Friday, 29 April 2016

No.23 - Rapists, rage and responses

Wow.  I take leave in the hills for a few days and everything goes crazy in my absence.  I return to a university jittery in the aftermath of yet another upheaval on yet another issue – this time rape and sexual harassment.  I’m picking up the echoes.  Demos, barricades, interdict, closure.  Some students and/or outsiders behaved badly as usual; the police behaved heavy-handedly as usual.  The Vice Chancellor shoved down stairs; an arrested student having a panic attack in a police van; another hit in the chest with a rubber bullet.  Letters in the press; sundry viewpoints aired on the university Confessions Facebook page.  It’s so complex; no one has a complete view.  Lawsuits threatened in every direction.  Trauma layered on trauma.  Some lecturers, especially male, declined this week to give lectures for fear of being invaded, interrogated and labelled the enemy unless they went out and toyi-toyi’d, too.

Indeed, any whiff of criticism of this wave of protest runs the risk of being simplistically characterised as support for rapists.  A new orthodoxy; no subtlety allowed.

So let me be crystal clear on my own stance here.  I condemn without reservation sexual harassment in all its forms.  Rape, along with other kinds of sexual harassment, is a national, indeed, global scourge.  There is no question that it ought to be eradicated, its patriarchal roots expunged, its perpetrators punished, and its victims protected and helped.  There is no question that judicial systems the world over have failed signally to rectify the situation, and that decades of public critique have substantially failed to persuade sexual predators of the damage that they do, and to deter them.

What to do about it now, is of course the question.  We are dealing with an ancient and many-headed hydra, pervasive in a multiplicity of forms, from international slavery networks to crass teasing at the nearest pub, across a vast range of social structures and individualised experiences.  It follows that solutions will have to be equally multiple, tailored to local nuances and conditions.  Globalised legislations and idealistic mantras, while necessary and already in place, can go only so far.

Local responses are already well-established.  Annually, I am honoured to join a march or other event in support of women’s rights or in opposition to sexual harassment and inequalities.  Raising awareness and sensitivities amongst men, and empowering women, through demonstrations, educative displays, media exchanges, lectures, support groups and so on, gets my total support.  In principle, then, I applaud student initiatives to address the issue as it impacts upon them in the here and now.

All that said, it’s tricky. The university is a locus for both new freedoms for the young, and new disciplines.  It is both an erotically charged space, and a venue for challenging the status quo. We have a communal responsibility to challenge the status quo, even as we try to maintain a certain stability and respectfulness.  The recent paroxysm of rage has raised some troubling questions.  Righteous anger has always been a necessary element in compelling change; and – as usefully outlined in Stacy Hardy’s article, “A Brief History of Student Protest”, in the latest edition of Chronic-Chimurenga – students have often been at the forefront of such changes.  In this case, it seems to me, some the modes of anger and rhetoric have spilled over from last year’s protests, and have become a little misdirected.

Firstly, there has been intense debate about the event that sparked the upheaval: the anonymous posting of the euphemistically-titled “ReferenceList” of alleged sexual offenders.  It’s controversial enough publicising neighbourhood lists of convicted paedophiles or rapists; this is doubly shaky stuff.  Women I’ve spoken to, despite being strongly feminist or victims of abuse themselves, have termed it an unacceptable act of vigilantism.  One writer claims that 96% of claims of sexual assault are well-founded and honest, implying that the ReferenceList must therefore be 96% accurate.  This can’t by definition be shown, since that figure cannot include the huge number of claims that never get proved in court, let alone the many instances of withdrawn charges. Pontsho Pilane, who makes some good points in her recent Mail & Guardian comment, supports publishing the list, arguing that women have been left with no alternative. If there is “collateral damage” to the innocent, that seems acceptable – as long as it’s men.  Hmm.

This view is closely connected with a second problematic aspect: equating the legally-binding ‘presumption of innocence until proven guilty’, which is written into national and constitutional law, with somehow deliberately “protecting the perpetrators”.  That this seems to happen in practice doesn’t mean that presumption-of-innocence law is wrong.  It’s partly a product of the fact that a) many victims are understandably reluctant to lay charges openly or immediately; b) it is in so many cases very hard to prove and prosecute the assault; and c) the burden of proof is automatically, regardless of the crime, on the charge-layer/victim.

