/ 14 December 2018

Take a long, hard look in the mirror

(John McCann/M&G)
(John McCann/M&G)

It is easier to judge others than it is to judge ourselves. Which is why many people were ready to celebrate when actor and comedian Kevin Hart stepped down from his nominated role as the host of the next Oscar awards evening.

I have little sympathy for Hart. He has profited from a buffet of homophobic content in his work and homophobia isn’t harmless. By definition, it impairs the inherent self-worth of gay people. There should always be consequences for harming others — not least when harming others is avoidable, if only you take the trouble to understand your prejudices and work at eliminating them.

But it is easier to be self-righteous, condemning the harmful beliefs, attitudes and actions of other people, than it is to take a hard look at ourselves. I think there are several reasons for this.

One is that we live in an era of “virtue signalling”. This is not to mock the legitimate condemnation of other people’s harmful behaviour. You have a duty to break your silence about the harm that someone is causing, even if you are not being subjected to it.

You do not need to be white, for example, to be outraged by the hate speech being peddled by Andile Mngxitama. So we should not discourage people from holding one another accountable, rushing to accuse them when it is solely about wanting to be seen to be virtuous.

But at times I have also seen in online communities a discombobulated tendency to point out bigotry in a tone and manner that sometimes seems like gloating, suggestive of an addiction to Schadenfreude. It is almost as if some people think that there is a competition to be the wokest kid on the social media block.

This, too, isn’t admirable because, although the bigotry that is being skewered is being skewered rightly, those who rip off the heads of everyone who puts even their little toe wrong also reveal an unattractive character trait. That is a vicious policing of other people’s faults — a game of “spot the bigotry” — rather than doing so because of a deep commitment to building a community of decent co-inhabitants of our pluralistic society.

You just have to look into some of the echo chambers of condemnation on Twitter, for example, to see how quickly some individuals can spot bigoted speech and quickly transform that echo chamber into a bloodthirsty mob ready to bite and feast.

One of the consequences of this is that we then rarely stop to examine ourselves because we are wallowing in our apparent virtue.

Put differently, social media has made us obsessively other-regarding rather than self-regarding. Interestingly, of course, for philosophers such as John Stuart Mill, the idea of regard for others was morally admirable in the sense of each of us giving adequate weight, in our moral reasoning, to the interests of others.

In our times, we have developed a different kind of other-regarding, which is not about due moral regard for the interests of others, but rather a kind of other-obsession with the aim of lacerating people who dare to reveal even the slightest stain on their characters. And when we attack, we don’t need to look at ourselves, as if attacking others is evidence of our moral perfection.

Which brings me to a second reason that I think underpins our aversion to self-examination. Very few of us think of ourselves as insufficiently decent people. It is hard to look into our web of beliefs to spot prejudices if we are convinced we are decent.

Decent people do not harm others, do they? So an invitation to answer the question “What prejudices do you have?” can be confusing because the question implies that all is not well with us, ethically speaking. But how can any of us claim to be complete moral works?

We are a country that is saturated with interpersonal and institutional prejudices, ranging from class-based ones to misogyny, ableism, racism, linguistic biases and harmful cultural and ethnic stereotyping. South African history is a history of gross state-sponsored prejudices. If our state and our non-state institutions are sullied by our prejudicial history, then how can we, as the individual members of this society, claim to be virtuous?

So let me ask you this: What prejudices do you have? And what are you doing to eliminate them? Or are you going to claim to be fundamentally decent, morally complete, and more virtuous than Mother Teresa was?

It is all too easy to criticise Steve Hofmeyr and Mngxitama. Self-examination is much harder, which is why all of us, myself included, have yet to do some serious work as citizens of a society founded on prejudice.

In A Bantu in My Bathroom I first wrote about the anti-black racism of my coloured community, which I had inherited. I grew up with way too many examples of even poor and working-class coloured people looking down on fellow black people. They drew sharp racial and even sharp political distinctions between ourselves and fellow South Africans who just happened to be of darker hue.

Verwoerd would have been proud. The idea of cross-racial friendship, let alone love, across the boundary between the coloured community and “the township” was not part of my social vocabulary.

It was, as I wrote in my book, in chance encounters at a diverse model C school and later at Rhodes University that I was confronted with the false, bigoted and racist beliefs and attitudes deeply embedded within myself. Because we drink the racism in our mother’s milk, and internalise the racism of our father’s speech acts.

There are exceptions, but let these not distract us from honest self-examination. We should also challenge ourselves not to stop merely after admitting these truths. Admission is necessary, but not enough.

What are you actively doing to get rid of these prejudices? The hard work begins after spotting your own prejudices.