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25 May 2017 22:09 (South Africa)
Opinionista Brian Watermeyer

Making sense of the student protest movement: Saying YES to anger, NO to hatred

  • Brian Watermeyer
    Brian-Watermeyer1.jpg
    Brian Watermeyer

    Dr Brian Watermeyer is a clinical psychologist and a postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Psychology at Stellenbosch University. He was first editor of Disability and social change: A South African agenda (HSRC Press, 2006), and his book Towards a contextual psychology of disablism was published by Routledge, London, in July 2012.

Times of crisis make it hard to think. Scanning the various positions on the current student protest crisis present in our public discourse shows up a starkly polarised set of views. Some decry those participating in violent protest as criminals, while others see all members of the Fees Must fall movement as blameless crusaders for social justice. Global statements such as these are almost never true.

Clearly, there is evidence here of our having fallen into split thinking, relying on binary over-simplifications. A tragic implication of this thinking is that it makes us unable to see one another clearly and compassionately. One symptom of the fix we are all in is my feeling of apprehension as I write this; even as members of university communities, where the freedom to hold a diversity of views is fundamental, at the present time one fears victimisation from both staff and students for straying from one-dimensional politically correct positions.

It’s not hard to understand how we have arrived in this slanted and constrictive frame of mind. Revolutionary political movements everywhere, by their nature, invite conceptual binaries. Galvanising a constituency into political action means identifying exactly who the “oppressors” are, which always, to some extent, involves dealing in stereotypes. Not all members of a movement need subscribe to these attitudes, but a narrow, radical strand will do so. I believe that the vast majority of students involved in the movement are motivated by heartfelt, justifiable grievances related to their institutional experience which must be urgently addressed. There is no question that our institutions are, for identifiable reasons, experienced by a host of students as alienating and exclusionary. Immense changes are needed if we are to fulfil the ideal of caring, inclusive universities.

While this truth remains central, we are in an impasse, where collaboration between staff and student bodies on deepening inclusivity in our institutions is deadlocked. How have we reached this point?

To reiterate, somewhere in the anatomy of all revolutions we will find simplification of the social world – you are either with us or against us, a perpetrator or a victim. In the discourse of the narrow, but vociferous, radical strand of the student movement, university staff often fall into the category of perpetrator. For this authoritarian strand, the duty to examine one’s prejudices only applies to those “on the other side”, hence the contestations over inclusion of identities such as transgender people and persons with disabilities.

The rigidity of revolutionary rhetoric is often, unsurprisingly, proportional to the severity of the trauma which triggered the revolution in the first place. Here, we are talking about centuries of racial trauma, culminating in the degradations of apartheid. One way of understanding systemic racial prejudice is as an experience of having one’s humanity obliterated, of being rendered invisible. This is what hatred does; it spits at any opportunity to know the other, instead holding onto assumptions about not just who, but what he or she is. But to say that the authoritarian rhetoric and violence which we have seen as a response to this is understandable, is not to say that it is justified or helpful.

The unease and confusion at the protests which many South Africans feel, both inside and outside our institutions, is in part due to our having been seduced by the distortions of binary revolutionary thinking, no matter which “side” we find ourselves on. Uncomfortably for all of us, it is in fact not clear who the villains and victims of this drama are, and they certainly do not belong to discrete groups.

Speaking as an academic staff member, I fully and sincerely support the student movement’s drive for better inclusivity. Yet I have felt deeply disturbed by the violent incidents as well as crude, reifying racial language we have witnessed over the past weeks. We have seen the brutal beating of a security guard, the attempted murder by arson of two others, a residence containing physically disabled students torched, and intimidation of university staff and students on a large scale. Academic staff have been evicted from their offices, amid threats of assault and arson. The politics of public denunciation has been commonplace, with both the work and the person of individual staff members undergoing public trashing, in vivo as well as on social media. The slogan “kill all whites” has been on display on several occasions. A university crèche has received a threatening phone call, and had to be evacuated.

In a resource-strapped tertiary education system, property worth an estimated R600-million has been destroyed. In one especially disturbing episode, staff of UCT’s chemical engineering department, after being hauled from their offices, were told that if they tried to return the protesters “can’t guarantee” their safety, as “this building is the most dangerous building on campus” because of the laboratories and substances it houses.

Do our students have reason to be enraged? Absolutely. These young people are entering adulthood at a time of national reckoning. We are taking stock of our failures as a society, with a government which, notwithstanding modest development achievements, has failed to provide young people with core essentials in two decades of rule. Topping this list of resources are high quality schooling for all, a range of accessible post-school education and training opportunities, and employment. As it is, much of a generation lives with little cause for hope, and many thousands of our students live with daily awareness of not only their own, but also their family’s struggle with poverty.

I have written elsewhere of my support for protest politics – we need more of this, not less, to deepen our democracy. But this action can take different forms, which will or will not contribute to a caring society.

As we make our own assessment of protest action, I suggest that we need to draw an important distinction – that between anger and hatred. In particular, we need to identify those occasions when the former begins to find expression in the latter; that is, when justifiable anger surrenders to the “solution” of hate.

Unlike hatred, anger can be generative – it invites relationship. Expressing one’s grievances and demanding change can be an acknowledgement of the humanity of the “wrongdoer”, as it begins from the premise that he or she is able and willing to listen, and to change things. In this sense it is the beginning of the realigning of a relationship, the first step to us finding one another again. Hatred does the opposite. It begins from the premise that the other party is devoid of integrity, and will never respond. It dehumanises by deciding not just who, but what one is. In so doing, it severs relationship – it is an ending, not a beginning, which damns the other on the basis of crude identity categories. We know about this in South Africa.

Where anger lays the groundwork for a redoing, a correction, hatred can only lead to a repetition of old harms. It is not interested in thinking about solutions, or the humanity of others; part of what it hates is thinking itself. This is because thinking runs the risk of calling to mind the other as an individual, feeling person, who may or may not fit the description of “the oppressor” in a host of uneven ways. Thinking brings with it the political inconvenience of complexity – the reality that we are all both unique and fragile.

Hatred does not think, it simply decides. The repetition is this: hatred takes the pain of having felt obliterated by prejudice, and reacts by destroying the humanity of others. It will not think, only act. We are at our best as humans when we are ready to be surprised by one another; hatred is the antithesis of this.

Let me be clear: I believe the student protest movement to be motivated overwhelmingly by a compassionate recognition of injustice, and a sincere determination to correct it. It is possible to fully support the anger, the cause, while rejecting incidents of hatred. Likewise, it is possible to be a campaigner for social justice and a pacifist, as are countless academics I know. But as we watch, our tertiary institutions face potentially irreparable harms. Where these occur, incidents of hatred are tearing at resources far more precious than bricks and mortar; they destroy bonds of trust, of faith in one another, which are literally indispensable to the endeavour of education.

The rampant coercion and intolerance we see strangles critique, flying directly in the face of learning for all of us. As South Africans we must engage fully with the anger and pain of all of our people, learning about one another as we go. But we can, with a clear conscience, say “no” to hate. DM

Dr Brian Watermeyer is a Senior Research Officer and clinical psychologist with the Disability Studies Programme, Department of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences at the University of Cape Town

  • Brian Watermeyer
    Brian-Watermeyer1.jpg
    Brian Watermeyer

    Dr Brian Watermeyer is a clinical psychologist and a postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Psychology at Stellenbosch University. He was first editor of Disability and social change: A South African agenda (HSRC Press, 2006), and his book Towards a contextual psychology of disablism was published by Routledge, London, in July 2012.

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