Revealing the positive

2010-12-02 00:00

EVER wondered what would have happened if, instead of Annelie Botes, the now infamous Afrikaans novelist who hates black people, being asked what it was that she hated, she was asked what she loved?

As a journalist I have had many fights especially with government spokespeople and officials who love changing one’s question and saying “the question you should be asking is ...” Sometimes they made sense. Other times it was merely so that they could sidestep the question and keep to the script they had prepared.

I therefore take no joy in suggesting to journalist colleagues that they should have asked their question differently when I do not know why they chose to frame it the way they did.

I am raising this because how we ask a question is sometimes as important as the question asked. It can make the respondent defensive or co-operative. “Why do you hate me so much?” gets a different reaction from “what do you love about me?”

I would not like to spend too much time dwelling on Botes’ sentiments, except to say that South Africa is a racist society founded on the idea of white supremacy and dominance over black people whom they considered subhuman. To be a racist in such a society should therefore not come as a surprise to anyone.

But back to how we ask the questions we want answers to.

We have entered into yet another period of raised awareness of the scourge of women and child abuse in our country. We are, as always, going to be bombarded with messages of why men should stop abusing women. Some will come out of the closet to confess that they are now rehabilitated.

There is nothing wrong here except that I find it such a limiting paradigm. As someone who does not abuse women and children, I find the messages fly over me. It seems “they” are talking to “others”, not to me.

I have lots of male friends who do not and have not abused women in their lives. We might have twisted the hand of a girl when we were teenagers to get her undivided attention but that was what both boys and girls expected, and it is as far as it went.

So what if instead of reminding men about how bad it is to abuse women and children, we asked a different question? How could you as a man make the life of a woman or a child in your life a better one?

As with Botes, who might have revealed that she likes cats or bread with jam if she had been asked a question that reveals the positive, asking men to look at the good in themselves will, in my view, be a much better way of dealing with all the negatives that men get up to and that we accept as inevitable about them.

It will also go some way towards making Botes feel safe — not that it should be any human being’s primary goal — in this country. Remember that Botes does not just hate and fear black people in general, she fears black males in particular because she associates them with violent crime.

Self-fulfilling prophecies are as much a fact of psychology as of economics. Negative reinforcements produce negative results. If you go about telling men that their natural disposition is to rape and beat up women and children, it will not be too long before they start acting as expected and thinking that it is exceptional not to.

It is also trite to say that most men who commit acts of violence against women and children are individuals with such poor self-esteem that they find affirmation in having someone weaker than themselves to dominate. Society as a whole can therefore only benefit from helping men find the good in themselves and it is not only for their sake.

A gender-based violence discourse that styles itself as a series of “thou shalt nots” must accept that it will have short legs. Not even all of the Ten Commandments are about what we should not do. Some place a duty on us to honour and be careful who or what we worship.

Some may read this to mean I am suggesting that we go soft on gender violence thugs. I am not. Being tough on crime for all these years has not taken us anywhere because we have not adequately dealt with the causes of such crimes.

We should not deal with the small men who find joy in forcing themselves on those weaker than themselves in the same way that we deal with cash-in-transit heist kingpins.

We cannot keep doing the same thing — marching and preaching to the converted — and hoping for different results. We should ask ourselves what the next step is once the previously abusive man sees the error of his ways.

It may be counterintuitive but it is in caring more about men that we can care more about the victims of their rage and foolishness.

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