Thursday, August 17, 2006

Do you understand black conciousness?

This article appeared in today's Business Day.

It is one of the best written pieces I have read in some time.

It decries the labeling - in order to quash argument - of the originators of different points of view as racist, and calls for greater tolerance.

It is balanced and introduced me to a commentator I did not know of. Professor Mangcu, thank you for a very well considered point of view.

From the Business Day:

A tribute to two good white men who fondly remembered Biko
Xolela Mangcu

THIS is a belated tribute to two good white men who died recently — journalists Robert Amato and Barry Streek.

I had an indirect relationship with Amato through an interview about my resignation from the Human Sciences Research Council. Towards the end of the interview he caught me off guard with what I initially thought was a rather cheeky rhetorical question: “But Dr Mangcu, it is generally believed you are difficult?” I was still mumbling something about standing on principle when he offered an answer to his own question: “Is it perhaps part of the black consciousness quest for authenticity?”

It was clear to me that his understanding of authenticity was far more sophisticated than the stock-in-trade racial nativism we have now.

After all, black consciousness never had an essentialist approach to political authenticity. Authenticity was always a matter of choice and identification, not birth or ancestry. I am sure our nativists would have been disappointed to learn from Kwame Anthony Appiah that etymologically the word “native” refers to all individuals born in a country, and not, as is often assumed, to those who claim authenticity on the basis of biology or ancestry. In that sense, we are all natives now.

There is also another reason why we should move away from nativist conceptions of authenticity. The ideal of authenticity has been central to the modern democratic revolution.

Or as the Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor puts it: “To see what is new in this we have to see the analogy to earlier moral views, where being in touch with some source — God, say, or the Idea of the Good — was essential to full being. Only now the source we have to connect with is deep in us. This is part of the massive subjective turn of modern culture, a new form of inwardness, in which we come to think of ourselves as beings with inner depths.”

However, freeing oneself from vertical hierarchies was never seen as a way to sever horizontal relations with society. Our individuality has always been dependent on the social relations we have with others. Hence Taylor’s assertion that “my discovering my identity doesn’t mean I work it out in isolation but that I negotiate it through dialogue, partly overt, partly internalised with others... my own identity crucially depends on my dialogical relations with others”.

Kwame Appiah expresses the same idea this way: “Individuality pre- supposes sociability.” In isi-Zulu we say umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu. To wit, horizontal relations are vital to the formation of both individual and national identities.

My concern is that in our country we have developed an intolerant culture in which we disqualify those we disagree with by labelling them racists. We often do not know and have never met the people we accuse of racism. Nor do we want to inquire about the reasoning behind their arguments, lest those arguments deprive us of the favourite pastime of throwing racial epithets.

This argumentation by epithets is one of the most dreadful aspects of the new political culture. Instead of engaging in a dialogical process by contesting ideas as ideas we opt for racial clairvoyance and reflexive dismissal of our critics even before they speak on account of their race. Unfortunately, this seems to be working, especially among white people.

Throughout the times I have organized public lectures I have always been struck by the silence of white people. They are afraid to speak, lest they be insulted or marginalised. And so they resort to anonymity, or to expressing outrage in the privacy of their homes or in bar-room talk.

What we all lose in the process is the ability to fashion, through open dialogue, an inclusive, authentic national identity through the horizontal relations of our civil society.

This national identity would come out of what Steve Biko called the “joint culture” comprising both the black and the white experience. Whether we like it or not, our fates are inextricably tied to each other.

Unfortunately the culture we breed now is also the culture we bequeath to our children — a bifurcated political culture in which black kids feel entitled to speak in public and white kids feel automatically disqualified from speaking. We need to inculcate in our children that this country belongs to all of them, and that none of them should feel less native than others.

If there is anything I admired about Amato and Streek it is that they never shirked their responsibility to speak in public. I will never forget the day Barry assembled a whole group of former National Union of South African Students members at his house so I could interview them about Biko’s impact on white student politics. Even though Biko was the fiercest critic of their liberalism, they respected his intellect and remembered him fondly. That’s because he never insulted them.

‖Dr Mangcu is visiting scholar, Public Intellectual Life Project, Wits University. He is also a nonresident WEB DuBois Fellow at Harvard University.

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