Giving the middle finger to jumping to conclusions - Businesslive

4 September 2022 - Trying to see things for what they really are is more than the tantalising preoccupation of those who are paid to make sense of the world; all of us gain from calling it right, and judging events or sentiments with intelligence and accuracy.

Michael Morris
Trying to see things for what they really are is more than the tantalising preoccupation of those who are paid to make sense of the world; all of us gain from calling it right, and judging events or sentiments with intelligence and accuracy.

Writing in the Financial Mail not long ago, Justice Malala dwelled on these dynamics when he cautioned, “It may be that Ramaphosa is in trouble. Blackouts are the order of the day, poverty is rampant, unemployment is sickening and despair stalks the land. It may be that ‘the masses’ are restive.” (“Flying a false flag”, July 21). 

But he warned against being misled by “the noise”, the “manufactured outrage” on social media, none of which was SA’s “real conversation”. “The visitor from space,” Malala concluded, “would need to speak to real people to get a sense of the country and where it’s going. So should all of us.”

Whenever I think of the difficulty of this — essentially ordinary, everyday — procedure, I am reminded of two quite different but equally powerful advertisements from the media world, the first from 1980s Britain the second from SA of the 1990s.

Perhaps being a journalist in London at the time gave The Guardian’s award-winning “Skinhead” commercial, first screened in 1986, an extra charge for me, but it has lost none of its force in the more than 30 years since. The half-minute television advertisement — split into three segments, with only the third presenting the whole picture — features a loutish-looking skinhead who appears to be wrestling a briefcase from the hands of an unsuspecting businessman on his way to work.

The first two segments appear to contrast a stable, respectable society with its frightening, dystopian opposite. In fact, the alert skinhead, risking his own life, is acting to save the oblivious businessman from a load of bricks falling from a building site crane high above the street.

The spare script is powerful: “An event seen from one point of view gives one impression. Seen from another point of view it gives quite a different impression. But it’s only when you get the whole picture that you can fully understand what’s going on.” (Sceptics will doubt The Guardian’s success in always meeting the ideal implied in its own advertising.)

Require skill

The second advertisement was a tabloid-sized poster for the Cape Argus from the turbulent 1990s. It featured an unsmiling labourer brandishing his middle finger. The brief legend across the bottom was rendered in Xhosa, with a translation in much smaller, harder-to-read text under it.

At first glance, here was the very image of menace — a threat combined with incomprehension. In fact, translated, the legend merely said: “I cut my finger — I need a bandage?” The implication was that insight lies beyond what is visible, or what is immediately assumed to be true. And there’s no doubt that seeing things for what they really are can require skill and prior knowledge.

In the current atmosphere of anxiety over crippling dysfunction and greed, you would think optimism could only be delusional. Yet, as Peter Bruce argued last week, the “battle” to make SA a better place “has been going on for 400 years” (“In the smarts we trust to get us out of the hole politicians dug”, August 31).

If much of this time has been “marked by industrial-scale stupidity on the part of the governing elite”, failure is not predestined. The “real people” of Malala’s cautionary advice — and if you think about it, isn’t it true of you and me? — understand this perfectly well, and remarkably enough live their lives accordingly.

• Morris is head of media at the SA Institute of Race Relations.

https://www.businesslive.co.za/bd/opinion/columnists/2022-09-04-michael-morris-giving-the-middle-finger-to-jumping-to-conclusions/

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