Disclaimer: do not shoot the messenger. I don’t subscribe to or believe all the points I am about to make, but through this piece will adopt various “voices” that correspond to perspectives of people who very likely do. But for every sentence here, I could happily write ten alternative viewpoints. My own opinions will occasionally appear among the perspectives shown below.
Imagine that there exists a scale, or an “economy”, in which each thing, person, culture or country is valuable only insofar as it helps humanity edge closer to global liberty; to an inspiring vision of an escape from the dreariness of the world as we have it.
All tragedies are equal, but some tragedies are more equal than others. The higher the victim of a tragedy is perceived to be on this scale, the greater the loss for humanity. For in the death of those who’d accumulated the most credit on this scale is the death of humanity’s brightest hopes for achieving betterment.
With the well-worn narratives of colonialism, apartheid, racism, white privilege counting for more than black lives and many other truths in the background, I submit that this is why #JeSuisCharlie trended ahead of the Boko Haram massacre of 2000 souls. This may gall the political correctness purists, but didn’t the cat get out of the bag with #BringBackOurGirls? Many people needed to “cover their bases” in terms of appearing legitimately concerned and convinced of the equality and value of all human lives. The purists froth at the mouth about this selective or short-lived activism, calling it pretentiousness and hypocrisy. But even the purists were really revelling in having something to get their panties up in a bunch about; they, clever perceptive good people, caught “those hypocrites” out before anyone else did; they got the scoop first, and had to be first to break this “story” about human vacuousness so that they could, for a moment, feel morally superior to “those pretenders”. To a degree, then, even the zeal for authenticity is motivated by self-interest.
But rather than try to “catch out”, purge or condemn the hypocrisy or go on a witch-hunt for hypocrites, what if we factored it into our data as we created solutions to help us get to where we want to get as a species?
The Hypocrisy Of Freedom
I am a liberal. I am also aware that the above-mentioned hypocrisy is the tribute that some liberals pays to the ideal of equality. There is no telling whether the concern liberals have for “humanity” is an ocean of genuine altruism of only tea-spoon deep that doesn’t nourish actual humans. Liberals are often accused of reducing the world’s issues to just intolerance. So, in some instances, the liberal attitude is simply there because, well, if I can’t care enough about you to actually get involved with your struggles and experiences, why should I seek to control you or to have enforced laws that would control you? The liberal is often a liberal because he knows that he cannot love you enough to be morally accountable for your well-being once oppressive laws have limited your ability to fend for yourself, but will preach “love” as the answer. The liberal doesn’t want to be the reason why you can’t fend for yourself; therefore, s/he will back out of your rights, hope that holding your hand and singing Kumbaya with you will help you on your way to self-sufficiency, and just wish that world peace were here already. Visualize it. It is here. Law Of Attraction. You know, reality for people who can’t take reality.
A white acquaintance spoke of meeting two groups of black kids. The one group was better off, better educated and better adjusted than the other, and the two groups had friction between them. My acquaintance described his wish that more black kids would be afforded the same opportunities that the first group had.
I couldn’t help wondering. Am I listening to a genuine altruistic concern for black lives, or is it really a concern that the black majority’s lot would improve so that the tax payers – which is mostly the white minority – would feel some financial relief, and experience a South Africa that even better serves their interests without burdening them with the question of whether black people have enough as well, or are getting the raw end of the deal? Was I listening to someone’s sense of white entitlement disguised as compassion for those less privileged?
The answer I was happy to live with was that it doesn’t matter as long as the lot of black people does improve and everyone gets a better country. I have a gay Xhosa friend who explained his reasons for voting DA in similar terms. “The DA’s main voter base probably wouldn’t like me; the ANC is probably right about that,” he said. “But they and I need a country that has enough room for civil liberties, and a more viable economy than what the ANC can offer”. Mutual interests, he said.
By erring on the side of shrewdly massaging and believing in the other person’s humanity – mixed, as it may be initially, with pretentiousness – one can disarm and help the other person actually become more comfortable with a reality in which he wants to care for “the other”. People like being appreciated for whatever goodness they do have. People can fake altruism until they make it, if you give them space to work past the nonsense they were raised believing and grow into what they’d prefer to believe about themselves instead.
However, if one just throws even the pretensions of humanity back in the other person’s face, one puts the other person on the defensive. And no one – not even people who do legitimately care – likes to be on the defensive. Nelson Mandela knew this. That was the secret behind his magic.
We need that magic back.
