Social media these past two days has been an interesting demonstration of both confirmation bias and cognitive dissonance around the passing of Muhammad Ali. How easy it is nowadays to cherry-pick the truth of things to find a piece that matches and amplifies our own. To celebrate one truth while holding and living a contradictory one.
Malaysian Muslims singled out examples of Ali’s Muslimness to commemorate his passing, finding that more noteworthy than his great contribution to society - calling out and condemning the racism and privilege of white supremacy that defined his era.
That privilege and supremacy being played out every day here in Malaysia, which to me, is less about the keris waving that we read about in the press than about the deafening silence of bumiputera Muslims who enjoy that privilege and say nothing and do nothing about repairing the inequality, institutional injustice and everyday micro aggressions non-bumiputeras are subject to.
The more socially activist inclined, shared about his civil disobedience - how he went to jail refusing to fight in the Vietnam war because “no vietcong ever called me nigga” (pendatang?). I would myself lean in that direction, except Ali also suffered from Parkinson’s disease - which some consider his greatest battle just like my own father, family members and school friends.
My environmental leanings cannot help but make the connection between the emerging science linking the disease to pesticides as an issue of particular importance - Parkinson’s and other neurological diseases have a correlation to our everyday choices to buy food grown conventionally with pesticides.
On reflection, that’s not what I want to call out. The biggest share on social media has most probably been about his ‘greatness’, his extraordinary ‘superhuman’ athletic prowess but not so much about his arrogance, and his womanising. The accolades outnumber the few criticisms of a flawed human being, who brought his mistress to matches and was not exactly the best father.
Some perceived his fight for social justice (New Econic Policy or NEP? Mandarin Schools?) as inverted racism. Some would perceive his inability to progress beyond secondary school as a failure. Some would consider celebration of a violent sport that he embodies to be perpetuating something that should find extinction given its very real human cost.
In the arc of his life, his greatness that one might equate with a better life was also lived in equal measure with the misery of racial segregation and poverty that he grew up in, three decades of living with Parkinson’s disease and even some claims of elderly abuse (by his brother?).
Celebrating the complexity of Ali’s humanity
Let me instead, more holistically, celebrate the complexity of Muhammad Ali’s entire extraordinary and yet ordinary humanity - one that we all possess. His ‘whole’ life story is one we all can use to better understand and treat others living their own truth. Ali had less to do with his athleticism than the random genetic lottery win that he secured just getting born.
That he should use the platform that genetic prize brought to bring change for others is unquestionably admirable but not without understanding the other genetic lotteries that shaped it - his colour that gave him his fight in the first place and the patriarchal privilege that forgave his taunts and infidelity.
That he was also a flawed human being should not be removed from our better understanding of how to treat our fellow human beings and how flawed human beings, that we are quick to judge, can also contribute greatly to humanity - if we choose to help or simply remove the barriers that our biases, culture and religion put in their way.