Before we talk about what the law says, we should talk and think about what sort of society we hope for the law to help create. The law is always going to be an imperfect tool for managing millions of often selfish, confused, partisan, and otherwise compromised humans.
So when talking about liberal values such as free speech, it is legitimate to ask whether past, current or future formulations of laws governing the value in question do the job optimally, rather than to simply appeal to them as the end-points of an argument.
On Sunday, we witnessed an atypically shambolic press conference from the Democratic Alliance (DA). Part of the reason for the chaos was presumably the significance of the news, namely Helen Zille’s announcement that she won’t be standing for the position of party leader at their upcoming elective conference.
A journalist contacted me yesterday for comment on whether she “jumped or was pushed”, and it strikes me as unfortunate that the question seems as high on people’s lists of interests as it seems to be. The News24 live feed of the press conference chose “I wasn’t pushed” as their headline, even though the mere idea that she might have been was mentioned only once by Zille, and then once in a speculative tweet by UCT’s Professor Pierre de Vos.
My view is that the distinction is to a large extent a meaningless one, and one that mostly serves to feed a public demand for sensation.
Zille is undoubtedly a strong enough character to have stayed on if that was her preference – so to some extent, it strikes me as absurd to suggest she was “pushed”. But in this discourse, “pushed” is interpreted to mean something closer to “evicted”, or told/asked to go.
If you think of “pushed” in the less hyperbolic sense of being subject to internal pressures, it would be absurd to think that those were not present. For one, there isn’t a political party that has no internal dissent, and second, we also know that Zille has been contemplating stepping down as leader for some time now.
The fact that Zille herself made the possibility of stepping down public knowledge would also mean that anyone who would like to see her do so might have been emboldened to make that suggestion internally more often or openly than before. This wouldn’t amount to being “pushed” in any sense that represents an ousting or a coup, which is what the hyperbolic language suggests – it’s rather part of the ordinary growth and evolution of an organisation.
In this case, I think the timing poor. I of course don’t have access to all the information, and there might well have been compelling reasons why it couldn’t wait. But I think it poor first because it will have the likely effect of eliminating any serious competitors to Mmusi Maimane as Zille’s successor, and second because there isn’t much time for any successor to be confident of full control of the party in time for the upcoming elections in 2016.
The first issue undermines internal democracy, and has the effect of Zille anointing her successor, rather than that successor being chosen by the party. Postponing the federal congress to give other candidates a fair shot would have cost R5m, according to Gareth van Onselen.
On the second issue, a new leader will not only have to get to grips with a broader range of internal interests and pressures, but will also presumably want to put his or her own stamp on things, which means that those they lead will also have to adjust to a new regime. Add those complications to the strong suggestions that the DA will be launching a new “values” platform before the election, and the recipe seems to indicate an incoherent election campaign.
Regarding Maimane himself, I think he’ll struggle with internal and external credibility, at least initially. His rise has been too rapid to establish a track-record that inspires confidence, and beyond being a good rhetorician, we know little about him as leader – his strategic inclinations, his views on policy, and so forth.
Having said that, there’s a wealth of experience in the party that can offer advice during the transition, and I also doubt that Zille would have been as supportive of him as she has been until now if he were not up to the task. She’s also not going anywhere, having committed to seeing out her term as Western Cape Premier.
However it plays out, there are interesting times ahead for watchers of South African politics, same as it ever was.
Yesterday, the Premier of the Western Cape, Democratic Alliance (DA) Leader Helen Zille said:
and that’s how the fight got started. For a number of hours after this tweet, Zille was drawn into debate (well, insofar as the medium permits) on the religious views of Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot etc., the putative moral virtue of Mother Theresa, and various other issues relating to religion and/or the absence of it.
Zille apologised for and retracted the tweet above, and it must be said that many who jumped into the conversation didn’t follow it from the start, and were guilty of some over-reaction themselves. In fact, the over-reaction persists today, where some legitimate criticism is being mixed in with abuse and caracaturing of her views and motivations.
If you read her tweet in the context of the conversation, I think it clear that she was responding to Kevin King’s introduction of the idea of religion-bashing by atheists, albeit in a rather glib and unfortunate way, given that the conversation began with Mandy de Waal offering an example of religious fundamentalism causing deaths.
