It’s become so quick and simple to offend thousands of people with a single click. In times gone by, if you wanted to send someone a rude message, you needed to find paper and a pen, sit and write down your thoughts, hunt for an envelope and a stamp, take the time to get to a post-box or post office, and finally wait for it to be delivered to your target.
Twerp of the month
This lengthy process gave you plenty of time to have second thoughts, and then decide not to send the letter after all. Nowadays your smartphone is always at hand, and with a flurry of agile fingers and a single tap, your message is out in the world.
Twerp of the month has to be Matthew Theunissen for his seething mass of racist fury over a matter relating to the Minister of Sport.
His inevitable apology was unoriginal. Of course he insisted he was not a racist and had “plenty of friends of colour”. (This is an unfortunate euphemism as it almost always means people of a darker colour.) He also said he hadn’t intended to say those words, which is a blatant lie.
“I have no excuse at all,” was one of his excuses!? One report described him as having said he didn’t intend his comments to be offensive, which is curious. What, I wonder, would he have said if he actually intended to be offensive?
He immediately deleted the message from Facebook, but someone captured it and tweeted it. What were their motives, one wonders?
In another social media post a Rhodes Must Fall activist Ntokozo Qwabe described how his friend made a white waitress cry by refusing to tip her and writing on the bill: “We will give tip when you return the land.” The purity of their racism lies in the fact that they found her whiteness enough reason for the insult as they didn’t know the woman at all.
Unlike Theunissen, Qwabe has been proudly unapologetic, and peeved that his post had been removed by Facebook. Apparently his father wisely commented: “You can’t correct wrong things by also acting wrong.”
The psychological fundamentals
In an important sense, underlying much of what manifests as racism are more basic psychological fundamentals. One is overgeneralisation, i.e. forming beliefs about a group of people based on a single or just a few actions or attributes. When one person belonging to a different racial group says or does something deemed unacceptable, the appropriate response would be to think that it’s awful that some people can do such things.
What happens, though, in racist thinking, is deciding that one thing or action proves or confirms that “all blacks do X”, or “all whites are Y”. There is actually nothing which “all blacks” or “all whites” are, other than human beings. Even in the skin colour we love to focus on, there are wide variations in shade.
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There are also huge differences in culture, beliefs and behaviours within one racial group. There are horrible and wonderful people within any group. Prejudice is literally pre-judging, believing that because someone’s skin colour, gender, hair colour, or any other part of them is observed to be of a certain kind you can make far-reaching assumptions about other, less obvious aspects of their totality.
Another psychological factor is the convenience of blaming some other person or group for everything that goes wrong, rather than taking personal responsibility for any of it. We usually don’t rush to acknowledge the part we play in creating and maintaining our own problems. It’s much easier to insist that other people caused them, and, therefore, should solve them.
The antisocial media
A more curious thing is the way people use what I call the “antisocial media”. Many people manage to hold two contradictory and highly inaccurate beliefs about these media. On the one hand they assume that the world at large is waiting breathlessly for the latest tantalising snippet of their everyday lives – so they photograph their breakfast or announce their arrival at the mall, as though thousands, all over the world, will exclaim with delight and rush to inform the masses.
At other times, though, they behave as though these media were completely private, enabling them to vent freely and post wildly inappropriate things as if they were whispering into the ear of a sympathetic friend. They then express shock and horror when the public at large express dismay at the revelation of their inner ugliness.
Read: Do you fear being offline, or separated from your phone?
Part of the problem is the reckless way people use social media, without really thinking about why they are doing it, what effect their words will have, and whether it will be of any use to anyone. Another snag is the way technology has made it too easy to spread your most trivial and unedited thoughts.
Such comments are like “dick pix” – other people are inevitably less impressed than you want them to be, and you can’t take them back, or hide them when a prospective employer or lover decides to explore your traces.
The more urgently you feel the urge to blurt out your opinion, the wiser it is to write a draft and leave it for a while before sending it. You might look at it an hour or even a day later and realise that it serves no purpose and should rather be deleted.
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Professor MA Simpson is Health24's CyberShrink. A South African psychiatrist, he qualified in medicine and in psychiatry in Britain. He has been a senior academic, researcher, and Professor in several countries. Read more of his columns.