Should whites be silent?

Greg Fried responds to Jon Hodgson's call for stillness and gratitude from that minority, in relation to the Rhodes Must Fall campaign

Hodgson’s dead end

Stillness and gratitude: this is the right stance for white South Africans, according to Jon Hodgson (‘Whites, talk less – listen more’). Writing about UCT’s statue of Rhodes, he says that ‘my voice and the voices of other white people should not matter on this issue’ and that ‘white voices shouldn’t speak up in this process, other than to thank Rhodes Must Fall’. The Rhodes statue is now off the UCT campus, but Hodgson’s position is clearly meant to go beyond this single case. His approach continues to warrant attention because it might well be wheeled out, by him or others, on many future occasions.

If you are going to urge millions of your fellow citizens to be silent on some important issue – political, philosophical, cultural or otherwise – then you need a powerful argument. So what are Hodgson’s reasons for telling whites to shush? I can find three:

1. Ignorance. White South Africans ‘can never truly empathise with the profound violence exerted on the psyche of black students’.

2. Prejudice. White people have displayed their bias by making many racist comments about the Rhodes affair on social media.

3. Dominance: ‘transformation entails white people “filling up” less space and black people “taking up” more’.

None of these reasons is strong. To begin with his assertion about ignorance: rich, nuanced communication has a powerful effect on people who want to listen. There are many ways – such as conversation, fiction, television, music – to feel your way into a life that is not your own. Why should deep communication between black and white South Africans be impossible? Hodgson doesn’t say: perhaps he expects us just to know this.

Anyway, someone might contribute to a public discussion even if she is not especially empathic. A legal point, a historical perspective, an innovative thought – all these might be added to the pot of a national debate, and may be helpful even if they are introduced by someone whose understanding of her fellow South Africans is deficient. Ideas raised by imperfect people: those had better be useful, because they’re really all we have.

As for prejudice, it is true that many white people have made hateful remarks. Indeed, more generally, plenty of South Africans hold prejudices against groups other than their own. But of course that leaves many other people of good will. And anyway, surely it’s better for us to know what other South Africans are thinking, to be faced with different viewpoints even if we don’t like them, to be obliged to understand our own positions thoroughly in responding to others, than for some of us simply to be quiet.

Finally, dominance. Hodgson’s metaphor of space – the idea that whites are taking up too much space – is misleading in the case of opinions. If opinions make up a kind of space, it is a stretchy one: social media, public meetings and other outlets should allow us to say as much as we wish. Hodgson may reply that the opinions of white South Africans are permitted to muscle their way into influential and limited locations, like the op ed pages of newspapers, over contributions from other South Africans.

But if he thinks that there is a pervasive racial bias in major media outlets, then he must show this, not assume it, before considering what its consequences might be. And if he means instead to point out that poor South Africans are unable to express their opinions in locations where they will be widely heard, then surely this is one more reason to improve basic education and access to resources, rather than to call for selective silence.

While Hodgson offers no strong reasons in favour of his proposal, there are excellent reasons to think he is wrong. Firstly, our national problems are deep and intricate, and good solutions are precious and hard to come by. The more opinions we get to hear, the better our chance to see and weigh our options. Secondly, we should want to understand one another: to grasp the complex and dynamic beliefs and desires of our fellow South Africans. We won’t achieve this if some of us are persuaded that our views ought not to be expressed.

Thirdly, it is simplistic to view a profound issue as a matter for some citizens only; our interests are entwined. And finally, we should be suspicious of those who tell millions of their fellow citizens to be quiet and be grateful to some organisation, simply accepting that its deeds are just. That looks like an attempt, in a moralistic disguise, to shut down criticism or even questions. To South Africans of a certain age, the tactic may be dispiritingly familiar.

It reminds me of that classic SA image – the hectoring voice, the wagging finger to silence opposition – of the nineteen eighties. Enough of that, please.