Amoral is the new normal

2017-11-12 06:04

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We have become tolerant of Zuma’s misdeeds, to the extent that the abnormal has become normal, with dire consequences for our country.

Politics has two distinct, yet related, functions. It is about who gets what and shaping the character of a society.

Politics determines the price of bread or fuel and whether the poor will access quality healthcare and education, or if these remain the preserve of the rich.

It is, however, the second aspect of the role of politics – that of social engineering – that we focus on today.

Politicians, through their actions, can wittingly or unwittingly shape the character of a society.

Legislation is one scalpel in the hands of politicians that they can use to shape the character of a nation.

When politicians pass legislation in Parliament or a by-law in council, they essentially regulate our conduct as citizens.

Anyone who doubts the role of politics as social engineering must remember what apartheid was about. Apartheid sought to pauperise black people while empowering whites to enjoy a life of privilege.

It is by the design of our politics that blacks remain, to this day, providers of cheap labour, while whites enjoy a life of opulence and abundance.

Role modelling is another tool politicians use to shape the character of society, albeit that this can be positive or negative, deliberate or unintended.

In a society where political leaders are champions of hedonism or lead a life of conspicuous consumption, there is the possibility that such behaviour can define the moral character of such a society.

"When the wind blows, the grass bends"

Influential Chinese philosopher, teacher and political figure Confucius put it thus: “The moral character of the ruler is the wind and the moral character of those beneath him is the grass. When the wind blows, the grass bends.”

It would seem that both presidents Nelson Mandela and Thabo Mbeki were aware of the influence politicians can have in shaping the moral character of a nation.

They did not only lead by example, they initiated and championed programmes to shape the moral character of our society.

Mandela spearheaded what he termed the Reconstruction and Development Programme – an “RDP of the Soul” as one writer put it – where leaders would strive to be righteous and lead by example.

In early 2000, Mbeki appointed Jacob Zuma, then his deputy, to lead the Moral Regeneration Movement.

Whether these initiatives succeeded or not is for you, dear reader, to judge and is a matter for another day.

Our focus is on what kind of society we are moulding through our politics.

To answer this question, we first need to understand the principal motives that drive human behaviour, both in its selfless and egotistical dimensions.

Since antiquity, many great minds have sought to illuminate our understanding of the character of humans and what goads them into action.

In his Introduction to the Reading of Hegel, Alexandre Kojève summarises it thus: “All human, anthropogenic desire – the desire that generates self-consciousness, the human reality – is, finally, a function of the desire for recognition.”

Kojève’s assertion is apposite in two related instances. In the first instance it explains our desire to be recognised by other human beings as equals. Secondly, it explains the origin of our altruistic actions – our acts of selflessness.

It is this desire for recognition that goads us to risk our own lives for our personal freedoms, or for others.

Our struggle for recognition

Also drawing on Hegel, Francis Fukuyama in his magnum opus, The End of History and the Last Man, aptly captured this human trait and willingness to risk one’s life in the “battle to death for pure prestige”.

Here at home, our struggle for freedom can therefore be understood as a collective effort by black people in general to strive for recognition among equals.

The altruistic acts and sacrifices that Mandela, Robert Sobukwe, Steve Biko, et al made epitomise our struggle for recognition.

The society these leaders sought to mould out of their politics was one anchored in freedom, justice and equality for all.

Let us now focus on the second dimension of our egotistical being. How best to reflect on this than to summon the wisdom of English philosopher John Locke. Writing about 350 years ago, he observed: “The principal spring from which the actions of men take their rise, the rule they conduct them by, and the end to which they direct them, seem to be credit and reputation, and that which at any rate they avoid is in greatest part shame and disgrace … the shame of being disesteemed by those with whom one hath lived, and to whom one would recommend one’s self, is a great source and director of most actions of men.”

Essentially Locke’s observation is that all human beings are endowed with the inherent capacity to be embarrassed, hence we chose to do certain things in the dark.

In its higher form, the fear of embarrassment is what we would call conscience; and this guides us to distinguish between right and wrong.

Thus, the fear of embarrassment and losing the esteem of those we hold in high regard torments our souls and leads us to resign when we are caught wanting.

Locke has the answer as to why Jacob Zuma behaves the way he does. He has no fear of “being disesteemed by those with whom he has lived, and to whom he would recommend himself” – the ANC.

But this capacity to be embarrassed goes along with yet another human trait – the capacity to be shocked. It is this that goads us into taking action against what we consider unacceptable.

What, then, has this got to do with the role of politics in social engineering?

The reality is that these two traits – the capacity to be embarrassed and to be shocked – are fast becoming a rarity in our body politic. Not only have our politicians lost the capacity to be embarrassed, our political system is devoid of consequences.

We may not realise it now, but our tolerance of Zuma’s shenanigans is perforce constructing a new normal with dire consequences for the future of our society. Zuma’s litany of scandals is gradually hollowing out our capacity to be shocked.

A society denuded of the capacity to be embarrassed, that can no longer be shocked by anything is truly a lost nation.

Such a society can no longer be goaded into action to stop the erosion of morality. The result will be the normalisation of the abnormal and the beginning of a new normal – an amoral society.

Under this new normal, no president will, in future, feel compelled to resign, even if he fathered a child with a friend’s daughter.

Under this new normal, society will not protest if a president accepted a bribe or is “captured” by business interests.

In such a society, allegations that someone is calling himself Mabirimisa or that he is a blesser are not enough to stop that person from campaigning for the country’s highest office. Neither do these allegations carry the weight to shock a society like ours.

What a tragedy of our politics and a bleak future for our society!

Malada is a member of the Midrand Group, a group of black intellectuals who have been vocal in their criticism of the ANC


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