The politics of protest, and the (rightful?) death of nuance

It’s very odd to be re-tweeted by Steve Hofmeyr, because a person like me never imagines that something I say might seem agreeable to a racist Afrikaner nationalist, never mind one who once sued a puppet.

And just yesterday, I saw a tweet from the puppet in question that was so illogical, and morally questionable, that I had to have sympathy for the anti-PC (and often, libertarian-leaning) folk on SA Twitter who deride said puppet for having no political backbone, or for drinking too deeply from the well of some kind of cultural relativism.

But I don’t want to be associated with them (the strident anti-PC people) either, so didn’t join that battle. And this is the problem, especially on social media: there’s so little space and time for nuanced debate on these issues, because not picking a side is all-too-frequently interpreted as having picked the other side.

So, you keep quiet instead, making the problem of diminished debate a vicious cycle that only serves to amplify the extremist voices on both sides.

Perhaps that’s as it needs to be, at least for the moment and during this time of revolution, led by South African students. And perhaps nuance is over-rated, as a recent paper titled “F__k nuance” argues (pdf link to the paper, which has the best and perhaps shortest abstract ever: “Seriously, f__k it.”).

But as much as nuance might be over-rated, and can be a way to avoid or deny clear implications of things like vested privilege, it seems regressive and irrational to not keep trying to make distinctions between a) the virtue of political goals and b) the virtue of speech and action in favour of those goals.

So I’ll keep doing it, in this case focusing briefly on the tweet that Hofmeyr retweeted, and then Chester Missing’s tweet, in the hope that the examples demonstrate that nuance is still important, and that grappling with nuance doesn’t necessarily mark you out as opposed to any given cause.

The tweet above was the one that Hofmeyr shared, and where he and I are probably (and uncomfortably, for me at least) of like mind in thinking that cultural sensitivity in US colleges has gone somewhat overboard.

In this case, students have been reprimanded thanks to having worn mini-sombreros, in an act of “cultural appropriation” that apparently makes students (especially Mexican students) feel “unsafe”.

The theme of the party was “tequila”. Mexico is associated with tequila, and sombreros are associated with Mexico. If being reminded of these facts makes Mexican students feel unsafe, the problem is with them, not the sombreros.

Of course it’s possible to “appropriate” culture or lived experience in a way that’s abusive, or insensitive at the very least. Blackface is one, as I’ve written about previously, and earlier than that in a post about whether Chester Missing (who we’ll return to shortly) is an instance of blackface.

But the Mexico/tequila/sombrero connection does not, to my mind at least, offer an example of abusive or offensive cultural appropriation. I don’t think it presents Mexico as being, for example, a nation of tequila-intoxicated buffoons or some such.

It doesn’t assert that all Mexico has to offer us is tequila and funny hats, but rather depends on the fact that of the things Mexico can offer us, tequila and funny hats are included.

If tequila and sombreros are culturally inappropriate things for non-Mexicans to drink or wear, are we unable to wear Panama hats, or drink French wine? No – the offense is surely in mockery, or in doing things that reference culture when we’re told not to do so, for good reason, by insiders.

And when college administrators over-react, as in a case like this, they are the problem also, in that they tell or license students to react as if grievously offended by the smallest things.

There’s a difference between putting on a sombrero and/or drinking tequila, and making anti-Mexican jokes or mocking Mexican accents (or doing something else that’s clearly a slur upon Mexicans). If the college administrators can’t see and reinforce that difference, it’s little wonder that hyper-awareness of potential insults is the order of the day.

Then, Chester Missing, who is a puppet character performed by Conrad Koch. Chester Missing is a vocal critic of authority, especially established political powers, and has recently also retweeted a call for solidarity in support of the RhodesMustFall movement.

When challenged on whether solidarity included support for burning paintings by black artists and of female anti-apartheid activists, his response was to say:

This seems to say that if someone paints something to challenge an unequal status quo, that any future challengers of a status quo are free to use it in any way that suits their purpose, so long as it’s in service of challenging the status quo. Other factors, like the cause, the alternatives, the fact that the original status quo might still be a problem, and so forth, seem to no longer be relevant.

Nor, of course, do more mundane questions like the value of paintings; or the value of burning them rather than selling them; or installing them in situations that problematise their histories; or questions of ownership, where even if you don’t like something or think it deserves to be on a wall, that might not be your decision to take at all.

But it got worse. One response to that Chester Missing tweet said “Bizarre logic. What next? Burning challenging books to challenge status quo?”, to which he responded:

It’s art, not books? The obvious error here is that books are artworks also, and if you want to be metaphorical, paintings are also perhaps books (in that they tell stories and record histories).

Having said that, depending on your values, some art might of course be less precious than some books, or vice versa. I would normally come down in favour of books, but I’m also fully aware that I don’t have a good grasp of art history or theory, and thus aren’t capable of assessing the (non-material) value of visual artworks.

That’s why we have classes on these topics, and debate them. That’s why subjective preferences are perfectly reasonable determinants of what you hang on your wall or keep on your shelf, but don’t give you license to destroy things belonging to others.

And, of course, “Rubbish, it’s art, not books” is a spurious distinction. And being “in the halls of the status quo, and in many ways therefore part of its rhetoric” tells us nothing about the ways in which it’s part of the rhetoric, and what role it plays in those halls.

In this case, some paintings were exactly of things that challenged that status quo, either in documenting black South Africans or South African women overcoming the bias prevalent in that status quo.

So, when you burn those paintings – at least on Chester Missing’s logic – which version of that rhetoric are you reinforcing, and which are you eliding from the history of those halls?

If doing the work of “decolonising” a space involves destroying work of others who were doing the same work decades before, I think you can admit to that being a mistake, even if you support the overall tactic of burning paintings.

It’s not that I would necessarily support that argument, but at least it’s one that makes the distinction, and acknowledges that the revolution can indeed sometimes eat (or burn) its children, as in the destruction of at least some of these paintings.

Or, one could insist on binaries, as Chester Missing’s tweets did. To return to the near-beginning of this post, we can distinguish between goals and actions in favour of those goals.

It’s possible that burning particular paintings (or any paintings, but that’s not my point here) actually runs contrary to certain goals, even on the internal logic of those goals. And we do nobody any favours by ignoring that, or by insisting that you are either with “us” or against “us” in arguments such as these.

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.