Sunday, January 3, 2016

South Africa and the problem of freedom

A lot has been reflected in the South African mediascape lately that has been nothing short of horrific. It’s saddening to note the escalating number of traumas in what is obviously an already overly traumatised country. People are striking to the point of crippling the economy, while others are tearing down statues to the point of crippling any kind of constructive discourse. And, as recent xenophobic attacks have shown, there are also those who seek to utterly destroy the lives of foreigners; and this, largely, it seems, is in accordance with fictions that have emanated from the mouth of a tribal king who should hardly have been given any airtime to begin with.
A recent photograph from the Daily Maverick by Nombulelo Damba of a burning bus — set alight by angry taxi drivers — is a fitting symbol for all that’s been happening: any hope of genuine progress or of us getting anywhere seems to have gone up in flames. What is the result of all of this? Simply put, the result is persistent immobility. The wisdom of the Bhagavad Gita tells us that real action may look like inactivity, and that inactivity may be disguised as action. I think that many of the troubles in South Africa recently are examples of the latter. There is a lot of “sound and fury,” as Shakespeare has put it, but it “[signifies] nothing.”
Before I get into a brief analysis of the ideological impetus behind all of this negativity (and a brief reflection on what would make a positive difference), I want to point out something that should be pretty obvious but which is often overlooked: the media, by its very nature, centres on exceptions rather than rules. In fact, one should be very careful to universalise what is so obviously particular. The media will tell us that the statue of Cecil John Rhodes has been torn down even before we realised that it was there to begin with. It’ll tell us that Julius Malema is angry (again) without bothering to first confirm that Julius Malema exists. The ordinary everyday stuff of life is not regarded as newsworthy, which is why you don’t get newspaper reports with headlines like Girl goes to school, learns about differential equations or Mother fetches kids from swimming lessons, gets stuck in traffic. Such reports would be much more reflective of the world as it is in all its glorious banality. And yet, such ordinary things are not prized by the media or by the people who pay attention to the media.
Still, with that in mind I think it’s worth dwelling a little on what brings all of this negativity about. What is the explanation for this persistent violence, the striking, the general disgruntlement? I obviously cannot pretend to be able to supply a complete explanation in a small space or even in any space at all, but I think that something of an explanation may be found in that little word freedom that seems to underlie so much of the discourse that comes out of the mouths of so many South Africans. Freedom was always a part of the rhetoric of South African struggle figures before the fall of apartheid, and yet even after the fall of apartheid, freedom is still the number one ideal. This is fair enough, because it is clear that a lot of people in South Africa live in conditions that are far from humanising. A lot of South Africans feel like victims a lot of the time, so the language of freedom is understandable. Arguably, it is the ideal known as freedom from the tyranny of minimum wage that fuels the strikes of the unskilled and undereducated, and the ideal of freedom from the tyranny of ideological structures that has fuelled aggression against colonial and other symbols. Xenophobic violence seems to enact a supposed freedom from the untameable, supposedly threatening other. Such violence also seems to make concrete, in a rather sick and distorted way, the ideal known as freedom from unemployment. The ideal of freedom, while generating fight also generates a great deal of flight, as many South Africans choose to leave this troubled country (there are other reasons for leaving, of course, but that’s not my concern here).
However, freedom is, as the philosopher William Desmond notes, a “god” that has “[retained] something of an unknown character. It seems the more striven for the more it can become a deus abscondis [a god that hides].” Most of all, South Africans seem to prize autonomy. No one wants to feel so utterly dependent. No one wants to feel like their lives are in the hands of others. But this is where the problems begin: This freedom fetishism a lurch towards autonomy is just that; a lurch towards a self that has its own laws and rules (autonomia). And the consequences hardly ever recognised include pride, loneliness, disconnection, miscommunication, and, consequently, a lot of “othering” (creating others even where there are none). Freedom as freedom from envisions a world of alienation and rejection; where the only thing that can be known about the journey is what we are leaving behind. And this just turns us, like Lot’s wife, into pillars of salt. We become something non-human in the process.
There is a bit of dramatic irony here: The more the world is conceived of or perceived as alien and untamable (as equivocal, to use William Demond’s term), the more we will “set out to mitigate this equivocal face .. [b]y subjecting its uncertainty and ambiguity to clear and distinct cognition. By increasing the range of our power over its otherness through mechanical means.” What this means is that the very human desire to find a space of belonging in the world (a place to work or simply a place to feel accepted), when arising only out of a sense of alienation, becomes a kind of brute belonging: a fundamentalist rejection of the distance that is necessary for any kind of love to be present; a kind of clinging to the simplistically ‘knowable’ (the stereotyping of the self and the other) and an acting out in violence (which, as much as it is a violence agains the other, is also violence against the self).
