US President Donald Trump is easily the most controversial person on Twitter. He thrives on the medium and has been exploiting it effectively.
The tone of many of Trump’s tweets plus Twitter’s nature as a medium where anyone can talk back to everyone now begs the question: How does one respond to him and his missives? A possible answer lies in a humanist philosophy and world view called ubuntu that originated in Africa. More about its application later.
The 2016 US presidential election campaign confirmed Trump’s canny ability to get a message across on social media. He used Twitter to build up his political base. His tweets were often crude, hostile and shot from the hip. As one commentator said, it gave alienated Americans a place to go: “He turned public discourse into ‘discoarse’ in the 2016 presidential election, with the internet as an indispensable license for his free, unchecked speech.”
Free speech, of course, is a cornerstone of democracy. So at what point does it count as “unchecked” and where are the lines?
Crossing the line
Lines were clearly crossed after Trump’s inauguration when some people made “cruel” comments about Trump’s son, Barron. As a result, the daughter of former president Bill Clinton, Chelsea Clinton, came out in his defence with a tweet that read: “Barron Trump deserves the chance every child does - to be a kid.”
Most people agreed, of course, which was why some offenders were quick to apologise.
But things aren’t as simple when it comes to those who have chosen to be in the public eye. We may all agree that talking about issues, engaging with or criticising policies, approaches and statements is healthy and necessary. But how effective is it to perpetuate the cycle of mudslinging with references to the size of someone’s hands, their hair colour, or any other attacks that have nothing to do with what a public figure is saying or doing?
Might it not serve us better to engage with issues without fuelling the very “discoarse” that’s now obscuring truth? We can openly disagree with Trump’s travel ban, challenge his dangerous ideas and provide the reasons we do so. But why use the same tactics we’re criticising him for? And what would an appropriate response look like?
Beyond the Western liberal approach
These questions, of course, are not only about our response to any single politician. It’s about how we ought to talk about issues and what we could be cultivating as citizens and democratic communities who have more transformative power over the political process than we think we have.
In an effort to evolve public discourse, journalist and scholar Herman Wasserman suggests, we cultivate an “ethic of listening” – here people momentarily remove themselves from the discussion so that they can really listen to the perspectives of others.
In defining this approach, which takes into consideration a diverse array of divergent interests and voices, Wasserman seeks to make democratic media a vivid area of contestation. When successful, this approach breaks “elite continuity” or the way news events are constructed with the help of established sources (i.e. political or market elites) to confirm the dominant consensus. One need only think of the Marikana Massacre – where 34 mineworkers were shot dead by South African police in August 2012 – to imagine a befitting context for the application of this approach.
Wasserman’s call for us to “look for ways in which our narratives are connected, interrelated and interdependent” is certainly valuable in gaining a deeper understanding of the implications of ubuntu on the role of public discourse. As he suggests, “listening” or communicating need not be a cosy and “polite” undertaking but rather a frank and critical - albeit in my estimation never insulting – engagement.
In our current Western understanding, however, while there’s a clear rejection of physical violence, there seems to be no limit to verbal or visual abuse, which amplifies divergence rather than interdependence and complementarity.
For example, in 2012 South African newspaper, City Press, ran an article on a painting named “The Spear” and included an image of it on its website. It depicted South African President Jacob Zuma with his private parts exposed.
Many South Africans were offended by what they perceived to be an undignified depiction with some quoting ubuntu as a missing ethic. In their opinion it violated the basic principles of ubuntu, which seek to preserve comm-“unity”. Others felt it was justified in the light of the many controversies surrounding the President.
The ubuntu argument
Hooking onto the community argument that many made, Prof Thad Metz proposes that an African ethic would actually only preserve friendliness where friendliness is given. It would very much endorse discordant language if it were justified to call out a “wrong” (or ubuntu-breaching) act. For example Zuma’s controversial stance on HIV/Aids could be seen as harmful to South African society and as such “wrong” or not in line with ubuntu, a philosophy of mutual care and other regard.
One could therefore deem “The Spear’s” offence proportional to the violation of “real personhood” that took place on the part of Zuma himself. In other words, his lack of “personhood” justified a public portrayal of him that proportionately violated his personhood.
However, other adherents of ubuntu disagreed and were offended, advocating instead a preservation of “human dignity”.
Of course – and alarmingly – as Wasserman suggests, the concept of “preserving human dignity” can and has been used to repress media freedom. Many African countries have “insult laws” in place.
Wasserman makes a case for liberating the notion of “human dignity”, which is constitutionally vital for safeguarding citizens, from abuses such as systematic racism and from its abuse by politicians. Trump for example, has had what he calls a “running war” with the media.
Yet does the misappropriation of political power in the name of “human dignity” make the actual concept of preserving human dignity inherently prohibitive to constructive political processes? Or can frank, open and direct criticism and engagement (void of insult and ridicule) be a more constructive response?
I would propose that the latter may be more effective in responding to Trump. History has shown us that the path to transformation is more likely one of virtue in the face of vice. While proponents of ubuntu may not all agree on the exact application of this approach, it’s clear that many people in the global south have alternative sensibilities around the ethics of communication – ones that deserve attention.
In this way we may be able to create discourse where human dignity and freedom of speech go hand in hand.