But given the context of the conversation, it was a foot-in-mouth moment rather than an expression of religious intolerance. Despite this, her defence of the tweet, and a few follow-up tweets, indicate that Premier Zille does appear to hold rather misguided views on what atheism is, and what atheists believe.
First, though, I will agree with her on a central point, and annoy many atheists in the process: it’s entirely possible for atheists to be fundamentalists.
If you understand “fundamentalism” in the classic sense, in other words strict adherence to some set of doctrines, then atheists can’t be fundamentalists, as we have no doctrines. (Atheism being simply, and only, the absence of a belief in a deity or deities.)
But language and usage evolves, and it seems entirely permissible to me for “fundamentalism” to be taken as referring to certain ways of being anti-theist, rather than atheist. One relevant category of action would be to ridicule, mock, or insult; another would be to hold your atheism dogmatically, in the sense that you find it impossible to entertain any claims regarding the potential value of religion.
I’ve read my Dawkins, and know that folk will disagree with me on the first category above, insisting that “passion” gets mistaken for stridency. And on the second, I suspect many will say that there’s nothing to entertain, and that those of us who do are simply being “accommodationists”, weasels or something like that.
I’ll not rehearse those arguments now, but will instead point you to an earlier post which deals with some of these arguments at greater length. Here, I just want to say that I agree with Zille on that point, but nevertheless think that she should reconsider her beliefs with regard to atheism and its role in both history and contemporary society.
Even though she made repeated references to her party being committed to religious freedom, and asserted that she is similarly committed, her expressed thoughts on Twitter indicate prejudice against the non-religious. For example:
As my earlier post argues, these sorts of sentiments are thoroughly confused, in that none of these examples were motivated by their atheism (for those who were atheists). The first tweet above should refer to “psychopaths” or “sociopaths” or something rather than atheists, because none of the claims made (commit mass slaughter; believe they are God; have an ideology) are remotely true of atheism in general.
The second tweet again makes the mistake of thinking that atheism is an ideology, or something that informs the lives of atheists in some sort of fundamental way. We’re just like you, Helen, and our atheism is usually as much of an “ideology” as your disbelief in Thor is.
And yes, perhaps people who happen to have been atheists have indeed killed many people, but either that’s coincidental, or you’re making a causal claim about either atheism conducing to evil deeds, or religion conducing to good deeds. Evidence suggests the final option might be what she thinks is the case:
And here I’ll say “sure, maybe that’s true” – but we’ve got zero reasons for believing it to be true. It’s an empirical question, and someone like Zille, who seems fond of data-driven approaches to things, might perhaps know of some of the ways we can distinguish better and worse answers to the question.
For example, does criminality, gender discrimination, murder and so forth tend to correlate positively with religious or non-religious societies? (The former, i.e. non-religious societies are more pleasant.) Does thinking about morality as necessarily connected to religion make any sense? (No – read your Plato.)
And, does thinking about morality as being intimately connected to religion impede moral understanding and thinking, by infantilising us, and making us unable to resolve moral issues through reason? (I think so.)
Zille does seem entirely sincere in her commitment to religious freedom, but that’s not much comfort when she appears to hold rather unsophisticated views on these matters. She’s endorsing dangerous stereotypes in tweeting these sorts of things, and furthermore, doing damage to the DA’s brand.
Briefly, on Helen Zille criticising journalists, and specifically Carien du Plessis, on Twitter. As I said at the time, Twitter is the wrong medium for this in any case – prone to misinterpretation and uncharitable readings. Plus, Zille has a similar problem as Dawkins has on Twitter – she can all too often sound like she’s simply trolling, which doesn’t do her arguments any justice.
It’s entirely possible that du Plessis is overcompensating for something in her reporting. It’s entirely possible that this might have something to do with race, gender, experience and the like. But how could this ever be proved? The fact that it can’t be – that it’s unfalsifiable – makes making the claim the story, rather than the claim itself.
Making the claim that she does demonstrate bias now becomes a character slur of sorts, and in that context, can amount to ‘playing the race card’, even though Zille is quite right in her general description, in a comment to her column in Daily Maverick, regarding how we often misuse the idea of the race card.
