If you want to get an idea what people think, say, and do, keep an eye on Google. I wanted to know what one Julius Malema had been thinking, saying and doing, when Google presented me with this charming set of search suggestions:
No wonder he thinks that white people are racists. Perhaps he has a point.
Granted, he has been the subject of much satire and ridicule online, which probably makes Google more likely to associate him with offensive words than most. Indeed, names like Nelson Mandela, Jacob Zuma or even Malema’s predecessor, Fikile Mbalula, do not result in such objectionable suggestions.
However, that doesn’t make it any less disturbing.
This isn’t a new phenomenon, according to Graeme Lipschitz, a former Google South Africa manager. “I’ve been using it in presentations for years to show how Google harbours user sentiment,” he told me on Twitter.
It is unclear to me why this particular phrase comes up as a search suggestion. Google Trends shows that the phrase spiked only once as a search term, in late 2010. The k-word in isolation occurs far more frequently, with Cape Town leading Johannesburg – there, Julius, have some ammo – ahead of strong competition from Australia and New Zealand.
However, I doubt Julius Malema will look at the analytics and conclude that it was probably just a once-off event, when a year later such deeply offensive words are still showing up in search suggestions.
The kneejerk reaction would be to demand that Google take action of some sort. However, censorship is never a solution. I’m of the view that banning hate speech only serves to drive it underground, where it festers, invisible and unexposed.
True, that means that like Gwede Mantashe, I have some problems with the Constitution. However, I’m confident that this view is defensible as a matter of principle.
You see, the race card is a very potent rhetorical device. There is no possible response to such an attack, even if it is blatantly ad hominem.
In 2009, I wrote a strongly-worded column about a presentation by the late Shaheen Khotu, who was then the chief information officer of the Department of Health. Upon learning where I lived, he immediately assumed that I was rich. Truth is, of course, that the cost of living in a small town is much lower than in a big city, and he was the one with the fat taxpayer pay cheque.
Then he said I was motivated by racism, and related a sordid tale involving a racist he once encountered in a town some way up the coast from me.
What was I supposed to say to that? “Sorry, if I’d known there was a racist not 50km from here, I’d have moved somewhere else”?
My usual reaction to such racism is disdain. I ignore it, in the hope of getting to the principles under discussion.
I can’t take offence. We all know the history of this country. But perennial guilt is no basis for rational debate.
It is easy to note that whites younger than 40 didn’t vote in apartheid elections. It’s hardly worth arguing that going to a whites-only school was a benefit, but the nationalist indoctrination – and for many, military service – made growing up in apartheid South Africa a mixed blessing for whites too.
It is right to point out that in the 1992 referendum, a large majority of whites voted, despite widespread political violence, to embrace a non-racial future. One can plausibly dismiss the rest as unsophisticates, half of whom have packed for Perth, and the other half of whom probably just feel threatened by competition for their previously-protected jobs.
However, it is no defence against the race card to note weakly that facts do not support the notion that most whites are racist, any more than the published rants of a few prominent black racists support the view that most blacks harbour animosity towards whites, coloureds or Indians.
Soon after my unpleasant search surprise, however, a journalist let it be known that she ditched one of her Facebook friends because of crude racism.
Richard Mulholland, a speaker of some renown, tweeted that Kulula flight crew refused to fly with a passenger who had used the k-word at one of the staff. “Respect!” he opined, as did a lot of other people. I agree.
These reports reminded me that not long ago, I had to order someone out of my sight for using the k-word in conversation. I was not prepared to tolerate the presumption that racism might be okay with me because I am white.
Public opprobrium seems to me the best way to exorcise this cancer in our society. It may be true that neither you nor your friends are racist. However, scratch beneath the surface, and too many South Africans still harbour gratuitous contempt for others based on nothing more than superficial appearance.
We all now and again run into the sort of person who readily lets slip the k-word whenever politics comes up in discussion. Or the person – even supposedly sophisticated acquaintances – who uses “they” as if it was a clever euphemism in an intelligent analysis.
Look, what people think is their own problem. Racism, like nationalism, or religious bigotry, is a deep-seated fear, which is not easily susceptible to rational argument. Let bigots stew in their own psychological filth.
But you don’t piss on another man’s shoes. What people say and do in public is all of our problem.
That doesn’t mean the state – or Google – should censor them. Frankly, I’d rather know about it. If these people poison Google’s search terms, you can be sure they poison conversations and relationships everywhere they go. In fact, it’s a safe bet that they treat other races the same way they speak about them.
It might be a low blow to play the race card in debate, but is it any wonder when racism remains so frequently on display? Is it surprising that those who suffered oppression at the hands of white South Africans view racism not as pitiable insecurity, but as evidence that white supremacy is alive and well? That they learn to consider all criticism of policy, and even of corruption, to be motivated by racism?
It is up to all of us to change that. The next time you hear someone use the k-word, or any other racial slur, don’t just ignore it to keep the peace. Confront them. Refuse to serve them. Leave their conversation. Throw them out of your house. Refuse to employ them. (The same goes for sexist, homophobic, religious or xenophobic slurs, for that matter.)
Making racist speech illegal won’t solve the problem. Those of us who truly believe in a free, non-racial society ought to ostracise and shame the racists among us. Use your freedom of speech and freedom of association against them. And for that purpose, the easier they are to spot, the better.
If everyone acted like that Kulula flight crew did, and humiliated racists in public, we might have a chance at dispelling the curse of identity politics, and discussing our many problems in good faith.
And for that optimistic thought, I’d like to thank Google’s deplorable search suggestions. DM