The vuvuzela discriminates against smokers

More on the vuvuzela, as submitted to The Daily Maverick.

Any claim made repeatedly does not become increasingly true in proportion to the number of repetitions. Yet, according to much of what you read on websites where the vuvuzela is discussed, it is now taken for granted that this musical instrument is “part of our culture”. Furthermore, one gets the impression that many believe it to be a long-standing part of our culture, such that its existence and continued use is beyond criticism. Attempts to raise questions about its cultural status – or more prosaically, about its value – are frequently deflected by accusations of “lacking gees” (on the civilised end of the debate), and of simple racism at the less civilised end.

Something being part of any given culture is, however, not a reason to regard that thing as being good. Instead, we should remember that things become part of cultures because people value them – whether we’d prefer they did so or not. Our culture has come to value democracy, because we regard democracy as having properties that are valuable to us. We don’t simply value democracy because we see it defended in the media every day (or at least, we shouldn’t). To value something simply through habit or programming is a prejudice, which puts it on the same epistemic level as sexism or racism.

In other words, we should value things for sound reasons, and not value things when better alternatives exist. To ignore whatever reasons there are for ascribing value (or not) is to succumb to prejudice, and to commit ourselves to being less rational as a consequence. In terms of the vuvuzela, it is difficult to see how reasons, or clear reasoning, lead to anyone being able to endorse it.

To begin with the argument around culture, it’s relatively easy to dispute that the vuvuzela deserves the status of being considered part of ours at all – regardless of the fact that even if it was, this would not mean that it’s a good thing. Wind instruments are parts of many cultures at celebrations and sporting events – the “trompeta” became ubiquitous at Latin American football games in the 1970’s, while the vuvuzela only started becoming popular at South African games two decades later.

So the vuvuzela is not something that South African fans have been blowing since time immemorial, regardless of the more long-standing ceremonial use of kudu horns. We can “thank” mass-production, rather than culture, for the dominant role the vuvuzela currently plays at football matches: Neil van Schalkwyk started offering low-priced plastic versions in 2003, removing the barrier that previously required aspirant musicians to find a Chinese import or an animal horn to express their emotions at football matches.

And expressing emotion is of course what it’s all about, as referred to by the idea of “gees” that has gone viral at the FIFA 2010 World Cup. But here too, the argument in favour of the vuvuzela comes up short. As Danny Jordaan has commented, “in the days of the struggle (against apartheid) we were singing, all through our history it’s our ability to sing that inspired and drove the emotions”. The vuvuzela flattens out any attempts at engaging with surrounding fans (and the players) using chants or songs, replacing these attempts with one persistent, monotonous farting noise.

Furthermore, it is quite possible that they play a part in making the spectacle you are there to witness somewhat less compelling. First, they can block your view of the action, if there are enough of them in the crowd surrounding you. Then, teammates can’t hear each other, and coaches can’t pass on instructions to their players. Many spectators are driven to wear earplugs, thereby insulating themselves from the environment they came to be part of. Those that don’t wear earplugs are of course exposing themselves to the possibility of permanent damage to their hearing, seeing as the vuvuzela emits a noise 30-50 decibels louder than the 85 decibels considered potentially damaging to the nerve cells of the cochlea.

Besides these risks to one’s hearing, preliminary studies are showing that the vuvuzela can play a role in spreading colds, flu and tuberculosis – none of which seem to be things we should encourage during flu season, in a country with already high rates of tuberculosis. The chance of infection stems from the droplets of moisture that gather at the business end of the instrument, and which are then expelled while blowing (to the extent that some spectators have reported wet shirts and hair), and also of course from the sharing of vuvuzelas between fans.

These considerations add up to the vuvuzela being a plausible contender for consideration as a risk to public health. As a smoker, the public health risks I apparently expose others to lead to my enforced isolation at public events such as football matches, and I doubt that I’d get very far by claiming culture in my defence. Is this simply because some prejudices are more entrenched than others, and are therefore considered more reasonable?

I don’t know, because nobody seems able to offer any argument against the banning of the vuvuzela, or at least its controlled use. The response is typically to simply say that people like me are racists, that we have no “gees”, or to make claims like “it’s here to stay, and you should simply deal with it”. And I am dealing with it – I’ll go to all the games I have tickets for, and I’ll enjoy them – just not as much as I could have, if the vuvuzelas were less prevalent.

In the meanwhile, I’ll also deal with it by pointing out that they aren’t liked for good reason, and that it’s no argument for them to simply accuse their detractors of prejudice or a lack of gees. Especially so when your arguments in favour of them seem to themselves rely on little more than prejudice, as well as on a notable deficit in common sense. It isn’t at all obvious that the vuvuzela is part of our culture – and even if it was, it’s hardly clear that it should be.

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.