and other parties.

Supposing that global society needs rules, it is tempting to look to international law to attempt to force an immediate solution to every world conflict. Yet we know that political leaders of nation states will do what they will do — despite the pressure of internationally imposed sanctions.

I Am Right, You Are Wrong, they believe.

In conflict situations there are three options: Opposition — absolutism, fundamentalism, authoritarianism, orthodoxy, reaction, defensiveness. These represent legalistic approaches; Continuity — compromise; and Distinctiveness — dialogue, synergism.

Compromise is a second-best solution that may in the end suit neither party.

While distinctiveness is more demanding, it has the benefit of each party coming to recognise the viewpoints of the other, which once appreciated, have the potential to be synthesised into a novel way out of the conflict. The way of opposition is inherently legalistic and above all, divisive.

Therefore, Barbezat’s approach has most merit given two caveats.

Firstly, how long must innocent parties caught up in crossfire wait until the kind of conciliatory, visionary leadership described above, becomes apparent in order for truth and reconciliation to begin? The experiences of Nelson Mandela and Alexei Navalny suggest that it could take many years, and in the Israeli-Palestinian case, centuries. Do victims have that time?

Secondly, can opposition and distinctiveness co-exist? In everyday decision-making we humans tend to be confrontational. We believe we know what is right, as evidenced in our propensity to defend rather than try to understand a different view.

How this tendency may have arisen is another story. On international and community stages, one-on-one, or even in our own heads, opposite viewpoints are pitted against each other, resulting in a powerful winner and a loser.

Yet most still accept from experience that rules and sanctions have their place in a diverse community. Even though couples know that the survival of their relationship depends on making room for each other’s hopes and dreams, family organisation still tends to mimic the more legalistic approach.

The possibility of inclusion and learning how to work things out together, as Barbezat has described, is seen in society as an ideal rather than a top priority. This needs to change.

By organising ourselves according to rules, in the name of some greater good, while knowing that the vulnerable matter more than dispassionate rules do, we demonstrate two contradictory beliefs/actions at the same time. This and the psychological stress that results from attempting to reconcile them is called cognitive dissonance.

A classic example would be advocating for climate change while increasing carbon dioxide emissions by jet-setting around the world. But cognitive dissonance is also an inherent part of everyday life that we are accustomed to resolving.

We all harbour presumptions about how we think the world and people work, and are constantly brought up short when we discover the reality/truth of how these things actually do work — and change our beliefs accordingly.

Such contradiction matters in relation to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict because it prevents us from working together to help resolve it. Should a decision be imposed in this situation, in view of all its attendant suffering, or should we be looking for and enabling a visionary leader/s.

It might help if we thought about which of the following three approaches makes most sense for resolving our ambivalence to contradiction in this situation: change our beliefs/actions according to reality; justify one belief/action in terms of the other; or ignore that our beliefs/actions are inconsistent?

 - Ron Adams is a former teacher of ethics and theology.