I have to say that I am fed up with it all…the endless probing into the disgusting things that stupid people say.
Here’s why: South Africa, for all its imperfections, is so, so much better than the country I knew before 1994. The ending of apartheid was a triumph for all mankind.
We need to celebrate that.
And there are so many more important things to worry about.
Like the tragic rate of unemployment. Or the rampant corruption. Or the falling Rand. Or the violence and killings. Or the failing schools. Do I need to go on?
Not words or phrases.
So forget the idiotic ramblings of a minority. Stop pulling down statues. These forms of symbolic manipulation are only encouraged because tacking the real problems is so hard.
Instead of hating each other take the longer, more difficult road of creating jobs, improving productivity, inventing new products that can be sold to the rest of the world.
Here is some sound advice from Gareth van Onselen.
The road to permanent moral panic
HOW the fire has raged. SA is an angry place. For all the feigned concern about hate speech, the irony is that hate is generally the language we speak. We have sublimated some it; for the rest, it burns wild, night and day, like a desert oil well. And hate begets hate. What a mess.
Consider this: Penny Sparrow said something abhorrent. As a result, she was destroyed. Laid to waste on the front pages of newspapers, on radio talk shows and television reports; vilified on social media, condemned by political parties and their leaders, ridiculed by comedians, denounced by civil society and doused with so much boiling indignation from the public at large she can live now only as a recluse, her reputation charred to a crisp. It was not enough.
This is the South African marketplace of ideas at work, such as it is. Inject into it a contemptible idea and it is not merely rejected but well and truly incinerated by an all-consuming hurricane of fire and brimstone.
Free speech worked. It did its job. Sparrow got her comeuppance. In the great competition that is contemporary debate her detestable position lost on every count. It did little to satiate. No, the South African public mind, bloodthirsty and wracked by insecurity and low self-esteem, needed more. More pain should be inflicted. Laws should be passed, violence should be done to her and against the race she was deemed to represent. And hate, so much hate, detached from the ostensible source and now free-floating.
The line between moral outrage and moral panic is thin. We cross it every day. When we do, we become the hate we so protest against.
Twitter, the festering wound that is SA’s subconscious, so quick to rip off its own scabs so that all might see how willingly it bleeds for its beliefs, wasted no time encouraging the bloodletting. Two weeks later, it looks like an abattoir. There is blood everywhere.
The victims of this panic committed crimes far less serious than Sparrow. Mere offence became hate. Disagreeable ideas became crimes. Everything became one thing, reduced to a single pulsating ugliness. No one is really interested in free speech. Even when it delivered right onto our doorstep its greatest virtue — perspective — we would have none of it.
There is no real inclination in merely assigning ideas to their proper place and treating them accordingly. It’s retribution we are after. Not humiliation or condemnation, the consequence of poor thinking or immoral sentiment, but actual pain. Its tears we want to see. Start to indulge that desire and freedom will be the first thing to fall.
Why was it not enough? An entire society mobilised against the single thought of a nobody. Her antiquated belief held firm in the middle of a massive, raging furnace, till it glowed bright red. Still, we needed more. You know the answer. Penny Sparrow was the confirmation of a doubt sowed into the South African mind decades ago, fed and indulged ever since 1994. Fully realised, it is now a fear. And it is almost palpable. Call it whatever you want, but its real name is simple — enemy. The enemy is amongst us.
“Fear is the mind killer,” Frank Herbert wrote in Dune, “Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration.”
Certainly, the South African mind was killed in favour of total obliteration. The reaction radiated like a nuclear engine. Ultimately, Gareth Cliff would be fired. The semiliterate statement that was served up by M-Net included the following: “Hate speech is not applicable with regard to freedom of speech.”
One would be hard-pressed to describe Cliff’s comments as hateful. That M-Net is constitutionally illiterate is one thing, but it does speak to a general and broader confusion about this critical idea. Ignorance, too, thrives in panics. This was not rationality at work. It was fear.
