Beware the chilling of public debate

Getting heard: While the student protests dominated social media conversations, other news stories were sidelined. (Delwyn Verasamy, M&G)

Getting heard: While the student protests dominated social media conversations, other news stories were sidelined. (Delwyn Verasamy, M&G)

In a country where public debate is robust, South Africans still have a long way to go towards defining who is leading it and address the mechanisms used to silence those whose views don’t conform.

In most online dictionaries, the definition of the word “debate” refers to the political arena. Since the arrival of the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) in Parliament, debate has taken a new turn. The politicians have shrugged off the grandeur of “decorum” to indulge in verbal lashings (and sometimes even the police are invited to the party).

But discussions on the ground are gaining more traction than those initiated at the top.

The advent of social media has seen a proliferation of voices – most notably black women – who previously had few platforms to air their views.
Yet, though more people can be heard, it’s questionable whether we are seeing a diversity of opinions and a respect for the views of others.

One of the shortcomings of Twitter is that being able to use it is a privilege. Although more South Africans are slowly moving online, Twitter is still a mechanism that is classist because of the costs of data and smartphones. And with “trending topics” dominating such discussions, the views expressed are often one-dimensional.

During the recent student protests, many other disruptions were taking place in the country: Uitenhage in the Eastern Cape, for example, erupted after shacks were demolished and residents were left homeless. Such stories were largely excluded from the online public’s consciousness because of attention devoted to the students’ activities.

It can’t be ignored, however, that social media played a pivotal role in accentuating the debate about student protests and allowing black feminists to speak back to those who sought to erase their voices.

Historically, debate has been a formalised mode for arguing a point, but social media has ditched the rule book to allow less formality and more open discussion. The perceived distance associated with such platforms means internet users are far more enlivened to spill what’s on their mind, for better or worse.

But not even Black Twitter is perfect. It has been painted as homo-genous, yet in the confines of Black Twitter, groups of various people who identify as black – including Indian and coloured people – share views that either climb on the bandwagon or go against it. But going against the status quo of Black Twitter means you’re not “woke” – an offence that could leave you ostracised.

The word “woke” has snuck from the online world into the real world. Woke can be used as a silencing tactic to halt disagreement. Woke, in broad terms, means to be conscious of the continued oppression of black people and the way white people’s privilege has been maintained. But that simple definition isn’t as broad as it is in practice.

Being woke can be to follow a direction of thinking that loud voices are perpetuating. It can also be a way of speaking, where the language of intellectualism trumps anyone lacking academic lingo. If someone speaks against the tide or doesn’t use the “right” language, it often doesn’t bode well unless it’s a person with influence and social capital.

Words like “woke” can erode and cancel out debate. A lot of people would say this is problematic – but that word is just as much of a silencer. It’s not unusual to hear that “so-and-so is problematic”.

At times, there’s an assumption that the problem should be obvious and if the obvious eludes you, then you become part of the problem too.

But things aren’t always obvious. There’s no onus on a black person to explain racism or privilege to a white person, but perhaps we should all take care to explain our views to people who share in the struggle for equality, rather than malign them.

The distance doesn’t only exist on the ground. In the realm of public debate, too, there’s a gap between politicians and the public.

  In discussing the nature of public debate, Judith February wrote in the Mail & Guardian last year that the ANC’s voice has become muted because of its failure to lead, the Democratic Alliance has little in common with most black South Africans and the EFF has an air of opportunism attached to its demands.

The “race debate” Parliament hosted earlier in March was also telling. Certain topics are not up for debate and racism is one of them. Racism exists and to debate it, rather than address its roots, will confine us to having the same discussion over and over instead of developing the conversation.

In South Africa, as in most parts of the world, debates about inequality continue because of people’s anger over the lack of change and the hope that change will come. We must ensure that our belief in what we are saying never turns into the arrogance – that everything is obvious. It’s equally important to respect those whose turn it is to speak.

Ra'eesa Pather

Ra'eesa Pather

Ra’eesa Pather is a general news journalist with the Mail & Guardian’s online team. She cut her teeth at The Daily Vox in Cape Town before moving to Johannesburg and joining the M&G. She's written about memory, race and gender in columns and features, and has dabbled in photography. Read more from Ra'eesa Pather

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