Warren Foster
Warren Foster

Putting everything in a box to the left

Do you like being put into a box? Is the complexity of your character clearly classified? Are the intricacies of your integrity irreversibly ingrained?

Or should not, rather, the mettle of your manner be made malleable?

I think so. I have always tried to think so, at least. Some would stand by their “fixed” identity. “I am the American Republican party supporter,” they might say. “Christian, conservative, patriotic, pro-life and pro death penalty. Any questions?”

It’s not for me. Size me up at your peril. I am a young South African. In a different age and under another, completely arbitrary, classification scheme I would have been deemed a “coloured”. Derisively, a “hotnot”. Today, 80% of former illiberal bigots can’t tell the difference. I’d show up for my pencil test, pass it, the “baas” would look at my light complexion, hear my anglicised accent, give me a familiar smile and leave me be. No dompas for me. “Thank you, my comrade,” I might jovially say.

The truth is, nothing is more abstract than identity; whether you define it by religion, race or culture. How many real traditionalists are there today? I have a colleague who defines herself as a Xhosa woman but also accepts Jesus Christ as her lord and saviour. She endorses lobola but not ancestral worship. There are those who pray to both Jesus and their ancestors. There is a group known as Jews for Jesus. Wonder what that’s about? I’m told, by the evangelist who thrust the pamphlet into my hand, that it’s for practising Jews who believe Jesus is the son of God: “We keep both kosher and communion.” How’s that for a catchy tag line?

So what happens should the Jews for Jesus accept Muhammad and Bahá’u’lláh as prophets as God as well? Well, they would naturally create the new mix box and find others with the same views. They then all get to share the box. The dynamic nature of identity is one of the beautiful things about being human. Of course, being human means wanting to be part of something and wanting to make meaningful connections with others. So we assign ourselves silos in which we can identify with one another. There’s nothing wrong with this. I’ve just never believed it was for me.

And why am I telling you all this? Because I was recently cast into a box. A complete stranger, who’d read something I’d written here on Thought Leader, asked me for a sketch of my person, my beliefs, my manifesto, if you will. And I gave them the “box” speech I just gave you. “No problem, just tell me what you think about things,” came the response.

Writers know that this is too good an opportunity to miss. We all write to our egos on some level and here I was given licence to shoot my load. This was my response; kindly excuse the more colloquial language:

Ever heard of the social contract? We did it in first-year political science. It’s pretty much the inspiration behind democracy. It advocates rule by the people. You’ve already read my piece for Thought Leader on why I advocate rule by all, so I won’t go into that again now. But what lies behind the social contract is something far simpler and far more universal. Hobbes believed that the natural state for mankind was chaos; a constant war of all against all — until we banded together. I’m not sure why we did. Perhaps we learnt that through cooperation we could all achieve more (as Rousseau demonstrates through his stag hunt); perhaps centralised agriculture brought us together; maybe it was a more base desire to interact.

But in order to work together, certain freedoms had to be sacrificed — simple things we don’t think twice about today. Neanderthal A had to agree not to kill Neanderthal B and vice versa, for example. The same would go for stealing.

One simple, universal principle: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”

If you’re a Christian, you know this one well. From Buddhism it reads: “Putting oneself in the place of another, one should not kill nor cause another to kill.” From Islam: “None of you [truly] believes until he wishes for his brother what he wishes for himself.” Jewish sage Hillel said: “That which is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow. That is the whole Torah; the rest is the explanation; go and learn.”

So whatever you believe, and even if you’re an atheist of agnostic, you abide by this one principle. And it’s enshrined in South Africa’s Constitution, a document that strives for that balance of everyone’s individual rights: dignity, privacy, information, free speech. The right to have for yourself what others want for themselves. No one person’s gain should come at the expense of another. You may do as you will so long as it does not infringe on others’ chance to enjoy their freedoms.

Ever heard of cultural relativism? It’s the view that all cultures and beliefs are equal. That there is nothing to say that Christianity, for example, is superior to Islam. I am a cultural relativist but not to the point where everyone finds fault with it. The rule that guides law should be the Constitution. If it is OK, in my belief system, to go around shooting people, I can’t cite cultural relativism as a defence to that. The law is secular for this exact reason; it has to go by the other principle — the one that states “do unto others”. Without it, you have chaos.

Have I driven the point home yet?

And it’s strange that I’m so strongly anti-capitalist — given I’m such a liberal. It’s a contradiction that I battled with until I actually sat down to write this. I said earlier that no one person’s gain should come at the expense of another — it doesn’t fit in with the golden rule. And that’s how the current system works. Without regulation, the capitalist machine works to grow the divide between rich and poor. I recently started Raj Patel’s Stuffed and Starved, in which the first observation he makes is the “big fat contradiction” that there is more food in the world today than ever before, and more starving people in the world today than ever before. And it’s because of this system that dictates that only those who have are offered anything. And it’s because corporations are allowed to exploit the misfortunes of others to push their own profits. It’s not right.

I guess that’s what I think … about things.

My apologies. That was rather verbose and quite self-evident. So to cut to the chase, my “friend” (it’s a loose term on Facebook) simply replied: “Oi! You’re a social democrat: liberal, you lean left of the centre.”

And I felt a strange sort of remorse because, it seemed, I’d been writing in vain …

Again, I ask, do you like being put into a box?