Prince Mashele

SA beware of labellers

2009-09-14 12:47

Very seldom do we pause to think about how we debate issues of public interest in South Africa. Thus, we unwittingly allow very dangerous tendencies to worm their way into the core of our national discourse. "Labelling" is one such tendency we should deal with once and for all!

Who among you has not heard of a political analyst being labelled as a member of Cope? Who among you has not heard of a black person being labelled stupid because s/he is a member of the ANC? Who among you has not heard of a DA member being labelled a racist merely because s/he is white?  That is how deep we have allowed the roots of labelling to penetrate the soil of our public deliberations.

What informs all of those who label analysts, who insult ANC members and who accuse DA members of racism is not reason but dogmatic ideologysm. They proceed from the premise that the views of their political parties are the norm and the rest are heresy. As a result, anyone who puts across an idea that is not in line with their political party indoctrination, such a person is immediately labelled a "Cope member", "stupid ANC" or "racist DA".

Hopefully, labellers all over the world listened to President Barack Obama when he presented his Health Care Plan to the Joint Session of Congress on September 9 2009. While Obama was addressing Americans, our own labellers here at home stood immensely to benefit from the intellectual medicine conveyed by the speech. President Obama made the following profound observation:

Instead of honest debate, we've seen scare tactic.  Some have dug into unyielding ideological camps that offer no hope of compromise. Too many have used this as an opportunity to score short-term political points, even if it robs the country of our opportunity to solve a long-term challenge. And out of this blizzard of charges and counter-charges, confusion has reigned.

Also here at home, instead of honest debate, people use scare tactics frequently to dismiss us as Cope members, stupid ANC or racist DA. Instead of honest debate, here at home, people see an opportunity always to score short-term political points, even if it robs our beloved country of an opportunity to deal with long-term challenges. Indeed, here at home, we are subjected to a daily blizzard of charges and counter charges that fertilise the atmosphere for confusion to reign.

Type of disease

But why do they use labels and scare tactics? They do so whenever someone presents facts that expose the hollowness of their rhetoric, the bankruptcy of their superfluous phrases and the emptiness of their propaganda. The more compelling the facts, the more virulent the labellers become against those they dismiss as Cope, stupid ANC or racist DA.

Harsh as we must be in resisting labelling, we should treat it as a type of disease from which the labellers need to be saved. Indeed, we should make it our duty to teach our dear labellers how to participate in what President Barack Obama terms an "honest debate". Hopefully, those who label analysts and insult ANC and DA members will read this column, for there are three important lessons presented hereunder.

The first lesson prepared for our dearest labellers is contained in Karl Marx's The Poverty Of Philosophy: "society does not change its habits merely on the strength of intuitions: its decisions are made only on the authority of facts". (1892: 44)

In other words, Karl Marx says that you should not tell the nation that you will create 500 000 jobs by December before you understand the factual implications of the economic recession; before you stop job losses that are already taking place; before you are pretty sure that you have the necessary, labour, natural objects, capital, and markets with purchasing power. Our dear labellers need to produce facts to prove that this factual proposition is inaccurate. Simply saying "you are Cope", "stupid ANC" or "racist DA" is not an "honest debate", but a scare tactic that robs our beloved nation of the opportunity to address the short- and long-term challenges posed by the recession.

Convictions vs certainty

The second lesson for our dearest labellers, which is related to the first, is contained in Friedrich Nietzsche's Man Alone With Himself: "if one looks closer, one notices that the majority of educated people still desire convictions and nothing but convictions from a thinker, and that only a sight minority want certainty". (1878: 45)

Indeed, most of the labellers we know are not illiterate. It should thus come not as a surprise that Nietzsche speaks of educated people who desire convictions, not certainty from thinkers. The Oxford Dictionary of English defines Conviction as "a firmly held belief or opinion". This is what our educated labellers prefer. They want thinkers who behave like factories that produce firmly held beliefs and opinions, not ideas anchored on the certainty of facts. If you do not feed them with firmly held beliefs and opinions, they quickly label you "Cope", "stupid ANC" or "racist DA". Hopefully, our dear labellers have the necessary capacity to learn something from Friedrich Nietzsche.

The last but very important lesson for the labellers is in John Stuart Mill's treatise on the Principles of Political Economy: "to see a truth occasionally is one thing, to recognise it habitually, and admit no propositions inconsistent with it, is another". (1848: 87)

This is the most difficult lesson for our labellers! It is difficult because it requires a fundamental change in behaviour; for them to adopt a new habit of loving, telling, and believing only the truth, the truth and nothing else. Unavoidably, this habit runs into a natural contradiction with the fundamental logic of political parties: accepting truth only when it is consistent with subjective political purposes.

True as it is, a member of Cope would not publicly admit that Mbhazima Shilowa and Mosiuoa Lekota are fighting. Similarly, a member of the ANC who wishes his party to be viewed as an association of angels would work very hard to conceal Fikile Mbalula's plan to topple Gwede Mantashe in the 2012 conference of the party. The same applies to a DA ideologue who would have us believe that Helen Zille's decision to appoint an all-male provincial cabinet in the Western Cape did not generate disquieted within the DA.

Those who love, tell and believe only the truth know that what is stated above is true. But our labellers will spare no energy in denying the truth, and indeed in insulting the author of this column. They may want to accept one or two of the above as true because it says something about their political opponents, but deny the part that states the truth in relation to their own party. This is precisely what John Stuart Mill means when he says, "to see a truth occasionally is one thing, to recognise it habitually, and admit no propositions inconsistent with it, is another". Unpalatable as the truth may be to our labellers, Mill would insist on a habit to admit no other propositions inconstant with the truth.

Be rescued from darkness

But why do we go to such lengths in exposing the devious ways of labellers, and why do we make available such valuable lessons for free? We do so because we have a duty to defend the public against those who clearly wish to appoint themselves arbiters of propriety in public discussion. If we do not educate them, and if we do not protect the public against such dangerous people, it might not be long before we are told to seek permission from a political party to express our ideas. Can you imagine if you first had to clear your views with the headquarters of the DA, ANC or Cope before you post them on News24, in order for you not to be insulted! While our labellers might see it as a proper and "revolutionary" way of circulating ideas, it would clearly be the worst form of converting human beings into robots.

Our labellers must also be rescued from darkness and be thrown into light in order for them to appreciate the importance of allowing critical thinking to flourish in society. Successful societies are those that free their citizens to question every department of social, political and economic life as a way of strengthening - not pulling down - society. In such an open society, ideas lock horns with ideas, and bigotry is exposed and condemned without messy. Those who lack facts to counter facts are not given space to hide their intellectual shallowness; they are advised immediately to go and study in order for them to return and add value to the freeing of society and to advance public discourse.

Of course, labellers are stubborn and are often impervious to knowledge! Their egos do not allow them to accept free lessons on how to conduct what President Obama calls an "honest debate". As if to warrant a national outcry, most of them have not the intellectual capacity to absorb Karl Marx's sage advice on the importance of facts, or to appreciate the profundity of John Stuart Mill’s observation regarding truth.

Be that as it may, we should pause occasionally to think about how we debate issues of public interest in South Africa so that we do not unwittingly allow very dangerous tendencies to worm their way into the core of our national discourse.

- Mashele is Head of Crime, Justice and Politics Programme at the Institute for Security Studies. He writes in his personal capacity.

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