Our lethal superiority complex

2013-08-28 10:00

I recently had an argument with a man who believes that men are better than women at everything – even at things women should excel at.

That’s why the majority of celebrated chefs were males, he opined. The argument made me realise how social competition continues to have far-reaching and detrimental effects on human societies.

Women’s Month serves to highlight the case for gender equality and the headlining case against the Ceres rapist is indicative of the challenges faced by women in South Africa. The majority of us can’t help but be overly sensitive about such issues.

How can we not be sensitive when we live in a world where black people are up in arms about racism somewhere in the world.

Think the Trayvon Martin case; the racist behaviour by managers and staff of Alexander McQueen’s flagship store in New York; the cafe in West Yorkshire, England, which is shunned because it is black owned; the sole black minister in Italy being attacked because of her skin colour; or a white South African councillor sending emails containing damaging racial stereotypes about black people.

I recently came across an interview by Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie titled “Race does not occur to me”. My curiosity was piqued.

In the interview about her new book she explains that she never thought of race growing up and living in Nigeria. She explains that race is something learnt and that being black is something she learnt when she moved to America.

She says: “Also, you do realise that Nigeria is the most populous country in Africa, and we have a crazy, chauvinistic nationalism. So when you say anything bad about Nigeria, we attack you, but when we all go back to Nigeria, we attack each other. That’s how it works. Nigerians are born with a natural arrogance. Of course, what’s wonderful is that there’s nothing to be arrogant about. Nigerians feel very superior to Ghana, for example, but then you go to Accra, and Accra actually works better than Lagos.”

Competition has always been at the core of evolutionary theory. As a result, we believe that one is better than the other, stronger than the other, faster than the other.

Men see themselves as better than women, whites see themselves as better than blacks, Islam sees itself as better than Christianity, African-Americans see themselves as better than Africans, Nigerians see themselves as better than Ghanaians, Hutus better than Tutsis, and so it goes on.

The distinctions are not the problem. It is when we use these distinctions as the cornerstones of individual or group identities, and seek to defend our identities as the only ones that should exist or persist, or to prove they are superior.

So while we are outraged by painful expressions of racism, gender inequality or xenophobia, what we need to be working hard to eliminate in our social evolution is intracompetition that is destructive – all competition and group identity based on worth that is defined on the basis of making one group feel inferior.

» Khathwane is the secretary of the Swaziland diaspora

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