Guest Column

OPINION: Americanisation of our national discourse exacerbates political polarisation

2019-09-26 08:00
President Donald Trump.

President Donald Trump. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

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Using decontextualised American buzzwords hobbles our ability as South Africans to reach a shared understanding of how to tackle the significant challenges in our own context, writes Christi van der Westhuizen.

Is there still an original idea left in South Africa? Mixed in with the vitriol that poisons our public interaction with one another, and the fake news enthusiastically circulated on social media, there is also the rampant Americanisation of our national discourse. Leftists and rightists unthinkingly wield buzzwords that raise the social temperature, and that are also inaccurate.

Among the right-wing, "libtard", "feminazi" and "SJW" are favourite concoctions to insult opponents with. The left-wing equally enthusiastically recycles phrases such as "white tears" and "house and field nigger". This week, I am participating with others in a panel discussion on the American buzzword "woke" and so-called identity politics, to be held at the Aardklop Festival.

Of course, this phenomenon forms part of a larger trend of continued Americanisation, observed globally. The US dominated the second half of the 20th century. With the rise of China and the European Union, this status is in jeopardy.

The US may be yielding its economic and military position. But culture – the sphere of sense-making of self, others and the world – is another matter. In the 20th century, the US prevailed culturally with Hollywood films and television productions. In the era of the internet, a country with millions of people with a high level of internet connectivity in an Anglo-dominated world order can direct the global discourse.

The internet and associated media technologies and products provide access to people at the individual level. The cultural production of the Americans – the sheer volume of the data they send around the globe – ensures their internet pre-eminence. You will rather repeatedly find a Facebook meme, TEDx talk, podcast or YouTube video that explains a phenomenon from a US point of view, than encounter South African media products that highlight issues of relevance.

The positive side of the internet is that those who can financially afford to be connected are now world citizens. The negative side is that some people know more about what Donald Trump tweeted this morning, or who the rivals are in the Democratic Party's presidential primaries, than what's going on in South Africa.

It may provide a sort of psychological escape route to personally side-step the plethora of local crises: to concentrate elsewhere, because the reality of instability in South Africa is too overwhelming. But it is also indicative of rising levels of attention deficit disorder, including in adults. The ability to focus on anything long enough to gain adequate understanding is shrinking.

This is where the Americans' sexy buzzwords come in "handy". They provide explanations that can be wielded with lighting speed in limited Twitter characters against an opponent. Such as SJW, which refers to "social justice warrior".

Or "libtard", which is apparently a combination of "liberal" and "retard". Two blows are delivered: one in the direction of alleged liberals, and the other in the direction of people with disabilities, implicitly affirming their supposed inferiority with the horrible word "retard".

I use the phrase "alleged liberals" here because the use of these buzzwords is frequently accompanied by a superficiality in comprehension. Those who use such insults apparently understand little about the distinctions between ideologies – the specific principles and values that underlie each ideology.

 

This fits in with the fake news phenomenon and the lackadaisical treatment of facts. Since the 1990s some people have trumpeted that we live in a "post-ideology world", but the fact is that we are currently living in a post-fact world.

There is also a historical dimension to this phenomenon. People who regard themselves as progressive can more easily obtain knowledge about the original inhabitants of North America than about the San in South Africa. One can, therefore, find that a South African identifies with the Native Americans, while the San remain obscure – despite the similarities, also in decimation, between the two groups.

 

Similarly, the slave history of the African diaspora in the US will be intellectually embraced. In contrast, one finds apparent obliviousness to the fact that almost the longest part of the history of the territory today known as South Africa was characterised by the ownership of slaves. Hence little thinking about what our history of slavery means here.

The identification with all thoughts American, as circulated on social media, leads to the unquestioning application of terms that derive from analyses of US slave history. For example, the distinction between the "house nigger" and the "field nigger", with the former as a collaborator with the white owners, is used in the South African context to discredit certain voices. One may also hear about the "plantation", even though other equally dehumanising modes of labour coercion were used here.

"White tears" is another popular American term, used to refer to white people who show dismay in public spaces about the effects of racism. Another element of this historical juncture is illuminated with this phrase. This is an era in which emotion is wielded politically. Some feelings are presented as more legitimate than others. "White tears" is a phrase indicating illegitimate emotion.

The use of "SJW" throws out the window the perennial human question of how justice can prevail. "Identity politics" is a convenient concept to push back against the gains made to end marginalisation and exclusion – of women, lesbians and gays, people of colour, poor people and people with disabilities. It is part of the arsenal to try and reimpose systems that exclude most people from the definition of humanity.

Using decontextualised American buzzwords hobbles our ability as South Africans to reach a shared understanding of how to tackle the significant challenges in our own context. It exacerbates the political polarisation in our society while preventing us from crafting a common vocabulary of humanisation to solve our own problems, also historically.

- Christi van der Westhuizen is an associate professor at the Centre for the Advancement of Non-Racialism and Democracy (Canrad), Nelson Mandela University.

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