Unintended consequences no excuse for lack of mindfulness: iLIVE
“The extent of the rage has astonished me and upset me very much.” Liza Essers, owner of Goodman Gallery
The ideal of a South Africa committed to “heal the divisions of the past and establish a society based on democratic values, social justice and fundamental human rights” as articulated in the preamble of our Constitution is attainable only if our pursuit of these ideals does not degenerate into a free-for-all. When we only focus on our freedom to express ourselves at the expense of considering the effect on others, we are guilty of abusing the very freedoms we want to assert and express. The clichéd “freedom comes with responsibilities” is still relevant and timeless today.
We all have a responsibility to focus beyond our right to free expression and consider the consequences of expressing those rights in a reckless manner. It is never enough to claim that the intention was good without any sensitivity to how the consequences are felt and experienced by others. South African history is riddled with skeletons of unintended consequences. It has been a perennial blind spot for many people, notably the architects of Apartheid. Even after “dismantling Apartheid” FW De Klerk still offers the notion of unintended consequences as a defense for a policy that was declared a crime against humanity by the international community. Every time this happens old wounds get opened and the stripping of people’s dignity with its resulting consequences is relived, repeated and noses rubbed into it. Harsh we might say, but this is often what transpires when consequences are not considered.
Unintended consequences can be defined as, “outcomes that are not the ones intended by a purposeful action.” The furore over the “Spear” painting by artist Brett Murray is a case-in-point. For Murray to say, “I did not intend to hurt” is understandable, but not good enough. He has to take responsibility for the perverse effect of his painting. He is within his rights as a citizen to hold an opinion about the President – we all do – but he has overstepped the mark of free expression. At the risk of dabbling in an area where I have no expertise, I believe that free artistic expression must consider the dignity of those they portray. We now have a society where dissent is acceptable and often has the desired effect. It was citizen dissent that caused government to rethink the e-tolling concept. I wonder whether people do not sometimes confuse the advent of dissent with the adventure of dissent. The testing of boundaries is an integral part of dissent and we see this in the many protest actions and legal challenges over the last while. In both cases the dissent is fuelled by overt reasons. In the case of artistic expression, the reason for dissenting is often more covert because therein lies the value of the expression.
Where the intention is overt there is every possibility that effect will be overt as well. But it is not so with covert intentions. The negative portrayal of the President is a classic example of covert intentions. Speculation about the intention of the painting is rife but what is undeniable is that it has reverberated through South African society with strong racial overtones. Was Murray engaging in extreme dissent? Was he using art as an enclave to hide behind, where he cannot be touched? Only Brett Murray knows what his real intentions are, but all of us are seeing the devastating consequences of his action. Murray might have created a brilliant piece of art and he should rightfully take credit for it. But he needs to take responsibility for the unintended consequences for a number of reasons. First, he shows a lack of reflective awareness. One does not have to endorse the culture of another to show respect. Murray failed to foresee that many South Africans regard his painting as an attack on their culture. Even if what is portrayed is factually true, we have to consider that people might interpret the intention as a group insult. The cartoon debacle in Denmark where Mohammed was portrayed in a negative light underscores the need for people to reflect on the consequences of their actions. Secondly, Murray failed to foresee that the painting might provoke some kind of backlash. The public admission of the President that he was deeply hurt pales into insignificance against some of the very public responses. The African National Congress instituted legal proceedings against the gallery and the artist as well as calling on their constituency to show their public displeasure. In a tit-for-tat response some underground artists have created a painting of prominent white figures parading in the nude. The painting was desecrated by two people who, on the surface, did not know each other. What is ironic is that these people came from backgrounds where one would not expect them to be outraged about the same thing. Thirdly, Murray has inadvertently re-drawn the racial battle lines. Here we have a person with a white skin, with all the accompanying social capital, portraying a black person, no, a black President in a vulgar light. In sum, Murray should have foreseen that by stripping anyone, let alone the President, of their dignity and rubbing their noses in it is a bad idea.
It is said that if you want to say what you like you should not expect to hear what you like. Freedom of expression is something I and most of my compatriots hold dear but my right to free expression cannot supersede another’s right to dignity. My expression cannot happen in a vacuum and has to be accompanied by a measure of mindfulness of its consequences. The Institute for Mindfulness in South Africa describes the concept as, “at its heart, mindfulness is paying attention from moment-to-moment with an attitude of non-judgment, curiosity and openness.” They further suggest that” the mindful Practitioner will:
• Act in a way that demonstrates an understanding and respect for the dignity and diversity of all people.
• Commit to the transformation of South Africa and the promotion of equal opportunities for all.
• Act in such a way as to cause no harm.”
If we want to make South Africa work we have to seriously start to understand one another on a deeper level than we are at present. We are giving and taking offence for things which could have been averted if we only made the effort to understand what makes us who we are. We need to support and get involved in initiatives that create safe spaces for people to share their stories, hurts, insecurities and aspirations. This is not a black and white issue; it is an issue that will ultimately determine the destiny of this beautiful country.
Stanley Henkeman is Head of the Building an Inclusive Society Programme at the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation (IJR) www.ijr.org.za