You don’t have to agree with someone to listen to their words

Ryland Fisher

A few years ago I tried a little experiment. I wrote a column for a website and headlined it something on the lines of “Blacks can be among the most racist”. Of course, a large number of white people agreed with me and many black people disagreed.

The following week, I wrote a similar column and headlined it something like “Whites can be among the most racist”.

This time many black people agreed and many white people disagreed with me.

I wrote roughly the same thing in both columns, but most people, it appeared, did not bother to read beyond the headline to reach whatever conclusion they wanted to reach. I have always believed all of us have potential to be racist and this was the premise of my book on race.

Although I sort of expected it, I still could not believe the vicious comments written under both columns.

Most, it seems, prefer arguments that confirm their beliefs and prejudices and when someone says or writes something with which they disagree, they often show their disagreement in an almost violent way.

We are so set in our belief systems it is often difficult to comprehend there could be a different argument that might be superior to ours.

I see this every day on social media with the people who like certain things I post, but ignore others or sometimes make their voices heard if they disagree with something I have posted.

I do not agree with everything I share on social media but, as a journalist, I find it useful to share with my friends and followers information I think they might find interesting. I don’t vet information according to whether it fits into my belief system.

This is particularly the case with politics, which is in many cases akin to a religion in South Africa. You have people so die-hard in support of certain political parties they can never find anything wrong with what is being done by that party or its leaders.

I have seen how when one posts something that is positive for the ANC, one gets big thumbs-ups from ANC supporters and sneers of “ANC lackey” from DA supporters.

When one posts something that is positive towards the DA, the reverse is true.

I understand people have political preferences and I have never hidden my allegiances, but that does not mean one should close oneself to ideas that supposedly come from outside of your dominant political position.

One of the trademarks of great leaders like Nelson Mandela and others was an ability to listen to different viewpoints and take the best from different political positions.

If FW de Klerk wanted to show that he could rise above political positions, as did Mandela regularly, then he would not have presented to the Human Rights Commission complaints only about what he termed black racism.

He should have asked them to investigate racism. Full stop.

We seem to have lost an ability to be politically tolerant and we seem to believe everything that comes from someone with a different political home from us must be viewed with suspicion.

A well-known columnist, who used to write for Independent titles, found out the hard way this week how intolerant most people can be, when he posted something vaguely positive about President Jacob Zuma. He eventually deleted the post.

I am not arguing for a situation where all of us have to agree all the time, but I am arguing for all of us to at least listen to one another.

I love nothing more than a decent debate on just about any topic and I don’t mind having my mind changed if faced with a superior argument.

Of course, political tolerance is not easily achieved, especially in election year when something seems to happen to all politicians as they become even more hostile and vicious towards their opposition than usual.

Over the next few months, the newspapers, radio, television and social media will be full of attacks by politicians on rivals.

Most will be spurious.

But political tolerance is especially necessary in an election year.

Those of us who are not active in politics might believe we cannot influence politicians. We can.

We need to engage politicians, especially at times when they are desperate for votes.

We need to let them know what type of behaviour we expect, and not just what policies they support.

If politicians are intolerant to one another, it is highly likely they will also be intolerant towards the people who voted them into power.

(First published as a Thinking Allowed column in the Weekend Argus on Saturday, 23 January 2016)