Monday, November 16, 2009

When it’s too dangerous to voice an opinion

By David Bullard (Richmark Sentinel)

It’s very difficult not to come across as a white supremacist when there are so many black inferiorists around. Would you call that an inflammatory statement? I would ….which is why I came up with it. It’s the sort of statement that ought to stimulate some lively debate and in a more advanced society it would but, sadly, in South Africa it would probably only result in name calling and the inevitable accusations of racism. Since it’s supposed to be a deliberately provocative statement the accusation wouldn’t be out of place, even if it would be a rather cowardly retreat.

Allow me to shove my culture down your throat. I grew up in a country that encouraged debate and at my school there were three debating societies. Our classics masters believed that an education wasn’t complete without some exposure to the art of oratory, or the use of eloquent speech as a method of presenting a persuasive argument. The ancient Greeks probably started the whole thing off with Homer regarded as the big daddy of rhetoric. But it was Protagoras, the first of what became known as the Sophists, who taught his students that the cunning use of language and presentation could make the weaker argument win the day. This led to a lot of soul searching among the philosophers who thought that if you didn’t present the truth in your argument then you were nothing but a fraud. The Sophists took the view that truth and morality were largely a matter of personal opinion, and therefore not universal, which is why they preferred to emphasise the need for a well constructed and persuasive argument. The term “sophistry” is still used by some as a derogatory term implying false or misleading argument.

But at least it is argument and that’s a lot more than we have in South Africa. People were never really encouraged to think under the Nats and under the ANC things aren’t much different. Indeed, when Kader Asmal, a struggle stalwart, dared to express an opinion on policing a few weeks ago the reaction from his own party members can only be described as extremely hostile. What Asmal had done was unforgivable for a party loyalist. Whatever next? If party members start expressing their personal views then the whole structure of the ANC could be under threat. So that is why debate is discouraged at all levels of the ANC.

It’s very similar to the catholic church is the middle ages. The last thing you needed was people reading the bible for themselves and drawing their own conclusions which is why it was desirable to keep people as illiterate and ignorant as possible. That way the only truths they would learn would come from the mouths of the priests. The churches in the middle ages would be filled with frescoes clearly showing the illiterate that a good obedient life listening and believing what the priests said would lead to a place on the clouds with the angels. Anything else would result in being tortured and burned for eternity by hideous demons. The artist Heironymous Bosch makes the point rather forcefully in his Garden of Earthly Delights which hangs in the Prado in Madrid.

Our willingness to engage in open debate in this country puts us on an historical time line with 15th century Europe. Our politics is little more than the sort of bickering that has gone on between warring tribes for centuries. There is little or no debate in parliament worth the mention and, with a few exceptions, very little evidence of good oratory.

Much the same applies to our newspapers. Earlier this year I challenged several black journalists to debate the issue of racism with me, either on live radio or at Constitution Hill. These are all men who hold themselves out to be intelligent members of the community and professed believers in freedom of expression. Yet not one of them felt they possessed the necessary skills to engage me in live debate. Or perhaps they simply felt uncomfortable at being invited to participate in one of my cultural traditions.

If our newspaper editors and senior journalists don’t feel that open debate is appropriate (mostly because they have very lucrative jobs on the line) and refuse to publish articles by people like Ronald Suresh Roberts (of whom they appear to disapprove) then I am afraid that South African society is unlikely to advance much until more enlightened people take control. That could take another 30 years though and I don’t think I’ll be around then.

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