Gillian Schutte
Gillian Schutte

The trouble with liberals

The word liberal traces its history back to the Latin liber, which means “free”.

Author and founding member of the Liberal Party in South Africa, Alan Paton, described this body of thought as such:

“By liberalism I don’t mean the creed of any party or any century. I mean a generosity of spirit, a tolerance of others, an attempt to comprehend otherness, a commitment to the rule of law, a high ideal of the worth and dignity of man, a repugnance of authoritarianism and a love of freedom.”

Noble ideals are no doubt contained within the liberal discourses of rights, equality, freedom, and justice. However, this rhetoric masks substantive inequality and fails to account for differences, thus liberalism becomes a top down form of paternal humanitarianism that (still) insists that Africans are a childlike people who need to be mentored through the process of gaining rational humanity.

Liberals then, have taken it upon themselves to “train” black South Africans in how to be real human beings in the new South Africa.

It is so in the corporate world, where for a black person to break the glass ceiling is still almost impossible — preference is given to those who represent the white liberal in attitude and aesthetics — as in minority groups. Thank god for BEE et al … were it not for that there would be far fewer blacks in high positions because, frankly, they would have to pass the excruciating liberal litmus test first.

The cost of being black in South Africa is high. After “the handover” it was an unspoken agreement that black folk who were accepted into the liberal fold, the inner sanctum of the middle class, would behave white. That meant denouncing all things black and revolutionary. Woe betide the “cheeky black” who challenged that status quo. Those who have the means of production hold the purse strings and there is a worldwide network of supporters of this liberal ethos — the mainstream media for one. The “cheeky blacks” are quickly weeded out and sidelined. They cannot be contained within the liberal discourse and the imaginary from whence it is formed, thus they are “othered” — profaned — sent outside of the sanctum of white values and economic privilege. Cheeky blacks and poor blacks are outlawed in this worldview. So are wayward white women.

The discourse of liberalism remains one of the biggest stumbling blocks to real transformation and social cohesion in South Africa. This discourse has gotten so wound up in its own myopia, treacherous goodwill and neoliberal “rah rah” — yet it continues to push a line that speaks down to and objectifies the poor. It is common liberal practice to denigrate and demonise those living outside of the economy while simultaneously presenting this disdain as “coming from a space of reasonable kindness and rationality”. This liberal discourse is carefully disguised through centuries of practiced supremacy and thus is barely recognisable, to the purveyor of the liberal message.

It is all about the business class you see. Anything outside of that, or a threat to that status quo, is quickly described as “bad”, “a threat to state security”, “a threat to civilian security” and generally criminalised. An impoverished miner striking for a better life is reduced to a symbol of terror, devoid of personality, devoid of aspirations, hopes, dreams and love. He is presented as devoid of humanity. It is only the liberal businessman who, according to mainstream media, has a personality and humanity. He is the caring family man with values — unlike the evil miner.

This is the narrative the neoliberal media pushes again and again. It is no wonder so many white folk (especially those that comment under articles such as this) believe the black person to be nothing more than a thorn in their flesh — unless he is Nelson Mandela or Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu, who, in the white liberal imaginary, are really the only two rational Africans to have ever existed.

Madiba and Tutu are reduced to iconic symbols by the white liberal mind. They are thus used to signify the proof to white liberals that they possess multicultural tolerance and that they respect difference. However, a closer look reveals how their multicultural tolerance and respect of differences has real limitations. It does not include mixed-housing development for example. “The others, those not Madiba or Tutu, are fine, I respect them,” the liberals espouse, “but they must not intrude too much on my own space. The moment they do, they harass me — I fully support affirmative action, but I in no way desire to listen to loud house music or have low-cost housing developments in my wealthy neighbourhood. And god forbid my daughter marries a black man”.

Cultural critic Slavoj Žižek has said that what is increasingly emerging as the central human right in late capitalist societies is “the right for the middle class not to be harassed”, which is “the right to be kept at a safe distance from others”. A housebreaker must be put away in jail for a life sentence; a striking miner should be silenced by any means possible because he spreads hate and threatens their security. Such people are contaminated subjects who disturb the peace.