I’ve experienced this tough situation in a minor key.  Maybe twenty-five years ago I was stabbed and robbed on a staircase leading down into Joburg railway station.  It was over in a minute of frenetic struggle; though I was bleeding, the first and only security guard I found was uninterested.  The attackers were gone; there was no one to arrest or charge.  Obliged to prove their guilt, I would likely not have been able to recognise them even if they’d been caught.  The law could do nothing for me.  So I patched myself up and walked away from it.  Yet even now I still sometimes run over the scene in my head, wondering what I could have done differently, whether I’d been too naive, too slow, too weak.

I suppose I should have made a fuss and demanded that station security be enhanced.  This, in one facet of the demonstrations, is what our students have demanded of university management.  I don’t know how much practical and legal wiggle-room administrators have, since they cannot (as some seem to be demanding) act outside the parameters of national law.  I do hope that the newly-formed task-team can at least make it more possible to humanely receive and pursue harassment cases (I understand a number are already under prosecution, but are strictly sub judice, for good reason).  For victims, no strategy – silence, court, therapy – is ever going to be easy.  But it will not be made easier if the anger is directed at the wrong people.

Of one thing I am fairly sure: the scourge will not be mitigated by drawing yet more unnecessary divisions – between students and management, or between students and lecturers.  We can only do it together, over the long term, by increments, by every available channel and strategy.

Hence, for example, the study of literature is not irrelevant, even if it’s not happening spectacularly on the barricades.  Once the spectacle of the street demo passes, as it must, the skills our lectures and studies develop remain vital: the deepening of empathetic imagination, better understandings of what drives human relations, the transcendence of damaging stereotypes and generalisations, sensitisation to one another’s needs, tolerance of different voices, the enhancement of self-confidence, the mental wherewithal to make more intelligent decisions in one’s daily life.  Later in the year I will be presenting our first-years with Ursula le Guin’s fascinating science-fiction novel, The Left Hand of Darkness.  Sci-fi?  Irrelevant!  On the contrary.  Le Guin’s novel is all about cross-cultural understanding, identity and otherness, truth and governance – and gender.  Le Guin imagines a largely de-gendered physiology which makes rape impossible, and gender inequalities non-existent.  It’s a thought-experiment: What kind of society would we have if that were the case?

We will get nowhere without such imagination, the power to envisage alternatives, and the hard-won maturity and wisdom to work together across all other perceived distinctions.  Whatever we might achieve might feel a bit like the cap about be placed on the exploded Chernobyl nuclear reactor: a huge effort of international cooperation, thirty years late, so much damage in the interim, and hardly addressing the root causes of radiation itself – but an achievement nevertheless.  That’s our job: to do what we can to take our sad song, and make it better.


Monday, 25 April 2016

No.22 - "Brindisi, 2072"


Some view Europe's current treatment of refugees as horribly ungenerous.  Have Europeans forgotten that, just sixty years ago, millions of them were refugees themselves in the wake of the Second World War?  What if, another half-century down the line, the boot were once again on the other foot.  This is the sketch of a story...

