Sarah Britten
Sarah Britten

Dear Dan: about Red October

Dear Dan

You know what? I get it. I really do. The anger, the fear, the frustration. Murder and torture, the traces of unimaginable anguish left in photographs that have left me gasping for breath with the sheer horror of them. I will not post links to them. That is suffering that is real and terrible, and no matter our differences, we should never forget that.

So I understand why you are protesting. There is an endemic savagery that stalks our beautiful land, that mutilates girls like Anene Booysen before they are given a chance to be women, that rapes little babies and old grannies, that bludgeons and stabs and shoots and tortures. We can argue over statistics, we can debate which race group is most affected but the truth is that violent crime is everywhere and it is overwhelming.

Why then when I look through the Red October website do I feel not sympathy for the cause but an intense, almost visceral antipathy? That surely cannot be your objective.

Instead, by approaching your cause in this way, you are marginalising it. You are making it easy for most South Africans to position you as hardcore racists who deserve nothing but contempt. When radio announcers are able to turn murder and torture into a joke, when reporters tweet slyly about how you trigger their gaydar, it means that you are doing something wrong.

It wouldn’t matter except for this: that as long as farm murders are perceived to be the pet cause of the hard right, then the chances of ever solving the problem are further reduced, and more people will die.

I do think your protest has been useful, however. It has reminded us, again, of the massive empathy gap in South Africa. It is a phenomenon deeply rooted in history – not merely our own, but in almost all human societies. We are keenly attuned to our own suffering, and that of others like ourselves but we tend to be blind and deaf to the anguish of others who are a different race, or sexual orientation, or religion.

Apartheid was many things but it was also a demonstration of our remarkable ability to be indifferent to suffering – provided it was experienced by people who were not like ourselves.

It is because of the empathy gap that we are able to drive past shacks and not even see them. It is because of the empathy gap that some of us care more about middle class victims of crime than poor ones. It is because of the empathy gap that we are able to dismiss murder, torture and sadism as the necessary consequences of privilege and past wrongs.

And yes, those who are indifferent to suffering because the victims are white Afrikaans farmers and their families are as guilty of a lack of humanity as the right wingers who despise people who are not white. So while I stand by my view that the notion of a white genocide is ridiculous and wrong and therefore worthy of mockery, I do not believe that actual pain and suffering can ever be reduced to a punchline in a joke.

The fact that it is a joke, the fact that so many are able to draw mocking connections between the Red October protest and the fact that October 10 is also World Mental Health Day, is squarely down to your failure to embrace anything except your own narrow self-interest.

By focusing on race, you have helped to create this empathy gap. It’s time that you acknowledged that. As long as you create the impression that you care only about the suffering experienced by people who happen to be white, you cannot expect anyone to sympathise with the victims on whose behalf you campaign.

Dan, it is as simple and as complicated as this. You can’t expect others to care about you if you don’t care about them. Your ideological tradition has a long history of treating others as subhuman and worse, so you have more pain and hurt and anger to undo than if you had shown kindness and compassion.

Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

If you’re serious about addressing the issue, then you’ll change the way you talk about it. You’ll start listening to others instead of firing rhetorical grenades from the safety of Dainfern. If all you want to do is continue to grandstand for the benefit of your fellow ideological travelers, that’s also fine. You won’t achieve anything because the taint of racism is the kiss of death in those sections of society that tweet about events like #redoctober, and nobody with any real influence or power will ever give your cause the time of day.

I know that if you read this, you will probably write a dismissive response to the “wayward white girl” on Praag. Your friend Steve will probably call me a laxative, again. But you are doing a grave disservice to the children, the women and the men in those photographs, and it’s time you tried something different.

Please.

Yours sincerely,

Sarah

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