Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Johan Kotzé not a monster - Tutu

January 18, 2012.

Cape Town - Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu has called on the media and public to stop calling Limpopo rape and murder accused Johan Kotzé the "Modimolle monster", saying that despite his alleged crimes, he is still a child of God.

Kotzé is accused of hiring three men to gang-rape and mutilate his estranged wife, and of killing her 19-year-old son.

Tutu wrote a letter to The Star, in which he condemned what had happened, but also expressed his concern that the widespread outrage over Kotzé's alleged actions had led to him being dubbed a monster.

'Capacity to become a saint'

"He may indeed be guilty of inhuman, ghastly and monstrous deeds, but he is not a monster. We are actually letting him off lightly by calling him a monster because monsters have no moral sense of right and wrong - and therefore cannot be held morally culpable, cannot be regarded as morally blameworthy," Tutu wrote.

He added that Kotzé "remains a child of God with the capacity to become a saint. This may shock some of us".

"We should condemn ghastly acts of awful cruelty but we must, as they say, hate the sin and love the sinner, or hope that he may change for the better."

He said this was in many ways the basis of the Truth and Reconciliation process.

"We heard bloodcurdling stories of how people had been murdered brutally and yet we saw some extraordinary scenes of magnanimity when perpetrator and victim or relative of victim embraced publicly.

"If it were true that once a murderer always a murderer, then we should have had to shut up shop straightaway. But we believed then, and I hope we still do, that it was possible for people to change for the better, that the worst criminal could become a good and virtuous person."


Tutu was not defending Kotzé's alleged acts, saying decent people are rightly appalled at what had happened, and that it was quite right to condemn the "dastardly, barbaric and monstrous" deeds.

He expressed his deep sympathy and condolences to Kotzé's estranged wife and pleaded that people stop calling him a monster.

However, The Star quoted criminologist Dr Jackie de Wet, from the University of Fort Hare, as saying that the chances of someone like Kotzé being rehabilitated and becoming a good and virtuous person - if he did indeed commit the crimes he is charged with - are "very, very slim, almost minuscule".

ANC Women's League protesters outside the Modimolle Magistrate's Court during his appearance last Friday dubbed him a monster. "No human being can do such a thing," said ANCWL Waterberg treasurer Joy Matshoge.

Comment: On the right side of your screen I have a quote by Tutu that says "we live in a moral universe".  I must admit that over the years that the quote has appeared here I have come to appreciate some what the Arch intends but not nearly enough. 

I think to understand the point of view that Tutu is developing in his letter about Johan Kotzé one must understand the notion of forgiveness through testimony as found in Christian theology.

To a large extent this notion of forgiveness is somewhat re-fashioned in Islam with a sterner view of how forgiveness is approached.  The Qur'an says "God is most gracious and most merciful" indicating repeatedly that the final judgment of forgiveness is the sole province of God.  But Muslims are also commanded to forgive if someone sincerely apologizes and does so in keeping with Qur'anic injunctions.

Despite the approach, the notion of forgiveness is consistent in the three Abrahamic faiths; God judges and forgiveness is dependent on repentance.

This injunction in my thinking is not about morals because God is above morality.  What then is the substance of morality?  How do we become moral?  And, what are moral acts as opposed to immoral acts where sin is expressly not mentioned or motioned.

In the latter question I wonder mostly if someone who thinks that Johan Kotzé should be hung for his alleged crimes would be expressly immoral.  Or, if someone is just indifferent about the human condition does it make that person amoral?

What would Tutu's moral universe mean for people outside of the Abrahamic faiths?  Are Buddhists and Taoists similarly concerned with living in accordance to morals?

I ask these questions even as I begin fashioning an argument for a chapter I am working on that in part focuses on the notion of the nation as a moral community.

I have glossed over the logical sequences of how we arrive at a nation and what it means to be a moral nation but my point is about imbuing the nation with a moral character.

Some might argue Machiavelli would be laughing his ass off at me for even thinking that politics can be fashioned to be anything but raw interests and more so, interest that coalesce around power. 

But such a reading is a thin understanding of Machiavelli and it probably owes its distortion to latter day realists who want to use his thinking to remove ideals and ethics from political interests.

My reading of Machiavelli is that he privileged the notion of interests where it could be determined as positive - in other words the Prince is supposed to secure known interests that are good/beneficial.

So, what if morality and ethics and forgiveness are indeed known/good interests that secure the power of the state?  Would it then not be logical for the Prince to guard and expand these interests?

If the state is fashioned to be a moral arbiter then the interest of the Prince would be concerned with morals, no?

Still, the question of what is meant by moral versus immoral remains a matter of speculation unless you enter into the framed thinking of Tutu.  It is clear to see what he means by morals in the case of Johan Kotzé.

It is not for the press and the many many folks who sit around to judge this man as a "monster" devoid of good and the ability to repent because Tutu's moral universe is defined by the morality of redemption.

