Beyond racism

2010-12-24 00:00

WELL-known media critic and educator Neil Postman will be familiar to many Witness readers. One of my memories of the irreverent Postman is his essay titled "Crap detecting" (hereafter referred to as C-detecting for sensitive readers).

One of Postman's theses is that the "best thing schools can do for kids is to help them learn how to distinguish useful talk from bull­shit". Postman understood more than most the unequal relationship between the average citizen and the media. He argued that this power imbalance has the potential to distort reality and that citizens, especially young people, therefore need to be educated in separating fact from fiction.

Postman offered four clues and two famous Postman laws as guides for C-detecting when engaging with the media.

Recently, while reading Fikile- Ntsikelelo Moya's editorial "Boring racists" and his article "White racism" my C-detectors flashed like a recalcitrant car alarm.

Moya's thesis certainly doesn't lack boldness. He insists that Steve Hofmeyr and Annelie Botes are racists because "let us not beat about the bush here: at the root of South Africa's problems is white racism and not (black) racism ..."

Intrigued by how Moya had prepared his audience for such generalisation, I carefully reread the article. Very soon my C-detectors were working overtime.

Moya's article contains all the persuasive tricks about which Postman warns: pomposity, intolerance of alternate points of view and embarrassingly selective use of historical records. To that list I could add a South African media favourite: shooting the messengers, except that in this case, Moya goes even further and sommer takes out the entire tribe.

This article was inspired partly by the Moya articles and also by two other gems. The first was an open letter by online reporter, Xhanti Payi, and the other, Postman's fourth law.

Like Moya, Payi was addressing the recent, controversial comments by Afrikaans writer, Botes. I was struck by the difference between Payi's and Moya's analyses.

Rather than pompously dismiss, Payi shocks by applauding Botes' honesty and warning that she will be assailed by both patronising whites and "insecure blacks" (IOL News, December 9). In his letter, Payi urges Botes to try to get to know black people.

My overwhelming response after reading Payi's letter was one of hope for the country. I want so badly to live in a country where a gifted and sensitive citizen has permission to speak out her fears without threat of punishment.

The other inspirational gem was Postman's fourth law: almost nothing is what you think it is about — including you.

If their respective responses to Botes are anything to go by, there are two kinds of journalists out there. One group that embodies the fourth law and the other that is judged by it.

In defence of Moya may I say that I respect his honesty and loved his conclusion: "... it is not about blacks and whites. It's about South Africans who love their country."

A great vision, but, regrettably, one that is completely unattainable unless we as South Africans are willing to hold lightly to our many presuppositions. Moya's vision requires that we learn to approach finely nuanced constructs, such as "whites", "blacks", "Afrikaners", "males" and "females" with the attitude that almost nothing is what I think it is about — including me.

In the early nineties, during our country's political negotiations, whites who were suspicious of the other side were (rightly) often accused of looking for "a terrorist behind every bush". Sixteen years later, I encounter South Africans from all sides of the ideological spectrum who are determined to find a "racist behind every bush". Both groups of seekers represent different sides of the same coin, both are unbelievably resistant to change, both are prepared to manipulate reality and both are obstacles in the way of Moya's vision for South Africa.

I can imagine the response to this article from certain quarters. "Just another dreamer expecting the victims of apartheid always to be responding with generosity and forgiveness." In reply, let me recall another human encounter of the past week. The killers of psychology intern Bianca Warburton have been convicted and sentenced. In the painful midst of yet another senseless murder, there rests a stunning vignette. After the sentence two tearful women emerged from the court room, holding hands. Caroline Miller and Absinah Mntungwa are the mothers of the young victim and one of her killers. Mntungwa had asked for forgiveness for the actions of her son and Miller said that she would try.

In conclusion, let me say quite unequivocally that I have no problem with the sentiments of Moya and all the others who have united to accuse Hofmeyr and Botes of racism. I think theirs is an understandable and instinctive reaction. The problem, as I see it, is that we are not going to approximate the vision that Moya referred to if our best response en route is only "understandable and instinctive reactions".

Therefore, when these reactions are posited by the media as the best that we can do as a country, our C-detectors need to come to the nation's defence.

Thank you Postman for the reminder that the best thing schools can still do for kids in South Africa is to help them learn how to distinguish useful talk from bullshit.

• Colin McKay is a Pietermaritzburg-based educational psychologist. He is the founder of SchoolTrade which is involved in educational development in township and rural schools.

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