Response to Christchurch tells us much about threats to SA’s democracy - Businesslive

Mar 25, 2019
25 March 2019 - A free society is one whose freedom is a way of living. If we don’t practise it, it won’t exist. And that’s really the threat to be feared.

Michael Morris
I wasn’t certain I had what it took to look hard enough, or whether I’d have the courage (if that is what it is) to go through with it if I found it. But in the hours after hearing the news, I searched with admittedly flagging resolve for the live-stream footage of Brenton Tarrant murdering innocents in Christchurch.

It was quickly apparent to my better self that there was no need, and I let it go. How much more did I really need to know to be repulsed by the conviction common to all fanatics that it’s legitimate for others to die for their cause?

In a sense, I did wonder if I’d failed myself — remembering the chiding remark of a thoughtful friend that steeling himself to watch an innocent captor’s throat being slit by another murderous fanatic in the Middle East some years ago was not, as was popularly suggested, akin to gaping at pornography, but a question of bearing witness. We have no right to look away, he suggested.

But whether it is moral sentience or prurient curiosity, the real risk lies in how we respond to what we have seen — especially as the immediacy of the digital age means absorbing news is often less a mental process than a neurotic one. That risk is forgetting what we are for, and, out of fear, rallying to the cause of what we think we ought to be against. It can come at a cost.

One of the most remarkable counterarguments to this risk was made on September 12 2001, a day after 9/11 sent a tremor through the free world. The free world was not, just then, in the mood for dispassionate intelligence but British commentator Simon Jenkins provided it nonetheless, even as the blazes at ground zero were being doused: “The message of yesterday’s incident is that, for all its horror, it does not and must not be allowed to matter.” It was a “human disaster”, an “atrocity”, but maturity lay in “learning to live, and sometimes die, with the madmen”, for the “cause of democracy is not damaged … unless we choose to let it be damaged”.

In urging his readers to “be aware how thin is the veneer of democratic culture”, Jenkins prefigured the thoughts of novelist Salman Rushdie, who described how fanatics were against, “[to offer] just a brief list, freedom of speech, a multiparty political system, universal adult suffrage, accountable government, Jews, homosexuals, women’s rights, pluralism, secularism, short skirts, dancing, beardlessness, evolution theory, sex”.

Nowadays we might incorporate the jihadis’ extremist cousins on the right and left by throwing in “blacks, farmers, Islam or ‘whiteness’”. Such fanaticism, Rushdie argued, will not be defeated by war, “but by the unafraid way we choose to live”. And, of course, all of this is germane to us in SA. Whatever threats our democracy might face, the greater challenge lies in being certain of what we are for, and how willing we are to defend it.

But are we sure? My senior colleague at the Institute of Race Relations (IRR), CEO Frans Cronje, observed recently that some of the institute’s ideas are “heretical” and “you will not hear them elsewhere, not because they do not exist, and not because they are not thought, but because many people are afraid to express them”. The fear, for instance, of rejecting race as a basis of policy — or of blaming Eskom’s chronic failures on hiring strategies crafted under this edict — because of the risk not merely of being misunderstood but of being hounded and shamed, should be taken as an early warning signal.

A free society is one whose freedom is a way of living. If we don’t practise it, it won’t exist. And that’s really the threat to be feared.

• Morris is head of media at the IRR.

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