Step outside of that construct and the issue of morality becomes unclear again.  How would Zoroastrianism - another monotheistic religion - view the dastardly acts of  Johan Kotzé, for example?

As I read Tutu's letter it dawned on me that he has made a classical mistake in reasoning.  It is impossible to know whether a "monster" is moral or amoral since there is no such thing as a "monster".

We cannot just assume, as I expect most do, that animals are closest to what we mean when we point to a monster.

Are we sure that animals do not have a sense of morality or at the very least they act in terms of what Machiavelli would consider right action?

I have never come across a dog or cat, for example, that gets up in the morning with the express intention of just f*cking up other dogs and cats for no other reason other than being an immoral bad ass or "monster".

Even animals reason beyond such stupidity it would seem.  So why would they even need to be moral or immoral?

My point is that the issue of morality is a construction that must be interpreted and contextualized by interests.

If you remove the relationship to God or organized religion at the very least then the dog/cat who just goes about its business may in fact be described as moral.  What about the female dog who will allow other puppies from another female to suckle?  Is that a moral act?

But even where morals are connected to God or organized religion the judgment of what is moral or immoral is hardly a given.

Very few Americans will call Geroge W. Bush and Barack Obama murderous immoral monsters and they are responsible for the death of many many more people than Johan Kotzé will ever be able to kill with his bare hands.

Yet some of the very same people who extol the virtues of forgiveness and redemption in religion see the wars "over there" as moral crusades.  In fact this coming election in the US will be dramatized by those who think Jesus has endowed them with the right to make this judgment.

Are these people monsters or moral Christians or amoral animals?

It depends on where you are standing I suppose - I know the relativist position is usually a cop-out but what else is there when you make a detached judgment on morality.

For me, morals are constructions and they must be understood within the context they are framed.  Tutu is moralizing from the point of view of a Christian and his reasoning is relative to that.

In the end the courts may declare a mistrial in this case because Johan Kotzé is found to be legally insane and incapable of knowing what he was doing and its consequences.

The issue of his morality won't fade away even if this is the case.  But we should not confuse its persistence with the insistence that morality in any framed context tells us what is universally right and what is wrong.

It really depends on where you stand - and how you frame the notion of morals and morality.



Bill said...

"What would Tutu's moral universe mean for people outside of the Abrahamic faiths? Are Buddhists and Taoists similarly concerned with living in accordance to morals?"

Buddhist here. The short answer, which would probably rankle some upper-middle class white Buddhists who think themselves above all that, is "of course."

While much pain is taken to distinguish, for example, the Five Precepts, a behavioral code to which laypeople pledge to adhere, from the Ten Commandments--there's no external hell to which one will be damned for breaking them--they're the basis of Buddhist practice. Master Sheng Yen--worth investigating if you have an interest in the practice--remarked that no practice not thoroughly based on the Precepts can be called "Buddhist."

I might distinguish, to get all jargon-y, between a transcendent and, if I may, immanent morality. In Buddhism--I practice Ch'an Buddhism, more often known by its Japanese name, "Zen"--the basic point is to settle the mind until attachments fall away, including attachment to a notion of self. When one does so, one experiences a situation without mediating concepts. At that point the question ceases to be "what should I do?" but "what needs to be done?" That arise from the situation organically rather than from a list of x things to do or not do. The key is function without attachment. If you really get that going, you're in good shape and "right action," to use the term from the Eightfold Path, follows necessarily. Takes practice, though.

It is certain that Tutu approaches the crime from a perspective of forgiveness in a Christian sense, but in Buddhism there is a lot of talk about "Buddha nature." Kotze has Buddha nature, as do all beings or even all phenomena. I will note that not all Buddhist traditions approach this the same way and there's a shameful history of a doctrinal denial of Buddha nature to subaltern groups by various monastic teachers. In Ch'an, however, it's across the board: all beings. That nature is not Kotze's, nor mine, but is without, or empty of, an inherently existing self. Therefore in some absolute sense, there's no Kotze to forgive, just an obviously awful situation.

Kweli said...

You write: "We cannot just assume, as I expect most do, that animals are closest to what we mean when we point to a monster."

I would say: WE humans are the closest thing to monsters that animals have.

Ridwan said...

Bill thank you ever so kindly for writing such a thoughtful and enlightening comment.

I have read it several times and want to learn more and so will do some searching for information on Master Sheng Yen and also read the Five Precepts.

Your closing paragraph speaks directly to some of the concerns that floated through my head when I wrote that piece this afternoon.

I thought about the role of society more than just the man Kotze and his deed. How what he has done is really not just a reflection of him but more than that.

I am also wrestling with the notion of morals. How they appear and where they are vested.

I like that you speak of all things having "Buddha nature" including other life forms (the dogs and cats I mention in my post).