Let us sort out this “race card” red herring. When a reference to race is relevant, it is NOT playing the race card. Only when race is irrelevant to the argument, does it involve the “race card”. e.g. if someone is corrupt and they claim they are persecuted because of their race, THAT is the race card. If I have come to the conclusion, over many years, that a reporter’s race and background is something that they have to constantly over-compensate for in every report, I will say so. It is not the race card. Of course it is offensive. But freedom of speech is the right to say things one believes to be true but that may be offensive to others. No-one has the right NOT to be offended. And why is everyone so shocked when a relevant point is raised about the baggage of race and history on some white South Africans — while there is not a word about the constant gratuitous racial insults others of us have to face on a daily basis. Stop this double standard and hypocrisy.
As she correctly points out, if race is relevant, there’s no logical fallacy in highlighting it. Playing the race card is just one instance of an ad hominem fallacy, and should be treated just the same, in a logical sense. Calling something ad hominem shouldn’t be used simply as a way to avoid dealing with the substance of the accusation, assuming there is any substance to the accusation. And that is where Zille errs.
Because if you want to make the case that there’s bias – and not simply create the impression that you don’t like what’s being said – you have to actually make the case, not simply allude to it. Helen Zille just asserts her conclusion regarding du Plessis, appealing to her impressions as evidence. But we don’t have access to those impressions, meaning that for us, as readers, the claim is without warrant. This sort of claim is permissible, and we shouldn’t shout it down just because we disagree.
We should shout it down (by which I mean, point out its failings) more because it’s poorly made, and because we care about good arguments.
There’s perhaps an argument for saying this about any election, but to my mind, the upcoming national elections in 2014 will be South Africa’s most interesting since our first (democratic) election in 1994. Various factors align to make it so – the ANC’s corrupt leadership, and President Zuma’s apparent inability or unwillingness to do anything but enrich himself; the untested effects of Ramaphosa’s re-emergence as a political force; the reaction of a nation to scandals (Limpopo textbooks) and murderous police (Marikana); and whether these (and other) factors will lead to mass apathy and a low voter turnout, or to more votes being cast for the official opposition.
And that’s where another complication can be introduced – one that I intend to be the topic of this post – namely the identity of the Democratic Alliance, and whether liberalism can accommodate concepts like ubuntu, or be sympathetic to “African-ness” (whatever either of those terms might mean). In her Sunday column for the City Press, Carien du Plessis asked:
Rather than splitting hairs on whether its leaders are true blue liberals or not, the party would do well to think about how its version of liberalism could include rather than reject Africanness and concepts that are a hot sell among a South African electorate craving some feel-good ubuntu.
Otherwise the DA could be wandering in an elitist wilderness forever.
The “splitting hairs” she refers to is contained in a sequence of op-ed’s and blog posts by Mmusi Maimane (DA national spokesperson), Gareth van Onselen (previously communications head at the DA, then executive director for innovation and projects, and now resigned from party leadership) and Gavin Davis (current communications director for the DA, but writing in his personal capacity). If you want to read them, go here, here and here.
I don’t think it’s splitting hairs to contest whether or not leaders are true blue liberals, if we believe that there’s something important about being one, and can agree on what liberalism is. Van Onselen has strong views on what liberalism is, and on how the DA should compete for the flourishing of liberal ideas in South African politics. Du Plessis, in saying that the party should think about how it could include African-ness and ubuntu, is making the implicit claim that liberalism can include those concepts. Well, the DA’s “version” of liberalism can, at least – and it’s exactly what this version should be that van Onselen is concerned with, arguing that these are essentially illiberal ideas.
So, I think a legitimate case can be made that if we were to foreground (or “include”, however we end up defining that) these concepts, this would involve some sort of betrayal of classical liberal values. For some, that would be a good thing, for others a bad one. And we can argue about whether that makes the party no longer liberal, or liberal-lite, or whatever.
But let’s be careful of thinking this a crucial step in defining the nature of the party, or rather, let’s acknowledge the fact that the party hasn’t been a classically liberal one for quite some time now. To pick only some recent examples, some would say that a liberal party should not bow to religious pressure and act as a respondent in a court case aimed at the revocation of a liquor license on the grounds that booze would be sold next to a mosque. Some would say that our provincial transport MEC didn’t sound very liberal when threatening to confiscate the car keys of sleepy drivers, and when asked if this was legal, saying “I have no idea, but I don’t care either”. There was Helen Zille’s suggestion that she’d like to make the wearing of condoms law in non-monogamous sexual intercourse, or Jack Bloom’s claim that “maybe if we all prayed more the social change we desire will happen” – which, while not obviously illiberal, certainly makes human agency and freedom seem subservient to some powerful force in the clouds.