“These days I’m too scared to tweet, even about the weather. Even this tweet was scary,” said Business Day editor Songezo Zibi, tongue-in-cheek, in the midst of all that fury. If it’s “subtext” and the “subliminal”, “undertones” and the implied everyone is so invested in, feast on that for a moment.
And, of course, fear brings with it paranoia. It has come to supplement our hate. “Expose”, “reveal”, “uncover”, “unmask”, “discover”, these are our marching orders. The enemy is everywhere. Hunt them down. When they are found, arm yourselves with stones, prepare the gallows.
It’s a kind of revelation, the game we have invented. Lo and behold, in the year 2016, in a country slowly emerging from a racist past, we have discovered in our midst a racist Facebook post. How can it be? The shock. The horror. The enemy is strong. We must redouble our efforts. More gallows must be built.
And this enemy, who is it? Penny Sparrow? The Penny Sparrow we cannot see? The one we know is out there, being racist? No, it’s you. You and me. We all are the enemy. Racism and the fight to eradicate it is only the most powerful manifestation of our fear. Sexism, homophobia, xenophobia, intolerance towards class, ideology, religion, belief. All of these we are constantly monitoring; some stronger than others but each idea with its own army behind it. Each with the same marching orders.
What role does trust play in SA today? Now there is an interesting question. Do we have faith in our fellow citizen? Do we give them the benefit of the doubt and, with it, the assumption they are well meaning and their intentions good? Or, are we each the enemy? Every person a potential bigot, to be outed and shamed? Yet, each of us is also a good solider, always watching, always doubting, always with radio in hand, ready to report from the frontline.
“Inspection functions ceaselessly. The gaze is alert everywhere,” says Michel Foucault of the Panopticon, a prison designed to self-regulate by instilling in inmates the fear they are always watched, although it was not rationally possible.
SA is a Panopticon. We have built a prison for ourselves. And we are all guilty. Only we all believe we are innocent. Nevertheless, we are always watching. The panic has us in its grip.
Simultaneously there is so much we don’t monitor at all such as the elderly, the disabled, the sick, the dying, the depressed, the destitute, the homeless. They have no armies for their pain or the prejudice they experience. There are about 55-million of us South Africans, 55-million kinds of pain. But the hierarchy of public concern is not structured in any discernible fashion, it spasms around only a few impulses. It’s a frenzy of sorts.
Some of us are genuinely guilty of course. Penny Sparrow was. You can be sure there are others too who are just as guilty and despicable. But then we don’t fall over ourselves when a person sentenced for murder was found over a mutilated body with bloody knife in hand and a wild look in their eyes. These hard crimes — theft, murder, assault — these are not contemporary moral issues. About 50 people are murdered every day in SA. We don’t suspect our neighbour of being a murderer. Twitter isn’t rife with pseudo-psychology about the murderous nature of these killers or the cultural forces that produced them. We aren’t called on to “expose” and “reveal” murderers. Why is that? Murder is, more or less, acceptable in SA. It’s a very particular kind of morality we obsess about.
It must be a glorious thing to be a hardened criminal in SA watching as the powers-that-be contemplate laws to make racism a crime. What a joy. The biggest mistake one could make, would be to start a Twitter account and say something abhorrent. Then they would surely be hunted down like dogs.
These moral panics are becoming more frequent. So frequent, in fact, the gaps between them are starting to blur. Unless arrested, at some stage or other they will become a permanent state of affairs. When that happens, rationality will be entirely suspended and the door opened to a range of ideas that are the very antithesis of freedom.
Freedom, what a thing. SA seems to think it is some kind of protection from hurt and pain, but it is not. It’s hard work because it isn’t just your freedom but everybody’s, and some will inevitably abuse it.
That is the price you pay.
The good news is that you can fight back. Sparrow showed just how effectively. Have a little faith in that. A little trust. Freedom of speech did great. If it’s more than that you want, say so, and let us do away with the messy, unsatisfying world of ideas altogether. There’s already a list of things we cannot say in SA. We are one or two steps away from making it official. At least, then, have the courage of your convictions.