It really presses us beyond creating a closed hierarchy of importance and attachment.

This brings me to your point on being unattached. Not influenced by the weight of good or bad but "settling the mind".

I think that many folks are so infuriated by what Kotze did that they do not see their own attachment to revenge - and perhaps Kotze is not even the trigger - it may have been some other incident (even road rage for example).

In that place the mind is not "settled" but restrained - clogged and unbalanced.

You have given me a lot to think about and I thank you once again.

Please continue to drop knowledge here when you can.


Ridwan said...

Brother Kweli you put it very well.

There is hardly a day when I am not just dumbfounded and appalled by the actions of folks who should know better and act with greater consideration.

In recent weeks a feral cat and her two kittens have taken to living in our backyard.

It is sweltering hot here in Kimberley with days that hover above 38 on the regular.

We started putting food out for the trio and water.

At first they were scared and then they grew more relaxed but not like you can pick them up or anything.

Anyway, my point is that the mother would not eat until the two kittens were full. She would sit there quietly watching them devour the food and then take whatever was left.

A couple of days later another kitten showed up. It is smaller than the other two and not one of the litter.

It amazed me to see the mother cat then allow the new kitten to eat as well and to sit quietly while the three kittens filled up.

What makes for such a gentle and embracing act of beautiful kindness?

Instinct some would say, no?

If that is the case maybe we should all set aside our constructed humanity and look deeper inside for our instinct.

I know plenty of folks who would not exhibit the same kind of actions that mother shows to her kittens and now one that tags along for food and security.

I am amazed how much we can learn if we just watch closely - these things need not be written or read.

It is all there anyway if we just see. Feel.

I think now after reading you and Bill that my reason for posting the Kotze story was because of the "monster" reference.

I felt the weight of those who think other beings are so much less than us because we can pretend to be humane and moral.

Trust you well boet.


Bill said...

Thank you for your kind words!

A little story: at the end of my first Buddhist retreat (a short one given by Sheng Yen, the only time I got to see him before he died) there was a sort of debriefing session. At it, some of the more experienced practitioners were asked to share how and why they came to Buddhism. One woman's story really stuck with me.

Apparently, she had gone into a little shop of some sort. A Chinese woman was the cashier, though this was in the US, New York if I remember. In any event, the customer in front of her treated this cashier hideously, totally abusive. The woman at the register was by all appearances not at all flustered and was even calm. The woman--the woman I heard telling the story at the retreat--got the register and said:

"Wow, what a really awful person that was."

The cashier said:

"No, there aren't awful people. There are only awful situations."

The woman I heard the story from, as she told it, then thought to herself:

"Damn. I gotta get what this woman's got."

That's what got her practicing.

Ridwan said...

Hi Bill:

That is an inspirational story indeed. It would really benefit me greatly to work on my mindfulness and set those kinds of irritations aside.

Anger and frustration can really take a toll, and those around you are unfairly drawn into the negativity - not a good thing.

I really need to do more in embracing such detachment/mindfulness - like the cashier did that is.

Prompted by your comment I did some reading on Master Sheng Yen last night.

I read most everything on the Chan Meditation website (Elmhurst, New York).

The Master's story is impressive to say the least. I had not previously heard of his work or the Dharma Drum Mountain in Taiwan (or the retreat in NY).

It gives me something more to do on my next visit to the US :0)

I also looked up the 5 Precepts and started to recognize what you meant when you referred to morals and the Master's emphasis on practicing each one closely.

I was struck by the balance and simplicity of each precept - it speaks universally and across time (timeless in fact).

I have several other sites bookmarked to read in the coming days.

In mid-2007 I visited Nepal from India where I was stationed for a year. I decided to make my way to Lumbini where I stayed for a couple of days - just outside the area where the Mayadevi temple and Puskarini are located.

It was an amazing experience to be in the area where the Buddha was born and in retrospect I wish that I had gone more prepared to appreciate with greater depth what I was seeing.

Over the years I have repeatedly read the Dharmapada but for some reason it did not pierce my thinking when I wrote my post yesterday - the emphasis on a moral code, for example.

I think I am caught up in trying to sort through what is meant by "moral community" in social science parlance.

The construction of morals in the modern era purposively disconnects spirituality from moral action and that influence is still found in the literature (particularly western literature) where morals and governance are discussed.

I expect that Master Sheng Yen must have wrestled with this question to some degree. I need to look up his speech at the UN World Peace Summit in 2000 and see of there is some related discussion.

Is it not amazing how life unexpectedly carries seeds of enlightenment?

Thanks to your comment I am taking my thinking to another level :0)

Thank you for sharing your experience here.

Peace to you,

Anonymous said...

Gents, Thank you for sharing your thoughts on this subject and making me wiser.

Peace unto you All

Ridwan said...

Thank you for looking in and commenting.

Peace to you to,