Most South Africans have never heard of Al Neuharth. It is important to know who he was, however, to appreciate the meaning of his most famous aphorism.
It is often misinterpreted as advice not to make a fuss about minor issues.
In fact, it means something quite different.
Neuharth was a media mogul and, more importantly, the founder of the Newseum in Washington DC.
The Newseum is a fascinating concept, designed to promote an understanding of the importance of free expression, and its protection, as the foundational value of democracy.
The media, as the saying goes, provide a first rough draft of history. The Newseum explores this role across all platforms, from the airwaves to the written word (including graffiti). It shows how free expression not only reflects events, but shapes them, exposing fallacies and unintended consequences, revealing the intricate interaction between cause and effect.
Insight into the complexity of the past enables us to ask the right questions about the present and future. What is the relevance of specific events? What do they say about the bigger picture? Will their true significance only emerge over time? Is it possible to separate perceptions from reality? Can we spot which molehills will turn out to be mountains and vice versa?
These are the questions the Newseum prompts us to ask, as it promotes enlightenment values and the dialectic method of getting closer to the truth.
Why does this matter?
One reason, relevant to this column, is that reading the signs correctly enables societies to identify alternative pathways into the future, which is usually preferable to rushing Lemming-like over a precipice.
These thoughts come to mind as I reflect on a brief conversation of the past week. I was pleasantly surprised to receive a call from the principal of my former high school, who wanted to discuss the 50th reunion of the class of 1968 (my matric year) scheduled for this coming weekend.
After confirming my attendance, she said she understood I had been asked to do a Bible reading during the chapel service that will be part of the programme. Yes, I replied.
She then explained that the school had been through a difficult year, with escalating racial tensions on issues such as “cultural appropriation” among other matters.
It took a while for the penny to drop, but I eventually realised she was asking me not to do the Bible reading. The old girls’ association who had invited me to do so had, apparently, not fully appreciated the complexity and sensitivity of current racial dynamics at the school.
The principal was quick to assure me that the withdrawal of the invitation was not personal. It would apply equally to all politicians (although, as far as I am aware, there are no others in the class of 1968).
If she allowed me to do the reading, she added, she would have to allow politicians from every other party to speak at the school, which would be particularly undesirable in the run-up to the 2019 election.
“You would have to invite politicians from other parties to do what?” I asked tongue-in-cheek. “Read from the Bible in chapel?”
I hardly thought it necessary to explain that I would be at the reunion, not in my capacity as a politician, but as a former pupil of the school in the company of my contemporaries.
Now, at one level the withdrawal of the invitation is no big deal. But, read in the wider context, there is every chance, as Neuharth points out, that this apparent molehill could turn out to be an emerging mountain.
Its very pettiness is a clue to its significance. If you can bar someone from a Bible reading in a chapel, not because of who she is but because of what she is, how can a school encourage free speech and the dialectic method relating to hotly contested issues?
This tiny incident, insignificant on its own, is just one of millions of clues, emerging throughout our country, especially at universities, alerting us to the fact that the very values bequeathed to us by the Enlightenment, and embedded in our Constitution, may be under siege.
Or am I reading too much into it?
It was the phrase “cultural appropriation” that gave it away. This is a concept integral to a pernicious ideology of intolerance, which in the space of a few years has seeped into every crevice of South African society (which I coincidentally wrote about last week).
This ideology (known as identity politics) comes with its own extensive vocabulary, of which only two phrases are relevant here: “Cultural appropriation” and “no-platforming”.
Cultural appropriation means (for example) that if you are white, it is insulting and racist to adopt elements of other cultures – for example a white woman wearing Umbaco.
Even venturing outside your culinary culture is now verboten. Look, for example, at what happened to celebrity chef Jamie Oliver recently, when he introduced “Jerk Rice” to his range of convenience foods (borrowing elements of the Jamaican cooking tradition). It generated days of controversy, including an attack on him by a Labour member of the House of Commons.
This would be funny if it were not so insidious. Can you imagine the infringement on our freedom if we had to strip our daily lives of the different cultural influences woven into every aspect of the way we eat, speak, sleep, work and relax?
In fact, taken to its logical conclusion, it would require closing down the internet, I reflected to myself, as I watched a two-minute DIY video this weekend on how to build a tandoor oven using two clay pots and some gravel.
No-platforming (a related concept) involves the withdrawal of an invitation to a speaker, whose opinions might not be considered left-wing enough by some members of the audience.
I frankly doubted whether the St Mary’s old girls would consider me “not left-wing enough”. During my school years, my anti-apartheid views (often strongly expressed) placed me on the “radical left”. My position hasn’t fundamentally changed. I still believe in an open, inclusive democracy and have spent my entire life working to achieve it.
But these are strange times, as I realised again recently when I read about an artist being no-platformed at her own exhibition in Stellenbosch because her braided hair was interpreted as “culture theft” by some of the people present.
As I suspected, it turned out that my former school principal wanted to avoid the risk of upsetting some girls in the matric class of 2018, who will attend the chapel service “as a way of introducing them to the old girls’ association”.
So, as has become the norm these days, the programme will be dictated by the most intolerant invitees, who either have a limited understanding of (or actively reject) the values of South Africa’s constitution.
Yet, I sympathise with the principal’s response. “Peace for our time” (the Chamberlain model of leadership) is always more comfortable than Churchill’s injunction to “Courage [as] the first of human qualities because it is the quality that guarantees all the others.”
I wouldn’t bat an eyelid if I thought this was just a passing fad. But I suspect it is more than that.
I glean this insight from the analysis of a path-breaking paper, by sociologists Bradley Campbell and Jason Manning, who have concluded that Western society is not merely undergoing a Zeitgeist shift. It is, in fact, experiencing a “second great transition of moral cultures”.
The first started 300 years ago, when most Western societies moved away from “honour cultures” – (in which people had to fight for respect, avenging even the slightest perceived insult through the sword or the gun) – to “dignity cultures”.
Dignity cultures differ from honour cultures, because they assume that people have inherent dignity and rights as individuals, which are protected by institutions and laws. This means that people do not have to resort to violence when they feel the need to defend their honour. Instead, they turn to the courts and other social mechanisms to claim and enforce their rights, or resolve minor infractions.
Today, argue Campbell and Manning, the dignity culture is succumbing to a victimhood culture, “in which people are encouraged to respond to even the slightest unintentional offence” with injured outrage. Instead of seeking redress through legal and social institutions, victimhood culture appeals to the authorities for deliverance, which usually includes demands to limit the freedoms and rights of others.
While the “honour culture” (that we left behind three centuries ago) depended on dominance, usually applied through physical force, a “victimhood culture” exercises power by revelling in vulnerability. People who perceive themselves as victims, even of the slightest unintended “micro-aggression”, believe that this is a licence to negate the values of our collective constitutional culture.
It is a regressive phenomenon that will force us onto the down-escalator of history unless we stand firm.
For a while I considered the possibility of making this point by giving the reunion a miss, but have since decided otherwise. I will go because I am looking forward to seeing my old school friends again, and sharing notes about what paths our lives have taken.
Whether I read in chapel is frankly immaterial. I have done the necessary, by writing this column, to explain why something so seemingly insignificant can have a much deeper relevance in the context of our times.
Now I will just go along and enjoy myself. DM