An Example From The States And Another From Here
I recently saw a tweet that described white privilege as the ability to say that black lives matter now and then, but to not have to actually live, day and night, in the danger of being black with your life mattering less, or having to live as an outcast from the inner courts and spaces of social privilege. This reminded me of the backlash against white tweeters and bloggers who shared stories about how they had been treated better than black people when they broke the law. #CrimingWhileWhite was their (perhaps feeble) attempt at calling our their own white privilege in the face of the Eric Garner #ICantBreathe and #BlackLivesMatter campaigns.
And what did the black activists, who’d been demanding that white people face up to white privilege say, when those white tweeters and bloggers indeed stepped up to corroborate the charge that white privilege was real, as the black activists had demanded that white people do? Suddenly, those black activists were accusing those white respondents of using their unquestioned white privilege to hijack the narrative of black suffering under white privilege (yes, reader, I also nearly fell off my chair) just as black South Africans were suddenly were stunned that white people had the audacity to adopt black babies. People who wouldn’t give a second look at their own suffering brothers and sisters were suddenly righteously indignant. Did these whites think they could make up for apartheid now, by pityingly throwing handouts at the blacks they’d impoverished? And what about the black kid’s heritage? “What about his right to a home? Isn’t that more important?” No, the black purists insisted; let our own care for our own. Which they often can’t or won’t. So I fall off my chair.
Before you go, “Well what the hell else were the white people in either country supposed to do? Fast, pray, sit in ashes and sackcloth and repent of being white for two decades instead if engaging as they knew how?”, give those black backlashers the benefit of the doubt. The liberal rhetoric of human equality is, in many instances, mere lip-service though it’s sometimes followed through with action. And guess what, darlings? At least the fucking tribute is being paid to the fucking ideal and sometimes gets us there. Only God, and the person paying the tribute or granting the gesture need know how in/sincerely it is being given.
Unless you’re Mother Teresa then like most mortals you will rank issues, struggles and tragedies according to some scale or another, and keep some of your deepest priorities hidden beneath a script that conceals your true self (which is transformed incrementally with increased exposure to the world). For many, the Charlie shooting resonates with the scale I described in the opening paragraph. The closer an act of violence strikes at what you hold sacred (e.g. liberty) the more important it will be to you. Before trying to convince someone to adopt a cause, it may be important to understand that some level of self-interest is at work – and to play to that. If I die tomorrow, nobody owes me their grief unless I served some of their interests. Je Suis Charlie caught people out.
Otherwise when liberals suddenly remember that 200o people died in Nigeria, they are then forced to pull up the liberal rhetoric of human equality, and everyone comes down on them for their pious pretentiousness. That script is probably just hollow, hypocritical lip-service paid to the impossible ideal of treating all lives, tragedies and losses as equal. But at least the goddamned tribute is being paid. Woe! unto them that would rather liberals go backwards into not even observing this polite protocol of routinely mourning a loss that isn’t my loss. I wonder which liberal would have the guts to say, “Bitch please, I’m Charlie Fucking Hebdo today”?
The Hypocrisy Of Liberals Is Not The Worst Evil In The World: Evil Is The Worst Evil In The World
It is in this issue that I partially disagree with Steve Biko. But I utterly respect the man. Unlike most self-righteous critics of the liberal discourse, he put his money where his mouth was, paying the highest price like martyrs Socrates, Christ and Hani. The rest of us can only gaze at such moral Prometheuses in our midst. But until we’re willing to go to the distance they did, let us not confuse ourselves with them. We are not them. They are not us. A liberal is a person who knows he is not them and, in compensation, tries to minimize his oppression footprint in this world. The hypocrisy, self-interest, shallowness and short attention span of liberals is not the worst evil in the world. The failure to condemn all evils with proportional zeal is not the worst evil in the world, for then life would be about worrying whether one has sufficiently condemned all evils as they deserve. Life is not about doing God’s work: life is for the living. If you feel strongly about the rhino but are just over human issues, I am not going to sit in judgment over you, if my legitimate concern is eradicating evil. Your inconsistency is not the worst evil in the world. Evil is the worst evil in the world. I don’t have to condemn your failure to condemn evils proportionally before I can get around to condemning evil. Attacking you wouldn’t be a demonstration of my goodness but of my superiority.
And that’s effing annoying.
Liberals pay lip-service to many ideals. And in many cases, they do muster the courage and altruism to follow through on their words but you’ve got to make it easy for them, and I will explain how and why soon. Because when it’s time for them to put their money where their mouth is, they’ll sooner lose money than lose face. But they’ll probably only lose money for a greater good – not a greater Nkandla or more corruption – that, in the medium and long run, will make everyone’s world a better place. If this were not so, this coming tax revolt would have started already.