BRINDISI, 2072

She looked half-starved, grey beneath the skin, shaky – and she was the charity worker dishing up thin soup at the head of Brindisi dock.
            As her spoon clanked against his enamel bowl, Garrett Miller found his thanks catching in his throat; being a “refugee” still shamed him.  But he was moved that at least some locals turned out in support, where most Italian residents had barred their doors, barricaded streets, and called on riot police to keep the ragged influx contained.
            He settled against a sun-warmed wall next to Lynda, helped her to some gruel.  He twitched aside the grubby blanket around her to reveal Deborah’s tiny face.  She seemed terribly still.
            “Is she still breathing?”
            “She just suckled,” said Lynda.  “For what it’s worth.”  There was a bitter edge to her voice now; the flight from the war had somehow rapidly changed this quiet, introverted inoffensive wife to one bordering on the vindictive and accusing.  As if the whole conflict had been his fault.
            They were surrounded by a forest of parti-coloured tents and awnings strung from the fences, a glum hubbub of exhausted faces and slumped shoulders, children too weak to play or wail.  On the shoreline where they had come to rest the previous evening, a little way back up the coast, a tiny child had lain, face down in the surf, dead and bloated up tight in its orange lifejacket, ignored.  People feared radioactivity or some other contagion, and walked on.
            He had scribbled down a note of it.
            “Why are you bothering?” Lynda had snapped.  “There’s no one to sell your stories to now.”
            He had tried to smile.  “Once a journalist, always a sucker for a story.  And the stories have to be told.  Everyone has a story.  We’ll look back on this one day and want someone to know our story.”
            “Look back from where?”
            That, he couldn’t answer.  Everyone was talking of vast plains in Ethiopia, fields of green along the Euphrates, cities of golden peace in Syria, but you couldn’t tell how true these visions were, or where the implacable streams of history might carry them.  For himself he envisioned African mountains, the liberation of clean air, and water running in spectacular valleys, and birds.  Just a patch of arable land, and a circle of friends, swapping their tales of horrors gone by.
            The horrors played themselves out in his journalist’s mind as headlines: BREXIT DESTROYS EURO; RUSSIA INVADES TURKEY; SHADES OF 1945: BERLIN FIRESTORM; NUCLEAR FALLOUT ENVELOPS BRITAIN; EIFFEL TOWER TOPPLED BY WARLORDS.  It had become almost impossible to follow, let alone believe, the sequence of events that had reduced so much of the continent to radioactive rubble.  Maybe it had been like that in 1914: a mush of ill-conceived treaties, undercover monetary loyalties, here a tyrant showing too much muscle, there an assassin pulling his trigger at just the wrong moment, elsewhere a billionaire profiting from weapons sales to all sides, populations on the edge of starvation coaxed into battle as their last resort.  Sit and die – or fight, maybe die maybe not.
            Or run.
            Garrett had chosen to take his wife and baby and run.  For the baby’s sake, mostly. Crawling out of the Underground after their fortnight’s emergency supplies had run out, they’d found London all but flattened, afire from horizon to horizon – H G Wells’ War of the Worlds came absurdly to his mind.  But here it was humans themselves who were their own aliens, their own destroyers. 
Garrett had had the foresight to liberate some cash the moment the first missiles from Germany had headed for Britain, and they were able to pay a boat-owner – a surly, scowling man they discovered was a Slovenian well-versed in fleecing the needy to ferry them through dangerous waters – to get them from Lambeth to Calais.  The Chunnel was choked with exploded vehicles, the Thames cluttered with oily hulks, like something out of Dickens, and the Channel crossing itself swathed in blue-grey smog and haunted by patrol-boats of random allegiance.
And they had to pay the Slovenian pirate again just to get off the boat.
The Red Cross had set up a temporary camp near Calais nicknamed ‘The Jungle’, where they were able to get at least a little warmer, October cold beginning to creep in off the Atlantic.  Here, discomfitingly, they found themselves jostling at the food lines with nationalities with whom they, the English, were technically still at war: Germans, Danes, even some Russians who had fled their own corner of Hell.  Like any other sane human.  Indeed, the Miller family were rapidly being reduced to the essential humanity they all shared: hungry, dislocated, malodorous, shitting in ditches.
