Opinionista Xhanti Payi 28 May 2010

Lies, euphemism and the clash of cultures

There’s one racial generalisation I know I can make without fear of contradiction, and it is that black people consider white people to be less respectful towards elders - at least in the way black people define respect for elders.

It is the reason why black parents do not encourage their sons to marry a white woman, because, quite frankly, white women do not understand respect. At least not the way black people do.

For example, as a young black person, you may not call an older person by their first name as that is considered very disrespectful. White people do it all the time. Actually, many elderly white people insist on it as a sign of goodwill and positive rapport. Even equality.

So when Congress of the People youth league president Anele Mda called Cope president Mosioa Lekota a liar on live radio, even saying directly to him, “…why must you lie like that?”, she was received with much disfavour and criticism. Black people just couldn’t believe her cheek. One caller commented that this sort of talk even brought to question her upbringing and understanding of politics and public life.

Anele’s response on the other hand was that, well, the word “lie” in no way displays disrespect for the person to whom it is being said. Pull out any dictionary and there is no association or reference to “disrespect” in defining the word “lie”. In her view, she did nothing wrong, she was respectfully stating her position and belief. But the callers to the show were unrelenting, even calling her behaviour “unAfrican”.

So, after listening to the programme, I decided to conduct a quick survey, to gauge how many of my white friends would say to their parents, “Dad, you are telling lies” or even, “Dad, what you are saying is not true”. Of all those surveyed, all said that if that were the case, they’d say so. All the black friends said, no, never. One even responded, “Tell my dad WHAT?”

You see, even I know you may never call an elder a liar. You are allowed to tell them though that they are mistaken, or that you disagree with their view. But to state directly that they tell lies is just not acceptable.

In a world that is constantly changing, and where black and white interact daily both in private and public, how are we to navigate these differences? Do I apply a different standard to white elders than to black ones?

But in an increasingly tricky political sphere, where elders are not afraid to blatantly tell untruths, can we afford to use euphemisms when confronting this problem?

For example, looking at an adult, eyeball to eyeball, is a sign of disrespect in the minds of many black people; to many white people, it represents honesty.

It is in every job guide book that when you go for an interview, you must offer a firm handshake and make direct eye contact. This means that black interviewees are doomed because almost always, the person who interviews you will be older and most likely white. If you show them respect and look down as you greet them, all they will see is dishonesty. And no one hires a dishonest candidate.

In the spat between the ANCYL and DA leader Helen Zille about her all-male cabinet, the Youth League had all the favour, until they started attacking Auntie Helen, and making references to her sexual conduct. And that just didn’t sit well with anyone. How dare young people speak of sex to an elder?

But whose standard of respect shall we follow? I suspect this falls in that sensitive grey space between culture and diversity, and standards of decency and moral conduct. And there we are far from a universal solution. Very, very far.


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