Building a better society starts with recognising this one’s broken

Today’s horror is the rape of a Northern Cape high school boy, whose classmates tied him to a bed and raped him with a broom handle. “Today’s horror” is of course inaccurate, as there are no doubt many others. But this one stands out for me for various reasons:

The initial use of the word “sodomy” instead of the word “rape”, demonstrating an unconscious (and widespread) homophobia. It’s a mild form of homophobia in isolation – but to note that would really miss the point unless you follow it up with the observation that, for those who identify with marginalised and oppressed groups, all of these mild or micro cases add up to a environment of systemic discrimination.

The norm is white, male and heterosexual. This is not to say that it’s impossible for people to overplay their hand (whatever that hand might be) in terms of being part of some marginalised group – some people can be disingenuous, and excuse some personal failing by reference to a coincidental feature they happen to possess.

That’s an entirely separate issue from whether, on average, someone who is not white, male and heterosexual is likely to have a rougher deal than people like me. So, denying any person’s experience by reference to them “playing the x card” (x = race, gender, etc.) pretends that systemic disadvantage is nonexistent, and makes you sound like a heartless, uninformed and unreflective fool.

SASecond, on the rape case, is the fact that some seem to want to make this all about kids being kids at an initiation ritual, rather than it being a racially motivated attack. The bone I’ll throw at you is that of course we can’t know it was a racial attack. But it’s pretty likely to be, in South Africa, at least to the extent that certain inhibitions about not treating other human beings in a barbaric fashion are more present if the prospective target is white, male and heterosexual.

It doesn’t matter that the crowd of kids who were looking on, and (I’m told) cheering were modeling a united colours of Benetton poster, comprising people of various races. It’s possible to internalise racism against any group, even the group you belong to yourself.

And, as DA spokesperson Phumzile van Damme rightly notes in a statement on this attack

Under the cover of “traditions” such as initiations, children are given the platform to act on their racism and homophobia – sanctioned by the institution and often “protected” by just those who went through the same “rites of passage” themselves. Many of these kids are raised by racist, bigoted parents and then spend years and years in these situations where they barely have to disguise this. In fact, it often gets encouraged.

On Facebook, Max du Preez asked “Isn’t it time to consider legislation declaring racist acts (attacks and serious insults) hate crimes with harsh punishment?” I don’t want to get into hate crimes and hate speech at present, because there’s so much to talk about there, but one thing we do need is to at least recognise that they exist, and identify them for what they are.

We have too many folk who still believe the Rainbow Nation myth, and think we’re pretty much united, and too many who believe we’re still in some sort of (undeclared) race war, or at least socially (or otherwise) incompatible with each other. The truth is in the middle – we’re sorting things out, but that requires work, not mythologising.

For those of you who haven’t seen it, go read and play with the “parable of the polygons” to see an elegant demonstration of how (perceived) harmless choices can still add up to a harmful world. Also, read Oliver Burkeman’s recent Guardian piece, which argues that believing the world is intrinsically fair or just can lead to increased injustice, because we “blame the victim” instead of supporting remedial measures.

I don’t know for sure how we build better societies, but recognising our problems, instead of pretending we live in some alternate and superior universe would surely be a start.