/ 3 March 2017

Beware the fake empathy of liberals

Equal before the law: All people
Equal before the law: All people

It must be nice being a bird. You get to chirp the whole day while sitting above the violence playing out on the streets below.

You can switch between chirping and silently observing events below, or maybe just staring into oblivion as you wait for Godot while chilling safely on a twig.

There are many birds in South Africa. None risk getting their precious feathers plucked by swopping the distant gaze for participation in life down below.

This struck me last week as the latest Afrophobia crescendo gained momentum.

There are, fortunately, admirable South Africans from all walks of life who do not choose silence. Many civil society organisations, social justice activists and ordinary citizens push back against the scapegoating of foreign nationals.

Legitimate discontent with material inequities in our society should be directed at the sources of power responsible for sustaining injustice. Foreign nationals are the wrong target for expressing this.

Still, there are responses from some privileged South Africans, black and white, in need of critical engagement. Some of them choose silence or staring into oblivion.

Silence is moral cowardice when human rights are trampled on. Silence was not acceptable during apartheid. Silence is not acceptable now either just because people who look and sound different to ourselves are the targets of our frustrations with a broken society. If you choose to be silent then you are complicit in the xenophobic violence.

There is an uncritical belief among some people that we are only responsible for what we do. But we are also responsible for what we do not know. If we have the power to do something that could reduce injustice in society without great risk to our own wellbeing then we have moral reason to act.

You are not beyond reproach because you choose to turn a blind eye to injustice. You are, in fact, an important silent ingredient in the perpetuation of violence.

Silence has consequences. Silence is not morally neutral.

Some of us do not choose silence but do say the strangest things. Several liberals, for example, are desperately keen to be awarded Noddy badges for defending the xenophobic attitudes of their fellow South Africans. This sentiment, if you are not watchful, presents itself as deep empathy with poor black people. It is not genuine empathy. It is fake empathy. Here is why.

There is a pathology here that needs unmasking. Liberal guilt can be so choking that it leads to some liberals being unable to see poor people as moral agents capable of taking responsibility for xenophobic actions.

And so what you get, in effect, is a kind of self-indulgent virtue-signalling from many liberals. The empathy they rehearse isn’t humanising poor people. It is, in fact, a self-indulgent signalling of the message: “Look at me! I am so virtuous that I do not condemn xenophobia but rather anthropologise it!” This is chirped in sweet dulcet tones, like a poetic bird hovering above the madness.

You can expect an award-winning book in the next year or three that chirps lyrically about the psychology of the downtrodden humans of Rosettenville, moved by the violence of their poverty to lash out against foreign nationals.

Penguin suits will be worn at a literary awards ceremony far away from Rosettenville where the anthropologising of the badly behaving humans down below will be praised over a glass or two of bubbly, seldom enjoyed in the poorest communities.

Such is the moral stench of false liberal empathy. There is a toxic refusal here, dressed up as deep empathy, to see poor South Africans as capable of moral wrong. If, truly, this group of liberals actually gave a genuine flying fuck about black poverty, what are they doing to dismantle their unearned privileges during times of peace?

Do liberals care to chip away at inequality in the spaces they control? Where are the calm, detached phone calls from this group of liberals to talk radio shows, bemoaning the unequal distribution of wealth? Where is the liberal’s expression of moral disgust at corporate South Africa for not doing more to support the state to reduce inequality and poverty?

You see, it becomes most uncomfortable, doesn’t it, when we shift the anthropological gaze away from the poor to focus on liberal life, leafy suburbs, corporate South Africa and other structural foundations on which Afrophobia is truly built.

If a wealthy or middle-class citizen wants to be taken seriously when they pretend to make sense of the “complexity” of xenophobic violence, they must tell us what they think of the structural conditions in our land that oxygenates violence.

In reality, the much-maligned “social justice warriors” who stand up for Somalis, Nigerians, Mozambicans and other fellow Africans who live in our country are the same ones who stand up for poor South Africans while many privileged birds stare into oblivion, ignoring everyday violent realities.

Don’t be fooled by the noise of those who think they are the gold standard of progressive chirping. They show off fake empathy while sipping guilt-free on bubbly behind gated walls, far away from the violence.