What’s my point? It is that we now know, with a fair level of certainty, that mixed into genuine human concern is some degree or another of hypocrisy. And rather than try to erase or condemn the hypocrisy, we can factor it into our basic data as we formulate solutions to help us get to where we say we want to get as a species.
Even In Personal Matters, Some Deaths Matter More Than Others
If this were not so, the death of an immediate family member wouldn’t be prioritized ahead of the death of a total stranger. You already have a belief about the power of those near you to meet your emotional, financial, familial, relational or sexual needs. So your world really revolves around you. For the most part, everyone’s does. It’s a given. That’s why the scale in the opening paragraph exists: people are looking for people who will help them maximize their freedom; more importantly, people will be generous enough to share resources and freedoms with others only insofar as it will help them expand their resources and freedoms.
The genius behind apartheid was conflating white people’s desire for freedom with their fear of the black communist (“swart gevaar”; “rooi gevaar”) who would take that freedom away. And everyone wants to reduce apartheid to just racism, and looks at us who say it’s a little more complex than that as though we are air-headed racism denialists.
Oh, okay. Never mind how rapidly, how shrewdly and how expediently those “racists” suddenly realigned their political stances in 1994. Overnight, vacuous conciliatory platitudes became stock-in-trade. Racism? Don’t give all assholes that much credit: they’re too absorbed in their assholery to actually hate you for your skin colour. I see this even today with black people who (justly or not) want to snatch the land out from under white farmers. “I hate white people! They took our land!” Oh, and what are you doing this weekend? “Watching a movie that stars a mostly-white cast”. Hm. Okay. Apartheid was a crime against humanity but it was also a very cunning game that used racism as a tool. Actual racists are people dumb enough to have been played: they are, in fact, too dumb to count.
At any rate, if we all truly believed in the value of all human lives, we’d all live like it. You wouldn’t eat until others had eaten. You wouldn’t wear shoes until every child in the world had shoes. You would be Mother Teresa. You would show liberals what altruism looks like beyond lip service.
And maybe, in your capacity, you do live this way. Most people aren’t Mother Teresa and their compromise, their equilibrium, lies in supporting entities and persons who have organized around themselves the power and integrity to transform the world for the betterment of all. So those people pay taxes, donate to charity and they volunteer now and then. Or they share satire that exposes anti-progress mindsets for what they are. They celebrate those nations and entities that, however imperfectly, represent the observance of liberal individual human rights so we can all get out of one another’s bedrooms, genital choices and freedom of movement: the sooner, the better for world peace. I don’t care enough about you to help you so let me not restrain your freedoms.
According to the scale I’ve described, an attack on individuals in liberal nations that is motivated by nothing other than hatred of those rights, would then be seen as an attack on the civil rights of individuals everywhere. In other words, the utopia-that-could-be died with those 10 French journalists more starkly than it died with the death of the 2000 massacre victims in Africa. In countries with a lesser respect for individual human liberties, the death of 2000 is inevitable (“It’s just Africas killing Africans now. They’re not being killed by an external force or colonialist anymore so we don’t have to worry. It doesn’t mean as much as the death of liberty. The blacks are always at it”) even if it happens at the hands of a group that is somewhat more intolerant than the 2000 people it kills. I say this imagining that liberal tolerance could be measured, lest we confuse, for example, Uganda’s extreme polar opposites – David Kato and Rebecca Kadaga come to mind – with the slaughtered 2000 Nigerians on that other side of Africa – but that’s a personal grudge for another blog post.
This is why liberal South Africans will mourn more for the death of a white American celebrity who has worked for the advancement of women’s rights, than they will mourn for an unknown black woman in Africa who has died as a victim of domestic violence. Africa has so many systemic and cultural barriers to the on-the-ground realization of human rights – barriers that many Africans buy into and propagate in the way they vote and in the way they run their communities – that to prevent the death of one woman in those communities makes “less sense” (note quotation marks) than preventing the death of that white American celebrity. Even in the fight for human rights, you have to wonder which bit is the horse and which is the cart. I’ll be honest enough to point out that not everything boils down to the above scale but do keep it in mind when wondering why #Charlie went off the charts. And in case you’re wondering, the “Africa” where the black female dies is our back yard. And yes, white women can also die from domestic violence.