So in summary, this might in the end be hair-splitting, because the party might have stopped being liberal a while back now. And perhaps van Onselen knows this, and is now saying things (at least, publicly) that he’s been thinking for some time. And, maybe, we can understand his concern at what Maimane had to say, in that Maimane is likely to be an increasingly influential force within the party, and thus serves as a bellwether for the ideological stance of the party in 2014 and beyond, where the party might start openly embracing illiberal ideas, rather than having to suffer through occasional bouts of illiberality from one of more of its leaders.
Maimane’s comments do matter, as do any prominent DA official’s comments on topics like these, because they indicate not only ideological direction, but also the extent to which a party is willing to compromise, and how honestly it’s willing to do so. For instance, Maimane could have chosen to say: “liberalism cannot include collectivist ideas like ubuntu, and in this respect, I consider liberalism flawed”. Or, he could argue that this version (to go back to du Plessis’ suggestion) of liberalism is more suited to a people who do have strong collectivist tendencies – or even that freedom has to include the freedom to be part of a collective, even if that seems counterintuitive to some.
But van Onselen is right in pointing out that Maimane does himself seem to believe in the idea that “being African” means something, and he also seems to think it should mean something – not just to him, but to “Africans”. And that is illiberal, because if Maimane restricted himself to the purely descriptive claim that “many people in Africa seem to believe X” or the more personal “I happen to believe or feel X” there would be less of an issue, in that self-identification is part of what liberalism is about. Prescribing versions of identity, or (at least) presenting them as normative, runs counter to self-identification, and thus to liberalism.
The problem, though, is that as much as you’d be free to think of yourself as an African, or to subscribe to something like ubuntu (on Inside Politics, van Onselen and I have previously discussed what that concept means) within a broad liberal framework, the DA don’t create the impression of welcoming those sorts of self-identification – and this is the real problem, and has been since the party came into existence (and before – I remember having the same debates at PFP Youth meetings in the 1980’s, and I’m sure they were discussed long before then too).
(An aside: on Twitter, van Onselen stated that the “ideas themselves are illiberal“, so he’d presumably dispute the paragraph above. I’d argue that whether African-ness was illiberal or not would depend entirely on what it meant, for you, seeing as we’re now talking about self-identification rather than someone else’s label. If African-ness means some sort of sentimental attachment to the continent, for example, calling that illiberal seems to me as false as it would be to call my identification as a Manchester United fan illiberal”.)
As I was saying, these debates have gone on for some time. To my mind, this is the same debate that Ryan Coetzee (former and current all sorts of things, but at the time, writing as CEO of the DA) was talking about in a 2006 strategy document where he noted (in a passage explicitly framed as generalisation) that:
all South Africans don’t share the same concerns about what might be called “identity issues” … white South Africans don’t have the same attachment to the cultural heritage of black South Africans – indeed black South Africans have always felt that their culture is regarded as inferior by whites, and that by extension they themselves are regarded as inferior.
The DA in 2013 looks vastly different to the DA of 2006, partly because it has taken the lead on initiatives (street renaming) and policy (basic income grant) that demonstrate a commitment to redressing history’s injustices rather than reinforcing some “neoliberal” caricature of wiping the slate clean, and letting people compete in some Darwinian pure market economy.
But if we say things like “ubuntu and African-ness are illiberal”, or that Mmusi Maimane is being unfaithful to the tenets of liberalism in trying to define those concepts, an impression of hostility to that “cultural heritage” would be created. You might think it wrong that people perceive it as hostile – perhaps preferring that the argument be had on the facts, rather than on the emotive impact of pointing out those facts – and I would agree that it’s not ideal that we can’t dispassionately consider the merits of these competing views.
Unfortunately, humans – and politics – have never been only about the facts, or about rationality. Many of you might think the facts have even less to do with political argument than rhetoric does, and I’d be reluctant to disagree. So, when we ask if liberalism can “accommodate” these concepts, even if the answer turns out to be “no”, we should be concerned about how we get to that answer.
