Opinionista Jacques Rousseau 16 June 2010

Blow the vuvuzela and blow the cultural argument

Those ubiquitous – and contentious - plastic bugles, now the horns of a dilemma for the World Cup, could be more health hazard than emblematic of South African sport culture.

Any claim made repeatedly does not become more true in proportion to the number of repetitions. Yet, according to much of what you read on websites where the vuvuzela is discussed, it is now taken for granted that this “musical” instrument is “part of our culture”. Furthermore, one gets the impression that many believe it to be a long-standing part of this culture, such that its existence and continued use are beyond criticism. Raising questions about its cultural status – or more prosaically, about its value – are frequently deflected by accusations of lacking “gees” (zeal or spirit), at the civilised end of the debate, and of simple racism at the less-civilised end.

Something being part of any given culture is, however, not a reason to regard it as being good. Instead, we should remember that things become part of cultures because people value them – whether we’d prefer they did so or not. Our culture has come to value democracy because we regard democracy as having valuable properties. We don’t simply value democracy because we see it defended in the media every day. Or, at least, we shouldn’t. To value something simply through habit or programming is a prejudice, which puts it on the same epistemic level as sexism or racism.

In other words, we should value things for sound reasons. And we should not value things when better alternatives exist. To ignore whatever reasons there are for ascribing value (or not) is to succumb to prejudice, and to commit ourselves to being less rational as a consequence. In terms of the vuvuzela, it is difficult to see how reasons, or clear reasoning, can lead to anyone being able to endorse it.

To begin with the argument around culture, it’s relatively easy to dispute that the vuvuzela deserves the status of being considered part of our “culture” at all – and even if it was, this would not mean it’s a good thing. Wind instruments have been part of many sporting events for decades. The “trompeta” became ubiquitous at Latin American football games in the 1970’s, while the vuvuzela only started becoming popular at South African soccer matches two decades later.

So the vuvuzela is not something that South African football fans have been blowing since time immemorial, regardless of any more long-standing ceremonial use of kudu horns. We can “thank” mass-production, rather than culture, for the dominant role the vuvuzela currently plays at our football matches. Neil van Schalkwyk started offering low-priced plastic versions in 2003, removing the barrier that previously required aspirant musicians to find a Chinese import or an animal horn to express their emotions.

And expressing emotion is, of course, what it’s all about, as referred to by the idea of “gees” that has gone viral at the 2010 Fifa World Cup. But here too, the argument in favour of the vuvuzela comes up short. As Danny Jordaan has commented, “In the days of the struggle we were singing, all through our history it’s our ability to sing that inspired and drove the emotions”. The vuvuzela flattens out any attempts at engaging with surrounding fans (or players) using chants or songs, replacing these attempts with one persistent, monotonous farting noise.

Furthermore, it is quite possible that they play a part in making the spectacle you are there to witness somewhat less compelling. Firstly, they can block your view of the action, if there are enough of them in the crowd surrounding you. Secondly, teammates can’t hear each other nor can coaches relay instructions to their players. Many spectators are driven to wear earplugs, thereby insulating themselves from the very environment they came to be part of. Those that don’t wear earplugs expose themselves to the possibility of permanent hearing damage, seeing as the vuvuzela emits a noise 30-50 decibels higher than the 85 decibels considered potentially damaging to the nerve cells of the cochlea.

Besides risks to one’s hearing, preliminary studies are showing that the vuvuzela can play a role in spreading airborne infections such as colds, influenza and tuberculosis – none of which seems to be something we should encourage during flu season, in a country with already high rates of tuberculosis. The chances of infection stem from the droplets of moisture that gather at the business end of the instrument, and which are expelled while blowing (some spectators have reported wet shirts and hair), and also, of course, from sharing vuvuzelas between fans.

These considerations add up to the vuvuzela being a plausible contender for consideration as a risk to public health. As a smoker, the public health risks to which I apparently expose others lead to my enforced isolation at public events such as football matches, and I doubt I’d get very far claiming culture in my defence. Is this simply because some prejudices are more entrenched than others and are, therefore, considered more reasonable?

I don’t know, because nobody seems able to offer any argument against the banning of the vuvuzela, or at least its controlled use. The response is typically to simply say people like me are racists, that we have no “gees”, or to make claims such as “it’s here to stay, and you should simply deal with it”. I am dealing with it. I’ll go to all the matches to which I have tickets and I’ll enjoy them – just not as much as I may have had vuvuzelas been less numerous.

In the meanwhile, I’ll also deal with it by pointing out that they aren’t for good reasons, and that it’s no argument for the pro-vuvuzela  camp to simply accuse detractors of prejudice or a lack of “gees”. Especially when arguments in favour of them seem to rely on little more than prejudice, as well as on a notable deficit in common sense. It isn’t at all obvious that the vuvuzela is part of our culture – and even if it was, it’s hardly clear that it should be.


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