Sloganeer who remains a slave of history - Business Day

Nov 26, 2018
26 November 2018 - What he had hoped to dress up as an argument turns out to be only a thuggish threat, a proposition invested with so little intellectual faith it could not risk exposure to interrogation. A bullet would be enough to settle it.

Michael Morris
Prominent UCT fallist Mlandu Masixole almost struck a note of intellectual maturity when he was reported to have said that pinning the hot-button slogan “One settler, one bullet” onto the end of his dissertation had done exactly what he’d intended, which was to “start a conversation on the settler influence in society today”.

Unfortunately, the impression was undone by the very next line,  a direct quote, which has him declaring: “To be offended by ‘one settler, one bullet’ is to agree that you’re a settler — an exploiter”, a line of reasoning somewhat closer to the truer anti-intellectual impulse of his earlier Facebook declaration: “One settler, One bullet. Each bullet will take us closer to freedom.”

The problem, he evidently fails to appreciate, is not one of offendedness, but delusion. What he had hoped to dress up as an argument turns out to be only a thuggish threat, a proposition invested with so little intellectual faith it could not risk exposure to interrogation. A bullet would be enough to settle it.

The pity, of course, is that there is a conversation to be had. As if in reply to novelist LP Hartley’s aphorism “The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there”, historian Eric Hobsbawm later wrote perceptively: “True, the past remains another country. But its borders can be crossed by travellers.”

Weaponry, needless to say, is no advantage on such a journey — the enemy being only phantoms, and not an inch of ground to be regained. We know we don’t live there anymore. But there might be a reward in embarking on more than fitful, enraged forays into settler country after all.

A genuine sense of inquiry could be enough to foster a meaningful “conversation on the settler influence” in the real world of 2018, yet most who might be interested seem sufficiently content with the answers they already have to bother with questions they might not have thought of. In this, “settler” is little different from its cousinly epithets “whiteness” and white privilege”.

We are persuaded, for instance, that classroom exercises that are conceivably eye-opening for children — pink-vs-blue teams run a race with only the blue team being allowed running shoes — are indispensable in the moral instruction of adults, even if, as is invariably the case, all they demonstrate is that history has effects.

The more difficult — and only useful — challenge is to examine the origin of these effects and to choose, if they are considered desirable, how to replicate them. But that’s seldom if ever the objective, which is mainly to morally disqualify people for the accidental fact of who they are, and who their ancestors were.

The conundrum at the heart of the charge is that “settler/whiteness” is at once desirable and repugnant. It is manifestly desirable for its advantages, yet held to be repugnant for the same reason. This circular logic succeeds, of course, in forbidding interrogation; the “sin” is an unarguable truth, and expressing it is rather like saying the sun rises in the east. Who could argue with that?

If this makes the charge intellectually barren, it confirms its perverted potency. The sum of unexamined assumptions about its intended targets — their actual worth, their humanity, the rights that well from it, their contribution to society and their willingness to be good people — is one sound reason for being offended by “One settler, one bullet”.

But there’s a deeper offence, too; the equally unexamined assumption that the supposed moral plaintiffs, the subject indigenes that were, remain fated victims of history, absent as agents and incapable of agency on the purely accidental basis of who they are, in turn. 

The amalgam that sets the knowledgeable, capable or prosperous of the world apart is not fated, but striven for. History’s effects are as laden with benefits as they are daunting, but they are not fixed.

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

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