It took mere days to lose even the dignity of animals.  And it wasn’t long before they learned that even amongst the destitute moved marauders and false friends, that those best equipped to handle all this were those who had travelled furthest, with least conscience, with sly weapons, those who would before the war have been dismissed as tramps and gypsies, gangsters and ex-cons, deluded survivalists and wacko woodsmen.  Pampered City journos like the Millers, with softened feet and homey values, limited resources and a baby, were poorly equipped, to say the least.
Within hours of flopping down in The Jungle, a few minutes’ inattention saw the theft of their little plastic baby carrier and her blankets.  “Who would do something like that!” Lynda wailed.  And then, in the first of such startlingly intemperate outbursts, she yelled out randomly over the clustered, miserable refugees: “I’ll kill you! I’ll kill you!
It injured Garrett’s sense of propriety, and he wrapped her in his arms just to quieten her.  But no one even raised their heads.  The gentlemanly virtues, quintessentially English, that Garrett had been taught by his father, grandfather, great-grandfather even, seemed irrelevant here.  His great-grandfather, over ninety when he, Garrett, had been ten, had muttered endlessly about 1914, and 1945, and how he saw that every generation had to suffer its own great war, as he had as a child.
“You’ll get your war, too,” the ancient man, the retrograde imperialist, had growled.  “Up to you to save our way of life, if all these black-faced immigrants haven’t trashed us by then.” 
Now those values appeared always to have been illusory; yet Garrett had not been able to bring himself ever to abuse another refugee.  He paid, in money or kind, rather than filch or bully; but such resources were dwindling.
It had become clear to them all that they couldn’t stay at Calais long: the Red Cross were in dire straits themselves, there were rumours of a local warlord’s bands moving closer, and such residents of the town as remained were themselves turning hostile.
Italy, it was said, was more hospitable.  Thereafter, the Middle East – having weathered its own wars half a century before – beckoned as a haven of peace.  Africa, too, the region that had powered itself to prosperity as the West fell into decay, self-recrimination and directionless war.
But those places seemed to them like evanescent dreams – dreams that nevertheless had to be chased.  So they had lurched in trucks to the Italian border, where more money had to change hands to cross the makeshift barriers; then it was on foot, across the southern Alps, in the footsteps of Hannibal, it may have been, Garrett wryly wondered as they trudged past bodies half-buried in snow-drifts.  At times troops chased them with teargas and rubber bullets.  They were barely able to stagger onto a train that collected them in Milan; the Italians’ mission, too, was clearly to get rid of them as soon as possible.  Now, the clash of gates behind them underlined their entrapment at the toe end of Italy.
There were boats, it was said, which would take them from Brindisi across the Mediterranean to – wherever it took them to.
And even as the Millers scraped the bottom of their bowl for the last lick of soup, there was a ripple through the crowd assembled on Brindisi dock.  A boat had been spotted approaching out of the sea-murk; there was a surge amongst the people towards the end of the docks, trampling tents and women, with bellows and optimistic screams.  The boat appeared silver, a chip of quartz, bright as a promise.
“We need to get down there,” yelled Lynda.  But Garrett held her back; she thrashed in his arms, stopping only when the baby fell and whimpered feebly.  “We’ll get trampled,” he shouted at her.  “They’ll restore order, they will.  We’ll find who to organise this with.”
But he scarcely believed himself; he knew the numbers were too great; their only hope lay, probably, in the enfeebled apathy of the majority of the refugees.  But he wasn’t confident any more of his own strength, either.
Then the tone of the crowd changed subtly; it was like a swarm of bees turning from enthusiastic hive-making to anger, a deepening of tone amongst those who called out to each other in a Babel of languages, none of which Garrett could understand.
But a pair of binoculars was circulating nearby; through them Garrett could see what had caused the change.  A dark grey military vessel, clearly armed, was turning the silvery boat away.  And the word was surging back from the dockside, whether true or not seemed immaterial: the word was that Africa was closing its borders, it had taken in enough refugees, no more would pass this point.
What?” screamed Lynda.  “How can they do that?  There are millions of acres of land in Africa! How can they be so bloody ungenerous?”
The two boats in time disappeared into the mist; the refugees slumped back into a low, dispirited hum.  Lynda and Garrett retreated to their little spot against the wall, a spot that felt almost, now, like a home.
The baby was very quiet.  Garrett ran his fingers around her tiny bobble of a chin.  “Hey, is she still breathing?”

