When I first read it, I literally turned into a rooinek as the blood welled up in my gills. “Don’t go where you are tolerated. Go where you are celebrated”, jested the status update on Facebook. The author, a gospel nymph from bygone days in small-town Eastern Cape, now operates her own “revival worship centre” in one of the more drab northern suburbs of Cape Town — to great material benefit of her three offspring and her Pastor-husband, of course. Don’t misunderstand. I am not ranting against religion here. The reason for my strong physical reaction was not even the empty indoctrination that underlay her silly Facebook statement.
And silly it truly was. It was clear that gospel nymph had not flicked on the radio and listened to any recent debates on “the station that keeps you informed”. If she had, she would have known that people who try to eke out a living by trading informally are not even being tolerated by the authorities in many of our big cities, despite it being in the interests of the citizenry that a hand up for the poor is facilitated. What must they do? Join criminal gangs that will celebrate their willingness to do crime? If the gospel nymph had any real civil awareness, she would know that prison wardens who uncover internal corruption are not being celebrated, even though commission upon commission of investigation suggest that they should be. Should they now keep quiet? What about people who do not share in the dominant faith or political belief? Have they less claim to a place in our societies? Or are their stakes justifiably diminished by their lack of connectedness — of access to networks of status, of reflected glory and of patronage in return for their unquestionable personal loyalty.
The reason for my near-convulsion was rather how blind we are to that which creates the space for such drivel to sell. There are many of us who are eager to spew vitriol when yet another “prophet” keels over on an open stage, seemingly overcome by a spiritual experience if not, nominally at least, because of a lack of hydration. Abuzz go the chattering classes every time yet another corruption network is uncovered, never to face the uncompromised and unadulterated wrath of the law. But do we ever seek the reasons for these phenomena in our own behaviour? Do we consider that there may be a domino effect that can be traced back to the everyday choices we make — how we choose to make friends, how we choose our lovers, how we choose to enter into our careers, manage our business affairs and choose our leaders? Do we consider that our history has created a slipstream that we have taken for granted, and which determines how and why we make these choices?
These questions are simpler to answer than they may at first appear. If you have ever had to make it on your own in a new city or new town and found your new social environment “clicky”, chances are that you have borne the brunt of this general phenomenon. If you have ever felt a level of advantage above others because of an in-group to which you swear allegiance come hell or high water, chances are you have helped inspire it. It may not even be that simple or pronounced. Ever kept quiet about an injustice you perceive for fear of retribution? Ever been dumped as a friend or a lover, or isolated in a work environment or social circle without any concrete reasons? Ever considered all those instances of “us” and “them” in your world and how they may be different but parallel to the divisions between the “ins” and “outs” that your parents chose?
Animal welfare activists love to site research showing that uncaring attitudes to animals are reflected in the uncaring relationships we as individuals have with wider society. They say that instilling these caring values in children growing up is especially important in fostering caring communities. Our country comes from a harshly divided past where it was in many cases the norm to be uncaring towards each other as people. Unfortunately, many of the choices we make today in our society still feed on and is informed by some of these harsh, uncaring attitudes. It is certainly to be found in our politics, in the way we organise ourselves in our religious communities, and most certainly also in how we organise ourselves in our business and social circles.
Inevitably, all of us are affected and it is not easy for any individual to stand up and confront these choices. It is difficult to stand up and ask why one is not being counted, befriended or loved, or why one is not chosen or ignored. It is not easy to ask why a certain oversight is being allowed, why fair precedents are being cast aside or unfair ones are allowed to continue. Not only may one’s integrity be called into question but also one’s very legitimacy to ask these questions. Keeping on the sanctimonious side of things is not necessarily inhuman. It may even be rewarded with some semblance of affection, recognition and security, regardless of how empty or how damaging to others it may be. On the other hand, standing up and asking hard questions may lead to a life that is vindicated, but it may also lead to severe isolation.
It is probably not worth it for everybody to set themselves dead on becoming dogmatic doorstops. But the sense does persist that, ultimately, if enough of us do not stand up and show a willingness to swim against the tide of a society organised into reactionary, closed networks, no matter the reason for their existence or the sphere of life in which they are based, we will never reach the goal of becoming a caring society. The gospel nymph has already made her choice, and she has managed to sway many in order to secure her place. I did take a stand and it bore no fruit. I am not so sure what positions and principles I will be fighting for going forward, or how loudly I am going to hail it. All I know is, the next time I logged on she just wasn’t my Facebook friend no more.