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JUDITH FEBRUARY: The toxic nature of our public discourse

It’s been a harrowing ten days no matter where you live in the world.

The Ethiopian Airlines tragedy saw 157 people die instantly when the now infamous Boeing 737-MAX crashed across the fields just outside Addis Ababa. It left the world reeling. The number of people from across the globe travelling on that doomed flight shows us just how interconnected the people of the world are despite our individual country borders and how mundane global travel has become for many.

Words failed us all as we watched the Ethiopian authorities come to terms with this disaster, as we watched men and women comb through the wreckage, the signs of personal belongings everywhere - and the ‘black box’ supposedly carrying the answers to this unspeakable tragedy on its way to France.

The news these days is never for the fainthearted, whether one is watching the Brexit mess where Theresa May is trying to take the 100th bite at the parliamentary voting cherry, whether Donald Trump is equivocating on an ethical issue or indeed whether we are focused on our own dysfunctional South African politics.

But then the even more unspeakable happened - a tragedy in New Zealand, the land of the Long White Cloud, the Silver Fern and the Haka - the land we so love to beat at rugby. Yet this past week those rivalries seemed unimportant as the world struggled to come to terms with mass grief. Far from the madding crowd New Zealand is. Yet now it is at the epicentre of global tragedy and heartache.

Again, words fail us when hate is perpetrated against the innocents.

How easy to find the anger and the rage. How easy to seek retribution, yet New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern held her nerve and in an emphatic address to the nation - and the world - she made clear that this incident would not redefine New Zealand’s tolerance. Referring to the perpetrators, her words struck a powerful chord, "They are not us." Her leadership has been a singular example in a world gone mad, a world where the rhetoric of hate seems to spread like wild fire across the Internet and the ‘dark web’- a place where cowards can hide.

But we know too that hate has become commonplace and almost ordinary as some global leaders (we know who they are) spew forth in cheap attempts to garner votes by playing to the base instincts of our nature. It is shameless politicking in an age of unreason where murder is filmed on social media. Ardern seems, refreshingly, to represent something else - something encompassing values, substance and a commitment to human rights and equality.

And so amidst the noise of now, it is also easy as The Guardian columnist Kenan Malik wrote this week to become overwhelmed by what he calls ‘the rawness of anger’. "What has been depressing, though, has been the way that much of the discussion has degenerated into name-calling and invective. The dead of Christchurch have seemingly become a stage on which every contemporary debate from Brexit to the politics of identity is played out. The grammar of social media inexorably leads to polarised confrontations. But there is also the erosion of the capacity for both self-reflection and self-restraint, a feature of recent public debate," Malik says.

Malik may have been referring more broadly to three things - the era in which we live, marked by animus, the desire for the ‘quick fix’ and the toxic nature of the public discourse.

Animus. A word with a twin meaning. The Romans used it to refer to the very core of a person, one’s ‘soul’ or ‘spirit’. In today’s lexicon we use it in its original form to indicate what might well be related to its original meaning, but has a far harsher under-tone. It is used to express a rather more personal ‘ill will or hostility’ towards someone in ‘debate’ or name-calling.

This is by no means unique to South Africa and any scan of Twitter and other social media platforms from around the world is proof of this destructive hostility towards those who may hold a different opinion. But it goes further - news has barely broken and swift reaction is required as a matter of course. We see it in South Africa where our society is awash with demands to fix what is broken, yet there is an inability to have conversations in a reasoned manner. There also seems to be an inability to invoke the rare commodity - time and then, of course, reason. Whether it is the EFF trashing H&M stores about racist ads or the ‘debates’ about ‘transformation’- that much-loved buzzword - which do not take us to the point of true justice or fundamental changes in our society. They simply cause easy disruptive division and attempts to break down the entire edifice.

Our public discourse, and indeed discourse around the world, could do with that rare commodity – restraint. As we try to grapple with race, power black-outs (let’s call them what they are because load-shedding is a euphemism which is singularly unhelpful), land and our triple challenges of unemployment, inequality and poverty, how to change our public spaces and the nature of life in general, we need to also restrain ourselves from the immediacy of the 'quick fix'. We need to somehow seek ways to balance both affect and reason in the public debate especially when dealing with the complexities of, inter alia, immigration, inequality or climate change.

Yet - and there is always a yet - what Ardern’s leadership showed us this week is that there is far more power in tolerance and restraint - and in sheer goodness - another rare commodity in the world baying for blood - be it the blood of the immigrant or the innocent.

These past days also drew us back to Barack Obama’s speech after a shooter (let us not, as Jacinda Ardern says, call his name) walked into the Emmanuel Church in South Carolina and shot dead nine black parishioners in an AME church. In what is probably one of Obama’s best speeches, he invoked writer Marilynne Robinson’s words, "What’s called upon, is that reservoir of goodness, beyond, and of another kind, that we are able to do each other in the ordinary cause of things.”

We need that reservoir around the world and here in our own country. Something ‘beyond and of another kind’.

Judith February is based at the Institute for Security Studies and is also a Visiting Fellow at the Wits School of Governance. She is the author of 'Turning and turning: exploring the complexities of South Africa’s democracy'. Follow her on Twitter: @judith_february

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