A willingness to maul each other
It no longer surprises me to meet victims and survivors of oppression who also oppress others. I have met white gay men who are racists. I have met black and white gay men who are misogynists.
I have met black people who are homophobic. I have met gay men and women who are transphobic. I have met white women who are bigots. I have met poor black people who are racist. I have met middle-class disabled people who look down on the poor. Many of us from urban centres condescend to our fellow rural citizens.
Straight white men may be our favourite group of people from which to pick perpetrators and beneficiaries of oppression. But straight white men do not have a monopoly on bigotry, even if they in particular have a lot to introspect about in terms of unearned privileges and behaviour that prop up structural injustices.
The fuller truth is nastier than an exclusive focus on straight white men might have us believe. There are a lot more people with noxious attitudes towards those who look and sound different to themselves just because of those arbitrary differences.
It is little wonder, therefore, that black homophobes could defend a sermon filled with hatred delivered last Sunday at Grace Bible Church in Soweto. These black citizens’ experiences of anti-black racism do not make them more likely than white people to empathise with lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) persons.
It is little wonder, also, that some white women thought that the outrage about a photo of a black woman in a cage on the back of a bakkie driven by a white man who put his suitcase next to him in the front was a case of “manufactured rage”. These white women’s experiences of misogyny do not make them more likely than white men to empathise with victims of anti-black racism.
It is little wonder, too, that many of my gay friends openly parade disbelief that someone assigned a particular gender at birth may not identify with the gender assigned to their body. These friends’ experiences of homophobia do not make them more likely than straight people to empathise with gender nonconforming people.
It is tempting to believe that we are describing a minority of nasty people who give a silent majority of morally upright folks a bad rep. But if that were true, then the morally upright folks would presumably have been visibly better allies in the fight for a more just society.
That, however, is not the case. There is often culpable silence from a numerical majority of our fellow citizens when oppressed groups have their inherent dignity trampled on by those brazen enough to do so in full view of the public glare. There is, at times, near collective participation in jeering at and reducing the humanity of people different to ourselves.
I think these trends are exacerbated in our country by the state of the state, and the state of society at large. With an economy that is broken, public servants looting state coffers and corporate citizens pretending to be immune to moral responsibility, there is a scramble for declining resources with which to build meaningful lives.
The politics of self-interest is not unusual anywhere in the world. But self-interested behaviour gives way to poisonous inter-group relations when everyone tries to protect their interests for fear of there being too little to go around for everyone to enjoy.
Black men, for example, feel excluded from an economy that still disproportionately benefits white South Africans. That is no excuse to hate women. Nor does access to opportunity and wealth creation guarantee that misogynistic attitudes among black men will fall.
After all, many white men in our boardrooms are also sexist pigs.
But what is undeniable, however, is that structurally disadvantaged groups — such as black men — may feel threatened by recognising the equal entitlement of other oppressed groups — such as women — to be allowed a place at the table. The fear operating here is that there isn’t enough at the table for everyone to eat.
It is a brutal battle for accessing limited resources that can enable one to live well. Morality, in this context, gives way to prudential reasoning about how best to improve one’s material lot.
All of this, in turn, is worsened by the insecurity of the biggest beneficiaries of colonialism and apartheid. They, too, lack empathy for oppressed groups because they want to hold on to their undeserved spoils gained from the contingent trajectories of history.
This is why I am not optimistic about the everyday bigotry in our country having a chance of being eliminated any time soon. On the one hand, unkind attitudes towards each other that exist among the losers of history are a symptom of the collective economic oppression that all these losing groups still experience. They — we — maul each other for crumbs while history’s winners live in relative luxury.
On the other hand, the viciousness of many economic winners also proves that access to land, opportunity and wealth does not guarantee decency. So, although less inequity is a necessary condition for greater levels of mutual respect, it is no guarantee. Our willingness to injure each other sometimes seems unstoppable.