Why I chose the word ‘tolerate’

2012-06-02 11:03

A few years ago, my closest friends and I got tattoos.

We all chose something that held deep meaning, something that would be with us until we died.

I chose the word “tolerate”.

Every now and again, I catch a glimpse of the tattoo or run my fingers over the bumpy skin and remember how fundamentally I believe in it.

Perhaps the reaction I had to The Spear scandal was so powerful because I saw it as an assault on this core principle, an attack on people’s ability to tolerate one another and their right to expression.

Although I was barely involved in reporting the story and never strayed when I did – sticking to court papers and quoting experts – I found myself unable to remain a silent observer. I wanted to be heard.

When the volcano first erupted, I wrote an opinion piece in which I argued that President Jacob Zuma was getting the respect he deserved, and the painting was the result of the life he has lived.

I quoted this newspaper’s editor, Ferial Haffajee, saying: “I’m tired of people who desire to kill ideas of which they do not approve.”

I wrote about my frame of reference, being an immigrant from Russia, a land that experienced – and continues to wrestle with – suffocating state censorship.

I arrived in South Africa in 1991 as a child and was not a witness or participant to its dark past, only to its beautiful and turbulent rebirth (which I have spent the past decade reporting on).

I wrote about my sister, who is an artist, and others like her, arguing for their freedom to paint the world in whatever colours they wish.

When Brett Murray’s painting was defaced, I was furious. That a church leader was calling for an artist to be stoned to death.

That a perfect stranger was claiming to represent me – and all other South Africans – in trying to destroy the artwork. That the Film and Publication Board was censoring art.

That politicians were hijacking the issue to rally support, while distracting us from more important matters and from their own incompetence.

That other countries were dealing with similar scandals in a more mature way. I was embarrassed at what the world was seeing.

I felt like something terrible was happening and that, all of a sudden, everyone around me decided to tear off their masks. We were staring at real faces, too many of them filled with hate.

At times I felt worried that all the anger would boil over into violence.

I felt that instead of calmly talking about a painting, too many people were trying to smear it or destroy it. In my mind, I saw them smearing the rainbow.

Considering Murray’s activist past, I don’t believe he meant for the painting to be racist. I think he was making a statement about politics.

But whatever the motive, it triggered a tsunami of debate and forced us to confront some ugly realities.

I stand by everything I’ve said and written, and am not about to back away from my views. I believe in freedom of expression. But something happened along the way that I didn’t anticipate.

There was no one event, but rather the culmination of a few.

Advocate Gcina Malindi’s tears in court, political analyst Justice Malala’s touching column and some of the writing by Haffajee during her decision to remove The Spear from the newspaper’s website.

These events forced me to look in a different direction. They forced me to confront images of rows of black miners made to parade naked in front of their bosses.

To explore the degree of pain that flows through the veins of this land. To ask myself questions about a culture I did not grow up in, and what role it plays in this debate.

It made me think about the balance of freedom of expression versus the right to dignity.

Something inside me softened. It felt like a large breath escaping my chest. I was ready to stop talking and start listening.

I opened up my mind to hear the other side, even if in the end we still disagreed.

Some may argue the bullies won.

But I believe the longer this was allowed to go on, the more political mileage those same bullies would have received, drumming up populist support while slaying the monster they created.

Did I still feel twangs of anger that thousands of people were bused in this week to march against a painting that had already been taken down, instead of, say, unemployment or the dismal state of education?

Yes.

Did I resent seeing “whites hate blacks” posters? Yes. Do I feel censored and will I stop holding power to account?

Absolutely not.

But what I crave is dialogue instead of a platform from which to preach. I know many are holding on to their views, but I hope there are others like me.

This has been my journey. It’s led me right back to that Eastgate tattoo parlour and the reasons I chose to live by the code of a very special word.

» Eliseev is an Eyewitness News reporter

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