Bad guys

There are no bad guys here. Not really. Bad guys have guns, tanks and missiles and they fire them into your home and blow up your children. That’s what happened to Izzeldin Abuelaish in Palestine. But who cares about Palestine, right?

I just finished reading Abuelaish’s amazing book called I Shall Not Hate. It’s a couple of years old; I picked it up in the library so it’s not recent news. But this is someone who has met real bad guys.

We think we’ve got problems? Abuelaish grew up in the Gaza Strip at the epicenter of the ongoing Middle Eastern conflict. His family was crammed into a refugee city with broken water supplies, limited access to medical care and hardly any travel rights out of the area. Against the odds he became a medical specialist and was the first Palestinian doctor to work on staff in an Israeli hospital.

Four years ago an Israeli tank parked outside his house and fired shells into his daughters’ bedroom.

The remarkable thing about Abuelaish is that he refuses to see the enemy as bad guys. This is the kind of attitude that gets you nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize, which he was in 2010. It’s worth quoting this paragraph in full from the book:

We struggled together, my children and I, and I tried to respond to the chorus of people calling for Israeli blood to atone for the deaths of my girls. One said, “Don’t you hate the Israelis?” Which Israelis am I supposed to hate? I replied. The doctors and nurses I work with? The ones who are trying to save Ghaida’s life and Shatha’s eyesight? The babies I have delivered? Families like the Madmoonys who gave me work and shelter when I was a kid?

Reading stuff like this it’s easy to nod with a kind of self righteous smugness. Of course, I say to myself, the Israelis and the Palestinians should just get on with each other.

This is hypocrisy on my part because I can’t even get on with people who aren’t trying to kill me.

We live in such luxurious safety here in New Zealand. We have genuine issues: droughts, a recession, Novopay and Seven Sharp. But on balance we’ve got it pretty good.

There are few genuine bad guys in our comfy world, there are only people we disagree with. Call them the opposition if you like, but people you disagree with are not the enemy. They’re just people who currently see things from a different perspective.

I invent bad guys for myself all the time. That person at work who doesn’t understand my point of view, that faceless organisation I think is screwing me over, those drunk kids outside my driveway. My starting point is always that I am right and they are wrong, that I am noble and they are flawed. It is more convenient to paint them as a bad guy, that way it’s okay to treat them differently to how I’d like to be treated myself.

It feels so good to march into confrontational situations armed with a premeditated speech of indignant wrath. That speech never works, does it?

Over the course of my life I’ve changed my mind about some pretty major issues ranging from vaccination to Justin Bieber. At no point has my mind ever been changed by vitriol, raised voices or insults. Calling someone a womble won’t do the trick. It’s a rare thing to engage in proper dialogue, to genuinely listen to the other person.

There will always be people who enrage us, those without scruples who are loaded with their own agendas. Not everyone has figured out how to be a decent human yet.

Even so, from managers to neighbours to corporations, I’m trying to remember that there are no bad guys, only living, breathing, fallible people. It’s incredibly difficult to enact this at ground level, to live with integrity especially when we are hurting, but we need to try.

First published in Bay of Plenty Times 30 March 2013. Reproduced with permission.