****************************************************************************




Friday, 8 April 2016

No 21 - The Terrace



Late afternoon light slips across the treetops on the edge of the terrace, more lucid than nectar, sadder than gold.  The tips of leaves lift as if to meet it, like the mane on a cat’s back.  It’s autumn, the sky is cool with the frailest of high mares’-tail clouds, the erythrina tree at the east corner is beginning to shed its first leaves, yellowing like coins worn to the thinnest of memories.

I’ve come to love this little terrace.  I don’t own it; it’s not even on the tiny property I rent.  Like light, I prefer to pass over and through this life, not attempt to possess it.  The view is astounding.  The Southwell road curls away across the shallow ridges of the coastal plain, the promise of a discovery following its own nose to the sea.  I can see the sea, cerulean plate with a single white chip on the rim: a ship.

Over the years I have worn a wavering path through the grass from one end of the terrace to the other.  Sixty-six paces, good to think along.  I talk myself through problems and poems and practice lectures. It’s automatic now to duck beneath the thorny branch of the acacia tree at one end, step over a slightly protruding stub of Table Mountain sandstone in the middle, and the tip of a buried rib of rusted metal at the other. 

On the bare patches of this little path I’ve worn down, other tracks appear.  Bushpigs’ heavy chevrons; bushbucks’ smaller sharp Vs.  They move through unseen in the night, hoarding their stripes.  In the day, sometimes, baboons shamble through, overturning rocks in search of insects, tearing out the side of the termite mound on the slope.  Now and then the big male comes up the cottage steps and takes an interest in the TV through the glass door. Vervet monkeys sun their silvery bellies on the treetops in the early mornings, their little black faces pert as buttons on a tux.  Now and then a slender mongoose, searching for the guinea-fowl nest with the thirteen speckled eggs.

And once every couple of years, a great tortoise, thrice the size of a rugby ball and looking as old as the slabs of rock he stumps across, pursues precisely the same circuit through the garden and vanishes into the forest, for a moment having encompassed me in his incomprehensible aeon.

I walk a blurred boundary between the wild and the conquered.  I face the setting sun.  To my left, big Wild plums with their fans of symmetrical leaves and cerise round fruits.  One of them is thick, robust, with anaconda curls to its branches; the cat and I like to climb it and feel we have transcended the toils of mortal ground.  On my right, a tall Black wattle, Australian invader, as alien as I am, an uneven ladder of horizontal branches we also climb until we are taller than giraffes and silly with wind.  I pull up the persistent seedlings, since the ecologists tell us they do not belong; but they too have their little miracle: each night their long friezes of leaflets close up, like a hundred feathered hands closing in prayer along each of a thousand pews.


I no longer know what belonging means, if it is not to attend to such details, each one sacred to its own being.

Muscling up through the twenty-metre strip of shelving rock between the terrace and my buildings are any number of aliens.  English rambling rose wreathing the lean-to garage; North American pines waiting for Christmas; Scottish thistles prickling up through the local helichrysum; a single graveyard cypress alongside the king proteas.  Always, the sun especially vivid through their blades, Australian long-leafed acacia, aka Port Jackson wattle – the most 
persistent menace of all.  Swarming across neighbouring slopes, especially in the wake of an intense bushfire a year ago, the Port Jacksons overwhelm almost all other species, creating a whispering militaristic monoculture.  I root them out as best I can, feeling a bit like that lone protester in front of the tanks in Tiananmen Square, but revelling in watching the indigenous diversity reassert itself where I’ve cleared.

Life is strongest when most diverse: that’s my mantra – and the mantra sung by all the birds that skitter and chirp through the forest trees skirting the southern edge of the terrace.  The slope drops away steeply there, propped up by yellowwoods and rhus, boerboen and wit-hout; I can look down into complex continents of cavernous greens and cross-hatched shadow, white sparks of rock and shivering concentrics of spider-web.  Green-painted turacos run like squirrels along the branches before launching themselves on wings of livid crimson; Bar-throated apalis and lisping canaries thrilling through the thickets; cheerfully whistling greenbuls and Fork-tailed drongos and the hoodlum mousebirds mobbing the fringes.

And somewhere amongst the rhoicissus creeper a robin-chat is trying to impress with an experimental mix of sunbird song, human gardener, and Crowned eagle, linked with playful trills and tripples of his own invention.  That robin is biodiversity all in his own hidden self.

I stroll to the east end of the terrace, where Siberia is crouched fixedly over a hole in the ground, led to it by a runnel of tamped grass smoothed by the bellies of mice. That cat has taught me a lot about local species, by methods usually fatal to the rodents: the ghastly Asian Rattus rattus, but also sweet Three-striped mouse and Grey climbing mouse, House mouse and the cutest of all, the fluffy-tailed Spectacled dormouse.  Nothing doing at this hole today, so Siberia follows me along the terrace, gathering herself with a thoughtful and cunning expression into a mock-chase across the grass, all jubilant flexing stripes and rabbit-heels.  She seems to know how funny she looks from behind.

At the other end of the terrace we contemplate that nub of metal.  Someone has left a scent on it that Siberia explores carefully before rubbing her face on it. Olfactory territories.  It’s the remnant of a car chassis, I guess.  For decades the buildings I live in were occupied by a succession of auto-repair businesses.  I soon discovered that the old method of getting rid of a redundant car-body was simply to shove it down the hill.  So over hundreds of square metres the forest is littered with car parts and massive tractor tyres with trees shafting up through the middle, seat springs and hubcaps and suspension-leafs and gearboxes.

