Opinionista Kalim Rajab 19 October 2016

Let the spaces you’re about to enter be filled with counterpoints

As many as 155,000 school pupils will shortly embark upon their final matriculation exams. What message can we give them as they face not only the culmination of 12 years of schooling, but also the deep uncertainty about what awaits them at university next year? Will universities even be open for them? I was faced with this question this week as I prepared to give the valedictory address to the outgoing class of the National School of the Arts in Braamfontein – matriculants who have had to deal with the site of violent protests escalating into the streets outside their school. The following is an excerpt.

It truly is a great honour to be addressing you this evening. I think this school, a National School of the Arts, is so important, because artists are the true thinkers of any society. Artists like you are our conscience. They view the world sensitively. They’re comfortable with ambiguity. Where others see the sky as blue, they prefer to see it as aqua – or turquoise, or mauve, or teal, or cobalt. I wish we could all be like this.

Yes, South Africa desperately needs engineers and lawyers and civil servants and accountants (I suppose I fit into this rather mundane bracket) and probably we need you to be all of these things for our country’s economic advancement. But if you are able to retain and nurture an artistic sensibility in whatever you choose your future profession to be – a characteristic I’m convinced you’ve learnt during your time here – then our society will surely stand to gain.

I confess I was a bit scared when your governing body first asked me to address you. Partly because of the deep uncertainty you face about what awaits you in 2017. Partly I was scared because my experience of valedictory speeches has often consisted of some illustrious person giving A Great Truth which he or she has learnt, and which the audience is solemnly told to follow.

I have no Great Truth, and I’m certainly not an illustrious person whose example others should follow.

If anything, I’m here to say that there is no truth. But as distressing and alarmist as this may sound, to me it seems to hold the greatest hope for our collective progress as a society.

Let me try to explain what I mean. I’m in the middle of writing a book which will be published next year. It’s a historical book, about a time in South Africa in our recent past but increasingly distant in our collective consciousness. It’s about a historical figure, a contested one, whom I believe should be remembered, if only to be debated. I won’t tell you who it is, because the temptation may be to prejudge – either very positively, or very negatively.

Now, you may say that I am fence-sitting, but I happen to think that the “answer” of how society should view this man lies somewhere in between. And even that “answer”, if indeed that is the word for it, depends on when an assessment occurs – you may have arrived at a particular “answer” on him if you lived in 1960, say, and another one if you lived in 2016 – and a fundamentally new way of looking at him in, say, 2036. And that is the nature of thought, of debate, of criticism. Answers change, and they must. Truth itself changes, and it must. The challenge is for all of us to be open to changing our minds, in a rigorous way.

So in writing this book, the metaphor which I developed was something based on what is called “The Rashomon Effect”. In the 1950s, the Japanese film director Akira Kurasawa made his groundbreaking film Rashomon. In it, what appears to be a straightforward murder of a samurai and the rape of his wife is witnessed by four people, but is then described in four equally plausible but mutually contradictory ways. The wife, for example, when questioned by the authorities, comes up with one plausible version about who should be held responsible for the crimes. A woodcutter who secretly watched the scene has a different version in his head and assigns a different responsibility. The bandit who is accused of killing the samurai and raping the wife has another version which exonerates himself – and is itself a probable one. Even the spirit of the dead man himself, invoked through a clairvoyant, contradicts all with his particular version.

What’s the point of the film, which, incidentally, gave rise to a whole host of modern films paying homage to it, such as The Usual Suspects with Kevin Spacey? Kurosawa’s original film was the first to deal with the nature of truth – how the same experience can be viewed in completely different ways by different people who come from different backgrounds, experiences or ideologies. And they can all be right; if there is such a thing as right.

The point is that each of us has built-in biases and prejudices which shape our world view, and we see what we want to see. Only if we understand this bias, and are prepared to come out of our closeted positions, can we see the whole picture.

In the same way, much of our own, South African history, and the different personalities who played a part of it, depends on one’s particular stance. I used this metaphor in my book because I hope to show that, ultimately, there is no single truth. There are multiple truths, each competing with each other, offering counterpoints to each other – and all can be simultaneously correct.

Why do I say this? You may say to yourself, but a truth and an untruth cannot co-exist. That really is sitting on the fence. Facts are easily discernible; right must be distinguishable from wrong. Or, to paraphrase something Pallo Jordan once said, surely truth and untruth cannot live in the same room?