Asserting that it is the correct answer in a way that dismisses competing views as a nonsense can do little but feed in to a stereotype about liberals and liberalism, namely that they are and it is un-African. The concept is flawed, and it’s to my mind a nonsense, especially when prescribed to others.
But nobody will listen to your arguments as to why that might be the case if they think you’re insulting them, or even worse, telling them what they should believe – or ironically, even perhaps who they should be.
While there’s a truckload of recent religious batshittery I had planned to note here (sick people dying at faith-healing rallies, and so forth), Jackson Mthembu and a couple of other idiots are presently too difficult to ignore. First, there was yesterday’s ruling by the Supreme Court of Appeal (SCA) that recognised the Democratic Alliance as a legal person, and one which furthermore has the right to call for a review of the decision to drop corruption charges against President Jacob Zuma.
It clearly is in the public interest that the issues raised in the review application be adjudicated and, in my view, on the papers before us, it cannot seriously be contended that the DA is not acting, genuinely and in good faith, in the public interest.
The ANC press release, penned by dear Jackson, wants
to highlight the following: The continued attempt by the DA to use the Courts to undermine and paralyse government
Significant respect for the judiciary there. And of course, no attempt at political point-scoring. Which is good, seeing as Mac Maharaj had also remarked on the ruling and was quoted as saying “anyone who wishes to use Zuma SCA judgment for party political point-scoring would be doing a disservice to our country”. Good thing Jackson didn’t do that, then.
The other idiots are those intent on seeing malice or racism in anything that Helen Zille, Western Cape Premier, might have to say on Twitter. And, of course, to accuse anyone who dares to defend her as some sort of mindless zombie. Zille is a loose cannon on Twitter, no doubt. And as I’ve argued before, I think she’s got some strange and silly ideas. Today, she caused her regular round of outrage as a result of a tweet from yesterday which spoke of the Western Cape accommodating “ECape education refugees”.
If you can’t see why this is racist, then apparently you are a racist. Or so goes logic on Twitter (and also for Jackson, but more on him in a moment). Perhaps we should start at the beginning, by consulting a dictionary. One definition of a refugee could be “one who flees in search of refuge, as in times of war, political oppression, or religious persecution”. Of course, usually refugees flee a country, not failing education systems in the Eastern Cape. But Helen Zille was presumably using the word metaphorically. As I said on Twitter, her usage could certainly be described as hyperbolic, but racist? How does that work?
The way it works is simply that the pupils fleeing the Eastern Cape happen to be black. Hence, describing them as refugees is racist. Now, many refugees everywhere in the world are black. And the cause of this involved a fair amount of racism, in economics, in politics, in every aspect of the way some countries have operated (and some continue to). In this country, with our demographics and our history of social inequality, it stands to reason that most people who have something to flee would be black. Note that Zille never referred to race – she described them as refugees, which seems to have been intended as a description (while hyperbolic, as I mentioned) of the situation they faced themselves in, and which they decided to flee.
It’s a contingent detail that they are black, and that’s not a detail that’s relevant here – the material circumstance of a bunch of pupils (who happen to be black) is the issue, and the one Zille was presumably referring to in describing them as refugees. That they came to be refugees would undoubtedly involve racism, yes – but that’s not the issue here. Once they experience conditions that are worth fleeing from, how they got into that position is a matter for historians – describing them as being in that position doesn’t endorse it, or make the claim that they are there because of their race.
The ANC is vindicated by the statement made by Helen Zille. This is typical of the erstwhile apartheid government’s mentality that resorted to influx control measures to restrict black people from the so-called white areas. (eh? These “refugees” are coming into the Western Cape – Zille’s made no effort to keep them out. Bit of an apartheid-Godwin, methinks.)
Zille’s racist statement underpins the DA’s policy of exclusionism of blacks. She will never say the same thing about whites who relocate from one area of the country to the Western Cape or even those who relocate from other countries to the Western Cape. To reduce South Africans who have free movement in their own country as refugees is tantamount to… labelling them with a tag associated with foreigners.
