There is something about the anonymity provided by the Internet that seems to bring out the worst in people. Too ashamed of their opinions to write under their own names, they regularly post the most irrational, uninformed and hateful diatribes in the comments sections of news websites and blogs. Like Jean-Paul Sartre once wrote (and I paraphrase): “Hell is other people trolling anonymously on the Internet”. As a public service, I offer seven points of advice to these poor, lost, souls, knowing all too well that this advice will likely go unheeded.
1. Just a thought, but next time before your fingers hit the keyboard in an apoplectic rage, read the full article or post and make sure you understand what it actually being communicated. Don’t get hoodwinked into banging out a response (and wasting valuable drinking time in the process) by the usual trigger words or phrases such as “black”, “white”, “homosexual”, “affirmative action”, “racism”, “ANC”, “DA”, “atheism” or (and this is where you have to keep your wits about you), “white privilege” or (calm now, dearest, stay calm), “unearned white privilege”. The author probably placed one or more of these words or phrases in the article on purpose to drive you into an irrational rage and trick you into making a fool of yourself. It’s probably all part of an ANC plot to make you look stupid. Don’t fall for this sneaky, communistic ploy! Read on to the end of the article instead.
2. Which brings me to the question of anger. No, not anger, more like blind, white-hot, irrational rage. I am told there are pills you can take for the wild anger you feel whenever you are told (steady now, breath in, breath out) that homosexuals cannot be killed or discriminated against, or (please, I beg you, don’t flip out on me so early in this piece) that you continue to be the beneficiary of white privilege. (You are likely to be on medical aid after all, unlike the vast majority of South Africans, so you can probably afford the happy pills.)
And if pills don’t help, pour yourself a drink or watch an episode of Vetkoekpaleis, Sewende Laan or Isidingo instead. Or think happy thoughts, like that time in 1989 when you heard F.W. De Klerk was elected leader of the National Party.
Once you’ve calmed down and your blood pressure back to normal and you can see again, at least attempt to crack a smile. Smiling calms the nerves, I’m told. He who laughs last and all that airy-fairy stuff. (Don’t worry, you’re not going to become gay just because you managed to crack a smile. I laughed for years before I discovered I was gay.)
3. If you still feel the urge to scratch that itch after calming your nerves, try to use logic and reason to work through the anger before you damage the keyboard as you thump out yet another sarcastic, sexist, racist and homophobic diatribe. Remember, the writer is probably testing you, trying to see whether you can put your Model C education to some use, whether you can actually respond to any of the conceptual points made in the original post and whether you can construct a logical argument and engage in any meaningful way with what was written. I know, this is not your style. You are used to being right. It comes with being white and privileged (there now, don’t take the bait!). You are not used to have your preconceived assumptions challenged. After all, to you whiteness probably means never having to say you are sorry. But now is a good time to start practicing for the day when your skin colour won’t automatically confer authority and influence.
Constructing an argument and engaging with the substance of what another person has said or written can actually be quite a bit of fun. Empowering too. It sure beats the feeling of hopelessness and sense of rage and futility you feel every time you spot those trigger words that challenge your authority as a white, heterosexual, male, patriarch. I know, this behaviour – engaging logically with arguments – is usually associated with the educated classes. People like Nelson Mandela or Trevor Manuel. But you probably tell your mates that Mandela is a swell guy, so maybe its time to put your education to good use and prove that you can follow his example.
(Shame, I know chances are your education sucked – mine sure did – but those of us who are white and whose parents could not afford private school fees cannot help that we were taught by affirmative action teachers who got their jobs only because they were members of the Broederbond and had mastered the art of never having an original thought in their heads. I know, old habits die hard, but with a bit of hard work – you know, what you always tell black people to do – you too can better yourself and regain the ability to think for yourself.)
4. Don’t be tempted to believe that the first thought that oozes out of your brain is an original one. Just because all your friends agree with you and because they laughed at what you believe to be a clever put down of the pesky “white privilege”, “moffie”, crowd (or those maddening people who still refuse to vote for the DA, after all the DA had done for black South Africans!), does not mean it has not been said a million times before. Trust me. It has. You yourself probably already wrote down that very same thought in an anonymous post you typed out last week after reading an article on Julius Malema. Usually, your thoughts are neither new, nor original. After all, prejudice is as old as human existence itself.
5. Try and concede a good point made by the author you wish to engage with. For example (and I know this is not easy), write: “Yes, the earth is indeed round and revolves around the sun. Good point!” This at least gives the appearance of thoughtfulness and magnanimity on your part. If you find that you are genetically incapable of actually conceding that anyone else may have made a good point, fake it. There is nothing wrong with faking level-headedness. In fact, it is a good skill to develop. Think of it as a competition in which the best faker wins. That way you will be able to harness your sense of innate superiority while impressing others with your magnanimity.
6. Stop wasting your time trolling the Internet for articles that you know will outrage you and read a book instead. How about reading a book by an author who is not like you in any way, a book written by somebody of a different race, a different sexual orientation, a different gender (Harry Potter doesn’t count) or a different political viewpoint. (If I can read Hermann Giliomee, you can read Slavoj Žižek.)
Read a book about something outside of your comfort zone. A book on ballet or curling, a book written by a Marxist economist, a book about a gay love affair or about a great soccer player, a book about somebody living with HIV, a volume of poetry or (and I know I am pushing my luck) a book written by a black person about the destructive power of white privilege. Books allow you to reflect on your own life and the lives of others. It may even inspire an original thought (see number four above). Besides, books do not have a “comments” function so you will be spared the shame of having written an embarrassingly uninformed and stupid comment while you were angry (see number one and two above).
7. Try to be funny and self-deprecating. I know, for many white people the notion of white privilege is no laughing matter. I know you probably have not yet forgiven black people for Apartheid and for making you feel guilty about benefiting from it, but that does not mean you cannot milk it for a few laughs. This is a risky strategy, as the piece you are reading right now amply illustrates. (See what I did there? By conceding that you might not be having much fun reading this and that I might not be nearly as funny as I was hoping to be, I am trying to buy some sympathy.) Sometimes this works. Sometimes it does not. But what do you have to lose? Probably only your farm or your house. (Ha. Ha! You must admit, that was kind of funny.)
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Pierre De Vos teaches Constitutional law at the University of Cape Town Law Faculty, where he serves as deputy dean and as the Claude Leon Foundation Chair in Constitutional Governance. He writes a regular blog, entitled 'Constitutionally Speaking', in which he attempts to mix one part righteous anger, one part cold legal reasoning and one part irreverence to help keep South Africans informed about Constitutional and other legal developments related to the democracy.
"Look for lessons about haunting when there are thousands of ghosts; when entire societies become haunted by terrible deeds that are systematically occurring and are simultaneously denied by every public organ of governance and communication." ~ Avery Gordon