Enough with the labeling

Simon Grindrod says our public debate is in a truly dire place

Let's face it, politicians have now abandoned any pretense of nation building in SA in their quest for power at any price. In fact, they are making efforts to destroy any unity which had been achieved. It suits them to encourage intolerance, igniting fear and hate among different constituencies. It is a lazy and dangerous strategy and they know it. The rhetoric coming from major parties is incendiary. It is far easier to rally citizens against a certain grouping, political or racial, than try to foster consensus and understanding. This is especially true if South Africans are desperate, eager for easy answers, and something (anything) to blame for their respective circumstances.

No particular race, creed or colour are exempt from contributing to this melt-down of relations. Having lost its rider, our nation feels like a horse galloping out of control, panicked and wild eyed. We are all hoping some brave soul can grab the reins and prevent the creature hurting itself or others in the way.

It may be dramatic political entertainment to watch MP's routinely insult and humiliate each other in our nation's parliament, but this attitude is replicated by supporters. Our parliament is a diminished institution, chaos, disrespect and general contempt for different races and groupings is now no longer even disguised. Not surprisingly, this crude discourse is now generally the hallmark of how people deal with each other in their own interactions. This is especially true online where a great many South Africans express views and debate.

Blind, rabid and unconditional allegiance to any political party or a political leader is the greatest single threat to our democracy. It is not an African problem, it is not a South African problem. A brief look at the USA will show this. When that rabid loyalty overtakes rational, individual thought then the stage is set for fireworks.

When we have smashed up our house in tantrums of hate, resentment and frustration there will be nowhere left for us all to live. It is simply short-sighted, selfish and self-destructive.

Accordingly, the only chance we have of re-setting the tone of engagement, will be driven by the ordinary citizens of SA. We will need to display tolerance, patience and open-mindedness within our own daily lives and in spite of the trashy political dogma. Our political class clearly have no respect for our intelligence if we examine the prepackaged political garbage they spew out. We need to start with basic respect for individual viewpoints and lay off the vicious and insulting interactions happening constantly on Twitter, Facebook and other platforms.

By we citizens, I do not include those who make it a business to provoke, offend and insult. We cannot rely on any help from them in cooling the temperature of our nation. They, like politicians, have a vested interest in ensuring the dog fight continues. We would all have examples of such personalities who remain relevant only by the degree of offence they cause to one group or another.

Ah, you may say, but 'they' started it. 'These people' insult us constantly. Well, they probably do, but it is up to each of us to reflect if we are contributing to that. Are we even attempting to understand and engage viewpoints other than our own? Many are just bluntly perpetuating a narrative provided to them by various political or media messages.

This mindless game of Ping-Pong is never going to grow understanding of, let alone acceptance of, other viewpoints. Only we can stop it.

Of course, various well-meaning initiatives have attempted to improve dialogue and the quality thereof. Most recently, three former Presidents initiated a national conversation along the same lines. Unfortunately, the inclusion of FW De Klerk, a long time National Party cabinet minister and last Apartheid President of SA did not help engender much faith. It was a bit like President Trump leading a national conversation on the historical benefits of mass Hispanic immigration to the USA.

Each of us had our own unique journey to where we are now. Individualism, not lazy assumptions about a grouping of people, needs to at least be acknowledged.

Today, the generalizations are becoming ridiculous. Every white person has land. Every black person wants to take it. Every student is a revolutionary. Every liberal is a traitor. Every farmer is right wing. It never ends. Ordinary people did not suddenly dream up these harmful labels, leaders created them.

Did the Rainbow Nation really actually happen? Or did we feel it because we were told it existed? Or did we just go along with it knowing it wasn't true? I believe it was true, that spirit was real. It was not damaged by ordinary citizens - it was wilfully wrecked by political parties who needed serious divisions among us to remain in business.

Fear of different races, cultures and political beliefs is fuelled by our leaders, and often where there was none before. Fear is the driver of resentment, and resentment breeds contempt.

Them and Us. Not one of us. Them. This is applied routinely to fellow South Africans who are not our colour, our political persuasion, of our geographical area or our cultural background. We insult ourselves, let alone others, when we play along with this base, close-minded communication.

It may amaze some people, but not every individual who supports the ANC is corrupt or criminal. Not every member of the EFF wants to seize your dwelling. Not every member of the DA is a closet racist. Not every media outlet is biased. Not every Judge is captured.

The truth is, the majority of people from all race groupings in our nation are just ordinary people striving day by day. They do not hate, they do not blame others for whatever circumstances they are in. If they do, it would rightfully be the government of the day whom they hold accountable for promises made.

Now we have a whole new lexicon to deal with too. Race-shaming, race-baiting, manufactured outrage, fake news, victim-blaming, professional black, neo-colonist, reductionist. It goes on and on.

We are insulting each other's race, culture and beliefs with impunity. Where are the grownups to quieten it down a bit? Voices of reason are drowned out by the madness. For any of us to make general assumptions about each other may be quick and easy, but it is intrinsically dishonest and harmful.

This persistent habit of labeling people and placing them in handy little groupings is bizarre. I am getting label fatigue and I'm sure I'm not alone. Maybe if we are labelled often enough, we simply start to play the role we are given. Labeling is the last resort of those with no credible argument.

We think it’s okay to damage any prospect of even a fragile national unity by engaging in this kind of nonsense. We are self-harming ourselves, our own nation, our only home. It is mindless.

Even biological facts have now taken on an undertone of contempt - white, male, black, female. It gets worse; garden boy, tea girl, fascist, colonist, thief, murderer. Are we really this desperate to find new ways to insult those fellow citizens who are different from us? We are perpetuating a dance of destruction beyond any rational thought.

Basic decency and respect for the individual are the keys to unlocking progress. False assumptions are the base of most of our national discourse. Look at the language being thrown around in our daily interactions. Individuals need to promote their personal views, despite their political allegiances, racial or economic status. Have we all been cowed into following not only a political line, but also now a particular narrative given to us by our particular racial or economic grouping?

We are dumbing down the quality and tone of our debate at exactly the time when we urgently need to raise our level of understanding and propensity for engagement. We may end up learning something positive which, in a small way, contributes to quelling the fires that burn ever fiercer in our land.

In the end, South Africa will be saved by the inherent decency, heart and goodwill of all her people. No mere politician can ever destroy that.