We need to understand insults as a form of violence
THE controversy surrounding the portrait of Jacob Zuma is akin to the controversy that classical physicists had to resolve regarding the nature of light.
Light could be shown to exhibit the particle nature of matter. But different experiments also proved that light behaves as a wave.
The controversy was resolved by propounding the duality of light in which light is both a particle and a wave. Using the light analogy, could we be dealing with two sides of the same coin?
Human affairs are however complex. But the analogy calls for an appreciation of different perspectives. Protagonists on both sides of the controversy seem to rely on the same Bill of Rights.
Our history would demand a particular sensitivity in the exercise of these rights. When does the exercise of one's freedom of expression begin to violate another's human dignity? Under what condition is the violation of human dignity acceptable?
While a court of law would have to resolve these questions, the raging debate has been revealing and disappointing. Understandably, issues of race have come to the fore.
First, the debate has sought to limit the unflattering portrayal of Zuma as a personal matter.
Second, the debate is framed as depicting intolerance and ignorance by those protesting.
Third, protesters are presented as Zuma supporters.
Fourth, we are told that involvement in the struggle against apartheid necessarily immunises one from racism. An argument is that the artist is an equal opportunity offender as he has offended members of his racial group as well.
Considering the extent of the outrage involving organisations such as the Black Lawyers Association, it is evident that this is not a Zuma matter. As a matter of fact, some of those who are offended have little regard for both Zuma and the ANC.
For them, this portrait represents the latest in centuries-old denigration of black people. And most importantly, it is not that they do not appreciate the importance of freedom of speech in a democracy.
Their argument is that it should not come at the expense of tampering with one's human dignity.
As they put it, he who feels it knows it. Pain, denigration and hurt cannot be outsourced to those who do not know it.
Interestingly, one can turn this around and argue that the insensitivity comes from those who exhibit white supremacy and expect that everyone must march according to some western cultural drum.
It reflects a peculiar form of cultural superiority. It would seem that cultural diversity is acceptable as long as it is consistent with the dominant culture.
To this lot, nothing of value can be expected from Africans. The only Africans they respect, and who they parade routinely, are those who are trained to parrot their masters.
As I listened to English radio stations, the words of the African-American writer and journalist Walter Mosley kept on coming to me: "As far back as we can go there was a white face that we looked to for the sources of pain; the white man enslaved, the white man freed, the white man opened the school door, the white man tested me and found me lacking. The dynamic is the same."
It would seem to me that no amount of appeals to understand the hurt of those who feel insulted would work. We need to understand insults as a form of violence.
One hopes we can emerge from this controversy with the willingness to appreciate others' pain.
It is a call for cultural sensitivity not the type of arrogance that has come from the airwaves. This democracy belongs to all of us.
Seepe is a commentator and a consultant