For a certain period, when scrap metal was relatively lucrative, a band of men and youths with donkey-carts would trundle out from town, dismember the wrecks of the ancient Holdens and Morrises and Chevys with axes and crowbars, and cart the mangled pieces off.  Amazingly quickly, the carcasses were thankfully gone.  At one point the guys lit a cooking-fire on the lip of the terrace; coals fell into cracks in the earth; next thing we knew an underground fire was belching clouds of oily smoke and a gritty stench into the air.  I began to realise that my little paradisal terrace was actually built on car-wrecks, that beneath its coat of fragrant earth, kikuyu and heather remained a noxious reservoir of metal and rust, oil and paint and flammable rubber.  That ‘airborne toxic event’ persisted for days, scratching at the lungs, until a lucky thunderstorm doused it.

And down the forest slope remains an ineradicable swathe of tattered plastic and shattered glass, shards of chrome fittings and flakes of paint, mixed in with beer bottles and medicine jars, rims of tin-cans and all the rest of our modern detritus.  I remove what I can to the city dump: this is what our profligate civilisation has come to – the shifting of our rubbish from one locale to another, none of it ultimately going away.

But for now, I am light in the light, levitating in the peace of evening as a nameless flower collects in its mauve petals the pollenated sun, frailest and most precious gift on the edge of encroaching night.


Friday, 1 April 2016

No.20 - Emotion and Reason: Universities’ dilemma

#HistoryMustFall

The turmoil at South African universities over the last few months has raised so many areas of concern it’s hard to get one’s head around any of it.  So many sub-issues splintered off the initial drive for better funding, and so many external party-political opportunists weighed in, that central issues rapidly got obscured.  So much angry over-simplification was aired, as always happens at the barricades, that it’s hard to know where to begin a response.  Since I’m an ageing white male academic, anything I say is likely to be dismissed immediately as irrelevant and defensive, if not intrinsically racist.

One is tempted to follow the suggestion of my lovely philosophical colleague Samantha Vice, a couple of years ago, that whites no longer have the moral right to do much other than subside into “humility and silence”.  After a storm of protest and misreading, she explained that she didn’t mean that whites should withdraw entirely from public life, but that they should no longer regard themselves as automatically speaking from a position of authority and control.

I agree – so anything I might add is offered from a desire not to harden the lines of debate, but to transcend them; not to negate the critique of academia, but to see what positives might be drawn from the situation.  I certainly have no solutions – only perspectives and ruminations on one or two aspects.
 
#ComplexityMustFall
Trouble is, of course, that any one aspect instantly feeds into a gazillion others.  It’s neither easy nor entirely satisfactory to tease them apart – but developing a more holistic response to the whole crisis is complex and takes time.  Revolutionaries by definition don’t have time to take their time – so their temptation is to try to make quick, spectacular gains on the back of stark dichotomies: black/white, young/old, colonial/indigenous.  Whole institutions, even governments, are pressured to follow suit.
 
#OversimplificationMustFall




We academic scholars, on the other hand, suffer the opposite impulse, which is to say, “Hang on a bit, it’s more complex than that.”  This is almost always true, but it can also be a defence mechanism.  We have a natty way of taking real issues and wrapping them up in so much discussion, theorising and qualification that nothing gets done at all.  This can be seen as a way of preserving the institutional status quo.  The resort to “complexity” and “reasoned debate”, as Ra’eesa Pather has suggested in a recent Mail & Guardian piece, can even be experienced as part of a “chilling”, oppressive and exclusive “white”, “colonialist” machinery.

I witnessed an example of this among responses to a recent talk at Rhodes University.  The talk was delivered by William Beinart, a hugely respected historian of Southern Africa, two decades at Oxford University.  He was reporting on a debate held at Oxford’s Oriel College about the proposed removal of the statue of Cecil John Rhodes from the college façade.  Beinart both supported the removal and applauded the activists’ win at the debate (though the college itself elected not to remove the statue).

One of Beinart’s respondents in question-time argued both furiously and eloquently that the form of the debate itself was the problem.  In such debates, she was not recognised in “my black female body”; the British parliamentary rules of such debates, she stated over and over, “are so reasonable that they are unreasonable”.  They made no space for her emotions, seemed to be the issue.  I was reminded of a scene, televised during last year’s protests, in which a large black female student faced up two bemused-looking white-haired professors, literally shrieking and shaking, “You tell me to put down my emotions, but how do you ignore my emotions, I am my emotions, I can’t study here because of my emotions, I can’t breathe in this place!”  (An oft-used phrase borrowed from that poor man killed by US police a year ago.)  As a rather bemused white-haired professor myself, I’m not sure how one might even begin to respond to such outbursts; they open no doors to conversation.
 
