South Africa is travelling on a dangerous road through unchartered territory. I can see it in the news: The newest and latest Zuma controversy, deep-seated distrust of our State, even deeper distrust of our national identity. Students burning art, tearing down statues, singing and screaming and crying in front of Parliament. Students taking Universities to courts, students referring to their peers as barbarians and inferiors. The Minister of Finance begging the rest of the world to believe that we do not deserve junk status, investors pulling out, drought on our farms, potato prices doubling, local elections being postponed. Unemployment, poverty, inequality and despair skyrocketing. Increased rhetoric around what 1994 actually was and what it turns out not to have been… deep and pervasive distrust in Parliament as a democratic institution.
The dangers that we find ourselves in is not only visible in the news. I see it in the people around me, I hear it in our conversations. I hear it in what is being said, and especially in what is never said. And I am scared.
The Rhodes must Fall protests elicited reactions of support, and also reactions of incitement. We have moved from protests against a symbol of colonialism to graffiti and T-shirts screaming “Fuck white people” at the world. The protests in Stellenbosch against language policy ended with a man attacking fellow students with a whip. The deep disillusionment about our Parliament has escalated to the point where political parties refuse to take part in its procedures. Discontent with our economic environment have led to vindictive and destructive actions without clear purpose.
And as our actions and reactions have escalated, our conversations have not lagged behind, but rather set the pace for this escalation. I have been party to conversations where I faced a thinly veiled hate for whiteness, for our country, for our leaders, for me. I have also been in conversations where it was held that Afrikaans and Apartheid are inseparable. Not as an argument but as a premise. There are increased conversations about how our elite disregards and undermines our poor; with the elite increasingly blaming the majority for our government.
In these contexts, any statement or attempt to explain or illuminate the opposing side of an argument is a declaration of war. I am not able to offer my understanding of why AfriForum is currently taking their current course of action. Such a statement places me squarely in the opposing camp – as aggressor. I am not able to agree that the whip-incident in Stellenbosch was wrong, because that implies that I believe there is no systemic injustice present in Stellenbosch and its institutions. I am not able to disagree with the burning of paintings, because that leaves me as a supporter of our oppressive heritage. Our conversations are binary.
In our country, conversations have regressed to an activity of drawing lines in the sand and sorting people to opposing sides of those lines.
In exactly the same way; I am automatically a spineless traitor when I believe, or try to explain why I believe, that Rhodes really must fall. Any explanation of my reasons for maintaining that Afrikaans as a language of instruction is disenfranchising and an impairment to transformation evokes reactions of alienation and derision. If I would like to explain why I understand the raw and powerless, dispirited aggression of our protests, I would implicitly have stated that I do not understand disapproval of such protests. When I agree with protests in Stellenbosch, I am no more than the man with the whip. The best example of this is probably the many who argue that Open Stellenbosch generalises all Afrikaners as the same evil, whilst in the same breath arguing that everyone in Open Stellenbosch is violent and destructive.
Lines are drawn in the sand, and every piece of dialogue about our country is a thoughtless sorting process in which I am either ally or enemy.
The question that I want to ask today, is not who is right. I do not know if we should keep Afrikaans as a language of instruction, whether or not Parliament is still legitimate, or if our economy would survive junk status whilst still providing for the poorest in our country. I do not know if our (naïve?) hope for capitalism is founded. My fear for our country is also not rooted in the lack of answers to these questions.
My fear lies in how we treat the people on the other side of our roughly drawn lines.
If I do not agree with someone who burns an artwork, or with AfriForum’s cake sales, or with our parliamentary process – how do I think about the people who do agree with those things? I would like to spend some time on these questions. How do we reach moral judgments – and is that process morally justifiable?
I think this question should be actively grappled with. There are various frameworks within which these issues can be discussed. I am only proposing one as a point of departure for such a conversation. That is a framework created by one of my favourite moral philosophers, Adam Smith, in his book: The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759).
