08 June 2012

The Spear: We've all been had

Now that the dust has settled on the Spear issue, Cybershrink takes an incisive look at exactly how politicians divert our attention from the really important things.


Now that the dust has settled on the Spear issue, Cybershrink takes an incisive look at exactly how politicians divert our attention from the important things.

Way back in the 1800s, historian Thomas Macauley commented that there was “no sight more ridiculous than the British public in one of its periodic fits of morality”. Well, we South Africans seem to have adopted that pastime.

South Africa has a new national sport: Aerobic outrage. Manufactured wrath. Inflated fury. The Romans developed the political strategy of providing bread and circuses, to distract the masses from concerning themselves with the real issues which might otherwise inflame them to actual action. So they'd provide extra food supplies and sporting and entertainment extravaganzas to occupy the public. But in South Africa, the small political elite keeps most of the bread and circuses for themselves.

So they've developed the deflection tactic of diverting broader social unrest towards essentially artificial targets, putting annoyance on steroids, and pointing the magnified ire to another target. It's like the pickpocket misdirecting your attention towards something irrelevant, so you won't notice his hand slide into your purse, or the stage magician who misdirects your focus so you won't see him slip the rabbit into the hat.

The method usually works well, and after a time, fades out and is surprisingly easily forgotten. Remember the Caster Semenya fury? A significantly butch athlete who was performing unusually well was challenged by other competitors, and even though eventually it appeared she may indeed have suffered from hormonal anomalies giving her a major advantage over more ordinary women athletes, for a time there was major frenzy.

Protest marches, politicians grew shrill with anger - there was even ridiculous talk of war (it wasn't clear against whom we would send troops) and the need for an urgent debate in the United Nations! The chatterati went into spasms. They announced that every single South African, indeed every African on the continent, had been profoundly insulted. We were made to feel guilty if we felt insufficiently furious. And then it all blew over.


The Penis mightier than the sword?
Let's look at the picture all that fuss was about. Not really an impressive piece of art: it aped the style of a Soviet era propaganda poster of Lenin. Maybe that works, to a minor degree. But the figure doesn't really look much like Zuma, more like a hippo wearing glasses. I wonder how many people would have confidently identified it as Zuma in the absence of the fuss.

The notorious dangly bits are scrawled onto the fake poster figure in a different style and not at all realistically, looking as though scrawled in chalk by a passing graffitist . Rather like in the old days naughty kids would deface advertisement posters for cosmetics by scribbling a moustache and glasses onto the elegant women depicted. But curiously, with that clumsy addition, everyone seemed certain the picture was of Zuma, which is really rather odd, as though for many people, the clumsy addition was his signature.

The classic Rorschach Inkblot test uses essentially random patterns of inkblots, and showed that what individuals saw in these shapes could be deeply revealing of themselves. Such events provide just such an ambiguous stimulus for people to reveal themselves unpleasantly.

For some, the protest march is a gala, a festival, an invigorating rally, and physical and emotional exercise.

And so, with The Spear, after a surprisingly long delay, there was a march that reached the gallery which was already closed, where the offending picture had already been defaced and was no longer viewable. And the marchers solemnly demanded that nobody should be allowed to see what was actually no longer visible.

The picture had some time earlier been legally sold to a foreign buyer, but some demanded that this awful object must not be allowed to leave the country, but burned here. How the legal owner was to be deprived of his rightful property was not explained. There were more frankly hysterical responses - one senior figure in some minor church even called for the artist to be stoned to death!

Interestingly, Zuma had already been depicted naked and absurd, along with other public figures including the Pope and Archbishop Tutu, in a painting by the black artist Ayanda Mabulu, which for some reason seems to have escaped comparable publicity or furore for over two years.


The Streisand effect
Had the ANC not reacted as they did, more than 90% of South Africans, and the rest of the world, would not have known of the painting's existence, nor cared, nor paid any attention to it, or seen it.

This has been called the Streisand effect, after an occasion when Barbara Streisand's strenous attempts to suppress online pictures of her luxurious home led to great publicity for it. She sued to have the picture removed from public sight, though it was part of a series taken to document coastal erosion, and not to fuel celebrity gossip.

Before her fuss, only 6 people had downloaded a copy of the picture (two of them her own lawyers); but after her case over 420 thousand people viewed it in the next month. Many similar examples prove the point : trying too strenuously to hide or suppress information tends instead to guarantee it much greater publicity. It is a poor tactic if you want something to remain quiet.


Dignity and indignity
You cannot get respect or dignity by command, or ex officio - you have to earn it and deserve it. We may respect the office, but not automatically the holder of it. So often, those who most strenuously complain of injury to their dignity by others, have in fact damaged it themselves,  and made themselves vulnerable to ridicule and disrespect.

Mr Zuma is entitled to have as many wives, girlfriends or showers as he wishes - but sadly, he's not entitled to insist that other people must not find that objectionable, annoying, or ridiculous, any more than he could demand they must not find it enviable or admirable.

If all this was simply irrelevant, why worry? Yet is it not truly sad that all this energy was wasted on huffing and puffing about a single painting, with no time or effort spent on things we ought to be genuinely outraged about? Little things, like hunger, unemployment, rampant crime and its victims, and the privileged pillagers of the public purse?

(Professor M.A. Simpson, aka CyberShrink, June 2012)





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