Zille’s reference to the Eastern Cape pupils as refugees is motivated by political opportunism, to be sure – it’s a chance to highlight how much better the Western Cape primary education system seems to be when compared to that of the Eastern Cape. But it also indicates sympathy, or at least an awareness (back to the definition of the word) that they are fleeing from an unpleasant situation. Any other sort of relocation, such as the examples Jackson uses, would only be of relevance as counterexamples or evidence of Zille “reducing” these pupils to anything if the situations were comparable.
Typical migration – whether for economic reasons, or to get an education – is driven by preference, not by need. Or rather, the needs are less severe. A word like “refugee” makes sense in the context of a systemic failure of some market, not simply someone moving to Gauteng because they find it difficult to find a job in the Cape. The point is that these pupils have been “reduced” to leaving their home-towns because the Eastern Cape education system has failed them – not because of anything Helen Zille has done.
But as is sadly so often the case, outrage and race-baiting are winning the day, both on Twitter and in the hypothetical mind of Jackson Mthembu. I agree that Zille’s Tweet was poorly-considered, as many of them are. And I think she’s said many unfortunate (and in the case of HIV/AIDS, appalling) things. But in this case, all she’s been is hyperbolic – and the racism exists only in the minds of those who see it in her use of the word “refugee”.
P.S. From the Kieno Kammies show in CapeTalk567, a 10 minute conversation on this between Jackson Mthembu and Helen Zille.
While I’ve previously commented on the illiberal nature of some of Helen Zille’s recent public utterances, at least she’s mostly kept her personal religious beliefs out of the equation. Sure, they no doubt inform her conservative moral stance, but her arguments and proposed interventions are nevertheless supported by arguments (regardless of your, or my, views on the quality of those arguments).
By contrast, Jack Bloom (DA Leader in the Gauteng legislature) seems to have no qualms in putting God at front and centre as a potential answer to South Africa’s ills, regardless of the diversity of belief among those who voted for his party (not to mention a large number of those who work for his party). In fact, God seems to have been here all along, not only facilitating the “transition from Apartheid”, but also working abroad in spurring the abolitionist movement against slavery, and inspiring people to formulate the “democratic concepts that led to the American Revolution”.
There’s no question that Bloom is sincere, and that he believes religion can play a role in encouraging people to think about their moral obligations. Sadly for those of us who think morality can only be principled if also secular, he’s in agreement with the DA’s general position here, where the party says that religion “should serve as a moral and spiritual inspiration“.
But even this view (the mistaken one, that morality and religion are easy bedfellows) is at least comprehensible, given that our country is mostly religious. Comprehensible, not reasonable, because if we need more prayer and less politics (as Bloom argues), surely the ACDP would have a far higher share of the votes?
What’s most egregious about Bloom’s opinion piece is that he by and large simply makes things up as he goes along, plucking historical events out of the timeline and – without any evidence (unless you count dubious correlations as evidence, which you shouldn’t) – attributes them to prayer and religion. It’s true that Lanphier drove a large Christian revival movement in the US during the mid-1800’s, yes, but to say that it was the Christianity – rather than basic human compassion or economics – that informed the abolition of slavery is an entirely circular argument, which assumes what it purports to demonstrate.
The American Revolution – also offered by Bloom as evidence for the power of prayer – seems more plausibly explained by something like the first 13 colonies revolting against rule by the British Empire, regardless of whether some or many the revolutionaries were religious. Their desire to be free doesn’t need religion to make sense, and it seems entirely spurious – and again circular – to use this as evidence for us needing more prayer and less politics.
And then of course there’s the elephant in the room: namely, that the data overwhelmingly suggest that on any benchmark of morality you care to pick, secular countries usually outperform religious ones. Corruption? Check. Divorce rates? Check. Crime? Check. Do a comparison for whatever measure you like using something like Google’s public data explorer, or read a simple and short book like Sinnott-Armstrong’s Morality without God.
One of the saddest aspects of public utterances like this from DA leaders, for me, is the fact that the DA has one clear advantage over other contenders in the political arena: the effective, and entirely pragmatically motivated, delivery of goods and services. That’s their clear competitive advantage, and the drum they should be beating more loudly than any other. But when a DA official – and a highly placed one at that – tells us that he hopes to outsource his job to God (at best) or collective insanity (at worst), it only reinforces the fear that populism is taking the place of common sense.