Why this is ironic is that what is enacted is, at best, a refusal to properly understand what is going on (it is a communication that miscommunicates). It is wild and hasty and angry, but the name of the real enemy is deliberately obscured by all of this hasty unreason. And while this will genuinely be rejected, the name of the enemy is really obvious: it’s us. The enemy, in the end, is not out there but within.
As an aside, Malema has used the xenophobia attacks to reinforce his own political agenda: “No Zimbabwean has taken your job,” he said, “You want a job, go to Luthuli House. Take every Zimbabwean back to Zimbabwe, and you will still be unemployed. You can kill all the people of Zimbabwe, and you will still die in poverty.” Malema, like every politician in the history of humanity then took his sophistry to the conclusion that we all knew was coming — the inevitable creation of another enemy: “Your problem is the ANC.”
But, actually, that’s just not true. The ANC has problems, for sure, but it is not the problem. No government is the problem, really, even when it has problems or produces problems. The real problem is with the ethos of so many South Africans, which is largely (albeit not entirely) built upon freedom from — freedom from the ANC, freedom from poverty, etc. Of course, it’s much easier to name and blame that which is out there and alien and other (them, not us), but its alien appearance is always rooted in a fundamental misunderstanding. Its appearance as foreign exists only because of a refusal to engage and be present to its very real unity. A constructed otherness is far easier to create. It’s much harder to notice the obvious fact of the sheer humanity of the other, which amounts to the fact that “them” is an awful lot like “us”.
We would do well to remember, of course, that a thing that is judged — a thing that is reduced to a very narrow conception of that thing — simply cannot be understood. The alienation that exists, then, is something that exists in the minds of the people, not in the reality itself. The conflict is invented not real. I know that this may sound like a harsh thing to say — to say that what our violence is based in is illusion rather than reality — but why else would such violence exist? The real problem is internal, in the stupid constructions we have of our supposed enemies.
Part of the reason for the existence of these constructions, I want to claim here, is that our beloved god, freedom, is conceived of only as a departure; as a movement away from. The obvious question of where we are actually going is hardly ever addressed. If, for instance, you reject the ANC as Malema would have you do, is his equally myopic politics really the thing you want? If you, for instance, reject colonial symbols (which, as far as I can tell, are hardly worth their weight in bronze), what, precisely, are you going to replace them with? Another symbol of political incompetence? This failure to think of where we are actually going is why buses get torched, or why the foreigner gets attacked, or why the strikes persist, or why a million other stupid political moves keep on being repeated, and repeated, ad nauseum, to the very point of nausea. Freedom is, whether we acknowledge it or not, the ability to choose constraints. And the constraints we choose, whether willingly or not, include definite consequences, even if they are consequences that we cannot foresee. All we can really control are our actions. Precisely what comes of those actions is something we’ll have to wait for.
And yet, we can look at a number examples from the lives and experiences of others for ways to guess what might happen when we do one thing or another. We can guess pretty accurately that violence won’t work because it has never worked. It has never made anything better. Never. An eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind. Strikes, too, never produce good working conditions, because they are built on a stubborn refusal of employees to actually take responsibility for their actions. Prejudice is diametrically opposed to progress. South Africa doesn’t get better when we defer to the government, or anyone else in parliament, because it fails to address the one thing that is really true and really worth paying attention to: the only way to make this place better is to, individually, do things that will make the place better. Criticising others, blaming others, punishing others, destroying, tearing down, etc. — none of this will ever work. Because it’s all just a negation: it’s all freedom from, but never freedom for. It affirms nothing. It affirms nothing.
I know there is unemployment, but maybe the question shouldn’t be “Who is taking my job” but rather “How can I be employable?” In fact, wherever there is a problem, the question to ask is not “Who is to blame?” or “What is to blame?” but “What can I actually do about my situation?” or “How can I influence things for the better?” Because this is the real point of autonomy — of self-mastery: it is to figure out a way to live in harmony with others for the betterment of the whole. The point of having freedom from anything is taking note of the responsibility (the ability to respond) to those things that we can actually control.
Freedom is not just freedom from constraints, but is, ultimately, the ability to choose constraints; otherwise, it is not freedom at all.

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