Dissenting Democrats or Dangerous Demagogues

2015-04-07 16:09

Rhodes Statue (CityPress)

The news that members of the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) are targeting statues around South Africa that ‘glorify’ colonialism and Apartheid is unsurprising. It is opportunistically attempting to capitalise on the legitimate anger that underpins the successful, though not uncontroversial, #RhodesMustFall campaign.

The EFF is in a state of internal warfare. Deflecting attention from its internal problems to external issues, especially ones that can unite it, is useful. Moreover, with an election on the horizon, its attempt to mobilise (black) people on populist ethno-nationalistic lines, using a vague historical revisionism, makes sense.

And not to be outdone, the Afrikaner right have upped the ante by responding in an equally divisive way: to (mis)characterise what was a particular occurrence at the University of Cape Town (UCT) as the beginnings of an all-out war on white (Afrikaner) people.

The irony is that both sides need each other in order to thrive. The black and white fringe operates in the same way: they target, hyperbolise, and inflame. The excess and irrationality they are both prone to is low hanging fruit: it solidifies their bases and polarises our polity. They create conditions that force otherwise reasonable people to start indulging in the worst kinds of racialised thinking. By destroying the reasonable centre they allow their narratives to reorient, if not become, the new mainstream.

But, the centre is equally to blame. In the rush to press home their arguments’ validity, in the absence of objectively verifiable moral truth, the centre engages in equally reductionist and dismissive forms of engagement. Ironically, they seem to desire certainty of belief – no matter how unsubstantiated – enjoyed by the fringe. In doing so, they accelerate the decay and limit the ability for moderate people to discuss difficult things without being condemned for political correctness crimes.

The centre is not the place where a silencing intellectual consensus should form. Quite the opposite. It is the place where nuance and complexity – the very thing the fringe is averse to – should flourish. By its very definition, it is the place where the degree of difference between people is smaller than what they agree on. People should be allowed to sharply disagree, but where dissonance does not become condescension, otherising, and hate. Too many of them are guilty of exactly that.

And maybe a lot of it has to do with self-awareness, in respect of intellectual arrogance and tone-deafness. The former can be guarded against by acknowledging that no one stand point, necessarily, has a monopoly on what is right. Rather, it is the duty of advocates to convince – not bully, cajole, or shame others into agreement. And the latter can be avoided by showing more sensitivity. Rather than ignoring or minimising pain, they should do more to understand and empathise. That does not mean accepting or agreeing without contradicting. Nor does it mean stepping back from an intellectual problem.

It means acknowledging the burden that engaging in a historically divided society, like ours, notionally costs us our ability to be recklessly indulgent individuals. We must recognise the human-ess, with all the complexity that brings, of those with whom we engage. And this is especially true of those reasonable people in the middle of two extremes. As Yeats warns, ‘Things fall apart, the centre cannot hold.’ Disagreement is the lifeblood of democracy. Demagoguery is the playground of dictatorship.

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