#EurocentrismMustFall
So here’s the interesting thing: the perceived conflict between “reason” and “emotion”. Is “reason” itself a “colonial” imposition?  Is the opposite or antidote to reason or rationality unfettered emotionalism?

It’s understandable that “the West” is seen as governed by rationality – it’s the image it has often projected of itself.  The Enlightenment of the eighteenth century – the “Age of Reason” – gave birth to both a scientific revolution and to modern democracy.  These things are closely tied by ideals of objectivity, reasonable debate, persuasion by evidence rather than prejudice, laws forged by impeccable logic.  And it’s understandable that the university is seen as governed by those principles, and therefore as the flagship of an imported “Western” world-view which is fundamentally un-African.  Yet as I write, our Vice-Chancellor in his Graduation Address urges our graduates to be – amongst other unimpeachably virtuous things – “the voice of reason”.

Poor old René Descartes is often blamed for the Western mindset, since he wrote the following in 1640:

The true function of reason, then, in the conduct of life is to examine and consider without passion the value of all perfections of body and soul that can be acquired by our conduct, so that since we are commonly obliged to deprive ourselves of some goods in order to acquire others, we shall always choose the better ... It is enough to subject one’s passions to reason ...

Emotions are not quite banished, but are reduced to mere instruments of reason.  Descartes’ goal of the “mastery of nature”  and “better goods” also translated into mastery of other peoples, with some appalling consequences.  It’s not popular to point out that the legacy is nevertheless mixed. The scientific rationalism that produced the cellphone and the heart transplant also produced the Gatling gun and the atom bomb.  The capitalistic profit-motive that operates hand-in-hand with democracy is responsible both for fantastic advances in human well-being and for irreversible damage to our global environment. 

Descartes wasn’t the only philosopher on the block.  The wrestle between reason and the “passions” or emotions goes back at least as far the Stoics of Ancient Greece.  And it has never stopped.  “The West”, it might be more accurate to say, is characterised by that very struggle.  There have always been voices disputing the primacy of rationalism.  The poet William Blake thought that an over-dependence on reason would just lead to “the Ratio of all things ... the same dull round over and over”. And in last week’s Sunday Times, the novelist Yann Martel (The Life of Pi) is reported as saying:
 
#RationalityMustFall
I realised that reason and rationality had become a disease.  It scours and scrapes away at things and I felt that I was drying up.  I was equating truth with factual truth.... Magical thinking is shared not only by religion but by art; both are preoccupied with a greater truth that goes beyond factual truth.

In between, there have been countless thousands of other writers, artists, musicians, and philosophers who have made it their business to valorise the spontaneous over the arithmetical, imagination over logic, quality over quantity, beauty over utility, the feeling over the cerebral.  Whoever thought Western society is ruled by reason alone, anyway?  Been to church lately? Read a horoscope? Fallen in love? Watched Donald Trump?

In short, there is no single “The West”, rather a bundle of conflicting views, some of which are notably compatible with certain “African” ideas and ideals.  (Nor a single “Africa”.)  And perhaps the reason-emotion conflict is illusory anyway: neurologist Antonio Damasio, in his fascinating books Descartes’ Error, Looking for Spinoza and The Feeling of What Happens, discusses research that shows how reason and emotion almost always function together inseparably at the neural level.  These ideas might lead us to some ground-breaking and magical thinking.

Finally, what about the place of emotions in the work of the academy?  As a scholar of literature, my subject-matter is almost wholly the emotional life.  Poetry is largely about beauty and the immeasurable inner life; stories are about individualised feelings of love and hatred and fear.  Literature and the arts are humanity’s way of exploring our emotional lives, lives that even the most rationalistic of scientists or accountants can’t escape.  Yet even in this discipline we examine our students’ responses through the essay, formalised into coherent and rational argumentation (“Your claims must be supported by evidence from the text”); and finally our assessment is collapsed into a simple number (“You got 68%”).    In this sense, the university and its structure is still profoundly Cartesian, scraping and scouring away.  And yet, such liberation of thought occurs, too ...
 
#EmotionalismMustFall
My feelings about it all are, well, complex.  Damn, there’s that word again.


(This is just me thinking; it in no way reflects opinions of my colleagues or my institution.)