Alcohol, Apartheid & Anesthesia

Date September 15, 2009

Fault Lines: Journeys into the New South Africa is a disturbing chronicle of the world of apartheid South Africa. Author David Goodman profiles eight people who engaged in and against the repressive regime. Barely part way through the second profile, I was deeply struck by how alcohol and addiction help us suppress our humanity.

We first meet Rev. Frank Chikane, a black anti-apartheid activist for decades and now a high level player in the post-apartheid government. He faces unthinkable atrocities with undaunted determination. I was humbled by his commitment and subsequent courage.  Many willing white South Africans torture and attempt to kill Chikane over the years. One of them is Paul Erasmus.

Erasmus is the second person profiled by Goodman, and his story as perpetrator is far more disturbing than Chikane’s. An innocent young man progressively becomes an inhumane monster. If him, why not any one of us?  I found myself cringing at every other page, and yet hearing Erasmus’ view of the world pushed me to empathize and identify with him. I’m curious, nauseous and moved to contemptuous judgment all at once. He’s not like me, I want to insist. He’s an aberration with no heart, no sense of humanity. How could anyone commit such atrocities?

Alcohol, that mundane indulgence so many of us enjoy, is the lubricant of his cruelty.

He and his comrades get drunk while they interrogate, because it helps them feel less inhibited; in the evenings, when their dirty work is done, they begin drinking in earnest, to wash away the guilt and remorse; the next morning, they are too hungover to know what they are feeling besides a pasty mouth and pounding head. And then the cycle starts again. They are completely disconnected emotionally from what they are doing — and without their emotions, they lose their humanity. They denigrate and rationalize. Apartheid was morally fortified with outrageous rationalization.

I am not on an anti-alcohol soapbox, but I am searching for the ingredients to a context for humanity. Studies have shown that ethical behavior does not come from intellectual values, because our human brain is so sophisticated and intelligent that we can justify and relabel almost any action we undertake. It is our emotional connection to other people that leads us to treat them humanely. Milgram showed us that the more distant the ‘learner’ was from the ‘teacher’, the more voltage the teacher would apply because s/he was not confronted with the emotional awareness of his/her actions.

Each of us does this every day, in different ways. We take the edge off the pain, the remorse, the failure, the conflict through our coping mechanism of choice. For years I drank and drugged to make the pain go away, to make life tolerable. It helped me to survive, but it also allowed me to not change — and not to confront the consequences I was having on others. When we eat, shop, smoke to excess, we numb ourselves, forgetting what has happened, how we feel about it, and what we might have done to contribute to it.

The founder of the company I work for, Claire Nuer, was a Holocaust survivor and was constantly challenging those of us around her to confront the little ways in our lives in which we contributed to or mirrored the greatest dramas in humanity. If she had been born German in Berlin in 1923 instead of Jewish in Paris in 1933, would she have been a Nazi? I complain about the intransigence of the Palestinians and the Israelis, but I too can be unbendingly righteous more often than I care to admit.

Well, the victimizers of South Africa buried their horror at what they did by drinking, and it allowed them to continue, until they went crazy or committed suicide. My actions are never egregious like theirs, but when I hurt others — my colleagues, my kids, my wife — I don’t want to feel the pain or face the shame of admitting it out loud. I want to make it go away, just like Paul Erasmus did.

So let your emotions rise, however painful or uncomfortable them way be. In them lies the very roots of your humanity.


6 Responses to “Alcohol, Apartheid & Anesthesia”

  1. Carl Atkinson said:


    I appreciate the depth and openness of your relection. Look forward to more.

    Meantime, I’ll try to email you a copy of David Brooks’ oped item in today’s NYTimes.


    (Also known as Unca Carl by various categories of our clan.)

  2. Charles said:

    Dear Shayne,

    As always, you are a wise and compassionate man. (How’s that for an ego stroke?)

    Seems to me that the addiction and the cruelty/racism are BOTH often symptoms of underlying pain and despair. In pain and confusion, we lash out and scapegoat others; then to deny the cruelty of what we have done, we drink or drug ourselves (or in my case, eat to numbness). Neither the addiction nor the racism is the root cause– there’s a deeper pathology below both??

  3. Steve Black said:

    Shayne – I love you and I love your thinking! So much of our confusion and despair is rooted in having been taught at very tender ages that feelings are “bad” and that we (especially males) should not exhibit emotions – especially those of empathy, caring, affection and love. In those harsher moments of childhood when the lesson is “grin and bare it”, we learn to avoid feelings and to seek solace by whatever means we can. The more often yooung people can be encouraged to acknowledge feelings openly, to confront the humiliation, fear and shame that seems to be part and parcel of human experience, the more human and humane our culture will become.

    Hurrah for your blog!

  4. Bobbi Owens said:

    Your analogy resonated with me and my thinking around urban issues. Are gang bangers altering their consciousness with drugs and alcohol to engage in the kind of violence that is common in urban communities? It’s probably no coincidence that culture of many gangs exist around the sale and use of drugs.

    Very thought provoking material. Good job.

  5. Laura Gates said:

    Thanks Shayne. Having just visited San Quentin and hearing convicted murderers share their stories of how their crimes were mainly committed under the influence of drugs and alcohol in a moment of emotional reaction, I first hand grasped the cost of our egosystem. These guys will have to spend the rest of their lives in jail. It also connected me with the thin line between us and them. When I get angry and feel justified in my reaction, I too am contributing to the same kind of divisiveness in the world.

  6. flashy said:

    defeniately bookmarked