The value of deep disagreement

Eusebius McKaiser says fake consensus is not evidence of political maturation

Instead of openly disagreeing deeply about the Spear painting, we faked consensus when the debate had hardly even heated up. The confusing mix of a lawyer's gentle tears and the hardtoyi-toying of other comrades became too much for the national conscience.  And, of course, it was the liberals who retreated first (after initially shouting "freedom of expression!") This liberal retreat was perhaps a result of fearing that ‘they' - the proverbial unwashed conservative masses - would come after their liberal bottles of Chardonnay in the suburbs. Was the liberal retreat magnanimous? Or, did it rob us of an opportunity to learn to disagree deeply, openly?

I am suspicious about many liberals' self-congratulatory claim that they did not so much retreat as see the national importance of peace, and stuff. I suspect, in fact, that it was less a case of ‘getting' the tears and the toyi-toying, and more a case of fear. The net result is that we are worse off as a democracy because we failed a litmus test of democratic maturity: being able to disagree openly and deeply.

This lack of backbone on the part of liberals had three negative consequences. First, it smacks of inauthentic behaviour. Put simply: dishonesty, and self-deception. By not expressing your actual beliefs, you self-censor rather than genuinely being persuaded by your interlocutor. I know this is true because many liberals who pretended that national consensus demanded that we "think carefully" about how we use our right to artistic freedom, now criticise the ruling party for its bullying attitude at the time.  But why speak out now? Why wasn't there push back against this bullying when it mattered most? The reason is simple: fellow liberals abandoned their own values and principles, and now want to sound brave, now that less is at stake, the artistic horse having bolted.  Where, for example, was the support from fellow editors for City Press' Ferial Haffajee when she needed it most? Instead, she had to join their liberal retreat after finding herself isolated. 

Now, after the fact, everyone is committed to liberalism again (including Haffajee)- in the quiet aftermath of the debate, when it matters less.  Consistency, like elitism, is apparently not for everyone.

Second, the liberal retreat is actually condescending and possibly racist even. The fear of engaging an angry black South African is a fear that is premised on the belief that an angry black South African is a passionate beast incapable of handling debate. Why else would you refrain from engaging him further? A deeply conservative member of Afriforum, wearing khaki shorts and sporting a shot gun, would not scare liberals. But a passionate comrade from the ruling party scares a liberal. The only difference between the khaki-clad lad and the ANC comrade is that you do not deem the khaki-clad lad a passionate beast who will whack you over the head if you push back against their beliefs. So, far from being magnanimous and empathetic about ‘the other', many liberals fear conservatives and traditionalists, but this fear is founded on deeply condescending assumptions about what conservatives and traditionalists are capable of, dialogically speaking.  

Third, and most tragically, we have lost an opportunity to get rid of that silly tag, ‘fragile democracy'. Of course we will be ‘fragile' if we do not rehearse the features of a ‘robust democracy'. One feature of a robust democracy is that value and ideological differences can be expressed and debated in the public space without society collapsing. But if we want to be a robust and mature democracy then we must start rehearsing that end-goal. We won't go there by self-defining ourselves, after almost two decades of apartheid's collapse, as ‘fragile'. Are we genuinely fragile, or do we render ourselves fragile with fear?

Ultimately, a genuinely deliberative democracy is not one in which we sing from the same hymn sheet, and wipe off each other's tears, and pose for a colourful picture at the airport upon the return of a sporting hero. That stuff is not objectionable, but it isn't the real test. The real test of how our democracy is getting on is whether we can disagree deeply, and openly, and still enjoy a Castle Lager or three without hating each other. Judging from the Spear saga, we have a long way to go. Fake consensus is not evidence of political maturation. It is evidence of self-fulfilling fragility. We need to get over fearing one another already.

This article is based on a TedX talk Eusebius delivered at Rhodes University recently. The full talk can be seen at Follow him on twitter @eusebius  

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