I’ve been thinking about silence over the past week as Deputy Minister of Higher Education Mduduzi Manana remains in his job despite admitting to assaulting a woman, an admission that was unavoidable after evidence of his despicable actions surfaced.
I have friends in common with the deputy minister. Many have chosen silence. Some have restricted themselves to opining privately about his behaviour. None has called him out publicly. Some have bordered on excusing his behaviour.
Friendship duties are complex. Friendships constitute a crucial part of our social relations. They structure our lives and contribute to their value through the emotional and social bonds we forge. But there are also moments when the demands of friendship have to answer to the larger realities in society.
In a society like ours, which is soaked with misogynistic attitudes and actions, the effect of silence when wrongdoing occurs is that we end up propping up wrongdoers, reinforcing the thug’s conviction that they have more rights than their victims. In these moments, choosing silence is almost as odious as pinning down a victim and assaulting her.
One of the deputy minister’s acquaintances by the name of Dominic Khumalo went a step beyond silence on his Instagram account. He posted a picture of himself and the minister in the embrace of two friends, and a caption that said: “Brotherhood is never seasonal. What took place was unfortunate and regrettable. Continue the good work at the department of higher education and training,” ending with an emoticon of a clenched fist.
This is even worse than silence. First, it explicitly suggests that “the bro code” between men includes unconditional support even in the face of criminal behaviour.
Second, the caption deliberately uses the passive voice rather than acknowledging the deliberate exercise of agency on the part of Manana. So we now have to refer to “things that happened” rather than “Manana assaulted someone”. That is a failure to hold someone responsible for their actions. It is a refusal to recognise that Manana did something rather than simply being an automaton.
Third, the reference to what the deputy minister does in his political portfolio perpetuates the myth that someone isn’t deserving of moral or political or legal sanction if they are productive in the economy. The subtext here is that we should be particularly kind to men who are professionals when we find out they have done wrong — as if the victim can take comfort in the fact that the person who assaulted her wasn’t unemployed or unambitious.
The deeper lie expressed here is that some men should be regarded as incapable of wrongdoing because they occupy certain positions of power in society. That is toxic rubbish and should not be accepted. Abusers aren’t alien. We are all capable of abuse regardless of race, class, ethnicity or other social markers. There is no template for what an abuser or a bully looks like.
And we certainly, as middle-class men, need to disabuse ourselves of the implicit view that someone like Khumalo is in effect punting that “other men” — and, let’s be honest, the imagined “other” is a poor, uneducated man — have a monopoly on violence.
As for the clenched fist, it is a digital expression of how tight the camaraderie between men is, and is an inadvertent performance of solidarity despite the evidence of assault.
Again, silence has been evident. Some of Khumalo’s friends chose silence when he loaded this post. Others opined on WhatsApp but not publicly. So there was failure to hold those who prop up Manana accountable. Such is the addiction to culpable silence in our society. That is why we need to debate the moral quality of silence.
Silence is tempting. It has fewer costs than speaking out. If you choose silence then your own life is unlikely to be closely scrutinised. That can enable you to live more freely. If you speak out, you encourage those who hate your guts to take a critical look at your life. If you choose silence, you are unlikely to be trolled and subjected to jealousy — or Schadenfreude when you slip up.
Humans always slip up, so silence can therefore cushion you from a world of vicious people lashing out against you, attributing to you a belief that you’re “better” than everyone else.
Although silence might render you inconspicuous, that does not make you neutral in the face of public incidences of wrongdoing. Real people are affected by our silences, by our inaction and by our indifference. Silence might feel morally neutral from the inside. Sometimes our silences must be subjected to moral criticism. When you choose silence, you are in fact expressing a view about how you see your place in the world.
Silence in the face of clear wrongdoing amounts to moral complicity in sustaining wrongdoing. I don’t want to be glib about the costs of breaking silence. But you do not only have the “right” to hold people accountable for their actions if your own life is perfect. If we accept that all our lives are messy and face up to our own messiness, then you reduce the chances of hate-filled responses to your speaking out.
It is not easy, when much of our social life involves myth-making, performing half-truths and masking wounds and errors. This tendency is amplified in a time of social media platforms that have increased the pressure to pretend to be happy, perfect, smiling, virtuous and “going places”. If you break the silence about your own life not being virtuous, then you can stop choosing culpable silence when your faves mess up publicly.