Where has the time gone
17 December 2017 16:12 (South Africa)
Opinionista Sisonke Msimang

On being right

  • Sisonke Msimang
    sisonke-new-photo-02.jpg
    Sisonke Msimang

    Sisonke Msimang is currently working on a book about belonging and identity. She tweets @sisonkemsimang.

As political parties launch their 2014 election campaigns, it would serve South Africans well to keep in mind that the exchange of ideas trumps being right or wrong. Debate, talking to one another and not past one another, is the lifeblood of democracy.

I like to be right. No, that is probably an understatement. I love being right. Winning a bet makes me gloat. I cackle, I jump with glee, and generally make whoever had the audacity to bet against me feel silly and small.

But in serious matters, in matters of politics, in questions of social justice and economic inequality, I tend to be more gracious. In fact, over time, I have begun to be less and less interested in being right, and more and more interested in the process of coming to a decision about what is right and what is wrong.

As election season officially kicks off, South Africans will be immersed in heated discussions about all manner of things about which we all feel strongly: corruption, education, service delivery, freedom of expression, land ownership, nationalisation...
As we do so, it will be worth reflecting on what the point of these discussions is. Are we talking to one another or past one another? If we are talking to one another then we are less concerned with being right (although of course it matters) than we are with the practice of talking, with the deliberative process that comes with exchanging views. We are interested in the quality of the discussion, as well as in the quantity of the words we use. Most importantly, we should be concerned with debate as a form of citizenship building, as a mechanism for increasing our social bonds – across class, race and gender divides.

I know that this is easier said than done, but it is essential nonetheless.
In a young democracy like ours the battle of ideas is intense and robust. But it is precisely this cut and thrust, the exchange of ideas that matters to me. Being right is far less important than being given the opportunity to change my mind.

The most exciting part of democracy, indeed the best part of democracy for me, has been the opportunity to engage with ideas in the public domain. Engaging with ideas means exactly that – reflecting, critiquing, agreeing, or not.

A few years ago I was at a meeting in Maputo that brought together senior leaders at universities from across the continent. At that meeting someone made the comment that there are far too few public intellectuals in Africa. The comments struck me as important – and ultimately I decided that I disagreed with them – but I appreciated them being made all the same. The discussion offered me an important opportunity to clarify my own thoughts about the matter, to decide that in fact with the proliferation of radio talk back shows and Twitter, with the tremendous increases in literacy across the continent in the last three decades, ordinary people – not cloistered academics – have become the new public intellectuals. The notion of “public” has expanded as democracy – with all its warts and adolescent pimples – has deepened across Africa.

For South Africa, this is particularly important. In this country political tension has historically been resolved with violence and bloodshed. This history has meant that political debate – the respect for the process of exchange, the insistence that being right is not the supreme objective – is the lifeblood of this democracy. Political debate is what’s kept us together as a nation, even where we stand apart in our views. Political debate has kept us from exploding at tense moments and, if we continue to value it, political debate will save us in the rough years that surely lie ahead.

When it comes to the delivery of social services – to building houses and installing water pipes and building schools, I have always believed talk is cheap. Indeed, talk is often a substitute for action.

But when it comes to democracy, talk is the work. Call-in shows, and community imbizos, NGO workshops, opinion columns and tweets – all of these build a vibrant, cacophonous and strong democracy. When people reflect in writing and think aloud on radio and television, they demonstrate a commitment to democracy. They affirm the reality that democracy indeed happens in the exchange – not in the rightness or the wrongness.

Too often, however, the spirit of debate seems not to be the point of public discussions. Too often we fall into the trap of having rigid positions; we decide that writing something means we are wed to it. We are interested in garnering agreement – canvassing for supporters rather than seeking exchange. We want to strengthen our positions, rather than debate them. This means that changing our minds is seen as defeat rather than as part of the process of living in a democracy.

The national conversation about affirmative action stands as an excellent example of this. Those who write about it have strong views, yet these views often shoot past one another, barbs in an ideological war, rather than lobs in an exciting tennis match. As a student of politics I am under no illusion that democracy is ultimately a system that is designed to apportion power in a civilised manner. Thus, someone has to win. But it seems to me that the game itself is worth watching – not just the awards ceremonies (elections). Therefore how it is played, the arcs of the ball, the bounce and the speed – these all matter. So it is with our debates, with how we talk to one another about all manner of things.

The ability to have robust engagements, but to listen across differences, to agree sometimes, is to recognise that the object of the game is not only to win (although this matters); it is to do, think, to improve and to have better, clearer, more rigorous ideas as a result of debate. This is what democracy is about; this is what we need more than ever.

As political parties kicked off campaigning season this past weekend, we would do well to keep this in mind.

But of course we aren’t always right. And we would do well to remember that many a war has been fought because one side was incapable of admitting that it was wrong. South Africa needs to recognise that while reaching accurate conclusions is the hallmark of the human race, it is only possible through the process of trying and testing various positions.

Those of us who believe in democracy must learn that being right isn’t a once-off event. As scientists know, the spectacular moment of hitting a big “right” is the result of years of experimentation, of getting many things wrong, until what seems like a serendipitous moment occurs. Talk is the point in a democracy. Being right is a nice-to-have, but certainly isn’t the endgame. The endgame for politicians may be power – for the rest of us the journey and the destination are of equal importance. For South Africans it may be what keeps us alive. DM

  • Sisonke Msimang
    sisonke-new-photo-02.jpg
    Sisonke Msimang

    Sisonke Msimang is currently working on a book about belonging and identity. She tweets @sisonkemsimang.

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