Bloom closes his piece with “maybe if we all prayed more the social change we desire will happen”. Seeing as all the existing studies of prayer’s efficacy show no effects (or in at least one case, negative effects), don’t hold your breath.
As submitted to The Daily Maverick Perhaps – and only partly – as a consequence of the incredible volume of content generated on the Internet, it sometimes appears that we all have something to say. Not only through producing content such as opinion columns, but also in commenting on them and in passing them on to others via mediums like Twitter.
As I’ve argued before, this democratisation of knowledge – or at least opinion – comes with costs and benefits. Being able to participate in the conversation entails crossing a very low threshold, in that everyone with access to the Internet, even simply via their mobile phones, gets to have their say.
However, the noise can sometimes drown out any signal. More importantly, we can forget that while everyone is entitled to their opinion, nobody is obliged to treat an opinion with more respect than it merits – no matter how forcefully it is presented, or how much passion underlies its expression.
Twitter is beginning to present a problem in this regard. You might think it always has, and perhaps you’d be right. But I think it’s getting worse. The confluence of a 140 character limit, the attention economy, and our feelings of all being equally entitled to have our opinions creates endless fights, factions and frustration – at least for those listening in, trying to understand what the fuss is about.
Mostly, though, these factors can conduce to a bizarre sense of self-importance. Some Twitter users take delight in being inflammatory, with mini-revolutions started every hour and then forgotten when some new outrage comes along. The problem, however, is that these revolutions are usually against a caricature, a headline, or a set of assumptions about a person that might well be defamatory if they were spelled out in an op-ed.
But while they are underway, with hundreds or thousands of people endorsing your call to action, perhaps you can feel like you’re achieving something – even if that achievement later turns out to only be X more or fewer followers. And even if your call to action ends with a re-tweet, rather than with a portion of your audience changing their vote, changing their bank, or saving some endangered iguana.
Just as the weak and unprincipled parts of mass protest can drown out the voices of those who have something meaningful to say, social media allows one to get by with unsubstantiated rumour or even thinly-disguised character assassination. And when you get it wrong, it doesn’t matter. Nobody remembers, and nobody ever needs to apologise.
While these attempted revolutions are underway, they can seem significant enough to gain some traction. Last Sunday, for example, some Twitterers attempted to incite their audience to believe that the regular sarcasm emanating from Helen Zille’s Twitter feed somehow entailed a reason to never vote DA. Examples of her alleged lack of fitness for high office were Tweeted and re-Tweeted, all in an effort to justify inferences such as her having no respect for those less educated than herself.
Even if this inference were true, you’d still need to build a pretty impressive bridge to get from there to anything relevant to a rational voting strategy. The same people who, for example, argued that Mogoeng Mogoeng’s defensiveness or religious beliefs had no relevance to his suitability as Chief Justice were now claiming that a rude person (on their terms) could not govern well.
The fact is that these are separate issues. You don’t need to like someone to think they can do a good job – even if it’s indisputably true that our feelings regarding someone’s character do influence those judgements. So if you want to play it safe, it’s perhaps best to stick to bland, uninteresting contributions like those from Jacob Zuma’s Twitter feed. It’s impossible to find those objectionable – mostly because they rarely involve any substantive content.
The thing about Tweeting and politics, at least in a South African context, is not only that our memories are short but also that we’re mainly just talking to ourselves. It doesn’t seem plausible that any significant number of votes will be shifted, simply because the vast majority of voters aren’t on Twitter. This statement is not, I think, a result of selection bias as a consequence of only justified by the people I pay attention to – if you search for the hashtag of any emerging political story, the vast majority of Tweets are in 1st-language English.
We’re all still muddling our way along, trying to figure out how best to use resources such as Twitter. Now there is immediate access to people we’d previously have had to apply to meet in triplicate, and much of the time, they feel compelled to respond. And when they don’t, that’s another instant indictment of their characters.
But all of this is prone to over-reaction, and a sense that we and our Tweets are more important than they actually are. The space allows for conversation and for frivolity, and it can be enormously valuable in providing not only access, but also news at a faster pace than we’ve ever benefited from in the past.
We shouldn’t, however, mistake it for rigorous and reasoned debate. And we shouldn’t mistake people for activists, just because they can be shrill and condemnatory in 140 characters or less.