Sadly, it seems, our leaders are only too willing to oblige this class and use brute state force to keep the poor and the rebellious in hand and out of the middle-class spaces.

These things may not even be visible to the liberals, who think of themselves as progressives. In fact they will no doubt be outraged by the examples used — though it is in their silence around issues that affect the poor where the reality of their consciousness is revealed — as it is revealed in what they choose to be vocal about as well as the words they choose to express their discomfort.

There is, in fact, an entire vocabulary that has been developed by liberals to write off the poor. So service-delivery protests will be spoken of as “violence”. Trash in poor areas will be described as “laziness” and “dirtiness” instead of no services. When a poor person speaks of terrible living conditions the liberal mind will find a way to make it their fault. When people move into a building it will be an “invasion” rather than a way to survive because of lack of housing. If miners are shot in cold blood then it is because they were “violent and threatening”. If black women are large then they “cannot be starving”. The list of absurd liberal reasoning goes on and on.

Liberalism, in spite of the good intentions inherent in the ethos, is no more than the oppressive language of the privileged white class and has over time, become more and more right of centre. It cannot be denied though that many a middle-class black or minority group person has adopted a version of it too. It is those blacks that behave like them (whites) that they may consider to be fine upstanding citizens (as long as they do not get too familiar) — and the rest — well the rest are “poor” and according to your average liberal mind it is most likely their own laziness and inability to “pull themselves up by the bootstraps” that has created their poverty — well that and a “useless government”.

Liberals blindly follow the media line that business is “good” and “victim to a useless government”. The liberal, who buys into the neo-liberal ethos pushed by mainstream media, never questions corporate accountability. It is always the fault of the “black” government as far as they are concerned. Every negative social phenomenon is externalised and laid at their feet, even systemic damage entrenched through colonialism and apartheid.

We all know that the government is responsible for implementing the policy that is meant to police these entitled men-in-suits who populate the wealthy capitalist class. But what not everyone knows is that this entitled class prefer to police themselves and they make it uber difficult for the government to regulate them. Often they offer shares to those in political power to keep all levels of leadership in their well-lined pockets. This form of “white business corruption” is never scrutinised by your average liberal mind … not while they can blame it ALL on “those corrupt blacks”.

We also all know well the daily diet of anti-black, “all blacks are corrupt and useless” crap the media dishes out on a daily basis. Our kids are bought up on this tasteless diet. They laugh at the cartoons that push this agenda through white satire. They internalise this anti-black messaging. This is disastrous really.

The collective liberal mind is punitive — even if the individuals that make up this group do not realise it. They decide on what is normal, correct, good, bad and they will name it and shame “that thing” that does not measure up, using all the systemic devices in their control such as the press, the courts, TV, films etc. This is all mostly owned or occupied by the liberal structure of whiteness anyway.

The liberal never critiques his own. In fact “whiteness” is the thing that shall not be named and thus it tends to remain invisible to white folk. All social phenomena, which are the product of social and cultural processes (such as high crime rates) are spoken of as an inherent trait in certain race groups, barring the white race group of course. White folk analyse people of colour and black folk — they do not analyse themselves. Woe betide the white person who picks up the mirror and reflects it back at them — the “wit blitz” that follows is a social phenomenon in itself. Hell hath no fury like a white person who suddenly sees his reflection and realises his bullshit is not invisible after all.

Sadly white culture still possesses the power to “colonise” the definition of normal with respect to race, class, gender, heterosexuality and nationality. So it is the white liberal conservative that judges all according to his/her own Calvinistic, supremacist, separatist and sanctimonious set of rules and expectations. And while white liberals are spending all their resources setting up barriers between themselves and the “other”, the “other” needs to challenge and destabilise this liberal discourse vociferously because what it does is undermine social cohesion and nation building while claiming to be all-embracive.

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