GARETH VAN ONSELEN: The battle of the strawmen
The left vs the right: inaccurate and manipulated labels supported by insults and put-downs masquerading as ideology and insight
The battle between the left and the right wages on. It has been waged for some time now. The primary conflict is social media, where loyal soldiers from each side spend their time denigrating their ideological opponents.
No side ever wins, because no side is actually interested in winning. The primary currency is humiliation, ridicule and moral indignation. Essentially, it’s a game of insults. On that front, much blood has been spilt but, even then, no mortal wounds inflicted. Each side fights with pins, and the strategy would seem to be death by a thousand pricks.
Of course, everyone thinks they are wielding bayonets, so watching it all unfold, every day, all day, makes for little more than tedium in the big picture.
For the most part, the terms “left” and “right” are strawmen, caricatures of the worst, most extreme and fundamental versions of “the other”.
“The left” are labeled communists in the mould of Stalin, Lenin and Mao (strangely, Pol Pot never makes the cut: while his genocidal tendencies are a bridge too far, his attitude to intellectualism and modernity often resonate). If you are considered militaristic in your approach, then there is always Mussolini, Hitler and “fascism” by way of comparison. And they are all murderers.
“The right” are labeled a range of things with “neo” in front, an in-vogue slur: neo-conservative, neo-liberal, and so on. The go-to archetypes are Donald Trump, obviously, sometimes Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan. And if you are considered a real threat, there exists a whole raft of SA villains, from Verwoerd to PW Botha to draw upon. And they are all racist.
Whatever your record of ideological consistency, promote one idea deemed unpalatable and you will cross a threshold from which you cannot ever return
The problem, of course, is that at each extreme, in the true sense of left and right, are people and ideas that fit the bill. The EFF has done much to re-invent fascism and the ANC’s national democratic revolution literally has its roots in Leninist thought. The right, if by right you mean conservative, certainly has its proponents too, the ACDP for one (certainly morally). Other organisations are proudly conservative in the sense that their primary concern is preserving institutions, culture, and social norms and standards.
But it’s between the two that the problem lies, and where the majority of people fall. Most on “the left” are really social democrats, perhaps with an emphasis on the social. Most on “the right” are really classical liberals of some sort or other, perhaps with an emphasis on the classical.
One sympathises with the ANC, the other with the DA. Both have been disappointed with the performance of their political flag-bearers.
That distinction is pointless though. The first victim of the great war was accuracy, subtlety and ambiguity. This is, Stalin vs Verwoerd. Ironic that, for the most part, the battle is waged by people who brand themselves as deeply invested in rationality, reason and argument. But all that counts for nothing when it comes to insulting your opponents. Then hyperbole is the order of the day.
The practical effect of all this animosity is there is no middle ground, at least on social media and among the commentariat. Just another crude binary, the primary lens through which most SA politics is viewed. And constantly, everyone is placed, resists or tortures impartiality to avoid being lumped on side of the equation or other.
So, how can you tell who contributes to this binary and who doesn’t? Here are some simple categories, to gauge the “arguments” of either side. If more apply than do not, you are probably engaging with someone who is more invested in denigration than they are convincing.
1. Heroes will always be heroes
Each side has its icons. Never will a critical lens be turned on them in any substantive way, for fear of conceding something that can used against them.
By way of example, for the left, this is typically Cyril Ramaphosa. There might well be the pretence of criticism, but always the implicit argument is that his true nature is constrained by the ANC, his personal political philosophy is virtuous, and we should be grateful for him. In this way, his actual record is whitewashed.
For the right, Helen Zille typically fits the bill, and her record is whitewashed in the same way, certainly never dwelt upon the way Ramaphosa’s is.
2. Everyone is Stalin or Verwoerd
Show sympathy for the ANC or the DA — or any individual or idea from either side — and you are either a full-blown, stupid or ignorant communist or a callous, racist neo-conservative. The only way you can align with either side, is to find an idea you can appropriate as your own anyway.
3. Hypocrisy is more powerful than argument
Hypocrisy is the staple of all argument. Find your enemy has contradicted themselves, even to arrive at what you might deem an acceptable position, and the inclination is first to mock and patronise them. Strange, because you would think the point of argument is convince and any such about-turn should be welcomed. Not so, change your mind and you will be humiliated for doing so. Thus, the real incentive is never to change your mind.
4. They are entirely ignored by real power
For all the ranting and raving, emotional rhetoric and insults, real power on either side — typically in the ANC or DA — cares not a hoot what they say. They never engage their substantive arguments or with them, because there is no point. You cannot convince a fundamentalist of anything.
