Hope, Confidence & Cultural Self-Belief

One of my major questions regarding my possible future connections with this country (South Africa) has to do with the whole matter of what I can teach, write, say or innovate here without raising the sensitive question of “why couldn’t a local person do that?” Or more pointedly and specifically, “what’s wrong with our own knowledge and abilities that we have to have another white foreigner come in and teach us stuff?”

One of my surprises here has been the political and social sensitivity of this issue. In particular this seems to stem from a history of the oppression of those with darker skin taking the form of not only physical and political violence, but psychological violence as well. The powers of the former status quo essentially claimed that there are genetic reasons for assuming that a person’s intellectual capacity would be inversely proportionate to the melanin content in their skin. Darker skinned people are not meant to think, just to perform the basic tasks for which greater physical strength and lesser intelligence are required. As self-evident as the fallacy of this claim would seem, for some there is still an ongoing struggle to displace such a myth, which in turn creates its own collection of Catch 22 situations.

I don’t know if addressing the myth itself is even worth our time here. Anyone who believes that some resemblance of the scientific method –– involving forming a hypothesis and then conducting experiments and/or observations to see if such a hypothesis might be proven wrong –– can be used in relation to general principles of human behavior should already know that racial profiling of intelligence or even types of intelligence has been repeatedly demonstrated to be false. Such theories of racial difference in mental capacity go a long way towards making phrenology and astrology look like respectable sciences. If someone needs actual confirmation on this, write to me and I’ll provide the references.

The question really isn’t demonstrating that black people are capable of deeper intellectual thought then; that is self-evident. The question is how to break through the remnants of racist thinking on the subject in the minds of both blacks and whites (and those of colors in between) in Africa in particular, and in different post-colonial countries around the world. In this regard I’ve stopped to take a serious look at the writings and biographies of Steve Biko (from the collection I Write what I Like, 2004 edition, published by Picador Africa).

Biko was one of the black leaders of the 1960s who was able to combine personal charisma with deep analytical intelligence. He was a uniquely capable leader, but as long as projects he was committed to were going forward he didn’t seem to mind being out of the spotlight. Many church figures, Desmond Tutu included, have endorsed Biko posthumously. It is unclear whether he would have returned the favor if he were with us still today. He was unapologetically Marxist but in many ways ambivalent towards the form of revolution necessary in his country, the role of non-blacks in his vision for a truly post-colonial world, and the role of Christianity in particular in the lives of his people. Overall Biko seems to have been most concerned with restoring his people’s sense of self-confidence and capability of fending for themselves, not only through his political and rhetorical initiatives, but through practical endeavors such as community health clinics and social service organizations as well.

Would he have lived it seems self-evident that Biko would have eventually become president of South Africa. Biko continues to enjoy far more public support and respect than any of the living politicians of the post-Mandela generation. It is also clear that he has been extremely useful as a martyr for the cause of black dignity and the will to be free from oppression. Whether or not he would have been able to do as much good as a leader as he has done as a martyr is one of those hypothetical historical questions about which we will never know for sure.

More relevant though is the question of which way Steve would see as “forward” in the current situation. From what I have read, Biko was not a conservative in the sense of wishing to return to the certainties of a particular mythical version of the past –– in his case a pre-colonized Africa. His interest was merely in pointing out that the myth of black inferiority needed to be thoroughly buried, that the communal ethic aspect of African traditional religion needed to be revived and the absurdly unjust means of protecting the privileges of the colonizers’ descendents (Apartheid) needed to be brought to an end. As things now stand, officially all of those goals have been realized, at least for the most part. This is not to say that things have been fully corrected. There are many attitudes and dysfunctional behaviors on all sides that perpetuate injustices and inequalities here. But whatever else can be said about South Africa’s post-Apartheid adjustment processes, the black population now has the lion’s share of political power, and Mandela’s legacy is that no one is saying that a return to the injustices of the past is pragmatically justifiable. The rich whites have realized (very grudgingly in places) that to maintain any resemblance of life as they knew it they must now work together with the black majority. So would Biko be satisfied enough to move on to the next phase which he spoke about?