Some will point out that the outpouring of grief over the white American celebrity’s death is connected to her being a closer fulfilment of the distorted ideals of beauty we inherited from the colonialist. Rather than detract from my overall observation, this point supports it. Even when their ideals are distorted, people would still rather pay attention to whatever reflects their aspirations, even if those aspirations are in conflict with themselves. Please note the popularity of weaves, extensions and other fake hair accessories. But freedom – now there’s a clear and fair aspiration. If someone spent the whole day sulking about Charlie and not Nigeria, lay off and go do something about Nigeria if you feel that strongly about it. “Why haven’t they started a twitter hashtag campaign or protest marches about this the way people did for Charlie?” Because, love, “they” is “you”, and “you” are busy asking why “they” haven’t done anything.
Unfortunately, many of us black people see liberal pressure to observe all human liberties as cultural colonization. Then we turn around and call out liberals who mourn more for attacks against those institutions and individuals that are at the forefront of the right to free speech – a right underpinning many of those liberties by the way – while not mourning the deaths of those disenfranchised individuals that liberal institutions and persons claim to have the best interests of. But by calling this inconsistency out, we really do nothing more than also hypocritically take advantage of the catch-22 that we have kept in place by making the preservation of human rights and the preservation of institutions that defend human rights an either-or situation. If the leaders in Africa were at the forefront of defending civil liberties and human rights, the death of the 2000 would, sorry to say, have meant more to the world. Right now, the perception is that Africans elect leaders that don’t care, and that those leaders tell the world to mind its own business as they continue to rape their people both literally and metaphorically. African leaders have been selling their people out politically and, under the slave trade, quite literally. Their hold over their people is the shared belief in ancestors, culture, the divine rights of kings – they use these mental strongholds to their advantage – yet those kings probably don’t believe these “myths” (quotation marks) themselves: they merely understand that these myths keep their people loyally chained to them. And these commenters below are starting to sense it or already do know.
The white colonialist ancestors of Charlie Hedbo never cared about us. Then again, neither do our leaders. The world spent a long time wondering whether South Africa wasn’t more economically expedient under apartheid before deciding that certain embargoes had to be placed on the country. Because self-interest. What Charlie Hedbo offers, in place of the pretense to care, is one tool (satire) whereby oppressors can be critiqued. See below tweets.
In other words, even in their gross Eurocentricsm, these European thought leaders have a lot more to offer me than most African political leaders. Having long ago fought for our freedom, African political leaders now take, take, take. Having once been the oppressor, Europeans today, ironically, impart the attitudes needed to kick off inefficient leaders. Allegiances change in the blink of an eye. In other words, God helps those who help themselves. Politics and loyalty seldom mix.
I don’t blame those who throw liberals into these catch-22s. The liberals sort of had it coming. It is only now that liberals are being forced out of their intellectual complacency that they realize, and admit, that the individual human right to be surely trumps the individual human right to observe the religion, culture and heritage of choice, where that religion, culture and heritage threatens human rights. Charlie Hebdo was aware of this and relentlessly satired both the individual and the individual’s anti-liberal religion because the latter didn’t exist without the former. This is an oversimplification, so I’ve planted an example of what I mean for you to enjoy.
Closer to home. There may be no criticizing the heteropatriarchal Zulu culture whereby Former President Jacob Zuma has multiplied wives and marginalized women and gay people – yes, I know about Lynette Brown, yes, I know Zuma’s apologized for those statements, no, I am not a total ignoramus – or behaved more like a tribal chief than the leader of a democracy without criticizing the very Zulu, very black, very Jacob Zuma, or, by extension, his very blackness and his very Zuluness. For the essence has no existence save in the man. There is a tribalistic conspiracy afoot. Political correctness will be sacrificed, if we are to uproot the conspiracy.
One of the privileges of being a liberal white person in apartheid was not having to think the implications of being a liberal through to their unthinkable logical conclusion – that is that one day white liberals would have to criticize black culture without being accused, correctly or not, of being racists, cultural colonialists or attempting to erase black identity. Today, Helen Zille is cosying up to traditional chiefs though I tell you, if the DA had to win enough votes, those chiefs would have to actually work for their money; at the moment, this is largely optional. By that point, Zille won’t have to be around to break this shocking news to them; that job will be left to whoever fills her seat.
More immediately, my culture doesn’t pay my very western bills. I do. And nothing about my bills necessitated my culture. I don’t have the luxury of time to undergo an identity crisis before figuring this out.
Common Sense For Common South Africans
Now we know that to eradicate poverty we must keep the economy intact. But that is dependent on the liberal observation of individual rights. A woman, for example, cannot escape poverty if she hasn’t got the right to own her own property. And the observation of liberal human rights works, as described above, by prioritizing the protection of those institutions, entities and persons that wield the most influence in terms of advancing those rights for all.