Yet there was a time when the Earth was flat; when scientists believed the Sun revolved around us rather than the other way around. There was a time recently, you’ll remember, when Iraq incontrovertibly had weapons of mass destruction; or a time when gay people were without doubt miscreants whom God had forsaken; a time when society said with certainty that women were the weaker sex and no one questioned it; when the voice of a black man was justified by scripture as counting for less than the voice of a white man.

All of these, at one time or another, were eternal truths held up as indisputable. And look at them now.

But these are perhaps not the best examples to use, possibly because to most of you here the perspective on each of these is clear-cut. A future society is surely not going to regress on gay rights, for example, and repress it again. We hope that we’ve reached an end point on this one, as it were.

But consider something like democracy. It was developed millennia ago in Greece. Yet for centuries after that some of the most advanced nations of their times – from Rome, to Carthage, to Mughal India, to Mapubgubwe – came up with their own version of government different to democracy. Now again, we’ve come full circle – democracy has returned to being a buzzword for advancement. Or has it? In our lifetimes, we are seeing people in Africa saying, hang on, this is a Western concept imposed upon us, why do we have to bury our own unique African tribal identity, our customs and customary law? Or they shout, who’s to say our churches can’t provide much-needed leadership which democratic impulses tend to usurp? Or people in India say, This democratic thing is great, but if it’s coupled with so much insidious corruption, are we really getting a great deal?

So who’s right? Where does the truth lie?

There is no single truth – there is only what we think we see.

When I was in school, I was lucky enough to have as a pre-set work, To Kill A Mockingbird. It’s set in the Deep South of America in the 1920s and deals with racial intolerance and injustice. The main character, Atticus Finch, has become something of a hero of mine. He’s a white lawyer who chooses to defend a black man accused of the rape of a white woman, when everyone else in town is rushing to hang the black man. In a famous passage, Atticus says to his daughter Scout that you can’t really arrive at the truth unless you consider the perspectives of others.

You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view… until you climb in his shoes, walk around in it for a while.”

I think this is fantastic.

But how do we actually do what Atticus suggests? Proclaiming the power of walking in someone else’s shoes is easy to proclaim; more difficult to do.

Perhaps the best advice on this that I’ve come across is from a valedictory speech Madeleine Albright, the first female US Secretary of State, gave recently. Her speech was entitled “Truth and the Value of Counterpoints”. She said – and I’m going to quote extensively here but I think it’s worth it:

To me, this is the great divide in the world today — not between liberal and conservative, rich and poor, or between any one race or creed and all the others, but between people who have the courage to listen and those who are convinced that they already know it all.

Instead of choosing to read or to listen only to the people whose views make you the most comfortable — which is becoming easier and easier to do — choose instead to study those who make you the most upset. Instead of surrounding yourself with friends whose experiences are similar to yours, reach out to people whose life stories are unknown. Instead of repeating over and over again the opinions you have expressed in the past, stop venting for a while, ask yourself why you believe as you do, and submit your own conceptions of truth to the rigorous standards of critical thinking.”

I’m sure to many of you, what I’ve said and what I’ve quoted from Madeleine Albright seems like a rather strange valedictory speech. A speech to school-leaving students in South Africa in 2016 which does not dwell on the real elephant in the room – #FeesMustFall and the potential threat to the 2017 academic year – at precisely the time when most of you would want to go to university. This must seem strange.

I hope though, that in my own way, I am addressing it, that Madeleine Albright’s words are addressing it. The spaces which you are about to enter next year will be filled with tension and ambiguity. In everything I’m seeing about what’s happening at our campuses, I see people vehemently sticking to their ideological positions with no true consideration of others’ points of view. Everyone has dug into their trench, only prepared to come out when the war has killed everyone.

You can change that.

If there is any message which I might leave you with as you’re about to enter these new spaces, it is this: Try not to be too certain about anything. Be open, genuinely open, to hearing alternate points of view. Be prepared to change your mind – not only is it okay to do that, it actually leads to more enlightened thinking. Take a different viewpoint to an accepted position, and see where it leads you. Read. The key to further education is not to put aside what we know about the world, or think we know, but to employ that knowledge as a platform for learning more about the world.

How great if we could use our opinions to start discussions, not end them. DM

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