I cringe every time our society fumbles its way through a very challenging and/or controversial issue, then letting it blow over like all these things do, without taking the time to consciously learn from it. It seems like we utter a sigh of relief, hoping it never happens again. To mention but a few: #PennySparrow saga; #GarethCliff and #Mnet confrontation; #Gupta or #Zupta ongoing debacle; last year’s #FeesMustFall wave; #ZumaMustFall; and of late #picknpaymustfall incident in Mitchells Plain.
A story breaks on social media and we react, often without doing our homework about the situation or person in question. Comments quickly gain momentum and soon emotions take over, insults fly back and forth, cyber vigilantism and bullying occur and eventually the truth may even surface. But, the bullying and vigilantism happened; damage done; little or no apologies. We move on to the next controversy. Something is not right.
To set the scene for sharing important principles, a few confessions: I am a 48 year old male. The mere fact that I was raised in a sexist society means I have some level of sexism engrained inside me, which prejudice I have overcome to some degree over the years. Those closest to me would hopefully attest to this.
I am also a white South African male, born and raised in South Africa, which means I have racism engrained inside me as well. I prefer to compare this prejudice to being a recovered alcoholic, because I have had innumerable experiences and privileges – some intentional and others unintentional – that have cured me of racism. However, being cured still means I have to be on my guard at all times, careful and vigilant, because I could slip back into it.
I further confess that I have many frailties and surely other prejudices as well, because I am human and was raised by wonderful but human parents, surrounded by a community of family, friends, teachers and many others that were also human with their own prejudices, in a society with far too many faults and weaknesses to mention.
Now, this article is not about you, so I cannot volunteer on your behalf. However, I am willing to bet that if you are completely honest with yourself, you too have some prejudices, and it is undoubtedly impossible for you and I to tone these down, or even master them fully without first realising it, admitting it – sometimes publicly – and then working on them very consciously and determinedly – not in an “excuse me for living” kind of way, but with confidence and humility.
The above awareness should render me hesitant to judge others when they display prejudice of any kind, because how can I judge another of that which I have been guilty of, in some way and at some level? And I suggest that you should feel the same.
However, it is one thing to understand the principle of “treating others as you want to be treated” and actually living it fully (As a side thought – strange how we want others to consider our intent when they judge us, but we choose to judge others on their words and actions only and not their intent). While we need to treat others as we want to be treated, the dilemma is that in order to rid our society of damaging prejudices we have to somehow judge words and actions before we can address these issues and improve.
From my side, if I do or say something that defies our society’s norms I would expect to be judged, preferably by those that are given the authority to do so, or at least by those that have no ‘mote in their eye’. But alas, this is not going to happen in a world that is more connected than ever; filled with imperfect spectators – where all are human with faults, “sins” and prejudices.
So, let us expect to be judged, but let us also remember this – the mere fact that when we judge we very likely suffer from the very same act or belief – or something like it – that we are casting a judgement on, requires from us a certain responsibility. It is this: I can judge your words or actions, but I must do so in a more compassionate, understanding and patient manner. And just because you have been ‘caught out’, often simply because you are more visible and prominent than I am, does not make me better than you because I haven’t, bestowing upon me some sort of right to castigate and bully you publicly, these days on social media.
It seems we are on a journey, hopefully one of maturing as far as embracing and using social media is concerned. It is still new. It places power back into the hands of the masses and gives ordinary individuals a voice. This is ultimately good for several reasons, but also unprecedented on so many levels, even dangerous. I know from experience that very few human beings can resist or discipline power.
As we learn to deal with this phenomenon, we of necessity also have to navigate our way through some dangerous waters, where members of our society may unfortunately become casualties – often prominent individuals. Having said this, the last thing we need is for opinion leaders to become over-cautious and even reluctant to enter crucial public debates, which will be the case if we don’t mature quickly by embracing some of the principles discussed in this article.
As a society we must allow for healthy debate, so that we understand better and graduate towards more maturity, in a world that continues to move on, almost too fast for us to keep pace.
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Adriaan Groenewald is a leadership expert and commentator. Do you recognise some areas in yourself or your team that need improvement? Email Adriaan on firstname.lastname@example.org for more on creating “Leadership Fit” leaders that generate successful movement (performance) inside your organisation. Follow him on Twitter: @AdriaanG_LP or @LeadershipPform.