Sometimes, the ANC or DA is forced to engage, to repair their reputation or correct facts, but that is more a public relations necessity. In doing so, their purpose is generally to dismiss the given argument out of hand, and with contempt. Because contempt is what defines the relationship.
5. Everyone is stupid
You are never just right: you are right and the other side is stupid. And, when pointing out just how right you are, the real emphasis is placed on the latter, not for the former. In much the same way as each side relies on hypocrisy, so it relies on creating the impression that whenever a particular viewpoint has been defeated, in its wake lies a pile of dead morons.
6. Never will there be introspection
Because everyone is human, and changes their mind, not even in grand terms, everyone has taken some position that is hypocritical, contradictory or just wrong in some way. But that fact can never be conceded. Once a position is adopted, every available piece of evidence for now and ever more must be framed in a way that supports that position. Until it does not; then that position is simply never mentioned again.
7. Demonstrate no real loyalty to your cause
This human inability, when it comes to the purity of ideas, can be turned against you, just as it can be used to celebrate you. Whatever your record of ideological consistency, promote one idea deemed unpalatable and you will cross a threshold from which you cannot ever return. It will become your brand, and define you. Just as there is no attempt to actually convince your opponent, there is no tolerance for substantive disagreement inside each camp.
All of this is couched in the language of absolutism more than with care or caveats. This doesn’t just apply to the degree to which the other is damned but to history too. It becomes not a series of often contradictory and ambiguous forces, pulled one way or the other by a combination of psychology and pragmatism and principle, but a binary just the same as current affairs. It too has its infallible heroes, who are beyond criticism. And its mortal enemies, who can never be praised on an idea-by-idea basis, but rather by whatever general category they are placed in, typically good or evil.
9. Anger not sympathy will define your worldview
The common thread, holding all this together, is anger. Thus, almost every position is defined by contempt, not sympathy. The idea that anyone not of your own might genuinely be motivated by what they think is good and right cannot be stomached. They must be motivated solely by power or ignorance.
And that extends beyond one’s ideological opponents, to people themselves. Everything is politicised and published. No good deed can ever be undertaken for its own sake. Every act of ostensible charity or compassion is an opportunity to advertise, to show up your enemy and to make, first and foremost, a political point.
The overriding desire is to be right; everything else is a means to that end.
The emotional drivers
One must be careful of psychologising people remotely, but it would be remiss not to offer some explanation as to the emotional drivers that underpin this sort of behaviour.
First, at face value, it all appears a kind of performative narcissism — an attempt to mimic political celebrity culture where everyone is trying to become the next political version of a Kardashian. Your personality becomes the determining value of your ideas. Who you are matters more than what you think or say, and all the traits listed above reinforce that fact.
Second, it is anti-humanist. There is no space for the complexity or messiness that’s makes us human. There is no empathy. It seems some sort of projection of self-loathing. Of doubt and inner contradiction and uncertainty. In its entirety, it is an attempt to crush those things in yourself by crushing others who display them.
It’s all a grand exercise in feigned moral purity.
Third, and not unrelated to the above, is the stamina for conflict and adversity. On and on and on it goes. An endless daily outrage, fueled by an inexhaustible desire to debase and condemn. The only thing exhaustible about it, is any patience for it all.
At the risk of falling prey to the kind of binary thinking previously above, a few caveats. Not everyone on either side is like this; many are not. Many argue more than denigrate; tackle ideas more than personalities; and demonstrate reasonableness more than contempt — likewise, compassion and understanding of complexity.
In turn, not everyone who indulges this kind of behaviour, indulges all of it. But they tend to indulge more of it than less.
The thing is, public debate, particularly public debate on social media — such as it is — does not reward those people. It is a vicious circle of a sort. Anger, outrage, vilification and abuse tend to be disproportionately rewarded. And so, the online monster feeds those few who behave in this way, further exaggerating and encouraging their behaviour.
It all becomes a battle of views and retweets. Just as the personality at the heart of any idea becomes a metaphor, so does the message itself, whatever its veracity. The test of its weight is how widely it is endorsed and so, inevitably, most of the ideas proffered tend towards sensation first.
And thus, so much debate revolves around and is defined by this exchange. In turn, it debilitates more than it improves the public mind.
Some will argue this all irrelevant. After all, they will say, what they argue is right and true. And that matters. Perhaps, but then you need to ask what the point of being right is. Is it to convince, or to denigrate? Sometimes political humiliation is unavoidable, even necessary. Depends on what you want. But if it’s all you want you might as well talk to yourself.
Don’t think there is any cure. There is not. Both sides have done the maths and come to the conclusion, perhaps correctly, that the other is beyond convincing. The primary purpose now, is to make sure you are the one quoted, with some pithy put-down, when the history books are written. All we can really do is observe and, perhaps, have a more civilised conversation offline.