Use a novel way to understand the other

One of the many reasons I love fiction is it forces us to see the world from the perspective of others who are different from ourselves.

We all have the potential to show empathy for others. But, not everyone can project themselves into the head space of people who are very different from them.

I think a lot of what is not going right in our society currently is a refusal to even try to see life from the perspective of people who are unlike ourselves. Just recently I facilitated a really difficult, but ultimately productive (I hope), radio debate about an Australian cartoonist who had depicted tennis star Serena Williams as a ginormous creature stomping on her tennis racquet. 

In the background is seemingly blameless umpire Carlos Ramos — the apparent victim of her rage —and Williams’s opponent,who is, on the face of it, white rather than of mixed heritage (Naomi Osaka’s father is Haitian and her mother is Japanese). Ironically, everything in this cartoonist’s world is black and white even as he imagines himself to be beyond race reductive thinking.

There was plenty wrong with the cartoon, in my opinion, but the aesthetics debate we had on the open line of my radio show wasn’t principally about Williams. It was about whether there are limits to cartooning and, if so, what those are.I am one of the people who defended — and still do — Brett Murray’s right to create The Spear, a depiction of Jacob Zuma that led to some people wanting to spear Murray, if not literally then by destroying his work of art, including marching on an art gallery housing it.

I really don’t think the best way to respond to works of art — paintings or cartoons — is to dust off the old censorship handbooks of yesteryear. The right to creative expression is a central feature of democracies around the world. Humour, too, is an important aspect of social life in general. We need to both cherish speech rights and the right of satirists to lampoon whoever they want to.

But, just as some people trample on speech rights, so, sadly, are there others who think that a liberal conception of speech rights is the same thing as a libertarian conception of speech rights.

Simply put, all democracies, at least by design, are more liberal in character than libertarian. By this I mean that they recognise fundamental rights, including speech rights, but do not see these as being unfettered rights that cannot ever be limited by moral, political and other social considerations. It is a balancing act.

READ MORE: Herald Sun splashes Serena cartoon on its front page

In South Africa, for example, there is literally only one value,and the right that flows from this one value: the right to dignity, and the value of inherent self-worth it is based on, can never be limited.The right to dignity cannot even be limited during a state of emergency. All other rights can, in some instances, be justifiably limited provided the limitations tests that we have developed in law, are met.

These include limitations on the other two foundational values, freedom and equality.

But what does all of this have to do with the Williams cartoon, and with ways of seeing and not seeing the viewpoints of others?

I had a couple of white men — yes, their identities in this context are salient — calling in to my radio show and starting off the expression of their viewpoints with words to the effect of:“Let me tell you what I see when I look at this cartoon!”, “Let me tell you why this cartoon has nothing to do with gender or race!”, “Let me tell you why her dignity is not undermined in this cartoon!” etcetera.

Now, obviously, in one sense this is perfectly acceptable. We have most legitimacy when we talk about our own experiences and convictions rather than when we try to speak for people whose lives we cannot be as acquainted with as our own.

I, myself, express the views of Eusebius publicly, and then make a case for my views, and engage in debate about the content of my beliefs. That is all perfectly acceptable.

But,if discourse stops with expressions of our subjectivities, we will not make progress. Dialogue can only be productive if we do the hard work, as we do when we read a good novel, to decentre our own viewpoints and use our innate capacities to explore the views of others from their standpoint. Indeed, that is the magic that we enjoy when we watch a film, explore works of art or read enjoyable fiction that transports us across time and space.

It is uncanny how this ability to explore foreign worlds and unfamiliar lives is an ability we use too selectively, such as when we are inside the cinema but not when we leave the cinema and interact with people who do not look like us. We sometimes, sadly, have more empathy for mythical creatures and make-believe than we do for real persons in our actual world that we share space with.

Let’s bring it back to the controversial Williams cartoon. Why not ask yourself silently:“Why does that person feel so strongly that this cartoon is patriarchal?”, “Why does that other caller feel so strongly that there are racial and even racist tropes being tapped into by the cartoonist?”, “Why was that last person I heard so outraged by this cartoon but I am not?”

I am not saying you must immediately reject your own beliefs, but I certainly am saying that we would make better progress in understanding one another if we were sincerely open to the possibility that we are wrong or, less sharply than that, if we were open to seeing the world through the eyes of people who appear to hold radically different views from ourselves.

Why not write to a newspaper or call in on a radio programme and ask: “Joanne, I ask, with humility, that you please explain to me what is gendered about the cartoon?”Perhaps admit that you are pretty sure you are missing stuff here because, as a male, you have the luck of moving through the world not worrying about sex or gender as it has never been policed.

Some more advice: don’t lie when you seek assistance. Don’t pretend to ask an open and sincere question, seeking to see the world through the eyes of others, when your tone and words make it clear that you are asking a rhetorical question.It is obvious when someone is convinced of their own gospel but pretends to be “just asking” a few questions.

The hard work is to develop a certain orientation in respect of productive dialogue, an openness to be persuaded, an openness to shifting your position, and all this premised on healthy scepticism that our own ways of seeing the world could be through a faulty mechanism that does not reveal to us the full picture.

The reason this doesn’t come naturally to many of us, to be fair, is because of bad habits we are taught from a young age. We go to schools and tertiary institutions that value certainty above all else.

We aren’t routinely taught to also be sceptical, open to new experiences and to be mindful that our subjective standpoints could potentially rob of us of other ways of seeing, other ways of being.

And so we end up digging in our heels and picking up the phone, not to ask an interlocutor to help us see their viewpoint but to shout our own convictions at them, oblivious to the very real possibility that we could be mistaken.

We need to teach critical thinking in our education system rather than assuming critical thinking to be a natural by-product of the existing curricula that we teach.

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Eusebius Mckaiser
Eusebius McKaiser
Eusebius McKaiser is a political and social analyst at the Wits Centre for Ethics. He is also a popular radio talk show host, a top international debate coach, a master of ceremonies and a public speaker of note. He loves nothing more than a good argument, having been both former National South African Debate Champion and the 2011 World Masters Debate Champion. His analytic articles and columns have been widely published in South African newspapers and the New York Times. McKaiser has studied law and philosophy. He taught philosophy in South Africa and England.

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