As we proceed further towards the achievement of our goals let us talk more about ourselves and our struggle and less about whites. (p. 108)

It seems that the jury is still out on that one. Perhaps Biko’s “reconstructive” perspective is best summed up in the following sentence:

We knew he [the generalized white man] had no right to be there; we wanted to remove him from our table, strip the table of all trappings put on it by him, decorate it in true African style, settle down and then ask him to join us on our terms if he liked (p. 75).

Yet in practice the process of “redecorating the table” was never going to happen along the lines that whites would be physically removed from the environs, nor that the new “African style” would be four centuries retro so as to be free of all European influences. The point was to establish that black Africans are fully capable of thinking and acting for themselves, without needing white advice or approval in order for their lives to have value. Once that issue would be perfectly clear to everyone –– once riding in the bed of the white man’s pickup (or “bakkie” as it is known locally) is no longer taken for granted as the black man’s natural place –– then cooperation based on mutual respect for each other’s competence and humanity was self-evident path forward. So in many regards the current question for black South Africans is, are we still trying to win the war, or is it time to start winning the peace?

In the event that this latter phase is to be acknowledged, as I believe Biko would now be doing, the key to moving forward would be education. Those of all skin colors need to be taught that the others as well are worthy of full human respect. They need to be provided with the skills necessary to provide services of value to the lives of others so as to play a positive role in the local, national and global economy. And perhaps most importantly, they need to be encouraged to consider what constitutes “quality of life” for each of them individually, for their families and for their communities. They need to have enough information and confidence be free to choose whether or not they will buy into the culture promoted by multinational fast food, fashion and entertainment industries. They need to be able to make informed decisions as to which treats and toys will actually make them happier and more fulfilled as human beings.

The big question from here though is, who can you trust to provide such an education for young people? And as a key sub-question here, must young people be trained by educators as much like themselves and their parents as possible so as to enable them to maintain respect for their own cultural identities? Both of these matters are extremely complicated questions of balance and judgment. Parents, ancestors and cultural identities need to be respected without being uncritically revered. Teachers need to be able to pass on some form of recognized expertise and they need to be held accountable for the level of competence they are able to instill in children without being enforcement agents for some form of cultural imperialism or neo-colonial control. But the above two sentences are just my personal perspectives on what is right and wrong and desirable for education systems in transition, and no one has died and left me boss here. On what basis can I, as a white American representing predominantly northern European values, claim that my perspectives are the ones Africa needs to follow?

Essentially this comes back to the fundamental question of postmodernism: What knowledge, if any, has a greater validity as objective truth than merely as a means of exercising control over the “less knowledgeable”? Is there any truly objective and unchanging truth out there, and if so how broadly can it be discovered and applied to the messy business of human life as we know it?

Rather than trying to answer these questions, perhaps I should just leave them open for the time being. These days I identify myself more as a philosopher than as a scientist or a theologian, and one of the big differences is that whereas theologians and scientists are not comfortable leaving any question unanswered, philosophers are not comfortable leaving any answer unquestioned. That doesn’t mean I don’t believe in the value of answers; it means that I believe even more strongly in the value of questions, particularly in challenging learners to look for their own answers rather than accepting the standardized ones at face value.

Again, that isn’t to say that all answers are of equal truth value. For example scientifically informed sex education, condoms and anti-retroviral drugs are of far more value as answers to the AIDS crisis than moralistic preaching, hygienic practices and diet treatments for the disease; and it is rather disturbing that the Vatican, for instance, still refuses to recognize this. But rather than solving this problem with more dogmatic defenses of given beliefs, I believe this matter is best solved by allowing learners of all ages the chance to ask the basic question, “How do you know?” and from there providing them with the most honest and complete answers possible. Not everyone will be smart enough to get it, but there is more to be gained by trusting the learners’ intellectual capacity and honesty than there is in forcing them to believe standardized answers for the sake of maintaining standardized answers.

So the next open question for me here is, will there be any faction of the education system here which will be interested in having me involved in teaching their children to ask more difficult questions of their other teachers? And if so, will that be because of or in spite of my cultural background? I’ll leave you to guess what my hopes are and what the eventual answers might turn out to be.





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Filed under Change, Education, Epistemology, Ethics, Philosophy, Politics, Respectability, Tolerance

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