Stephen Grootes: The politics of outrage

Outrage is, by its nature, volatile, often irrational. It is the rush of blood to the head. But it also could be a very powerful political force. If you can harness it, you will have not just support and solidarity, but people prepared to do things they would not normally do. To be blunt, you will have the support of people who are not thinking straight. But it also means that you can use emotion to win an argument when the facts on the ground are not on your side. And so, to understand any argument, it is important to know how much of it is outrage, and how much of it is rational.

Over the last weekend, there were various calls from organisations like the Young Communist League for the Israeli ambassador to South Africa to be expelled.

It was a classic example of outrage. However, if you expel an ambassador, you are essentially removing your diplomatic relations with their country. If you do that, you can no longer talk to them, and if there's one thing we as South Africans can show to the Middle East, it's that, as Churchill put it, jaw jaw is always better than war war.

It would also be an inconsistent move because there are other countries that are perpetuating human rights abuses, North Korea and Myanmar being two examples, which have embassies in Pretoria right now. While Myanmar has changed out of all recognition over the last five years, it still does not have human rights as we would accept them. And North Korea is a country where if your lapel badge of Kim Jong-Il moves too much to the side, you are thrown in jail along with your parents, your children, and your grandchildren.

The YCL, however, took things further with this claim:

After @ambassadorlenk leaves we must seriously consider expelling the SA Jewish Board of Deputies ( @SAJBD) for supporting mass murder.

If I've understood that tweet correctly, they are saying that a group of people who are as South African as they are, and are citizens of this country, should be expelled. Just because they have different views on events outside our borders. And because they are leaders of a certain religion.

Really? That's what the youth organisation of a party that is part of the Alliance is proposing? If Jewish people are going to be expelled because they are somehow "less South African" it'll be about five minutes before that SACP needs a new First Deputy General Secretary. Because Jeremy Cronin would also be "less South African". This sort of logic was last used by Idi Amin.

This is not confined to South Africa. The British newscaster, and host of Channel Four News, Jon Snow, tweeted on Sunday:

Were any other country on Earth doing what is being done in Gaza, there would be worldwide uproar

Again, really? Chechnya saw people dying in the shelling of cities and urban areas. Those people were also women and children. While the reason for doing nothing probably had more to do with realpolitik and the fact that Russia is just too strong militarily to take on, there was still very little outrage. In fact, Chechnya was mostly forgotten, once the Russian tanks descended upon Grozny and turned it into rubble.

The one place on the planet that could really do with some outrage is not even North Korea. It's China. It's a growing economy that produces things that we use. But stand on a street-corner there and advocate an end to rule by the Communist Party and see what happens to you. Go to Tibet and see what Chinese rule is really like. If Cosatu were really going to be consistent in its beliefs, it would be barricading their embassy rather than buying its T-shirts from China.

But such is the nature of outrage. It is, by its nature, not consistent.

While it is easy to claim that outrage is "manufactured", it always has its roots in something that really is outrageous.

The current outrage that we are seeing has its roots in the fact that it is outrageous to box hundreds of thousands of people into a tiny area, and then to bomb them. It is wrong, and it should not be happening. Even before Israel's ground offensive started the body count was outrageous. One Israeli had died, while over 300 Palestinians were dead (That figure now stands at 700.) While there are all sorts of fights about the precautions taken before homes are bombed, and the fact that Israelis have bomb shelters, it's still outrageous. Which is part of why people are outraged.

But outrage can most definitely be stoked. Not manufactured, but helped.

Take the outrage over The Spear image of President Jacob Zuma. It was so terrifying and frightening that I have recommended to the editor of this website not to use that image as part of this piece. But two weeks after The Spear issue raised its head, Zapiro drew a cartoon showing Zuma as a penis. That image is surely as outrageous as _The Spear _was. Zuma is my president too, and when I look at it, as a South African, I am outraged. And yet, while there was a reaction, there was no outrage. The reaction was moderate, calm, violence was not threatened.

Why? Part of the answer probably has to do with timing, that the amount of outrage available for Zuma to tap was spent. It may also have to do with the fact that people are used to being outraged by Zapiro. It is not news for Zapiro to draw an image that is critical, aggressively so, of Zuma.

Outrage is also usually about something that touches you directly, in some sort of way. If you are a Muslim, what is happening to the Palestinians is going to affect you directly. In this country, with its history of oppression, and the links between the Palestinian leaders and the ANC over the years, and of course, the very powerful and successful campaign to (correctly or not) label the Israeli wall/security fence the "Apartheid Wall", there is always going to be a feeling of commonality between our people and Palestinians. It is always going to be easier for a South African to feel a kinship to a Palestinian than it is for a North Korean. The media, of course, plays a role. The bombings and the shootings, and the children dying, happen on camera. That does make it much easier to be outraged. And to add fuel to an inflamed fire, South African Jews tend to be white, with all of what that means to those who side with the Palestinians.

Which gives the reaction we are seeing in this country a very powerful dynamic all of its own.

But the main problem with outrage, is its complete uselessness. When Boko Haram took over two hundred schoolgirls in Nigeria two months ago, there was international outrage. The hashtag #BringBackOurGirls was all over the place. Hollywood starlets held up banners with the hashtag. The ANC Women's League held protests outside the Nigerian High Commission. And that all achieved absolutely squat.

Being outraged, and showing that outrage usually achieves very little. Boycotting products is one way to get results, and the Palestinians have had great results with this tactic. It is effective, and anyone can get involved, should they wish to. But no one really provided proper support to the Nigerian government, no one offered to pay money to their military, no one put pressure on our government to send our soldiers to go to help get "our girls" back. That surely would have been much more effective than simply changing your twitter handle.

While outrage is also very scary at times, in this country at least, it is usually short-lived. It burns out. There is no shortage of other things to be outraged about, and so attention moves on. Which is why we should pay attention to it. But also not do anything outrageous in response.

Stephen Grootes is the host of the Midday Report on Talk Radio 702 and 567 CapeTalk, and the senior political correspondent for Eyewitness News. Follow him on Twitter: @StephenGrootes

This column first appeared on Daily Maverick.