09 April 2008

Political pornography

These have been busy times for racial slurs. The "K-word", the C-word, and then, of course the ghastly OFS Video. CyberShrink comments.

These have been busy times for racial offensiveness. We had Khosa apologising for using "the K-word", Qwelane refusing to apologise for using the C-word (Coconut), white journalists excluded from a Zuma press conference, and, of course the ghastly OFS Video.

One bit of good news is that the South African Human Rights Commission has now found it unconstitutional to bar journalists from joining the Forum for Black Journalists on the basis of race.

We now hear that the Department of Education has set up a ministerial committee to investigate racism and other discrimination in higher education. I hope they will look seriously at available research into issues such as attitude change and the potential benefits of diversity, and come up with some practical and positive proposals rather than merely politically-correct tut-tutting.

The "isms" are curious. Whether racism, sexism, ageism, or any other form of prejudice. Prejudice is, literally, pre-judging - making a bunch of assumptions about someone based on a single characteristic, rather than recognising their individuality. We all respond with distaste and alarm to prejudice against us and our kind. Prejudices we actually share, we find less noticeable and offensive. The racist, for instance, doesn't really see himself as racist or prejudiced - he thinks he's being objective and realistic. But he's just as open to being offended by any prejudice against him and his sort.

An apology from the cornered
Responses to the nauseating video have been varied and remarkably unhelpful. We have seen an apology from the residence from which it originated. But references to "unintended" embarrassment or upset are disingenuous and naïve. It's an old trick, when cornered, to apologise, not for having done anything wrong, but for accidentally having caused upset to someone else.

The pretence that this was an entirely innocent, merry prank, which only accidentally caused offence is in itself offensive, and insulting to our intelligence. The video systematically degraded the workers it portrayed, and if it was not intended that they should be degraded, in the eyes of those who watched it, what else was the point of the exercise?

This was not an exercise in satire; it was not amusing even to those who were able to ignore its racist undertones and overtones - there was nothing funny about it. But the closing comment, "that, at the end of the day, is what we think of integration", makes it clear that this was intended to be a political statement. Sarcastic, but not satirical.

Then we're told that the student didn't actually piddle in the food, but only faked this - why? As the workers didn't know what he'd done, real or fake, the intention, real or fake, must have been to convince the viewer that the workers had been tricked into eating food laced with urine. And other than degradation of the workers in the eyes of the intended viewers, what would be the point of this?

Political porn
One of the curious aspects of all this, is that problems have arisen because the video was distributed beyond its original target audience. And who, I wonder, was it actually meant for? How were they expected to react? It was a sort of political pornography, perhaps, intended to arouse the satisfaction of a racist audience who would be pleased to see black workers made to appear foolish, and "put in their place" as a response to a perceived threat of integration. Like all pornography, such materials are usually hidden discreetly, and only shared with like-minded others. Indeed, as the lame apologies suggested, it wasn't actually primarily intended to offend others, but to offensively satisfy those for whom it was intended, to reflect and stimulate their private passions.

The widespread condemnation of the video, and, more sensibly, of the university's socio-political climate which enabled it to be made, was reassuring, showing that many South Africans of all hues find such attitudes repugnant. The over-reaction in some quarters (there were reports of intimidation and threats towards white students on the campus) showed as convincingly as the tape itself, that racism is alive and well, and lurking close to the surface in distressingly many people in all communities. The under-reaction of the university authorities, even the apologies which sought to minimise the significance of the video (and the failure of many others to condemn any incidences of reverse racist hostility), confirm that.

Racial stereotyping
That the university has apparently allowed the continuing existence of a racially segregated hostel, and perhaps some other facilities, for so long, is deplorable and unjustifiable. If there was any idea that this was gradualism, aiming at reducing resentment among the formerly dominant few, it obviously failed, and instead reinforced racial stereotypes and assumptions of privilege. Have they ever thought about why the adult workers felt obliged to obey degrading instructions from a group of spotty-faced students?

To the extent that one can draw policy from research results on attitude change, attitudinal integration would have been promoted by requiring the students to behave in a civilised and integrated manner from the start - the evidence suggests that attitudes tend to catch up with good behaviour.

Indeed, I'd argue that if any white students were allowed to graduate without having had the enriching experience of really getting to know black students - or if any black students have been graduated without being able to get to know white and Afrikaans fellow-citizens informally as well as formally - then both groups were cheated out of essential components of a proper university education.

Though we are obviously more aware of the affront to the dignity of the workers directly abused, and then, by extension of other black staff and students, in fact there were wider human rights abuses contained in this grubby incident. The cocky students who made the video even managed to abuse their own rights and responsibilities to be respectful and grateful, and to behave like civilised people. They insulted the whites of South Africa, who are by implication as ignorant and crude as these students revealed themselves to be.

And a last thought on that university hostel - maybe one of the unexplored issues of "integration" is whether anyone, black or white, would want to "integrate" and share lodgings, with people capable of such behaviour.

(Professor M.A. Simpson, aka CyberShrink, April 2008)




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