/ 2 March 2018

Recalibrating our responses

Friday editor Milisuthando Bongela.
Milisuthando (Photo: Delwyn Verasamy/ M&G)

When an experienced and respected writer sent me a story she was submitting to the Mail & Guardian, with a note for me to please credit a young writer for the former’s use of a general linguistic term, one that does not belong to the younger writer but to the English language, I knew that we are living in dangerous times for creativity, critical thought and art.

This writer, a black feminist, was afraid of what the black feminists on Twitter would think if she did not credit another black feminist writer for a term that is as general as “couch potato”.

What does it mean if one of our best thinkers is writing in a context of the fear of being dragged, and writing less because of an irascible internet culture that few can to admit to, let alone openly discuss, for fear of being dragged themselves?

In South Africa, fighting occupies the space between everything.

Whenever I hear a member of my generation or somebody younger say something like: “I’m tired of explaining racism to white people” or “It’s exhausting to have to do the work of talking to men about patriarchy”, I understand this sentiment of fatigue.

Another popular statement I’ve heard people knife into conversations with surgical zeal is: “It’s [clapping emoji] not [clapping emoji] my [clapping emoji] job [clapping emoji] to [clapping emoji] educate [insert group] about [insert subject].”

While straightening the backs of lazy bigots, this line can also reverse any earnest morsel of curiosity from a well-meaning but unknowing person, pushing them back into the trenches of ignorance. Especially when it is accompanied by the wrath of a person exercising their right to remain angry.

I used to wholeheartedly agree that, indeed, it’s not black people’s job to teach white people about racism, and it’s certainly not women’s job to educate men on the perils of patriarchy.

To some extent, I still do because it should not be the oppressed who are teaching the oppressors how not to oppress. But I loosened my grip on this conviction when I grew to realise that we human beings do not work like that. Ultimately, this is a theoretical stop-nonsense that does very little to help us in the face of practical problems. It’s an unradical response to a problem that needs us to be far more creative in order for true social healing to register as a possibility. Those who are tired have my sympathy. But at 24, to be so tired of explaining seems a little premature when faced with the milieu of pathologies that we, the kids, inherited.

If the most educated, most exposed, most articulate members of the oppressed communities, the ones who understand the depth and breadth of the problem, who have the most courage to speak up and out against discrimination, decide they are too tired to engage the privileged, most hostile, most violent and institutionally powerful members of our society, who else is going to do so?

Perhaps we need to ask ourselves why we are tired. Does our fatigue result from the fact that the need for explaining has come to an end because all of this knowledge is out there in the books and the articles and on the internet? Or does the fatigue result from the way we have been conducting our inherited and neo-struggles?

Having made my own mistakes in publicly responding to South Africa’s pathologies, I’ve come to understand some pretty universal truisms that have helped me make sense of why our most viral forms of response are not necessarily making us better people. Being perpetually angry negatively affects you more than it does the target of your anger. Arguing with strangers and egg-shaped trolls all day long on social media ultimately creates more anger and less understanding in whatever atmosphere you are operating in.

Being relentlessly oppositional to something or a group of people at all times under the umbrella of social justice is the best way to become the thing you oppose.

Humiliating and collectively calling people out (even if they are wrong) might make them feel ashamed but it does not fundamentally change the way they think. These have been useful diagnostic responses to some of the nastiest cultural problems of our time, but they have also created a frightening culture of response that has hurt the offended as much as it has hurt the offenders.

To resist evil is to be human. But when resistance is destroying the resisters, we need to ask what we are doing wrong. Are we living in a time when a masculinist approach to resistance is not appropriate any more? Is mass mobilisation and issue-based solidarity reliable in an age when any liberation struggle has to be equally inclusive of the racial, gender, class and lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, questioning and intersex dynamics in order to be representative and legitimate? Is our resistance worth its cause if capitalism can swoop in and produce T-shirts for you to wear to your demonstration? We’d better ask the Fallists whether the old modalities of responding to institutional oppression are viable today.

In the absence of justice for 366 years of carnage, what form is our response going to take? Why do I know so many young, brilliant, educated, exposed and passionate people who are suffering from fear, depression and anxiety, and whose energy is depleting in the noon of their lives? How do we do the work we are here to do without tiring ourselves, and without destroying ourselves, our relationships, our families and our communities?

This edition of Friday counts the cultural workers and art practitioners who are inspiring us to fight wiser. Artists who are slowly and tenaciously slogging their rage away. Workers who are quietly making shit, taking the longer, more organic route of expressing their feelings of anger, disappointment, joy, inertia and healing by talking less and doing more. Practitioners who are, adequately and inadequately, doing the work of dealing with the unresolved present. They who are showing up to the great unknown and graciously fumbling to make us better at being.