Fallism and the intellectuals

Mike Berger questions the confused, submissive response by our 'thought leaders' to this outbreak of racial fanaticism

Meditations on the Fall-Out to the Fallist Movement

I strongly suspect that history will tell us that the Fallist movement has been a decisive episode in the early years of South Africa's post-Apartheid trajectory and Politicsweb has become the repository for some remarkably thoughtful writing in response to its gross excesses.

Yet in all the comments on the recent "decolonise science" video dominating the local cyberspace over the past few days none, to my knowledge, mentioned the glaringly obvious psychological dimensions of that episode. The entire scene reminded me of nothing so much as a somewhat sinister hybrid between a group psychoanalytic session and a nursery school class.

There was the naughty, transgressive girl in front talking patent nonsense, the excited students (especially males aged 20 years or thereabouts) wriggling and giggling in a state of excitement and the two stony faced, female "adults" tasked with keeping discipline and providing a "safe space" for the expression of any irrational idea welling up from the collective unconscious, protected from any higher-order (superego) supervision and judgement.

 Beyond that basic dynamic were other undertones: the sexual dimension represented by the dominating female leaders, the public shaming of, I would bet my bottom dollar, a white student for daring to express dissent from the "authentic African rejection" of so-called white standards of "truth" and an underlying atmosphere of intolerance and barely contained hostility.

So, what has this got to do with politics? I would argue - a lot. There is a direct line leading from the psychodynamics revealed in the "decolonisation" video and the tumbrils of the French Revolution, the book-burning and crematoria of the Nazis, the slaughters of Pol Pot and Rwanda, the Cultural Revolution of Mao's China, the sinister paranoia of Stalinist Russia and the suicide bombings and beheadings of the Jihadist movements of today, to mention only a smattering of the most horrendous and modern manifestations.

This link is composed of the following elements:

- In place of empirical evidence and logical argument there is an increasing rejection of objective truth and a concomitant dependence on individual or group subjectivity and, within academia, speculative abstractions detached from observable reality. Empty words and slogans fill the intellectual vacuum created and passionate assertion, however simplistic or patently false, is accorded the status of revealed dogma protected from critical deconstruction.

- In this atmosphere the individual increasingly surrenders adult intellectual independence and moral agency to a totalitarian leader or to mass opinion. This may be willing or coerced or probably a combination of both. The psychological pressure (and sometimes real danger) of maintaining critical independence of thought and action is relieved by internalising the prevailing dogma or keeping quiet.

- Such trends provide the political substrate in which various forms of social psychopathy, extremism and opportunism flourish. 

- "Mob psychology", representing the ultimate submersion of individual responsibility in the unpredictable and often violent expression of the collective, becomes an instrument of political power in the hands of adept or ruthless leaders.

In the Fallist movement and the confused, submissive response to its threats and violence we are witnessing the surrender of the academic and media elite of this country to a form of collective Stockholm syndrome. They were primed by their own buy-in to the full "liberation narrative" and then by the on-going tribal pressures of the post-Apartheid order to differentiate themselves from what was depicted as the racist and reactionary residue of the previous order.

All these psychological dynamics are clearly observable in statements made by powerful establishment figures like Max Price in his emasculated letter published in Politicsweb on 19 Oct, in Karin Brodie's tortured explanation of what she means by "decolonised mathematics" and even in the guarded utterances of the confident, acutely analytical and opinionated John Maytham at Cape Talk.

Evidence of the Stockholm syndrome is also glaringly apparent in the mass fiction that the recent riots are in response to legitimate student grievance and are not, as is obvious to anyone still in possession of their cognitive marbles, part of an on-going attempt at outright capture of the tertiary education system - insofar as a coherent objective can be discerned in the nihilistic mob .

The great achievement of Western culture over the past millennium has been the elevation of the individual, together with his/her attendant rights and responsibilities, over the collective. This is the foundation stone of democratic governance and individual liberty enshrined in the praxis and Constitutions of the successful democracies of Western Europe, the Americas, Scandinavia and elsewhere. Our own Constitution reflects that tradition.

It is this tradition, and the cultural and legal apparatus which is part of it, which is being tamely surrendered to the voices of the mob. The consequences will be felt by South Africa for decades to come.

At a minimum serious harm has been inflicted on the tertiary education system of South Africa. A toxic genie has been liberated into the halls of academia which will work its poison over time. It will be seen in a dropping of academic standards, the polarisation and politicisation of the academic space, the flight of alumnus money and top-grade staff and students and deteriorating extra-curricular programmes as "campus politics" and shortage of funds exerts their baleful influence over the student and staff body.

These effects will spread beyond the academic space in the form of reduced expertise, a politicised public culture increasingly prone to opportunism and corruption and a public discourse dominated by a mythologised history, racial grievance and the substitution of empty slogans for reasoned debate. The tradition of personal agency and responsibility will succumb to group-based politics which will get uglier as our situation worsens.

The far end of this process is the South African version of the "Arab Spring" (and multiple similar "African Springs" post-liberation).

I've been accused at underestimating the institutional strength and democratic culture of South Africa. Our vast business and commercial interests also provide a countervailing stabilisation force against the wilder elements in our politics - or so the argument goes.

I'm not entirely convinced. One of the more disturbing features of the past few weeks has been the absence of clear, consistent, and visible leadership which firmly asserts the fundamental principles on which our Constitution is founded and is willing to take the necessary steps to enforce it when dialogue and reason have failed.

We can no longer seriously expect such principled leadership from the thoroughly demoralised, in every sense of the word, residue of the ANC. The Zuptas and their allies are hoping to ride this out and to pick up whatever advantage is left in the debris. But what about the DA?

While the media is in thrall to who knows what, surely it is not beyond the imagination of the DA strategists to find a way of publicly asserting their position on the real (not fictive) goals of the Fallist movement and to take whatever steps are possible to return the principles of responsive but orderly governance envisaged by our restorative but practical Constitution.

We await such leadership but it has not been forthcoming. We need to ask why and to expect something considerably better.

Mike Berger