According to him, there are four sources of moral approval for any action. The first is the intentions of the doer. The second is the consequences of his action – specifically for the receiver of his act. The third is the extent to which that action can be seen in harmony with the rules within which the first two sources usually interact with each other. The fourth is tendency of the action to promote the wellbeing of the broader society. Where all four of these sources converge to the same sentiment – moral approval or disapproval – we as a society can expect moral consensus.
A simple and uncontroversial example is perhaps the best way to illustrate each of the four sources. Let’s assume that I see someone who has fallen off his bicycle being helped by another person. The person helping the one who has fallen has, according to my understanding and according to what I can sympathise with, good intentions that deserves my moral approval. That is the first source of moral sentiment. The person being helped is, according to my ability to imagine myself in his shoes, grateful for the assistance and is deriving benefit from it. That is the second source. The action of helping someone who has fallen, and of accepting such assistance, is in accordance with one another in the usual context of a bicycle accident. That is the third source. Finally, I probably believe that a society in which people help each other when they have fallen off bicycles is a society that can exist to the benefit of all its members. That is the fourth source.
The first two sources sound obvious and in accordance with our usual thinking about the process of moral judgment. It is important to note, however, that each of those two sources is dependent on the extent to which I can place myself in the shoes of the participants to that action. I am making inferences about the actor’s intentions, and I am making inferences about the acceptance of his actions. Those inferences are reliant on a process of sympathy-creation. I am stepping into the shoes of both participants.
The third and fourth sources might be more difficult to conceptualise in all circumstances. Perhaps the best explanation of these sources lies in an example where they will not dictate moral approval. Such an example can be the case where a judge has to sentence a criminal. If the judge would suddenly be overwhelmed with tenderness towards the criminal and set him free, that would arguably be because of his good intentions, and the criminal would certainly be thankful and would have benefited. Source one and two could dictate moral approval in such a case. However, the accepted rules for that interaction does not allow for such an outcome, and the third source would therefore dictate moral disapproval. Additionally, we all probably believe that a society in which criminals are set free is not one that can benefit all its members. The fourth source will also therefore lead to moral disapproval.
The conversation around these four sources has the aim of creating a more nuanced picture of the process that leads us to our moral conclusions. The question that I would like to ask, is how this method of value judgement influences our thinking process when I consider the acts and arguments of people with whom I disagree.
It is important to emphasise that such a question will, in and of itself, imply a great intellectual struggle in South Africa. Our challenge is not only a better understanding of how we reach moral conclusions. It lies in a realisation that we are cultivating such an understanding in a country that is, in many respects, without fundamental consensus. There exists little consensus about how the actions that we witness every day should stand in relation to one another.
I can never legitimately place myself in the shoes of the person that hurled his own excrement at a statue out of frustration. I know too little of his world, his life, and how he views those things in relation to one another. To argue that I can ever deduce his sentiments is arrogant, misinformed, condescending, and morally abhorrent.
In the same way, a disillusioned and furious protester has a limited ability to sympathise with the receiver of his anger. Even more than that, I am increasingly of the impression that we have no deep-seated consensus about what our society should ultimately strive to be.
One reason for this is our lack of insight and our inherently limited knowledge. A society that has been split apart for 300 years necessarily has a lessened capacity for these types of insights. The result is moral judgment and ideological debate that is flat, reckless, harmful, and polarising. Because, for too many of us, our lines are closely drawn around ourselves and our own. And that is an active act of disengagement. Of treason.
The answer does not lie in the absence of conversations and moral judgments. It lies in a moral responsibility.
I believe that responsibility starts with compassion. Not a duty to respect your fellow citizens – much more: sympathy, empathy, humility, vulnerability. Not compassion for each other out of charity. Not compassion for each other out of religious conviction. Compassion as a basic and fundamental moral imperative. As a point of departure. As a premise.
How such compassion would work and look like, in the moral dialogue of our country, will be explored in part two.