In our desperate bid to prevent cultural and psychosocial colonization, we resist and detest the preservation and promotion of individual human rights and the institutions, countries and the cultures that symbolize their actualization. If our desperate bid to throw out the bathwater of liberals’ hypocrisy, perceived or not, we throw out the baby of liberals’ power to actually get us where we all say we want to go. The world values the lives and legacies of each country’s individuals only as much as each country values the lives and legacies of its individuals. In turn, those individuals can affirm their own importance by choosing a government that preserves their rights. The longer a country has enshrined liberty and human rights as it is empowered to do so by its people, the more “valuable” each of its lives will be to the rest of the world because each one is then proof that there is a better world to be aspired to. Each person in a liberal, successful country represents liberty and immortality. And yes: unless the geography gods placed your country over vast reserves of oil, “liberal” and “successful” generally go together.
In this algorithm, the death of a white journalist in a liberal country would be the death of liberty and immortality itself, even if that journalist was largely blind to his privileges or the historical injustices that secured them. The torture, mutilation, persecution, oppression and immolation of a black person in an unnamed village in Africa is the death of another symbol of oppressedness. It’s the death of yet another reminder of our own mortality and frailty. Over and above the selfish human tendency to not get involved, it’s just easier to not look and not know about the latter while getting emotional about the former. In the reflexive prioritizing of 10 journalists’ death, we learned something valuable about our common journey to survival: it is based on self-interest. Surprise. You didn’t know this. Oh my God. Hold the presses.
We all have a vested interest in choosing technique over tradition(alism), science over ideology and rationality over its alternatives. This means that each person is valuable only insofar as that person uses every resource at his or her disposal to help others move closer to living well and realize their liberty. The very young, very old and very fragile are only as valuable as they have had the fortune of being born among people who work for the betterment of all; their deaths “count” by association. This is one of the reasons Barak Obama’s daughters have more bodyguards than most people’s daughters: when you’re not busy wondering just how humane his foreign policy is, you’re feeling uplifted by how humane his domestic stance on human rights is and how it’s impacted the American economy. You’d probably feel safer with him as South Africa’s president and would probably mourn his death far more than Jacob Zuma’s regardless of any claptrap you’d give me about valuing their lives equally. You probably don’t.
And that’s why some hypocrisies are better than others. If African countries want the world to care more for their women and children, those countries have to make it easier to care by opening their doors wider for human right’s activists. Because when you’ve bashed your head against a wall trying to get someone to open the door, you eventually stop caring. All that “those people” remind you of, every time you hear of them, is how far back we can go as a species. The world eventually stops caring. The world is Je Suis Charlie because France would allow it. The world and France are in general agreement about human rights.
The world is not the victim of a domestic crime in Africa. Africa wouldn’t even admit that domestic crimes exist, in the sense that feminism, for example, would describe domestic violence. Resisting “cultural colonization” and erasure, 99% of African countries have put up barriers to any real help.
The death of 2000 Africans is a statistic, a footnote in most people’s thought processes. The death of 10 white, male, callous but supposedly liberal journalists is a tragedy, a travesty, the death of all that is pure and good, and their fans will repost those samples of their work that weren’t overtly racist (because some are hideously so). Here, moral purists will froth at the mouth about this ghastly, ghastly hypocrisy. But think about it from this extreme edge of the civil liberties’ battlefield: where, as a gay black man, for example, would you prefer to be born? Nigeria, or France? Sure, in France you’ll perhaps be fetishized (“BBC, oui!”), which is a degradation in itself. But you’re not very likely to be burned alive for who you are.
“I am Charlie” trended and it will get trendy. Reader, brace yourself for its commercialization. I foresee walking shoes and book deals growing out of this new shiny, bloody thing. Blockbuster movies and documentaries running for weeks.
Then, in a decade (as it happened with Rwanda) when the dust has settled, someone with a conscience will want to “tell the untold story” of “the forgotten victims” of the Boko Haram massacre. And everyone with a global conscience or wishing to appear to have one will state on twitter that they’re watching the movie, and will wax lyrical about how good Africa is becoming at telling her stories. They’ll say it’s all proof of this African Renaissance – the rebirth that always already is but never is.
But some jaded souls are already wondering whether we aren’t in another decline yet, a Post-African-Renaissance. This show of concern for Africa will only turn into as much real global concern as Africs is willing to have for herself.
“God bless Africa”, we sing. To which he surely responds, “I only help those who help themselves”.