The Palatability Police: The politics of who gets to have a voice

By Panashe Chigumadzi (@panashechig)

Indeed, how ‘public’ or rather, representative our discourse is, is dependent on the socio-economic structures of the said space. In 2012 Gwede Mantashe gave a lecture in Johannesburg, titled ‘Unity in Diversity: What Does It Mean to the ANC?’, where he lamented the fact that South Africa was an ‘Irish coffee society’,  in which “there is a concentration of black at the bottom, and, in all respects the white cream on top, with a sprinkling of chocolate.” The patterns of voices and narratives that are privileged reflects the socio-economic privilege held by the various social groups in our ‘Irish coffee society’. Those of us with the right kind of twang, schooling etc are those sprinkles that are often pointed when platforms are being called out for their lack of diversity.

Photo sourced here.

“You speak so well,” a hideously condescending line that many black people, particularly those of us who have gained an accent by way of former model C or private school, or some other form of socialization in the ways white South Africa chooses to pronounce and enunciate.

As someone who trades in the sphere of public debate and discourse, this noddy badge of ‘speaking well’, is definitely an advantage. It means easier access to platforms such as talk radio, panel discussions and dialogue events along the lines of ‘The State of South Africa’, ‘State of the Youth’ and ‘State of the Women’ etc etc

It’s a ticket because it usually is an indicator that I will offer palatable views and opinions.

My accent means that I’m easily co-optable. That is, until they hear me speak and we begin to probe each other’s politics and they soon realize that my politics don’t end and begin with chanting #paybackthemoney, but that they extend quite far into also #bringbacktheland.

The reaction from all sides – the look of pleasant surprise for some (usually black) and a look of betrayal (usually white) – is quite amusing. I used to hate that my private school accent made me co-optable, but more and more I’v come to enjoy the fact that my ‘good black’ veneer makes me somewhat of a Trojan horse.

Twenty years into our democracy, there’s a thriving market for talk, dialogue, debate. Public discourse is important because it shapes public thought and opinion and, in turn, shapes political action.

In his paper titled, “Mass Media Today: Discourses of Domination or Diversity?”, Teun van Djik outlines the instrumental role the media plays in shaping our public opinion and discourse: “These processes in the manufacture of public consent, public discourse, and public opinion, are unthinkable without tile active rule of the media…The media did so by providing the dominant news values, headlines, stories, op-ed articles, topics, metaphors, and descriptions that could be used as the basis for the legitimisation and naturalisation of ethnic and social inequality, both locally and globally.”

Public discourse is a slightly different animal. In “Reimaging Public Discourse”, Rebecca Chopp defines public discourse as follows: “public discourse can mean, from the work of thinkers such as Jürgen Habermas and Nancy Fraser, the sphere of rational discourse in which citizens are free to debate matters of interest in the social order.”

She goes on further to say that, “Habermas and historians of the “public sphere” argue that the public arose with liberal democracy and depended upon a number of historical factors, including the emerging urban geography of pubs, libraries, civic associations, and other arenas of and for discourse. Habermas recognized that this public failed to ever be completely realized and, perhaps rightfully so since, as alternative public sphere historians have shown, it depended upon exclusions of gender, race and class. As Fraser points out, there is a certain irony: the public sphere is developed as place of free speech, but it, in turn, creates and secures distinctions and calls into question the “public” nature of it all.”

Indeed, how ‘public’ or rather, representative our discourse is, is dependent on the socio-economic structures of the said space. In 2012 Gwede Mantashe gave a lecture in Johannesburg, titled “Unity in Diversity: What Does It Mean to the ANC?”, where he lamented the fact that South Africa was “an Irish coffee society”, in which “there is a concentration of black at the bottom, and, in all respects the white cream on top, with a sprinkling of chocolate.” The patterns of voices and narratives that are privileged reflects the socio-economic privilege held by the various social groups in our ‘Irish coffee society’. Those of us with the right kind of twang, schooling etc are those sprinkles that are often pointed to when platforms are being called out for their lack of diversity.

The top structures of South Africa’s media are by and large white male dominated. It then follows that palatability in terms of South Africa’s public discourse often means speaking favourably to a white middle class agenda, or what feminist academic bell hooks might term white supremacist capitalist heteropatriarchy.

Indian feminist writer and human rights activist Arundathi Roy once said, “there is no such thing as the voiceless, only the deliberately silenced or the preferably unheard”. Indeed, part of the function of media is to hold a gatekeeper role, but very often that role takes on the prejuidices of many ‘isms’, namely racism, classicism, agism and sexism. Narratives about those who do not form part of the middle class are preferably unheard, unless they serve the dominant agenda.

Beyond this exclusion by dominant classes, social groups that have been historically marginalized may ‘self-elect’ out of discourse. In “The Public Voice of Women”, Amy Beard speaks on the marginalization of women’s voices, saying , “This ‘muteness’ is not just a reflection of women’s general disempowerment throughout the classical world: no voting rights, limited legal and economic independence and so on. Ancient women were obviously not likely to raise their voices in a political sphere in which they had no formal stake.”

Those of us in privilege often take on a paternalistic role. The challenges facing the said groups in concern are often talked about with much hand-wringing whilst the said groups in concern are not allowed to direct, much less be part of the conversation about themselves. Middle class speak on behalf of working class. Men speak on behalf of women. White people speak on behalf of black people. ‘Adults’ speak on behalf of the youth.

Even when those who are less palatable are not silenced, there is often have a very high price for being heard. A good example of this is the violence that the activist group Abahlale Base Mjondolo have had to face as a result of their ‘outspokenness’. Other times, the ‘voiceless’ may be granted license to talk publicly, usually to parade their victimhood.

Often when discussing the politics of media, the false promises of democratisation vis-à-vis social media are often brought up. The limits include the fact that outside of the few social media savvy politicians such as Malusi Gigaba, Fikile Mbalula and Helen Zille, it is unlikely that if you are to tweet or Facebook a politician, they will respond. What is more important, however, is that the majority of South Africans are not Facebook or Twitter users. It is this the preserve of middle class South Africa.

For gatekeepers, the tone and timbre of speech by those deemed unpalatable threatens to subvert not just the voice of the privileged, but also the socio-economic and political stability of our so-called Rainbow Nation. In a twitter interview that Vanguard conducted with the controversial hip-hop group Dookoom, we probed them on the packaging of their message of social discontent:

dookoominterview

Who gets to say what and how, becomes of critical importance for a country still it’s nation-building project. Chopp says,“Without the ability to hear the otherness, to promote understanding and living with difference on a most basic and fundamental human level, the publics of church and society cannot and will not be communities where diversity is recognized and encouraged. “

The dangers of silencing voices and perspectives that are uncomfortable is the creation of a middle class and, by extension, a nation out of touch. To put it more crudely, we will continue to ignore voices and discourses that are uncomfortable until they erupt in a school or municipal office being burnt down or faeces being hurled at politicians.

A country still on it’s nation-building project cannot afford to have the voices of those with the ‘right kind’ of accents and politics dominating the public discourse. If we are at worst, sincere in our personal desires for a future in this country, and at best, sincere and altruistic in our desire to create a nation for all, we must do the uncomfortable and create the required space for all citizens, regardless of socio-economic station.

Chopp offers a picture of what that might look like, “The public space as a place of solidarity is a polyglot texture of different bodies, different voices, different people. It means that the ‘we’ of the public is not and cannot be one singular voice, cannot be reduced to a least common denominator, cannot promote sameness as the basis for our interactions.”

 

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