Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Profiles and prejudices

One thing we can all do to make South Africa a better place.

It was tempting to rush to the keyboard immediately after the killings in Paris and the inspiring march through the city streets. But I’m glad I didn’t. Because with all due respect to my colleagues in the media, the wallowing in the overwhelming cologne of freedom of speech was somewhat overdone. Of course, it is always an issue but perhaps not the most important in those events and to use Charlie Hebdo as a worthy cause to champion freedom of expression was stretching a point.

“Ah”, I hear you say. “It is not what you say, but your right to say it that is the issue.” Really? Plain old fashioned courtesy is an essential value in our co-existence and while provocation in an environment that can easily be provoked can never excuse a crime, by all principles of jurisprudence and justice it does serve as a mitigating factor. It is reckless at best. But that aside, as the media lets go of its self-absorption, the debate has shifted more to other, perhaps more important issues at stake.

What those events have demonstrated is how deeply entrenched the divisions in our species are, listed in the latest World Economic Forum as the most critical risk factor of the year ahead. As the world continues to forge a global village through mass and social media, trade, international finance, cross border industrialization and travel one would have hoped that these divisions would have become more blurred and the ideals of plurality and multi-culturism more actively pursued.

The dramatic events that played themselves out in the streets of Paris have been seen by many as a symptom of a clash of cultures, “civilisations”, religions and classes. It has become clear in the aftermath that while there was a massive demonstration of solidarity for tolerance, there has also been an extension and hardening of extremism on both ends. But even that is not the full story. (See an analysis by American academic Jeffrey Sachs in Project Syndicate here).

The real crux is that ultimately radicalisation of behaviour is strongly rooted in despair, real or perceived, and often economic, but experienced at an individual level by those involved. The question then is whether society’s responses, including the media, address these root causes or merely serve to exacerbate them. For the media it should perhaps be less about opposition to being muzzled by extremism, but about muting the voice of extremism, not through censorship but by bringing hope where there is despair, alternatives to being radical, supporting the voices of moderation and offering an outlet for the forgotten oppressed. This will never eliminate extremism, but may help in reducing it to a lunatic fringe which is ever present in all societies.

Of course it’s a debate that is always just below the surface of South African society. No doubt there will be some who will fall back on Verwoerdian convictions on the one hand and outdated struggle rhetoric on the other that the current events merely confirm an inherent incompatibly for people of different colours and beliefs to co-exist in a single state.

That horse has bolted. Yet we still cannot seem to focus on common ground but have to reopen old wounds in passing blame or diverting attention from our own shortcomings. We saw that more recently in President Zuma’s blaming our problems on events in 1652, and author Zelda La Grange’s response.

The thought struck me that we will never really achieve any form of harmonious co-existence without individual introspection rather than relying on state or institutional solutions that for the most part actually make the problem far worse, emphasise differences and widen the divide. In the end the most important thing we have is our own individual and personal relationships. This may appear to be a trivialisation of a serious global issue, but if it creates even the smallest shift in individual behaviour, it will serve both society and our personal lives.

We can start by making a clear distinction between profiling and racism – or any other “ism” for that matter. The latter is a deeply ingrained, mostly irrational prejudice that kicks in under any circumstance and is an impenetrable wall against contra thought. To label someone or oneself as being a racist or any other “ist” is unflattering at best. I suspect few of us are genuinely that dogmatic.

On the other hand we all practise profiling. To do otherwise would be to deny knowledge and experience that we have gathered and tested throughout our lives. In most cases it is harmless and malleable – the more it is so the more open our minds and the less, the more closed.

We do it all the time: being a blond female has a certain connotation; having a name like Steve, Paddy or Koos van der Merwe, likewise. We learn to read body language to profile behaviour, and filter our knowledge at source to entrench preferred views. The list is endless.

When we interpret a profile as a permanent, dogmatic state in others, we needlessly generalise and instigate conflict, fear and insecurity and solidify prejudices. More importantly, we harden attitudes to become fundamentalism.

Perhaps the worst form of profiling, and one that should be of particular concern to South Africa, is the profiling of thoughts and views. It is cementing an ideological barrier that is virtually impossible to penetrate in the search of solutions to some of our most pressing problems. Key among them are profiles that become incapacitating slogans such as “monopoly capital”, or more commonly “capitalist”, “socialist”, “Marxist” etc. They are dialogue stoppers.

We can never stop profiling people, things, thoughts and situations. Indeed it can be useful in applying our knowledge and experience. But it is like a filter that has to be constantly cleaned to prevent it from being blocked and preventing further enlightenment.

The trick is simply to be aware of them and constantly test their validity. The British philosopher, William Paley once wrote: “Contempt prior to examination is an intellectual vice, from which the greatest faculties of mind are not free.”

Regularly testing our profiling is not only a great tool in the path to self-enlightenment, but it certainly will make South Africa a better place for all. And it really is such a simple thing to do.

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