Liberalism doesn’t rule out compassion

There are many things I won’t mention here. If you choose to assume what my views on those things are, go ahead, but if you choose to do so, please realise that you’re simply rolling the dice.

One of those things is speculation regarding the motivations of those who are laying much of KwaZulu Natal and parts of Gauteng to waste in the days following the imprisonment of President Jacob Zuma.

Jane Duncan’s piece in Daily Maverick is an excellent analysis of failures in governance – especially in the intelligence services – that led to this point, and Richard Poplak wrote one of the more important articles on the looting and civil unrest, in noting that controlling the current civil disobedience could well be achieved at the cost of handing authority over essential services to criminal networks.

(And yes, of course we’ve been governed by criminal networks for a while now, but nevertheless, these were still criminals who could theoretically be voted out in elections, rather than people who would be in control regardless of the outcome of a democratic process.)

It’s too soon to develop a general understanding of what the hell is going on, even though some of the particular actions (e.g. destroying community radio stations) can lead one to fear worst-case scenarios, such as actual attempts by a pro-Zuma faction to seize power, rather than some combination of a pro-Zuma faction fucking things up, combined with poor and desperate people taking advantage of the chaos to score a free microwave oven, or even just food for the week.

So, people are desperate, afraid, and in danger. Food supplies are in jeopardy, and essential goods are hard to come by for some in affected areas, and more areas might become affected as the days go by.

But that doesn’t mean one can’t talk about how we respond to these situations, in part because our personal characters, and our political messaging, tell people what’s possible in their interactions with us – what our intentions and motives are, and what sorts of conversations we are open to having with them.

And I say this just because it would be absurd to claim – as some on Twitter will do in any case – that I’m detracting from the “real problem” in raising this. Some think that one can’t raise any other issue while stores are being looted; as a baby is being dropped from a balcony to try and ensure its safety; even while highways are being barricaded; and while citizens are arming themselves, sometimes in self-defense, sometimes because they have always thought of themselves as a potential hero or saviour of civilization, and also sometimes because they’ve always been looking for an excuse to shoot the people they have always wanted some plausible rationalisation to kill.

I said to a friend a couple of days ago that I’m nervous about writing anything about this, because open disgust is both difficult to convey, as well as to pull off. A different friend – one who you could call a soulmate, if only souls existed – and I ran out of words years ago to describe how awful our species is.

But still, there are easy ways to do and be better. With all that as a sort of prologue, consider the tweet that accompanies this post.

Yes, it’s certainly reasonable to say that the tweet is poorly-timed, regardless of whether you think the sentiment is sincere or not. Perhaps it is more important to reinforce a general solidarity with those who are affected by the ongoing grimness than to raise a related, but somewhat tangential issue.

But even if this is true, there’s nothing in such a tweet that denies concern for the victims of the riots (“riots” serving as shorthand for whatever it is that’s going on). If the tweet is morally faulty, what are the premises justifying that conclusion? Are all of our tweets meant to focus on shop-owners who have seen their store looted? How many days do you need to wait before you can say something about another (or a related) topic?

The answer cannot lie in “virtue signalling”, because even if that is manifest in this case, and even if it can sometimes be annoying (which it can be), that would have no bearing on whether a reasonable point is being made or not. And, how is claiming that you are perceiving “glee” from some white people on social media in response to the riots any different from claims that the rioters are Zumabots, foreigners, or characters (and passengers) resulting from an orchestrated scheme by Zuma’s operatives?

All of this is speculation. How we respond to the speculation – and which bits of speculation we choose to respond to – is perhaps revealing. In this case, the respondent to the tweet, who was then amplified by Helen Zille, Chairperson of the Federal Council of the Democratic Alliance, expressed the view that @RobynPorteous was not upset by the riots, but only by tweets from white people about those riots.

Even though nothing in the tweet justified that conclusion.

The question for me now becomes: as much as one can occasionally be annoyed by virtue-signalling (leaving aside that it’s a term that suffers from being falsely ascribed in too many cases), at least it has an upside, in that you’re signalling a virtue.

What’s the upside in signalling the absence of virtue, in choosing to assume the worst of people, and then making a public statement (in the form of a tweet) telling your followers that you consider that person defective in some way?

Twitter is a machine for generating, and preserving, rage. When we use it – as with any platform to some extent, but more so because of the brevity dictated by the platform – we need to be aware of how the audience can use our words (sometimes unconsciously) to confirm their biases.

And, assuming the worst of a person – in this case, that they don’t care about the victims of the riots, but only about the tweets they have seen about the riots – is an instance of (dis)virtue signalling of the sort that feeds into crude generalisations regarding people and their motivations that is anathema to liberalism, and serves as yet another example (in her retweeting of it) of why Helen Zille should be kept off Twitter if the DA want to keep up the pretense of being a liberal party.

Because as much as one might be irritated by “virtue signalling”, implying that someone is exploiting a national crisis to focus on a niche, and less crucial, issue is not only virtue signalling itself (in pointing out that these are the virtues you should care about), it is also fundamentally illiberal, in prescribing what you should believe and talk about.

It is also a failure of empathy, in that the worst interpretation is chosen over one that would result from a simple application of any form of interpretive charity.

Yes, Twitter is obviously a performative space, and obviously a battlefield. And there is a serious value in the “muscular liberalism” that results in holding the state to account, and the Democratic Alliance has done a great job in their dogged pursuit of various bad actors who have been looting public funds and compromising the futures of South African citizens.

Nevertheless, liberalism also celebrates individual freedom and expression, and rejects simplistic generalisations regarding what people are supposed to think or feel.

Focusing on someone identifying as an “intersectional feminist”, as in the tweet captured here, merely offers a generalisation in need of an argument. If you’re going to use it to make some case about a response to the riots, I’d expect at least an attempt at making the relevance clear, rather than just the offering of an insult.

South Africa is in a dire state – there’s no space for reasonable disagreement about that. But there’s a broad group of people who are aligned to the liberal cause in a broad sense of respecting self-determination, and in being committed to human freedom (here, I must remind folks of Harriet Taylor, who kept J.S. Mill on track in arguing for women to have political rights).

You can’t plausibly say that you’re defending liberalism – or imagine you’re providing an example of it – if you engage in generalised character judgments based on 280 character tweets, where your response tells the person what they “should” believe.

In some cases – like this one – you’re often talking to a person who is broadly speaking “on your side”, but where the performative and adversarial nature of social media has obscured that, because you’re looking for clues that they have violated some list of rules, rather than trying to establish whether they are a decent person who cares about the right things.

I’ll finish with a simple question. Who is exploiting a tragic situation more: a person who (arguably) uses the situation to deflect to a pet topic (which might or might not have merit), or the person who tweets (and those who retweet) a sentiment that assumes what you are thinking, tells you what you should think, and does so premised on having positioned you in a category that they presume carries some epistemic (and presumably, psychological) import?

By Jacques Rousseau

Jacques Rousseau teaches critical thinking and ethics at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, and is the founder and director of the Free Society Institute, a non-profit organisation promoting secular humanism and scientific reasoning.