South Africa’s values

Values, the media, and being judgmental

In April 2010 I read an opinion article on how abhorrent it is for a political leader to engage in hate speech[1], referring in particular to Julius Malema’s remarks implying rape is acceptable.

What a crazy country we live in to be having this debate, but here goes an attempt to examine the value system of South Africans.

I have a value system that finds the concept of rape to be unacceptable. However, it is not important what my values are per se. What matters are the values of the majority of South Africans. If the majority considers rape to be acceptable then The Daily Maverick opinion actually supports the minority.

The value system of a minority imposed upon the value system of a majority is an infringement of basic human rights.

Hear me out before you start cursing.

Orzala Ashraf Nemat, a human rights activist living in Afghanistan, told me this story:

She was leading 2 NGO workers on a 9-hour trek into a district of Samangan where the Taliban used to have a base. They came across a local tribesman. It was in the middle of nowhere and the tribesman’s appearance was the absolute stereotype of the Taliban, especially as portrayed by the western media.

As it turns out he was not Taliban and he invited them for a cup of tea in his hut.

“Have you travelled much?” said she.

“I stayed all the years here in my village, although there were times where very few of us remained, but I was always here’, said he.

“Do you know about 9/11?”

He responded “yes” with a smile.

“How did you feel?”

“Well, we were sorry for those who lost their lives, but it made us happy in a way to see that an end is finally coming and it will come sooner to the Taliban domination.”

Orzala was dumbstruck. How could this man living in Taliban territory, hundreds of kilometers from a paved road, have such an reasonable view?

He took a small radio out of his pocket, “Here is how I know about what is happening in the world!”

Is that not amazing? Here he was, a barely literate, itinerant Afghani tribesman in the middle of nowhere and he had a fairly balanced perspective on 9/11.

That tells me that people can make rational decisions regardless of their cultural backgrounds and education level. The most important ingredient for rational decision-making is information. Information information information!

The majority of South African’s do not agree with Julius Malema. In fact I don’t think even 0.1% of South Africans agree with JM. JM’s popularity has nothing to do with an alignment of value systems; his popularity comes from the fact that information is not accessible to all South Africans.

The reason that information is not accessible to all is that, for now, the provision of content (i.e.: information) is controlled. The only medium thus far invented in the world in which there is no control of content is the Internet (although certain countries do try to restrict content on the Internet, i.e.: China).

The Afghan story was a great example of the importance of who controls the content. In the case of the Afghani, he had access to BBC Radio Afghanistan, a relatively neutral and high-quality source of news.

It’s not that media owners are consciously biased. It is simply that Joe Public relies on the information as filtered by journalists and editors. It is plausible that any single person would draw a different conclusion to that of a journalist or editor if he/she had direct access to the facts.

Let’s get back to my original point about value systems.

What is the value system for the majority of South Africans? If it is fairly similar to mine, then our challenge is relatively easy in that we must work to break the content monopolies (which is a 2-pronged approach, (1) Launch sites like the Daily Maverick with diverse views, and (2) Make the Internet universally available and affordable.  The rest will take care of itself.

If the value system is very different though, then we have a bigger challenge on our hands. Do I change my own values? Do I condone rape? Or do I change society’s values? And who decides what the right values are?

Worrying thoughts, but don’t panic!

I found this letter from a father to his daughter, Andrea Jung:

“Remember, there are distinctive qualities that set apart the successful Chinese: strive to excel in all you do; be a superb parent willing to curtail your own pleasure for the sake of better nurturing your children; be generous, fair, tolerant, eager to learn from other cultures while sharing your own. But beyond these attributes, remember to have an absence of arrogance and boastfulness; have unfailing courtesy, forbearance, sensitivity to others’ feelings, and above all, the ability to diffuse your anger and grievance not by suppressing them but by transforming them into helpful, positive emotions. In an age and environment of pretension, you have a precious Chinese cultural heritage which we are proud to pass down to you…”

Who doesn’t identify with this message?

This value system does not condone rape! We’re all on the same page! We just need to let everyone know that we’re on the same page! Phew.

To conclude, here is some advice.

In Bosnia during the Balkan War, Christians and Muslims commonly lived in the same village. During the day the Christians would venture out to other villages to massacre Muslims, but they would return in the evening and happily have dinner with their Muslim neighbours. The rationale was “All Muslims are evil, except for the Muslims I know”.

Doesn’t that remind you of South Africa? The white people say, “All blacks are like Malema, except the blacks I know.” The black people say, “All whites are like Terreblanche, except the whites I know.”  And the coloureds say, “Make the circle bigger.” J

Juju, this quote from Paul Valery is for you:

“Our judgments judge us, and nothing reveals us, or exposes our weaknesses, more ingeniously than the attitude of pronouncing upon our fellows.”