August 15, 2020

Media and Citizenship

Mellon Project Focus Area

Paying Attention To The Pain!



What is interesting about the protests on both the University of Cape Town and Rhodes University campuses is that while the issues as these students see them are being put forward in no uncertain terms and with all the skills of logic and argument a university education imparts, this eruption of protest is also marked by an intensely emotional outpouring of suffering. This is suffering endured by those who have grown up in the post-apartheid era and who speak of their frustration and feelings of debilitation on campuses which are overtly committed to ‘transformation’ but which still demand that they adjust themselves to a liberal hegemony of values.

In this time of ferment and renewed struggle (and in which most of us at these universities acknowledge the need for ongoing change), there are people shutting each other up by claiming such a degree of pain that anyone without pain to profess is made mute as a participant (except as a commiserater) and by silencing those expressions through outright rejection of that pain. (UCT academics Jeremy Seekings and Nicoli Nattrass have written about this)

At a recent conference at UCT Steven Robins, a social anthropologist at Stellenbosch University who for years has been researching the uprisings of the Western Cape, showed us a photograph of a UCT academic facing off student protesters with a self-made placard which said “Don’t shout louder, improve your argument”. If we are listening to these young South Africans in our tertiary education institutions they’re telling us that a denial of humanity and intelligence is built into our particular forms of rational discourse which we employ not to listen but to control the direction of debate and to deflect the tough stuff. In other words, if I don’t like what you say we denigrate it as overly emotional, devoid of clarity around issues and therefore irrational, ie to be dismissed. Who gets to decide what is rational and arguable? That’s the important question here.

In a recent article for The Con written by Sekoetlane Phamodi, a Rhodes graduate, was posted to Facebook by Niren Tolsi. Phamodi addressed his article to our current Vice-Chancellor directly and refused to be “reasoned” and well-meaning” about his feelings of rage and despair based on the V-C’s public statements and his sense of being “crushed” while studying at an institution built on the “forgotten thousands buried in the earth beneath, butchered defending their land and people from invasion”.

Among the many likes for this article, there were some dismissive responses. But the one which provoked many exits from the Facebook discussion was this one by Richard Spoor: “My heart bleeds for you Sekoetlane. A life of such unremitting misery and suffering must be unendurable. What courage. What heroism. Alternatively you are a self indulgent privileged fuck.”

To which Richard Pithouse responded: “There are evidently some sick people here. I want nothing to do with this.” Spoor replied: “Those in the humanities are such delicate souls. So sensitive to existential pain. Back when, Marxists could care a shit. Fuck you are a pathetic lot.” Even the usually robust Eusebius McKaiser simply did this: #TurnsOffNotifications, but Niren Tolsi (the founder of The Con) appealed to Spoor:  “Richard Spoor. Away from the sarcasm and ad hominem attacks, whats up?” He continued: “I’d like to engage but not in the manner that you have been so far on this timeline….” Jane Versveld responded: “don’t waste energy niren. some will never learn”.

But Estelle Prinsloo weighed in: “Hey Richard Spoor! That’s pretty stupid you have to admit. Then again, you’re not a Humanities graduate so how are you supposed to know, right? I get it. If you had studied the Humanities you would know how intellectually lazy and empty sweeping statements are. And you would have known how telling your choice of words is. Do sensitivity and delicateness (traits associated with feminity, which is the opposite of masculinity, and therefore, undesirable in patriarchal societies) upset you? No? then, why do you use them as insults? I know. Because anything that threatens the dominance of white heterosexual partriarchy (ding,ding,ding: THE HUMANITIES) is judged as pathetic. I’m sorry your view of the world is so narrow. It must suck.”

Then surprisingly Spoor came back with: “Yes I am overreacting and I was offensive. I apologise, it’s not called for. I am a humanities graduate and I do place huge value on empathy, compassion and decency. The ‘whiteness’ issue is however a sure fire way to incite me to fury. I do not accept that an argument is elevated above criticism on the basis that the person advancing it has a special insight by virtue of their race, gender or class.”

Having got fairly used to a predictable pattern in such exchanges in which at soon as there is a reactionary response the discussion is exited – usually with the comment that the atmosphere has become “toxic” – I was intrigued as to how Spoor was engaged enough to apologise. While I don’t think anyone feeling angered and hurt by a response such as Spoor’s first posts, should stick it out in order to educate and humanise the mouth-shooter, I am interested in how these exchanges could be shifted so that listening and conversing can happen.

My thoughts about Spoor’s statements are that:

Those reacting with anger to pain are assuming that the suffering of the present is illegitimate because we are living in an era of democracy and liberation. It’s also illegitimate because this era has severed our relation to not only the immediate apartheid past but very definitely to the colonial past. Any attempt to show that colonialism is alive in our present is to be therefore discounted with vehemence.

Expressions of racially-based suffering are also taken as personal attacks, owned directly and then instantly rejected. Can a white person not allow a black person to express themselves (even with emphasis and hyperbole) without immediately involving themselves as the recipient of the expression? It seems to me a technique most of the reactionary in these exchanges need to learn and learn quickly is that you personally are not always the intended object of the expression.

I’ve been looking at these kinds of exchanges on blogs, Facebook and Twitter for a while now (and I’ve been focusing my attention particularly on those that get really heated over racial issues), and it’s quite startling how social media provokes a level of ad hominem aggression that we’ve removed from face to face conversations and from other mediums of communication. Is there something about the fastness of the technology, the remove via a device, the hit the buttons before you’ve got your mind to think about consequences, at play here?

Or is it about our “culture of speaking” which seriously devalues listening? Marietjie Oelofsen posted on my Facebook page a link to a post by Maria Popova on Brain Pickings which comments that we use listening as “the idle pause amid the monologue of making ourselves clear”. This sounds like a comment on the manners of being a good conversationalist. But it’s way more than that. In heated and heightened political struggles, it’s the first thing that goes; real listening has to involve paying attention and you don’t want your own political stance modified by any kind of empathy for the person in front of you trying to change your mind if you’re going to hold fast to the course of action.

As part of our research into media and citizenship in South Africa we’ve made a great deal of use of ‘listening theory’, which came to us via a group of Australian researchers but which is nicely expounded by a political theorist called Susan Bickford (The Dissonance of Democracy) and a person with roots in radio called Kate Lacey (Listening Publics). The essence of this approach is that giving voice to people in society stripped of it, is not really about creating more ways for those people to speak. It is far more about getting those with power to actually listen and pay attention in ways that alter the relationship between trying to shout louder and louder and actually being heard with attention and respect.

It seems to me that while academics and administrations are demanding rationalism and manners from their activist students, they should also be checking their own impulses to talk over, jump to conclusions and out-think the anger, arguments and demands being put forward.

If the young South Africans waging this struggle now can be emotional and rational; vocal and attentive, political and personal, clear-minded about their goals without turning their opponents into enemies and non-humans, then they’ll have succeeded where previous revolutions didn’t. And we should be helping them by paying real attention.